Breathing room for Design

Over the past few years, the digital team at AusPost has matured into one of the most well-functioning agile trains in Australia. The challenge in this journey to success was to ensure how design and discovery retain their customer centricity in an environment of rapid production (we deliver every. 3 days!). The need was to continue to be proactive instead of reactive in our approach to problem-solving.

Some of the challenges the design team had were

  • To ensure we had enough room for the right amount of research for the right problem while ensuring rapid delivery.
  • To ensure that all members of the team from Product to Development could collaborate like a true cross-functional team to come up with solutions to problems.
  • To ensure there was always enough fodder for the delivery trains to continue delivering while design and research would be doing their bit.

The talk will be a demonstration of how the Design team introduced ‘dual-track’ methodology of embedding design thinking into agile development trains and worked with the wider teams to incorporate it as a way of unpacking and delivering on complex customer problems.

Breathing room for Design

Sharbani Dhar, Director–Design Operations, Michelle O’Reilly, Lead product designer, Australia Post

Keywords: Australia Post, pandemic, dual track, brick and mortar, mail redirection, SAFe, discovery, experience, delivery.

TL;DR: Sharbani and Michelle offer a case study of how Australia Post – a bricks and mortar enterprise with complex logistical and technical challenges – found solutions to the challenge of creating breathing room in the midst of pandemic. By adopting a ‘dual track’, collaborative approach between the concepts of delivery and discovery, and at the same time anchoring experience between the two, their teams were able to achieve success across a range of metrics. Beyond metrics, by iterating an approach grounding in transparency and delight, they were better able to respond to the moment with a flexible outlook which also yielded unexpected opportunities for insight.

Sharbani: Before we start, let me tell you a story about Gina. She is a quintessential community activist and friend of Sharbani. At the outset of the pandemic, she started to sew. She sewed approx: 30 facemasks following a set of sewing instructions she found on an Australian Government Health website. She distributed them to friends and neighbours. Then she went to the supermarket whilst wearing one and immediately issued a product recall on all the masks she had given away. the problem: no breathing room. The mask was too tight. After trying other methods she found a pattern for a mask with a looser fit and more coverage and comfort.

This is exactly what design teams in an enterprise face every day. In an urgency to hit the market, we often build in a prescribed way without having the time or room to question it. However, we don’t have the luxury that Gina did to pivot and put out a new product the next day. There’s no breathing room for design to conceive and execute a delightful solution.

Sharbani is Design Director at Australia Post, an enterprise that has been the backbone of Australia for over 200 years.

Michelle: is the UX Design Lead at Australia Post.

ABC Journalist Diana Eliot writes: Post offices fulfill a social service as well as a commercial one. They stand stoically in townships decimated by floors, plagues, and financial ruin, like chimneys rising from the ashes of homes destroyed by fire.

Sharbani and Michelle will take us through a case study of how they created breathing room within their enterprise. It’s been a journey of trial and error that they are continuously looking to improve. They will share key learnings as many are facing similar challenges.

Sharbani: First, a few facts about Australia Post: AP is 210 years old. The first Postmaster-General Issac Nichols was a convict transported to NSW for stealing. He was responsible for collecting the mail from newly-arrived ships and distributing it to the colonies. The first post office was in George St, Sydney; they now have 4300 post offices across 7.5 million square miles.

Post offices are the lifeblood of rural Australia. They are a key enabler of e-commerce and serve the entire population from urbanites to people in tiny outback towns. A key insight they hear through user research is that when banks close in small towns, residents are not terribly worried. But when post offices close, people are very worried. They associate having a post office with being connected and important to the rest of the country. This imbues a high level of trust in Australia Post which in turn requires them to meet that responsibility.

In 2019, AP sent 3.3 billion items across 12.1 million local addresses and 214 countries across the world. With the advent of Covid, volumes have increased to triple the usual amount. TL;DR: They’re big! And making change is hard. Some days Sharbani and Michelle feel that they are working with technology from Mr. Issac Nichols himself! Having a large footprint means they have multiple operational dependencies and complexities and this has become more obvious than ever before during the pandemic.

Michelle: The digital team at AP are the facilitators for experiences. It’s their job to connect with customers virtually. Critically, they are the key channel for communication during emergencies, floods, bushfires, and the pandemic. The digital team is made up of more than 500 people working across 20 engineering teams across 4-5 major programs of work.

For delivery, they follow the Scaled Agile Framework for Enterprise (SAFe) which is a framework that allows complex enterprises to adopt Agile methodologies within dev teams to enable them to function in a lean, nimble, and agile manner. The whole digital team plans together every quarter and have check-ins every 6 weeks to reassess progress and planning where they map dependencies with other teams to ensure they aren’t operating in silos but are communicating and planning together.

SAFe is a software product. It’s been constant trial and error to mould and shape this process to ensure that the experience team’s needs are also being accounted for. The challenge for the experience team ilies in building software for a large brick and mortar enterprise using legacy tech and old-school stakeholders for a diversity of users across the country.

Not just how you build the software but how you design it in a way that’s simple, useful, and delightful for customers. What’s the sweet spot that allows breathing room for our customers and allows design to inform strategy? A sweet spot:

  1. That allows for thinking time yet enables quick delivery.
  2. That is inclusive and enables collaboration.
  3. That enables the right tools for a problem.

Sharbani: We tried a multitude of experiments to search for our sweet spot; working a few sprints ahead; just in time for devs; design sprints, etc. Then decided to go Dual Track, where the discovery track and delivery track run parallel but without a time dependency on each other. At the same time, experience continues its discovery toward an evolving vision that teams can use as a beacon; experience becomes the incremental realization of that vision.

Discovery Track kicks off end to end research and design activities that would ideally be a quarter to six weeks in advance of delivery. Once they discover insights, the delivery team can start to pick them up as opportunity swapping points. As research matures, delivery can plan bigger.

Why this works: It removes time dependency between experience research and delivery; allowing the breathing room to think, unpack, and invite cross channel collaboration. Slicing of learnings from research into smaller pieces of delivery allowed delivery teams to work toward meaningful and viable outcomes. Identifying quick wins also allowed quick, not expensive fails.

Double Diamond Approach. The first half of the diamond is learn, where the discovery track kicks off. The second half of the diamond is the create half, where delivery kicks off. First we learn, then we create. Discovery does not apply only to the experience team and delivery does not reside solely with tech. For this to work it is critical to identify the right balance of people for driving the right parts.

The participants of discovery track are: the product managers from viability, the software architect from tech, and the design directors from design. The participants of delivery track are: business analysts from viability, the developers from tech, and designers from design.

While these two tracks run parallel, the producers, iteration managers, and the leads become the connectors of the two tracks. Having roles that work upstream and roles that work downstream with characters in the process who ensure that there is a constant dialogue happening between the two facilitates and makes space and breathing room to focus on the right parts of the process at the right time.

From Day One, the whole team were committed to transparency of processes and methods. The team were unclear about UX processes, so time was taken to explain and answer questions. They also instigated a weekly shareback/open forum explaining the decisions that were being made. It was an open forum for collaboration open to all teams.

Michelle: Our first experiment in the new delivery approach was in mail redirection, which is one of the most expensive services that AP provides. It also drives the maximum of calls and customer complaints. When they began delivery track, they had an unclear problem and an unclear solution. Customer complaints were not the problem. They were the symptom. Discovery track allowed them to separate the problems from the symptoms and see what is really impacting customers and staff?

Simultaneously, they learned that 30k customers were unable to verify their identity online owing to special ID requirements and thus had to call directly. This allowed them to identify an opportunity they could add to their delivery backlog. We could open up servicing 85% of concession customers online. Big win for concession customers who have high rates of mobility issues and travel cost barriers. Particularly helpful during Covid.

Through continuous research throughout the project, they uncovered many issues, but the biggest one was that they kept getting in their own way. Over time, people spotted opportunities to piggyback on the traffic of this product. Over the years, multiple upsells that were distracting for viewers had slipped their way into the flow and eroded the experience. During testing, customers would get so distracted with upsells that they would forget their original intent. The solution: Move upsells outside the flow to increase overall conversion rates.

Most importantly, this analysis allowed them to set up the right measures of success, which became their criteria to continue optimization post delivery. They used data to inform decisions and decide when features were suitable to be released into production. This allowed them to get big changes across the line and build stakeholder trust.

The project was a success, coming in ahead of schedule and on budget. It met and exceeded objectives and proved value. What does this mean? Having the breathing room to collaborate and actively work through dual track has allowed them to:

  • Build partnerships instead of receiving a list of requirements.
  • Establish a continuous culture of measure and learning.
  • Prove the value of design and experience to the point that now design informs strategy.

So… what does this all mean for you? Sharbani: Creating breathing room starts with creating transparency. A brick and mortar enterprise which has multiple operations trying to work together cannot always have a prescribed process. But whatever process you choose needs to start with creating transparency about it for all the players involved. We as design can’t sit in a corner and complain that we don’t get heard. We started by asking for a seat at the table without necessarily offering a chair at our own. Getting out of that mindset and having partnerships enabled them to build and try different methods.

A framework is good as long as you allow a bit of push and pull within it. To create breathing room means not being a fundamentalist in Agile, design thinking, or sprints. Rather, identify what works best for the opportunity. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid just because the cult leader says! Know that different roles in an organization work better at different instances of the problem solving process. Identify and utilize them. Agree early on as to what metrics you will use to prove the work. Validate their relevance as part of your research, and implement and monitor them as part of your delivery.

Finally, remember that it’s never over, it’s part of a continuous process of improvement. Thankyou!