DfE Digital and Technology podcast

Think digital, act human: why are communities of practice good for an organisation

October 1, 2021

Here is the third episode of our – 'Think digital, act human' – podcast series which shines a light on the stories of the people behind our digital and technology projects.

Host, Adaobi Ifeachor, gets to know Jen Staves, Head of Content design.

You’ll learn about content design, co-design and why communities of practice are important for delivery teams, and the part Jen plays in this space. 



[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. 

So every day millions of pupils, teachers, frontline workers and educational  professionals are affected by the work we're doing in the background here at DfE, that's the Department for Education, specifically DfE Digital and technology. That's where we work. And our work is centred around these users. But who are the people making it all happen and what drives them to do it? What are the stories behind the user stories? Well, this series will shine a light on the human stories behind our digital projects and stories behind transformational work and the skills and attitudes our people bring to and take from their work. So I am so excited to introduce our guest today. I have my cup of coffee. I hope you do, too. 

So our guest today is Jen Staves.


Adaobi Ifeachor Jen, welcome.


Jen Staves Hi.


Adaobi Ifeachor Do you want to introduce your job title, what it is that you do at DfE?


Jen Staves Absolutely. So I am head of content design in the Digital and Technology Directorate at DfE Department for Education. That's a head of professions role. 

So that's kind of a strange thing. People might not have heard about it as such, but it means I look after the content design profession across all of DfE and EFA, which is the educational skills and funding agency, which is an arm's length body of DfE and we work really closely. It means I need to look across all of the different teams and portfolios to make sure that content design is being its best.


Adaobi Ifeachor Now, some of our listeners who have followed our blog will have like a general understanding of what content design is for people who are complete newbies. What is content design?


Jen Staves Content design is so much Adaobi. So I think some times people think content design is just words. And I suppose that's the first thing I have to say is it is not just words. It is so much more than words.


It is about structure. It's about information architecture. It's about designing how your content is there so that it best meets user needs. And so it's first and foremost, you know, it's part of user centred design, along with interaction design, along with user research, along with service design. And so it's there to make sure that the user has the easiest, best path to achieving whatever they want to achieve.


Adaobi Ifeachor OK, good description. So, as head of content design, I've been looking into your kind of background a little bit, seeing what sort of stuff you've been up to Jen.  

And what I've noticed is a bit of a pattern here. Almost everybody that I speak to is relatively new to DfE. What is going on with this recruitment wave? Is it true to say that you would consider yourself relatively new as well? I mean I mean, I certainly do. I came in November 2020 and I think that was about the same sort of time as you.


Jen Staves It is. It is. We are both November 20, 20ers. I've been here less than a year. In some ways it feels like I've always been here, but it takes a little bit of time to feel like that. So, yeah, I'm relatively new. It's not my first civil service job, though. Before this, I was at the Department of International Trade, but then before that I was outside the civil service.

 Adaobi Ifeachor And I think I'm right in saying that it's not a British accent. I'm hearing where's that coming from.


Jen Staves Well, if you asked an American, they'd probably think it sounded a bit British, but it absolutely isn’t. I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, in the southeast of the US, until I was about 18. 


Adaobi Ifeachor Catching that midnight train to Georgia.


Jen Staves exactly 


Adaobi Ifeachor Right. That is a deep cut reference. If you’re over 30, you will know what I'm talking about. So let's dig it in a bit more into the content design space. So you've got like a team of people underneath you who are all working on different projects, designing content. I'm assuming. But you as head of profession.


You kind of like come in to what is like quite a new sort of area for the Department for Education. And you've got to kind of design or reimagine what exactly is content design going to be for DfE? Like, how on earth do you, you come in day one? What's your plan?


Jen Staves I think that's a really good question. And it's almost like you have to design the organisational design of how you want content design to work. So sorry, that was a bit of a mouthful, a bit of a tongue teaser. So I came in and for me. It's like any other job you need to come in and you need to see what's going on. You need to see what is the digital estate like here? Where are the content designers? You know, where is everybody? What is going on? And that has been tricky because there wasn't a head of profession before me. I was starting fresh, which in some ways is really exciting and in other ways is absolutely petrifying. But I knew that there were other professions that were maybe 18 months ahead of me and I could see where where you could be if you had a good head of profession and if you had people. So one thing I really noticed is that content designers were kind of often contractors, but sometimes civil servants, and they were on their own and teams. So it can be a bit of a lonely business when you're on your own and you think that this is the best way to do content design, but you're on a team that thinks something a little bit different. 


So my first job really was just to get in there and talk to people and find out what their desires, needs wants, you know, concerns were. And then also just get a picture of how that map of services all connect and then did something a little bit more formal. I think it was in January so two months after I joined where we sort of benchmarked the capabilities of the community. So personal capabilities, individual capabilities,but also what they felt about their team's capabilities, what they felt about the community's capabilities, what they felt about the organisation's capabilities, because really I needed to see what I needed to be able to unblock for them.


Adaobi Ifeachor So for people who maybe they've been in the space where they've only ever had a UX team light user experience team, and they want to split that apart and kind of bring, develop the sort of constituent disciplines up. They want an interaction designer. They want a service designer. They want a content designer. That's really interesting to kind of like say, the first thing you gotta do is just work out what on earth you actually have in the building, first of all. And if you don't have the skills, do you then look to contractors to fill the gap while you're building that up? What do you do in the meantime?


Jen Staves It's a really good question. So I think it's a combination. So sometimes you will need to bring in contractors right away, right? Because delivery pressures are delivery pressures and we have an obligation to taxpayers and to teachers and to students and everybody to deliver what they need. And we can't say, oops, you know, well, we just want to grow our in-house capability. We'll deliver this service in nine months time. So we do that. But I think there were two kind of big in tandem things. One is, okay, that benchmarking told me where we needed to work. And so, for example, I realised our content designers need to improve their prototyping skills so we could do some work on our own to do that, you know, within the community. But we could also make sure that it's built into the statements of all of our contractors to help us, because in our benchmarking, we included contractors and so we could see where contractors felt more confident than civil servants. So we always, always making sure, of course, that we're within all our contracting guidelines. We make sure that contractor share their expertise.


Adaobi Ifeachor So we’ve talked about how you have like some content designers. And you're kind of making sure they have what they need to do their jobs? Well, I actually I did a bit of sneakin in the background, found somebody you line manage. And I was like, tell me, tell me the dirt on Jen. Like, what's

Jen Staves Oh no.

Adaobi Ifeachor What is it that you, what is it that you feel you've gotten out of working with Jen. Here are some of the quotes. 


Adaobi Ifeachor  With Jen I'm always learning. She’s taught me that content design is more than just the words on a page. And I've gotten that you're really big on getting people to reach out beyond just their team. So I hear that there was a service design conference, like a two day conference where people were talking about co-design.


Adaobi Ifeachor And that fascinated me because I was like co-design. What is this co-design business or these new kind of sexy times in the design space? Can you tell us a bit about that?


Jen Staves Yeah, absolutely. So the service design in government conference was last week and it was brilliant and it was really nice to bring people together and set people off and say, OK, learn something new and bring it back to the community. So, for example, four of our content designers are presenting at community this week about four different things they learnt so that the whole community can benefit and learn from that.

 And co-design was one of them. And co design is really cool. But it's a step beyond, I think, what we've traditionally thought of as user centred design. And so user centred design is where we talk to users and we design for users. You know, we asked them what they think of things, but we traditionally kind of design it based off of what they've told us and then we test that they can use it, whereas code design is really exciting and it's kind of setting out from the beginning and saying, no, you are part of this team, you are helping design this service and, you know, you have an equal say in what is going to be designed. It's a big deal for government departments to be able to do that.

 And to be honest, I'm not sure that all government departments are ready for that yet. It'd be awesome if they were. I think I've heard that there's some really cool co-design going on at DEFRA (department for environmental, food and rural affairs) where they've been working with farmers.


And that makes sense, right? No one is going to tell farmers how farms work. For the future of farming you need them helping to design it. I think it'd be awesome to think about how we could bring in teachers, schools, pupils into how we design things. But it is very much about starting as equal partners. And that's scary for some people.


Adaobi Ifeachor Well, I'm a West Country girl, so I know all about farmers. No need to tell me about that. This idea of, like, co-creating with your users, if it makes sense anywhere I think it makes sense in the public sector because you are there to serve the public. Right. And especially if you kind of like taking public money in like taxes or donations or whatever it is I kind of love this idea of co-design. That sounds really fascinating. But there is something else I kind of want to dig into a little bit more. You have mentioned the word community a couple of times, and I guess we spoke about it in terms of like reaching beyond your team. But what does that mean specifically in DfE digital and technology? Do you want people not to feel lonely, to feel isolated on their teams I'm imagining. But what is it beyond that?


Jen Staves It's a really, really good question. So community is kind of, I think, everything for our professions that DfE. And for these communities of practise it's really important because we think so much as being the member of a team member of a delivery team, we need to remember that, you know, that might be our our vertical, for example. But what's our horizontal? And I'm not necessarily keen on all these different, like words like squads and clans and all those things. I just like community because it just you always think the people. Right. And so that brings together that layer of everybody in content design. And we all come together every week, Thursday one to four. And we have that chance for sharing and for learning. So there's a lot of things we do. So there's one thing is just we're friends, if you're having a hard week because something you think you really need to do for your users has been shot down, well, you have people who are there to talk to about it and maybe think, oh, that's not great, sorry. Or have you tried this idea? Maybe you could go back and get a little bit more data, you know, so there's that sense of like how how do you sell in your content design ideas? Because content design is user centred, but it's also very data centred as well, very performance centred.

So there's also this sense of standard. So at DfE the community is supposed to own and build its standards. Right. And so I might, I might own the community standards, but they're making them. I think that's the key thing. Right. So we're a collective and we're coming together and we're building that together. So that's really, really important is that standard aspect. And then finally, I think it's about us going back out to the rest of the organisation to raise the profile. So based of that benchmarking that we did, we realised that there were a bunch of key areas where content design was lacking or where content design could improve and not just improve itself, but improve DfE. 

So one of them was called, like we called it, programme capability. And that was how do we help teams to be successful and to make the most of content design? So that might be me going out and talking to different delivery managers, might be talking to the contracts team. It might be, you know, all  sorts of things. The next one was about skills and standards. So I mentioned to you prototyping. Well, how do we make sure that we build that in? Standards, we talked about that. Recruitment, we need more brilliant junior content designers. So that's my job, to go back out there and talk to people to help them make the business case for more juniors so that we have that brilliant pipeline of people sort of coming through. And then innovation, so that's one of my really exciting working groups like how do we not just standstill in terms of like what best practise is, how do we learn more? How do we bring in something from a complete other, you know, maybe non-public sector? Maybe we learn something from book publishing that we could bring in. Maybe we learn something from, you know, something completely different. And also we need to learn from schools themselves. So how do we continue to innovate? So that's really exciting.

And so my goal is that we get all of our kind of senior content designers running those working groups. So it's not me like this needs to be able to kind of work with and without me. They run those working groups, they bring it back together. 

Adaobi Ifeachor So bottom up. Yeah.

Jen Staves Yeah, exactly. 

Adaobi Ifeachor So all of these different aspects you talked about recruitment, innovation, advocacy, all this different stuff, this all forms part of your is it the content design profession roadmap? 

Jen Staves It is.


Adaobi Ifeachor You can see I've done my homework. I told you, I wasn’t lying.  So, so that's pretty cool. So you've got say somebody else who's coming in to a different government department or maybe an external organisation and they want to do this content design thing. They’re like, you know, sounds exciting, first thing, find out what you've got at the moment. Next thing, maybe set up a community and then use that community to help you put together this content design roadmap, perhaps. 


So I really like the idea of this because one thing, it's saying, well, what are people doing out there at the moment? Like what kind of new things are happening in the content design world that we could kind of use? But then it also sets people's expectations when they're coming into this content design world right. Because they’re saying, OK, this is what is expected of me, this is what people want. I really like how your mind works, like fitting in what we're doing now, but also what we're doing later. 

So I've got to kind of ask you then I'm assuming that you're not just sort of managing everything from a strategic point. Are there times when you're still getting your hand in there, and still working on a few projects, does that still happen?


Jen Staves It does. It it kind of ebbs and flows. So, I mean, we worked together, didn't we, a little bit in the in the early stages where I got kind of my hands more into the delivery space. And and that was that was really interesting. That was working on teacher continuing professional development, which is called teacher CPD. 

Luckily, we've got a brilliant lead content designer in there now so I could step back. So I kind of think the way that I like to work is if I see that there's an area that is bereft of content design experience, I might try and go in there and make friends with one of the deputy directors and try and say, can I get in there and get my hands messy and maybe help to diagnose what's going on, but then help you also bring in that capability, help get that person going. And then I can step back out because I think I can't I can't get I can't stay there too long.

Adaobi Ifeachor Do you think that's an important part of building a healthy community as well, like having everybody see that you kind of are willing to lead from the front?

Jen Staves I think so. So right now, where I'm trying to dip my toe in a bit more, stick my finger in a pie a bit more, I suppose, is the service manual team. So we've got a brilliant content designer in there called Amber, but like a service manual is full of content we need to think really, really strongly about this right? And there's so many different standards owners all over the place.


Adaobi Ifeachor And what's a service manual for people who don't know what service manual is? I know it's a manual for service, but what does that mean?


Jen Staved It's a lot of the documentation on how, how you do a good job at building a service.Right. And so there's a really good open source one that the government digital service has, the GDS service manual. If you Google that, you can open it up and just dig in. 

It's great stuff. You know, some of it's about like how do you get the right team for a different phase of your service? And some of it's like, what do you do and not do when it comes to certain technical solutions? And what is the service standard? There's a service standard that has twelve things that services must meet in order to kind of meet the standard for user centred services. So there's a DfE service manual that's being built, which is is really not trying to reinvent the wheel, but it's about how does the service standard work in the context of DfE. So if you know this, then what does that mean here? How do you navigate that? But it can be murky, right? Because there's lots of different standards all over the place. And I think the main thing that we want to do is we want to make sure that we give our internal services the same due care that we would expect of our external services.

So the service manual needs to be done properly because that's the place that tells the other teams how to do it. And so it needs to be just as user centred.


Adaobi Ifeachor So do you think, it feels like there might be a bit of a tension between if you're a new person come into content design Never worked in the civil service before, and you have this kind of freedom and your soul to just kind of do your own thing. But then there also seems to be service manuals, service manuals within service manuals, guidance communities of best practise, do you think, like sometimes in a bid to build a healthy culture and improve people, their development, is there too much going on?


Jen Staves It's quite possible. I mean, it's funny, but like as a content designer, it's often more about what you remove than what you add. So I take it as a major, major win when a page is decided to remove or a step is removed from the process because it's superfluous. And so I think there's a big challenge to think about with standards or with anything else. You give people too much and they just turn off completely and then they just wing it right.

So I think I've got to get in there. I've got to see. And then we can start to think, how do we refine? How do we shrink? How do we make it proportionate to what you're doing? Because otherwise, if you're expected to check thirty different places then it's not going to happen, but I think it's less about like check this, check that. It's more about making sure that we all have a shared principles for how we work. And so you kind of know in your gut, but that, that's just by talking to people and being a part of it and. I think if you are new to civil service, it can be tricky.

 It's almost like you should spend the first six months learning the civil service before you do your job.


Adaobi Ifeachor I definitely felt that. With all the acronyms you should just be tested with, like pop quizzes each week.


Jen Staves Exactly, exactly. But you have to learn on the go. That is the fastest way to learn. So a lot of people join the content design. And we hear this at interviews like, oh, I love writing.

And it's like you're going to have to find a different route to fulfil your love of writing, because that's not what content design is here for. You know, if you want to be a novelist, do that, do that at the weekend and then work on your day job about just making things slimline and streamlined for users. 


Adaobi Ifeachor as easy as possible for those users.


Jen Staves  Exactly.


Adaobi Ifeachor So we've talked, gosh we've talked about so many different things. But I wanted to understand this power coming from the community. It used to be everybody was talking about, what's the best practise here? How can we learn best practise?

But now all of a sudden, people are talking about communities of practise, have you noticed that switch? And what's the difference? Isn't communities of practise basically like learning best practise, but not having it given to you, sort of like figuring it out together or something? Is that the difference? Is that the shift?


Jen Staves Maybe. Yeah maybe. I think it's about, I’ll confess I hate the phrase best practise.


Adaobi Ifeachor  Yes. Thank you.        


Jen Staves just like I hate the phrase world class. Like it doesn't mean anything. And it's that there's one best way to do thing which isn't true. Right. And even if it is the best thing now, it might not be the best thing in three months time. We just don't know. So I guess what I like about communities of practise is that there's a plurality of good practise. And as long as we are taking into account our user needs and our business needs and we're taking into account that we cannot reinvent the wheel every time because that builds a mountain of technical and content and experience debt, then there's a community of practise. Right. There are many ways to do the job right. That don't, you know, create more problems for us down the line. So I think that I think that's a nice way of looking at it.


Adaobi Ifeachor I like that definition, definitely. I was going to ask next, you talked about some of the components that kind of go into this Thursday meetup, although I have to say one to four. It's a really long time for a meeting. How is that broken up? Like what? What are people doing?


Jen Staves Sure. So the community of practise meeting is just one to two. So that's one hour every Thursday. But something that we're trialling in digital and technology is profession Thursdays. So that's one o'clock to four o'clock every afternoon. That is time that's kind of semi ring-fence for you to develop yourself. It doesn't mean that if there isn't a huge delivery pressure that you just ignore that because you're like Lalalala. I'm learning.


Adaobi Ifeachor Yeah, sorry, I'm reading this afternoon,


Jen Staves but there's a lot of different things that we're doing in that space beyond content design. Lots of all the professions are jumping in. So there's masterclasses. So I ran a master class that anyone could come to on pair writing. My colleague Lewis, he's a head of a profession for a software, is running one on GitHub


Adaobi Ifeachor GitHub for content designers? 


Jen Staves GitHub for anybody. Right. So which is awesome. Right. Because content designers do use GitHub. 


Adaobi Ifeachor Because usually it's something that you just think of like software developers. Oh, this is a place for me to store my code. But you're saying like this could be useful in the content design space as well? 


Jen Staves Exactly. I mean, in some of our services, the content designers are making changes in Git so, yeah, it's really cool.

 So there's masterclasses. We bring in people for talks every quarter our user centred design community gets together. So user researchers content designers, service designers and interaction designers for like a quarterly meetup where we do really cool things and we bring in really cool talks. 

And so the next one is the head of inclusive design at NHS (I think) Track and Trace who’s going to talk to us. And then also I think it's a real sense that learning needs to be self driven. You can't always be like Jen, what should I learn this week?

It's like, what do you want to learn? Right. So you need to set aside some time for yourself. Do you want to read a new book about your practise or do you want to watch some YouTube tutorials about using the prototype kit? You know, make something yourself, do it. You have to invest in yourself as well.


Adaobi Ifeachor Yeah. Can I make a suggestion? 

I know this is actually is a little bit counter to everything you just said a moment ago, but I like when you were talking about all these kind of designers getting together, my thought was like, that's so cool. As a product manager, I'd love to know how to work better with all these different design disciplines. Like I would love some sort of thing when you're planning your next one in the future. If you think about us product managers, too, because I want to get the best out of my my digital delivery team. There must be frustrations as a designer, when you think like I come in as a content designer and my product manager doesn't know what I do, so doesn't know how to get the best out of my skills. So that's something to think about maybe when you're planning you like another future session. 

But at the time of recording this, I hear that you are about to start recruiting maybe for some more content designers. If someone is interested in coming into government or specifically DfE as a content designer,  what should they be lining up in terms of their experience? That will mean they are more attractive as a candidate?


Jen Staves That's a good question. So we just closed a couple of campaigns, but we are really growing, which is super exciting compared to where we were in November. I'm just really excited that we have so many content designers and that we're convincing people on the value. So a big thing that I think we don't talk about enough are outcomes.

So what I don't want to hear is that you created a cool video or that you, you know, where the content designer of the service I want to know what you did in that service that made it deliver better. Like, how did you improve the user's lives or how did you unblock them getting through that form or what did you deliver back for the organisation? Right. I want to know what your content did. So I'm really big on results. And it doesn't mean that your results had to be smashing every single time. I'm OK to hear whether you did something and it didn't work and you learnt something from it because that just shows that you're really, that you're really doing that. And then the other thing that I'm really big on is evidence and not just one type of evidence, but that, you know how to get different types of evidence and bring them together to inform a content design decision. So user research, yes, we love it. But there  are times where people do use their research when they don't need to.


Adaobi Ifeachor Oh, yes, yes, yes.


Jen Staves But then also performance. How is the content that's already out there performing? What is it doing? Bringing that all that data together, that is the way to convince people is through evidence. And when people are ready to, you know, push content onto the side, when you bring evidence in, that's when you've got your best chance. 


Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so before we end then, is there anything that you want to add to this idea of community, particularly for people who might have given it a go and it’s just not as healthy as they want it to be?


Jen Staves Yeah, OK. So I think, first of all, like, I'm here as one head of profession, but we have loads of head of professions who are all doing a great job trying to work with their communities. But if you don't talk to them about what's not working for you, they can't necessarily help. Right. So if maybe you try being in my community and the content design community and we're like, this is too much for me, reach out to the head of profession and talk to them and be like, these are my needs, you know? And then they might be able to signpost you or they might be able to say, you know what, that's actually come up somewhere else. Let's think about how we how we make this better. So that's one thing. 

And then the other thing is, I think we all have different styles and personalities and that's OK. Right. So I would say do your best to participate in the community in some way. But it's not always that you have to be camera on, always smiling and laughing. It's like if you want to participate once a month or once a quarter, but you're actively sharing something, cool. The point is, is that it's a give and take. It's not a car. And just like, listen, it's how can you share your expertise or what you've learnt from being in your service and how can you learn something from somebody else? So it's that kind of like virtuous circle that keeps giving, but it only keeps giving if people are involved.


Adaobi Ifeachor Really great note to end on. I just want to thank everyone who's been listening. I hope you've enjoyed it. Thank you so much for guest, Jen Staves, who is head of content here at DfE Digital and Technology. We have so many more things that we want to share with you in future pods.

 If you have suggestions, please do let us know. Our Twitter is at DfE_DigitalTech and our blog is www.dfedigital.blog.gov.uk. But of course that is a complete mouthful, so you're probably better off just Googling it. Just Google DfE, Digital and technology blog and it will make your day so much easier.


So thanks again, I’m Adaobi Ifeachor, join us next time. Bye bye. 


Podbean App

Play this podcast on Podbean App