Written from a conversation with Paul Taylor. Paul is Innovation Coach with Bromford Lab, UK. The Lab team works with their colleagues at Bromford Housing to capture, frame and realize their ideas for service improvement. Customer-centred design is pivotal. Check out their websites here and here and see what very cool ‘customer involvement’ looks like.
Let’s keep this as close to customers as possible
Let’s not presume the outcomes
Let’s be ambitious but not forget that simplicity is the key
My title is Innovation Coach and I like the language of that: coaching rather than telling. It’s about getting away from professionalising advice and more towards thinking in a collaborative way around how we can solve problems. The Innovation Lab was set up really to think about how we take the usual sort of engagement to the next level.
Bromford had a pretty good track record in one sense already. In 2007 we were named number one organisation in the UK by the Sunday Times for our work in co-creating services with clients but around seven years ago, we saw technology was starting to change the way people engaged with services.
People were saying to us ‘You need to be simpler, you need to be more human and your organisation needs to be more human.
People wanted deep listening, human connection, instant feedback. It’s almost like, in this new digital age, we all want the sort of conversations we used to have back in the last century.
We don’t need to have all the answers
Around this time, we were having conversations at work about the kind of relationships we wanted with our customers and ultimately we wanted a new relationship, not based rules and protocols but on trust. We wanted to move thinking away from doing things to people and communities, to doing things with them. That meant complete openness and transparency in the way we work.
We thought, ‘Let’s just work out loud completely. Let’s be completely open about what we’re thinking of doing, what we’re hearing from customers, what people are telling us their problems are. And let’s not pretend to have all the answers!’
We took an organisational decision and we’ve found this subtle shift in honesty has created a very different relationship with our users: a more balanced and equal relationship.
A relationship based on this level of honesty can be challenging of course and sometimes I get feedback from users that we’ve really lost the plot. ‘Why don’t you just do it?’ they might say. ‘You’re paid as professionals to solve problems and you’re telling me you don’t know the answers?’
And what I’m saying in reply is, ‘No, we don’t always know: we need to work with people to know. We need to work with service users and we need to work with people worldwide who are thinking about these problems too.’
A while back, I visited many private sector organisations to look at how they developed new products and services and I found this relentless testing going on before a product would get near to market. For example, the Dyson company’s approach to vacuum cleaners: two hundred models tested to get down to one. And in thinking about that, I found it really odd. I asked myself, ‘Why we don’t adopt that kind of approach in the social sector?’ In our sector, it often feels like we’re shooting arrows into the dark and yet, what’s at stake for us isn’t a clean rug – it’s people.
Our design process is pretty straightforward and features a lot of early testing. Here’s an example. We might ask the question: can we equip people to do more small repairs in their own homes rather than always calling us with small things and waiting on repairs? Then we’d say, ‘Yes, let’s talk to them about it ’ So we’d start with deep listening and then we’d go away, develop possible solutions and present something back to them. The customer shows us how they would use it and if it’s looking okay, we’d work more with the customer to make it better and if it wasn’t working, we’d ditch the idea altogether.
This early testing with users means we can fail fast and move on to make something better. And the iterative design process means we’re designing with them, not to them.
The most important thing is to create an experience where the customer is thinking like an end user. In co-design, that’s our greatest asset.
And of course, sometimes at Bromford, the best ideas happen when customers design what they need together, without us. I was given a wonderful example yesterday by a colleague…
We had given a piece of land to a group of older people to do whatever they wanted with it. They got a couple of turkeys and planted some vegetables and those two turkeys are huge now, Fred and Ginger are their names, and everyone is attending to these turkeys and the community is highly engaged with each other. And my colleague said, ‘I could never have suggested turkeys. It was their dream not ours.’ And that’s true. Our customers created what they wanted and what the community wanted. It wasn’t designed by a focus group or a meeting or ordained by a management committee. It’s something they themselves created and that’s the real magic…
Written by Moya Sayer-Jones after deep (and entertaining) listening to Paul Taylor.