Creative Lives — “Working on things that matter was more important to me than my job title”: Lead user researcher at GDS, Will Myddelton
For GDS lead user researcher Will Myddelton, the best projects are exciting and terrifying in equal measure. The process of making products for government services – anything from enabling teams to send emails and texts to taking card payments – are often full of “complicated moving parts”. But over the years Will has learned to better prioritise and delegate, which in turn has had a positive effect on his work-life balance. Here, he recounts a wealth of insight and shares invaluable tips – from the steps he takes to quieten his mind to his must-have technical tools.
Lead User Researcher at Government Digital Service (2015–present)
Senior User Experience Designer, cxpartners (2013–2015)
User Experience Designer, Blue Latitude (2011–2013)
User Experience Designer, findaproperty.com; primelocation.com (2011)
Web Editor, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), London (2008–2011)
Musician and club promoter in Manchester (2001–2008)
BA History, University of Manchester (1997–2000)
How would you describe your job?
I’m the lead user researcher on the Government as a Platform (Gaap) programme at GDS. We make products for people that run government services. For example, we make GOV.UK Notify, which lets services send emails and text messages, and GOV.UK Pay which lets services take credit and debit card payments.
Half of my role is supporting the six user researchers who work on our product teams. One part of this is being clear about what the job of a researcher is (so they can do their jobs) and helping product teams understand how to work with user research (so our products become more user-centred). The other part is about creating a safe and supportive space for our researchers away from their teams.
What does a typical working day look like?
I do 10 minutes of meditation as soon as I get up. Then I write 750 words of whatever is on my mind, loosely based on Morning Pages, while I have a coffee. These two things help me quiet my mind. My days at work are split between meeting with people and doing tasks. Meetings are a mix of one-on-ones and group sessions with my researchers, small meetings with the programme team and product managers, and larger workshops where I bring together different roles to work on research or design problems. I still do primary research, which tends to be interviewing people rather than usability testing. This means I do analysis, whether with Post-its or in a spreadsheet.
I work four days a week to keep my work-life balance in check. If I’m not careful I can get way too wrapped up in my work. GDS has a wonderful culture that allows us to be flexible with the hours and days we work. I work best when I’m free to determine my own working patterns; on Thursdays I try to work from home where I can get the headspace to focus on tasks that need uninterrupted time. This doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with work-life balance at times. But that’s just learning to be good at your job without putting your life on hold. We all struggle with that.
“It’s important to admit when you’re struggling to the people you work with. It allows them to help you, creates a psychological safety, and a better team.”
How did you land your current job?
I’ve been wanting to work for GDS for years. I was made redundant from CABE just as GDS was starting up. But at that time I didn’t have the design or research experience, so my plan was to go and learn these things in the private sector and then return. When I left Blue Latitude I simply quit without having another job lined up. At that point I was talking to Leisa Reichelt (who has been a huge influence on my career and ended up as head of user research at GDS) about coming to work for GDS, but the job offer came through a week after I accepted a role at cxpartners. This was probably a good thing in hindsight as I learned loads about design, research and leadership. So when I decided to leave cxpartners there was only one place I was going! Leisa Reichelt and Pete Gale convinced me that I should apply to be a user researcher on the grounds that I could shape the job when I arrived. I was reluctant, but I applied anyway because working on things that matter was more important to me than my job title. There was an interview and then a job offer. So I joined as a civil servant in 2015 and it’s been everything I hoped for.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
We work in an open-plan office, which I have a love-hate relationship with. The social and tacit knowledge side is great but the distractions are a real problem.
How collaborative is your role?
Extremely collaborative! I have my own discovery team where I’m the product manager and work with a delivery manager, a user researcher and a business support person. I work with researchers on my programme both on their products and also on my own work; programme leads and product managers to set priorities and with other lead user researchers and our head of user research to run our community effectively.
Outside GDS, our user research work takes me into collaboration with hundreds of different people in services across government. I spend time with product managers, user researchers, designers, developers, technical architects, content designers, delivery managers, policy people, WebOps people, and many other weird and wonderful civil servant roles.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspect of the job is that feeling I get when I’ve been surprised and delighted by the quality of work done by someone I manage. The other is when there is a proper change in direction based on the user research we have done. The least enjoyable aspects are when I feel stressed and guilty about failing to manage my time well. This happens less now than it used to, because I work only work four days a week, and go to counselling.
“The job of a user researcher is to tell difficult truths. We need people who are kind, yet embrace the difficult stuff.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The discovery project I’m doing right now. I can’t say much about it, except it’s exactly what we should be doing. It’s full of complicated moving parts. And, like all the best projects, it’s equal parts exciting and terrifying. Keep an eye on the Government as a Platform blog and you’ll see it land soon.
What skills are essential to your job?
Two people have had a huge influence on me in this area since I joined GDS. Janet Hughes wrote about boldness. Kit Collingwood-Richardson wrote about empathy, vulnerability and curiosity. These two posts are close to my heart so I’m going to start with the skills they talk about and then add one of my own at the end.
Boldness: As a user researcher, you’ll work in a difficult, changing situation and you need to be prepared to take risks (which is not the same as being reckless) and inspire the people around you. Empathy: This is central to every part of the job. It’s how you sense when people are struggling and need help. Vulnerability: It’s also important to admit when you’re struggling. It allows the people you work with to help you. This creates a bond and psychological safety that creates a better team. Google says so. Curiosity: Having an interest in other people and their jobs gives you a wider perspective – and that is a powerful thing. Kindness: The job of a user researcher is to tell difficult truths. If you are not kind, people will not hear what you say. Too many people are socially rude yet do everything to avoid difficult conversations. We need the opposite – people who are kind yet embrace the difficult stuff.
Product page for GOV.UK Notify, part of the Government as a Platform programme
Product page for GOV.UK Notify, part of the Government as a Platform programme
What tools do you use most for your work?
GDS-issued MacBook Air, (13-inch, Mid 2012, 1.8 GHz Intel Core i5, 4 GB 1600 MHz DDR3); Android Nexus 5X (with a broken lens on the camera for taking photos of walls and doing phone interviews) and cheap Sony in-ear headphones with a mic for doing phone interviews. Google Drive, Chrome, Docs, Slides, Sheets (knowing how to do stuff in spreadsheets is a superpower for a researcher), Gmail, Calendar, Hangouts (since joining GDS I’ve basically learned to prize collaboration over specialisation so I just do everything in Drive. Programming skills without coding); Trello; Slack; Spotify; Omnigraffle (for diagrams); Pixelmator (for image editing); GoToMeeting (horrible software but it lets me record phone interviews); Screeny (for recording usability tests on my computer); Caffeine (to stop the computer switching itself off during usability tests); Handbrake (for converting video files of usability tests); Shave Video (for quickly cutting up video from usability tests, with amazing hotkeys); Byword (for writing my 750 words each morning and blog posts, distraction free); Evernote; Wunderlist; Pocket (for saving articles to read later, and tweeting the best ones as recommendations); 1Password (for everything that I keep safe. Plus two-factor authentication on everything. Additional PIN on important phone apps. And an encrypted Mac hard drive). Super sticky post its; marker pens; Blu tack; a roll of brown paper.
Poster for Government as a Platform – the programme Will is the lead researcher for
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
An architect. But I don’t think I had any notion of what an architect was and I didn’t pursue that in any way. Later I wanted to be a musician. It’s fair to say I had no specific ambition. I have always followed whatever seemed interesting.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied history because I was curious about other times, places and people. The degree itself has been totally irrelevant to all my working roles. But the curiosity that made me want to learn about these other things has been useful in everything I’ve ever done.
What were your first jobs?
Doing filing in my mum’s office when I was 15 and 16. Working the checkout at Sainsbury’s all the way through sixth form. Spending university doing market research phone calls, selling water filters through cold calling and doing the accounts for a factory that made adhesive for space rockets in the ruins of the old GEC industrial estate. These jobs all taught me that you work to live, that any work can be absorbing if you pay attention, and that you can get on with anyone if you try.
Will at work
Who in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
When I was made redundant I met up with Andrew Travers who was a consultant at the agency who had done the redesign of the CABE website. Today he’s the head of digital design at Coop Digital. Andrew sat me down and told me that I should go and get a job as a user experience designer, and that I should accept no less than £45k. I would never have dared call myself a designer until that day. I have never looked back. I owe Andrew an enormous debt and will never forget this conversation. Every time I sit down with someone and talk about their career I am trying to pay back this debt.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Designing the [email protected] online supermarket from scratch with nowhere near enough time or budget. Bearing in mind this was a whole supermarket (not just a section, every page) and the main language was German. I learned how to divide up work into a clear scope, how to work quickly alongside other designers rather than on my own and how to manage my client’s expectations so we got things signed off. And I learned how to brief a development team.
But, more important than all of those, I learned what it is to burn out. In the first part of the project I tried to do everything myself. I found myself one night at 3am trying to make a webfont work in a prototype and I just broke. It was a horrible experience and it took me a lot of time to recover from. But I looked inside myself, went to counselling, got some coaching at work, and came back with a plan. And, by some miracle, the plan worked. We completed the project. The thing actually got built. And it’s had tremendous commercial success. I wrote a post called The Change Curve about this whole experience that has led to some fascinating conversations since.
"You work to live. Any work can be absorbing if you pay attention, and you can get on with anyone if you try.”
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Sketching. I started with a book called Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam which is about sketching to explain things in businesses. I designed a whole online supermarket with nothing more than a Sharpie and paper – we went straight from sketches to comps to code. It’s a superpower and everyone can do it. Go and do it now.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Learning to manage other people. I struggled to learn to delegate, believing it was quicker to do things myself. I micromanaged people, meaning they never learned how to decide what to do. But my amazing and wonderful colleagues were brave enough to give me feedback and tell me what I was doing wrong.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
No! When you start out you think your job is to find out what problems exist, and faithfully list them in a big report; that every recommendation will be carefully implemented; and that the product will be fixed and everyone will be happy and profitable forever after. But it turns out none of this is true. The job is about finding the few important things and using every bit of influence you have to get your product team to listen.
What would you like to do next?
For now I’m loving my job. But I’m a curious person and I’ve already changed career at least three times so I wouldn’t bet on me still being a user researcher in five years’ time. I’ve been curious about whether I’d be any good at product management for a long time now. It’s frustrating as a designer or a researcher when product managers don’t ‘get’ user-centred design. It seems obvious to me that the way to address that is to have more product managers who do. And where better to start than designers and researchers?
Will at work
Could you do this job forever?
I have never wanted to do the same job forever. Growth and change is too important to me.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
The amazing and terrifying thing about my job is there is no natural career progression. We are still in the wild west of user-centred design roles. If you go back 25 years you have this amazing arc of labels for what we do. What was business process design became human computer interaction, usability testing, information architecture, interaction design, user experience design, and then service design. It will become something else soon. Every new generation thinks it’s different to the last, usually with a burning passion, yet every generation carries the tradition with it as well. User research was a niche discipline five years ago and now we’re saying it should be all over government, in every team. We’ve created a whole new job family in the civil service and we don’t fully know how that’s going to work yet.
There are some different routes open – super specialist researchers, researchers who lead other researchers, researchers who cross over into product manager roles, maybe even researchers who go into senior management roles. This stuff is all out there to be defined.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a user researcher?
Balance theory with practice. Someone who spends all their time on theory and never risks it in the real world goes nowhere (outside academia, which is a totally valid path). But the opposite is also true – if you are getting experience that’s great, but if you’re not constantly filling your head with new ideas then you’re going to stagnate. There are many places to find new ideas – books, videos, mentors, meet-ups, blogs – find what works for you and pay attention to it.
Make sure you read books. Many young designers and researchers don’t want to read. They think they can get it all from blog posts and videos. The quality of ideas that you find in a book is much, much higher than anywhere else. If you struggle to concentrate, work on it until you stop struggling. It will power you more than you can imagine. Oh, and like Dan Saffer says, make sure you read fiction too. Other worlds expand your mind.
Learn your discipline, then dive into others. When you start out it feels like there is an infinite amount to learn about your discipline. But pretty soon you start seeing the same things over and over again. At this point, stop looking at your own discipline and dive into related fields. They end up making you a much better designer or researcher.
Be more organised than those around you. No one wants to hear this. I get that. But if you are on top of your stuff – files, versions, appointments, emails, to-do lists, commitments – then people will trust you instinctively. It will go a long way to giving you a successful career. Don’t believe in or perpetuate the myth of the disorganised creative person.
There are, of course, exceptions to all of these. Find your own path. Good luck!
This article is part of a feature on Government Digital Service.