Reflections from SDinGov

Coco Chan
7 min readDec 22, 2022

At the end of September I attended Service Design in Government (SDinGov) conference for the first time. SDinGov is an ‘international community event for anyone involved in designing and commissioning public services’. I was excited to attend to learn more about service design and good practice across the public sector, and catch up with friends I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic times.

TL;DR: The conference was great, I learned lots of things and met some cool people. It was, however, quite an overwhelming experience (high volume of content over three days, and socialising with large groups of people again) hence it’s taken me 3 months to collect my thoughts. I’d like to go again, it was definitely worthwhile.

Sophie Dennis opens the conference, standing behind a lectern with the SDinGov logo on the front. The opening slide on two big screens says ‘Welcome to Service Design in Government 2022’.

Best bits

  • The event was jam-packed with content. I attended sessions on human-centred design in healthcare, behavioural science, service mapping, user research with vulnerable people, user interface design and more.
  • I particularly enjoyed Martha Edwards’s talk entitled ‘Going beyond planting seeds — practical advice on impacting design maturity’. I liked their bias towards action, showing (using examples) how small consistent actions can influence organisational culture, and I left the session feeling positive and ready to take actions back to work.
A slide from Martha’s talk. It reads: ‘There’s lots I cant do. So I think about what I *can* do instead’ in blue text on a light grey background.
  • I appreciated the talks where speakers shared their journey as well as / instead of the outcome of their work. This helped bring the lessons and methodologies to life, and I could see how they might be applicable in my work. Two highlights in this regard were Katie French and Jude Webb’s session on applications of COM-B, a behavioural science technique, in government procurement (#boringmagic), and Soh-Yon Park and Claudia Hopkins’s talk about design equity in which they shared examples of where previous co-design attempts hadn’t worked and why.
  • It was a delight, as always, to spend time with folks I haven’t seen for a while — Vicky, Gemma, Sam and Amanda. It was also lovely to meet colleagues from DLUHC who I’d not crossed paths with before — Jen and Ellen.
  • At the end of each day I wrote some brief reflections on Twitter. This was my first multi-day conference and I was convinced I would forget things if I didn’t write them down as we went along. I’m glad I did this as those notes helped me process the talks I was hearing, and I was able to form more connections and conversations with people who were at the conference who I didn’t have time to chat with 1–2–1.
My tweet from 28th Sept: A few reflections on day 1 of #SDinGov (thread)
My tweet from 29th Sept: Initial reactions from day 2 #SDinGov (thread)
My tweet from 30th Sept: Had to dash away from #SDinGov to catch my train home. Didn’t get to say hello to everyone irl, but have made a few more connections here which is lovely :). Musings on day 3 (thread)
  • The venue was in Edinburgh, in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. I found it calming to look out of the window and see the scenery, in contrast to the buzz and noise indoors.
A view from the roadside outside the venue. In the near distance is a large hill covered in grass and trees.
  • I was surprised how many attendees I met who had travelled from abroad to attend. It was fascinating to hear their experiences of digital and design work, and the similarities/differences between what we’re doing here in the UK.
  • I wasn’t able to attend the lightning talks session, but I appreciated the approach of giving the stage to people from underrepresented groups and a supportive space for speaking practice. I could hear the rapturous applause from the next room, so it was clearly enjoyed by those in attendance, and hopefully gave the speakers a great experience of public speaking which will propel them on to more opportunities.

💡 Things I learned 💡

  • You don’t need ‘design’ in your job title to conduct or think about design, however design is set of extremely valuable and hard-earned skills, and we should recognise and reward good practice when we see it.
  • The organisers did a lot of work to make this event safe while we are still living with coronavirus (ventilation, air filters, encouraging pre-testing etc). There was also lots of good stuff about the event space more broadly — plentiful coffee, overflow room for keynotes, mix of healthy and sugary snacks. We’ll be trying to learn from this and copy the best bits at UKGovcamp 2023.
  • We can’t keep up the pace of the last two years and hold to the principles that make our work meaningful and successful (user-centricity, continuous feedback, exploring the problem before coming up with the solution, iteration). This is not a sustainable way to work, we need to find a slower more considered pace of work otherwise we’ll burn out.
Katy Beale is giving a talk. The slide on the big screen says ‘EVERYTHING IS AN EMERGENCY’ with a red ‘emergency pull’ button.
  • We must be conscientious of the burden we put on our users — both in time and emotional energy. We mustn’t squander this on ill thought out research, or failure to listen and learn from pre-existing work.
  • I deliberately attended sessions focussed on healthcare, as this is a sector I’ve not worked in and know little about. I appreciated Dean Vipond’s session on the NHS Design System, particularly how digital in health spaces is ‘more than a series of transactions’. I was also fascinated by DWP Digital’s session on their bereavement service, and when providing services for users in highly emotional or stressful states (applicable to life events and health) clear content is key.
Dean Vipond is giving a talk. The slide on the big screen has a quotation from Alan Cooper: ‘Just because it can’t be measured, doesn’t mean it can’t be perceived’.
  • If we want to conduct meaningful co-design we need to call out the power dynamic that exists between us (institutions) and are users. Why are we engaging in co-design? Because we believe it gives the best outcomes. How much control are we willing to cede to allow that to happen?
  • Design clearly has a place in government now, but it’s in pockets or specific digital functions rather than embedded into our core practices of policy making and service delivery. We’ve come a long way but there’s more still to do to embed design thinking.
  • In hindsight I’d have sat out one or two sessions to give myself some thinking/reflection time. Three days of continuous talks is a lot to take on board, and I was flagging in some of the afternoon sessions and unable to fully focus.
  • I’ve come away with plenty of reading recommendations: Design Justice, Data Feminism, The Four Pivots and Beyond Sticky Notes.
  • This entire experience showed me how much more I have to learn. I’m pretty good at what I do but I’ve only been working in digital gov for five years, and I have enormous respect for folks who’ve been doing this longer, have different areas of focus and/or have academic backgrounds as well as experience in the industry. I left feeling motivated to go away and read, listen, experiment more.

Even better if..?

  • More participative exercises. The workshops had limited numbers (understandable for logistics/planning purposes) but it meant I was unable to get into any of these sessions, and spent a lot of time listening to talks.
Tweet from Amina with a photograph from one of the workshops, surrounded by paper and post-its. This looks fun! More sessions like this next year, please :)
  • Conversations continued online post-conference. The Slack channel never really got going, and Twitter is losing its appeal. I’m not sure where to find people again, besides those few whose names I wrote down specifically.
  • Some people following the event online pointed out the lack of alt text on individual’s conference photos that were shared on Twitter. I was guilty of this on occasion, and have since enabled alt text reminders on my account. This is an easy fix that would make the vicarious conference experience and learning more accessible.
Original tweet from Karl Goldstraw: Just looking at the #SDinGov hashtag and whilst lots of great talks and content, I’m sorry folks, but the sheer number of images shared without ALT text is totally disappointing. And my quote tweet: I was guilty of this; got swept up in the moment and tweeted and image without thinking. Switched on the reminders so I don’t do it again. Settings > accessibility > receive image description reminder
  • I should have packed more sensible shoes. I was too concerned with being ‘smart’ that I forgot the crucial element of comfort that was required for my 30 minute walk to the venue, and gave myself blisters on the first day.

🚀 My commitments between now and next year: 🚀

  1. I will sign up for at least one speaking gig that pushes me out of my comfort zone, so that I’m ready when the pitch call comes around next year to put my hat in the ring.
  2. As I rebuild my network on Mastodon, I’ll be deliberate about who I follow so I can continue engaging with the design community. I want to follow more people who post about accessibility, responsible research, design justice — so if that sounds like you please send me your handle!
  3. I will take a more active role in user research (observing, note taking, participating in synthesis etc), so that a) I have a more rounded understanding of our users and their needs, and b) I can understand and challenge our plans, and ensure we’re making best use of our existing research before asking our users for more of their time.

💖 Finally, some thank yous 💖

Thank you to the organisers and programme committee for putting on this event. I have some insight into event planning from UKGovcamp and that’s only for one-day with a flexible agenda; it’s eye-watering to think how much work goes into a three day event with pre-booked speakers. Bravo!

Thank you to my manager for encouraging me to attend, and to other folks in my organisation who helped me navigate our expenses processes so I could afford to be there all three days.

Thank you to Lauren Currie and the UPFRONT Global Bond for encouraging us to talk about money. In years gone by I’d have been too shy to ask for my employer to pay for my ticket.

Thanks to all the people who tweet / toot / blog about events. I heard about SDinGov through Twitter (and experienced some serious FOMO), and because of that I kept an eye out for this year’s event and was able to book my ticket well in advance.

Another slide from Katy Beale and Natasha Bhambhra’s session. It has a bold purple and white graphic background with black lettering: ‘Sharing the work is as important as doing the work’.

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Coco Chan

Digital professional, musician, textile artist. Tweets @_crmzchan_