DfE Digital and Technology podcast

Think digital, act human: Black voices in digital and technology

August 24, 2021

The second episode of our 'Think digital, act human' podcast which shines a light on the stories of the people behind our digital and technology projects.

Hosted by Product Manager, Adaobi Ifeachor, in this episode we’re celebrating the work of 3 Black digital and technology experts in DfE.

Keisha Herbert, Virginia Brown and Courtney Allen explain the critical part they play in designing, building and running services.




[Music plays]


Adaobi Ifeachor Hello, welcome to Think Digital Act Human, a podcast where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. 

I’m Adaobi Ifeachor, a product manager here at the Department for Education. OK, so today is a particularly special episode because we have not one, not two, but three digital and tech experts from DfE. So in a second, I'm going to introduce you to them. But for now, just grab yourself a cup of coffee. We'll wait for you. We're excited, but we will wait. And now I'm going to introduce you. So we've got Keisha Herbert, a senior user researcher from Teachers Services. Courtney Allen, an associate product manager from Get Help Buying for Schools, and Virginia Brown, a content design lead from the apprenticeship service.

Adaobi Ifeachor Welcome, everybody. 


Virginia Brown Hello 


Courtney Allen Hello 


 Keisha Herbert Hi 


Adaobi Ifeachor So this is a special episode for another reason, if you’re someone just listening to our dulcet tones, you probably wouldn't have noticed anything. But I'm going to tell you, we're all black, digital and tech specialists. I wanted to put something positive out into the universe, I guess.

I think, this is really to all my guests as well, like the last 18 months, say, has been pretty kind of miserable for everybody on the planet.


We've had a pandemic. We've had lockdowns. We've had missed occasions with family and friends and things like that. But recently, if you are a member of the black diaspora, we've had some extra things happening as well. So everybody knows about George Floyd's murder.

And recently with the Euros, we've had abuse happening towards players who really did nothing wrong at all except play whilst black, I guess. So I just thought, you know what?

You had all that kind of negativity. Let's have a space where it's just positivity. We're hearing about the great things that black people are doing in their careers, how they moved into this world of digital and tech. I want to know your stories. I'm going to kind of come to you one by one and just find out a little bit about what you actually do. So if I come to you, Keisha first, so senior user researcher Teacher Services. There are people who will be listening who have no idea what a senior researcher is. When your mum asks you, what do you say?


Keisha Herbert She does still ask me quite a lot. So I still have to keep telling her what I do. Senior user researcher is basically understanding the user needs. So if you're designing a service, developing a service, you have to understand what the user needs to ensure that that service is built for them and built to really meet those needs. So that's what I do. I go out and speak to people within Teacher Services I'm speaking to potential teachers because I work on the Get into Teaching website. So that's all about inspiring, informing and reassuring people that want to get into teaching. So I go out and speak to them and understand what can we do better? How can we improve the website to ensure that they have all the information they need and they understand what to expect when they're going along their journey to becoming a teacher. That's ultimately what I do.


Adaobi Ifeachor Awesome, thanks Keisha. Let’s come to you next Courtney. And this is a bit awkward. Like when I was first looking for who I might invite to be on this panel of guests, I was like, Courtney Allen, Courtney Allen, that name seems so familiar. And then, of course, I remembered I was one of the people who interviewed you for your job. 


Courtney Allen Yes. 


Adaobi Ifeachor Don’t feel like you have to be super polite to me, it’s fine. Say whatever you want to say. Courtney, what does an associate product manager do?


Courtney Allen Associate product manager is a trainee role. Product management is kind of sitting at the heart between user experience, tech, and a business team to kind of systematically figure out what is the best thing to build next and why.


Courtney Allen So you'd work regularly with your user researchers and your content designers to work through what they've discovered and decide what's the best thing to build next and the most important thing for both the business and the user. 


Adaobi Ifeachor So, Virginia, Courtney just said that he works closely with people like you, with content designers. Is that true? Do you work closely with product managers? And if so, what are you doing?  


Virginia Brown Yes, we do. Content design is, I’d say at the heart of things. We are problem solvers and without content you don't have a product. There's nothing there. It doesn't exist. It's empty space. So you kind of need content designers to help you solve that problem or solve the ask, as I like to think.

And it's not all just about writing the words, it's about creating the right content at the right time, in the right space as well. And when you serve up to people or our users, like, what is that content and what is the expectation? What are they supposed to do with that information? Because everything we do, especially within government, must have a purpose. There must be an ask to it. Nobody comes to us to browse. As much as people like to think, they come to complete a task, so by creating this content, what do they need to do next? What is the next call to action? And working with our product owners and product managers, it's really important to understand. Have we done that? Have we solved the ask? And is it what everyone expects, look, we don't want to all be in one one meeting and come out with several different ideas. And the results are really different to what you expect. So it’s having those open conversations and really getting into the the detail of always asking those questions. Have we solved what we intend to at the beginning of a project?   


Adaobi Ifeachor So before I worked for the civil service, I actually worked over at the BBC and I thought I knew what agile was, I knew like the different roles that would be like on a digital delivery team, for example. But we had UX designers (user experience designers) and that was kind of like the only designers that I knew really existed. And then I came to DfE and all of a sudden I've got content designers, I’ve got interaction designers, I’ve got service designers. So are you able to say Virginia, like, how are you different from those other types of designers and how do you kind of work with them?


Virginia Brown Yes, so content design. It's fairly, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a fairly new profession, like it's, I think 10 years old, perhaps. Don't quote me on that. But the work of a content designer is more than just writing the words or filling in the boxes. We work really closely in what I call the UCD triangle. So that's user centred design with a user researcher or interaction designer or UX designer (user experience designer). It depends where you are, because before I came to DfE, I'd never heard of interaction designer. I'd always worked with UX designers, user experience designers. But those three, we work in tandem. So with the user researchers, they speak to the people who’ll be using our services and we can't create content out of thin air. 

Well, if we do, it will fail. So we were really close to our user researchers. So what are they saying? What do they need? What are their actual needs rather than their wants? Or the business wants? It’s a balancing act - I'm sure Keisha can attest to that. And also with our interaction designer, we don't just fill in boxes so we don't wait for them to create something and then we kind of fill in the content boxes. Content designers look at the whole package from end to end.

So bringing in the user researcher, what they actually said, leaning on our interaction design colleagues, what can we design to make that work? How does it work? Because often words won't help.  It's very easy, I think, to create a glorious long document, sixty pages long, because it's really tangible. And you can show someone what you've done. But if your users are time poor or they don't have the reading ability or they don't frankly want to read a sixty page document, then you're going to fail at the very beginning. So as a content designer, we look at what do our users want, what are they actually trying to do or complete and what's the best way to serve that? You know, it could be these people might prefer a video that works better for them because content isn't just words. It's not just the written word.It's video. 

It's a podcast that we're on today. It could be a webinar. It could be a series of blogs, all manner of things. And as content designers, we have to think in that way. And we bring along our other colleagues who are not in the content space. So when we work with policy, we're trying to find out what's your policy intent and how do you know it's been successful. Always thinking about the KPIs because it has to be measurable. Like, I can't tell you if something's worked if we don't set the key performance indicators at the beginning and say that this will be success when someone does X, that's really important. So as content designers, that's what we're thinking of. So then we can go to our product managers and say, hey, I’ve got a great idea, we're going to do a webinar


Virginia Brown instead, because actually our users are not going to sit and read this document. They're going to listen to it or they’re going to learn. They want to learn something and want something tangible. And that's what content design is, that’s what it is working with our two other professions. It's really important that we work closely together, because if we have our user researcher go out and do lovely research, they speak to like twenty people, they come back with some really key and important information to say actually the assumptions we made at the start are  completely wrong. We need to go in a different direction.

If a content person doesn't know that, they'll keep going with the assumption they had the beginning of a project. And it will still fail. So it's really important we have those user research conversations and work close together. So the content we're creating aligns with the user needs that have been found at the beginning and then we’re bringing the interaction designer who can help us design. And this is when you think of design, you know, what the person's going to see, what they're going to look at on the screen and how it will work. And then we can work together to ensure it's accessible for our users. Is it something they're actually going to do, for example? Is that a form they're going to fill out? How many pages we need to go through, it’s things like that. It’s hand in hand. You can't have one without the other, in my opinion. So when there's a project that's whipped up, a delivery team, when one of the triangle is missing, so there's no content design, no user research, I get very nervous because who's doing what in this profession? Because as much as I love user research, because I’m quite a nosy person, I can't go out and start doing research for people. It's not my profession. I need those expertise within my team.


Adaobi Ifeachor  So you're hearing that Keisha, Virginia needs your expertise in her team. 


Keisha Herbert I like to hear it.


Adaobi Ifeachor [laughs] So, yeah, you know what Keisha, let’s stick with you for a second. Can you give me, like, an example of, like someth ing you're working on at the moment? How did it start and how do you start breaking the problem down to to know what to do with it?


Keisha Herbert Yeah, I can give you an example. So at the moment I'm actually working with different people in my team, so the interaction designer, content designer. And they've come to us, the researchers in the team and they've said, OK, we want to develop this page, which is a page around events. They want to develop that, they've got their assumptions, but they want to make sure that when they actually change that design, that that design is based on the user's perspective. So everything that they change is user centred. So they want us to go out and speak to users to understand what they think of the current page so that they can then go off and then develop new designs based off the back of that research. 

So that's how it tends to work within the team. And it's really nice because there's value you've seen in understanding user needs, but also the research that we do. So it tends to be that other people in the team come to us, ask us whether we've got an understanding from previous research or actually that we need to go out and speak to our users and then they bake that into their, I guess, designs and developing the service. So, yeah, I think being user centred is key. I'm just making sure that the users are at the heart of everything that is created within the service. 


Adaobi Ifeachor I know what I do as a product manager if I'm asked to kind of look at a problem and see if it really is a problem, like, you know, how to lead a discovery, move something that's worth looking at into alpha or beta or whatever. Courtney, how is this for you as an associate? I have to say I haven't really thought about that very much, because what I've noticed so far is that there tends to be a product manager and an associate product manager on a lot of DfE digital delivery teams. So I've always kind of seen my role as trying to mentor my associate product manager and make sure that if they go for the next step up, they're ready to go, or if there's like a project that suddenly comes up, they feel confident leading that project. For you, like, do you hope you'll be given a meaty piece of something to own or do you have to kind of like, fight for it and let people know that, yeah, I can do this or here's my idea? Like, what's your approach as someone coming in as an associate product manager?


Courtney Allen  It's a bit of both, if I’m honest. I think, well, the good thing about being an associate is you're working with people that want to see you succeed so they're going to give you opportunities. The product manager that I work with, gives me, you know, some meaty pieces of work but there are also opportunities to help out the team with other areas. Let's say we don't have enough user research resource. You can jump on and fill in and do some diary studies or you can jump in and help out with synthesising some user research stuff that's already been done.

So it's both, it’s both. You have opportunities that are given to you and there's kind of a plan for helping you to succeed and progress. So it kind of it’s looking at your capabilities and where are your strengths and help you build on your strengths, as well as kind of ironing out your weaknesses. 


Adaobi Ifeachor Yeah, I’ve always thought of being a product manager as you've got the traditional sort of strategic long term view of a product as a product manager. Then you got like this sort of daily tactical, I'm working with the engineers and the BAs (business associates), product owner space. 

And on top of that, there’s this is kind of if, it's no one's role, you can't let that fall because it's not officially in your job title. If it’s not officially in anyone's job title I always see it as being like being in my job title to either do it or delegate it. It's when people say servant leader I never really used to get that, but I guess you are doing things for the team to make sure that team is as healthy as it can be. 

But anyway, listen, we've talked about your jobs today, and that has been very interesting. But I want to know, how did you all get into your roles and particularly how did you get into sort of digital tech roles in the civil service? I'm fascinated by this because I just don't think it's the first thing you think of when you're starting to think about a job in digital tech. Civil service might not come to everyone's mind straight away. So how did you get here?


Keisha Herbert Yeah, I can talk about my trajectory and just how I got into the civil service. I guess my route might be quite different to other people. So I worked in boutique qualitative research agencies for the past 10 years. So I've done a lot of traditional market research, quite different to what I'm doing right now. And I worked across lots of different sectors from energy, charity, cookie brands like very, very varied and also lots of different projects from advertising to sort of international. And I think what made me take the plunge into civil service in DfE, which is only a few months ago (I'm very new to the civil service), was that I've always found UX and Digital just very fast paced and exciting. I've also really enjoyed to see the focus on accessibility, diversity and inclusion. You don't see that sort of emphasis when you're working in more traditional market research. 

And then in terms of being in civil service in DfE, I think I really wanted to work on more meaningful projects. So working on services across education was just very motivating for me. But also to be involved in those end to end projects rather than just going off doing a bit of research, delivering it to your client and then not hearing about it again. I'm now involved in the full lifecycle of that project but also in the strategy as well. So that's how I got into it and so far really enjoying being in that digital space within Teacher services.


Adaobi And what about you, Virginia? Any advice for people who have heard you talk about content design, are fired up and they want to know more about it? How do you even walk towards that journey?


Virginia Brown Yeah, I got into it in my last role, I was a web editor and I focussed on web copy and copywriting and then my head of department at the time was like we do more than that. She had heard of content design and we went on this content design training course and learnt more about what that was and what it encompassed and realised that actually, we do more than just edit. We are having those conversations with our colleagues about what content they want, the types of content they do, and what's the ask. 

And so content design is, I think of it as like solving a puzzle. You're trying to solve a problem with either, you know, with research at hand, which is quite nice, or often you don't, and you have to make your best guess. And you’re having to balance the needs of a business with the needs of your user. 

And so as a content designer, anyone wanting to get into it, it’s really exciting because I think you see that end-to-end journey and you can see if what you've produced actually helps people. Does it solve their problem or do you need to do a little bit more work because people have to use your content. And it's not all guns and glory. You know you’ve done well when people don't realise they've been pushed along a journey, essentially, it kind of happens in the background it's very subtle. And, you know you’ve done well when people just complete things and they’re like that was really easy. And that's just music to my ears when people say that - that was really easy - because I know I've done my job. The role of a content designer is to make complex things very simple for the user. Because something is complex within your department or within your company, your user doesn't need to know that, that's not their business. They just need to complete the thing they’ve come to complete. They don't need all the stress and hassle that you've gone through. You need to shield them from that. And to show them it’s actually very simple. You take them on a journey and they can complete the thing quite easily. And people want to get into content design. It's, you know, if you're curious, like to solve problems and can work really well with different people, that's kind of what you need, I think, because often writing is like the last thing you do that might shock some people, but it really is the last thing you do. Often you're bringing people along the journey with you, you're explaining things. You're trying to really get to the  problem, because often the problem you're presented with initially isn’t the problem. It’s easy, I think sometimes to jump to the solution and it’s actually well what we're trying to fix. What is the issue - is it that they're not filling in the form or they're filling it in incorrectly? And what is incorrect about it? What do you need them to do? And often, when you ask people what they need to do, they tell you very succinctly but then what they produce is all of their internal struggle, to then serve it to users, it’s like we cut that out and make it very, very simple for them.


Adaobi Ifeachor Courtney, you have like, the perfect job for someone who is aspiring to be a product manager. How did you get into that? How did that happen?


Courtney Allen Yeah, so my recent experiences as a digital officer and that's kind of a jack of all trades digital role, so I did a bit of web management, social media, content design and a bit of project management. And I was kind of never getting very deep into any of those disciplines, and I'm kind of looking to get deep into one. For full context, my previous role was in a local government. SO I worked at an organisation called London Councils, and we’d recently signed a local government digital declaration, which kind of meant that we needed to start designing services that best met the needs of citizens. And this kind of led me down the rabbit path into doing less project management and more product management, working more in more agile ways, building prototypes and testing them with users. And then, you know, finding out how to improve things and then building again and kind of got to the end of that process and thought, I think product management is something I wanted to do. I explored a course in it. And I started seeing, you know, associate product manager roles and programmes start popping up all over the place. And I wanted to stay within the government area. I wanted to do work that had an impact on people's lives.


Adaobi Ifeachor  Yeah, I think the money is pretty good for the market. But let's face it, most people who come into the civil service are here because we want something that's very meaningful. We want to help other people. So, yeah, it's kind of hard. I heard all of you say something like that that really resonates with me, too. 

I think in the spirit of adding something positive into the conversation about black professionals, black working professionals, what I wanted to kind of do it’s a little bit of a tongue in cheek exercise, actually, because I asked my white colleagues if there were any questions that they have always wanted to ask a black person, but felt a little bit too shy to ask and so I’ve a list of things here and we'll see what we can do for time. 

But one of them and the reason why this idea came to mind is because I started off by talking about George Floyd. And I remember I was actually at the BBC at the time and a friend of mine there phoned me up the day after and just was like, you OK? I just saw the news. Just want to see if you were OK. And I was like, super surprised by that. I was not expecting that. But I was also incredibly touched that he had thought to do that. And then at the same time, there were people who I thought I was quite close to as work colleagues who didn't say anything because I think they were like, it's kind of like when someone dies, right? You're like, do I mention this? Or  would they prefer that I don't speak about this at all? So I kind of wanted to say, like, if you have any questions, this is the time to ask because we're a friendly bunch and we'll see what we can do. So here are some of the questions that came through, some are a bit funnier than others. So let's see.


Adaobi Ifeachor One of them has said, how do you feel when asked about your ethnic background? I'm often asked where I'm from because of my accent. And I'm always happy to say Romania, but I wonder how black colleagues feel when asked something similar.


Virginia Brown I would say to that, accept the first answer they give you. There's nothing worse than if you say, Oh, I'm from, for example, London and they go oh, but where are you really from? Don't say that. That's rude. 


Courtney Allen I couldn't have put it any better. 


Virginia Brown Just accept the first answer. 


Courtney Allen Yeah.


Adaobi Ifeachor And I think, like picking up off the back of that, I think the reason why people ask you where you're from is because they can kind of hear something that lets them know like, oh, that doesn't sound like anywhere in the UK, they must not be from here. If you're kind of saying, but where are you really from to a black person that says, well, this black person couldn't possibly be from here. And the only reason why is because they're black. Right? So that's kind of like the step that so many people make without meaning to be rude. 

And I totally get that because I grew up in Devon. So I literally was the black population for a significant part of the nineties. So um yeah, I totally get it, as Virginia says, accept the first answer that people give you gracefully, and we'll all be happy. That's pretty cool. 


Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so someone said, how does it make you feel when white people get it wrong? Is there anything that would help you in that situation? Could acknowledgement that they've got it wrong be useful? 

Well, firstly, I'm going to say to that question, thank you for making yourself vulnerable and sending in a question we really appreciate it! I’d say that it’s 2021 at the time that we’re recording this and I imagine for people of a certain generation, yes, it's a very awkward time because there are men and women and people who are non binary and there are black people and then mixed race people and how do you refer to people? And I feel like for some people it can be a bit kind of like daunting, like hoping you don’t offend people and I will tell you right now, at some point, you're going to get it wrong and that's OK.

If you accidentally refer to someone as a man and they correct you and say, well, actually, I prefer you said they or them, it's kind of similar to the thing that Virginia said. However someone self identifies, that's what you go with. If you get it wrong that first time, they may correct you, then just go with the correction that they've given you. If you get it wrong and they're immediately super angry with you and there's no conversation, it's just kind of anger that's coming at you. In a way, I would say that's almost not your fault, just try not to take it personally. Like, all you can do when people correct you is just try to do better next time, just try to kind of live and learn. Is there anything I'm missing from the answer, guys?


Keisha Herbert Yeah, I think it's just important to be open to learning. I think that's the main thing. So if you've got it wrong, rather than being precious about getting it wrong, that you're open to building your understanding, so then the next time when that situation arises, you don't get it wrong again and another person isn't affected. So I think it just openness and that's in all areas of life. But I think in those situations, just put your hands up say, OK, I'm sorry, that was wrong, and now I know what to do next.


Adaobi Ifeachor So another person has asked, have you felt uplifted by any of the actions people have taken in response to incidents of racism?


Courtney Allen Yeah, I'd say definitely after the Euros when in the immediate aftermath, there was a lot of hatred for Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka and it was quite you know, it was very hard to watch. I was uplifted by seeing the outpouring of love that lots of fans gave to Bukayo Saka. He missed the last penalty but he was like, you know, the 19 year old that you know, was given all the pressure in the world. And the mural that went up up north for Marcus Rashford as well. Like, I think there was definitely lots of hate at the time like in the immediate aftermath and then a huge outpouring of love that came after that.


Virginia Brown That’s a great answer. I'd say for myself, I'm someone who lives in the north of the country. And I was on a tram a couple of years ago and it was quite a busy tram. And this white man who identified himself at the time as a police officer told me to get off the tram. And I didn't really know. I mean, I didn't know if he was a police officer or not. And secondly, I didn't really know what my rights were in that situation. Do I have to immediately do what someone says if they say they're a police officer? So I just kind of stood there but I also was like, I really need to be on this tram because I'm actually kind of late getting somewhere so this is the last chance for me to get there on time. And as I was thinking that there were other people getting on the tram who were white and he didn't say anything to them. And I realised, oh, that's what this is. And he started getting louder and more kind of obnoxious, shouting at me to get off.

And this voice in the crowd, like somewhere buried deep in the crowd. This one woman said, just leave her alone. And it was like, it broke the spell for him. And he immediately backed down and kind of grumbled to himself a bit. But then the tram moved off. And when he eventually got off the tram, like all these people came up to me afterwards and they were like, oh, my gosh, that was such blatant racism and it was so disgusting the way he was talking to you. 

And I was kind of like, where were you five minutes ago when I felt extremely alone? But I will always remember that one woman I didn't even see her face just saying something. And I think it feel intimidated if you’re like a bystander. But just that one thing you can do, it can really uplift people, it can really give them the strength that they need in that moment to kind of carry on with something that is humiliating or kind of upsetting. So please, I would say, like be that voice, be that bodiless voice and not necessarily the people after the fact, you know. But that was something that was extremely uplifting for me. 


Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so we're coming to the end of this. And I will say, as positive as I want to be in this whole case, my digital experts like there is going to be something else we know, that's just kind of the fact of being a black person in Britain. Right? There's got to be something else that happens. And in my case, like how would you like your kind of colleagues to approach you or not approach you? Like what would be cool behaviour for you?


Keisha Herbert  Well, a really great example for me was after the Euros 2020 and after what Courtney mentioned happened to the three footballers. And I felt that the response from Teacher Services was great and not something I’ve ever experienced before in the workplace. So they put up a statement on slack and they were just acknowledging that it had happened. Because sometimes I find that these things happen, they go viral and they're quite difficult situations for us to be in at the time, but then you get to work the next day and it's not mentioned at all and everyone talks about everything that happened around the awful situation. So I think actually having your team, your colleagues actually acknowledge what happened is really important to let you know that they understand and they appreciate that actually it might be a difficult thing that you went through the night before. And so that's what happened in Slack. But in addition to that and following on from what you were saying, Adaobi, about action, they also put in place a safe space. So there was actually a space for people of colour to go if they wanted to talk about this issue in more depth. So there's an understanding that maybe people don't want to talk about it with white colleagues, but they might appreciate talking about it with people who can empathise or have experienced similar things. So to me, I think that's a really good way of a) acknowledging and b) sort of putting in some action. And I think that's a really good starting point.


Adaobi Ifeachor and a really good, positive note to end on as well. Thank you so, so, so much to my guests, Keisha Herbert, Courtney Allen and Virginia Brown. I really enjoyed this discussion today. 

And I hope that it has done for you listeners what I hope it would do, which is to put some positivity out into the universe. I want to say thank you to the show producers as well, Rosie Roff, Lou Mullan and Nettie Williams. So that's it. Thank you very much for joining us. 

In the meantime, if you want to hear anything more from us specifically, why not tell us? You can always get in touch with us on our Twitter, which is @DfE_DigitalTech. And if you're not really on Twitter, you can always leave a comment on our blog post, which is dfedigital.blog.gov.uk.  

Thank you so much for joining us for this cup of tea. Speak to you next time. Bye! 



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