Mastering the Art of the Possible

Understanding how the web impacts your work isn’t always easy, particularly if most of your work happens offline. Working with people who are sat at desks, with computers and internet connections to hand, all day every day, is one thing. But helping those who are out doors, moving around and operating machinery is quite different.

I think that’s why I enjoy helping at Essex County Council’s Art of the Possible festival. This is a really inspiring, and seeming popular, week-long series of events for council staff. The idea is that staff choose from dozens of events to attend. They range from walks and runs, to pop-up drama, workshops and TED-style talks. Staff go along, meet different colleagues and take part in activities that might help them think differently about their work, and how they all collaborate.

I bet some of the events take people well outside their comfort zone. The other opportunity is to give people the ability to step back from being ‘of the council’, and think about their needs as residents.

These events are open to all staff, which is what makes it interesting for me: librarians, crossing guards (lollypop people in old money), heads of this and administrators of that.

I ran a session this year about how Essex staff could make things better online for customers.

The nice thing with an event like this, is that because digital is not necessarily a part of everyone’s job, attendees usually have a lot to say. I think my approach helped them to maximise this opportunity, and then some.

What annoys us, and what’s the user story?

We started by discussing and theming the things that annoy us most when we go online. This is a great opportunity to think about our personal needs and draw a line between what we experience online, outside and inside work. No surprises that themes included content that is difficult to understand, poor navigation, and something more fundamental about trust: being asked to surrender lots of information, and not knowing if a transaction was complete.

After we’d mapped these out, I split the group into teams and each had to write a user story relating to a common question or query they received. I gave them a template each of the user story guide from

As a… [who is the user?]

I need/want/expect to… [what does the user want to do?]

So that… [why does the user want to do this?]

We also worked through some examples together.

It was amazing to see how difficult it was for people not to put their work hat back on. For example, from the roads team:

‘as a motorist I need to understand the pothole repair process so that I understand why some repairs take much longer than others.’

There were a few like this, which was good. It helped everyone realise just how difficult it can be to approach this as a user, rather than someone trying to explain something on behalf of the council.

We also ran some quick activities to sketch, iterate and present different ways of using web pages and social media to meet those needs identified earlier in the session. I was reminded that people are nervous about sketching on behalf of a team!

If you’re ever trying to land a user- or customer-led approach to digital, including better content and journeys online, then I’d recommend this approach as an ice-breaker. And don’t be put off by a wide variety of job titles in the room – these are often the most interesting and engaged audiences.

Here’s the low-down on what happened at Art of the Possible 2016.