Today’s guest post is from Scroll content designer Sarah Barnard. She talks about the impact of coronavirus on working on a service, and going through the very first fully remote GDS service assessment.

Half a world away – we had no idea what was coming

When I started the DfE’s Get into teaching alpha on 6 January 2020, I had no idea how the spread of coronavirus in China would affect our work and our world.

I arrived at DfE Manchester with huge enthusiasm. This was a project I was really passionate about – a campaign site to inspire people to become teachers. It was an 8-week alpha and the plan was to learn fast, hit the ground with 1-week sprints, and test as much as we could. There would then be time after the 8 weeks to get everything in order for the service standard assessment by GDS.

User testing, prototyping – the usual drill

Our testing with users was initially twice a week, although we slowed the pace to once a week to allow more time for analysis. We created content and designed a prototype in as quick and agile a fashion as we could. We had a set of hypotheses that were at the heart of the prototype. Get into teaching would be a campaign site designed to inspire users to find out more about teaching as a career. It would hopefully nudge the right users towards taking the next steps in applying for a teacher training course.

So we had our user research analysis, we had a prototype, and we had the beginnings of a slide deck documenting our journey. And we still had 2 weeks to go. What could go wrong?!

March – the month of unprecedented events

It wasn’t really until the beginning of March that people in Manchester started to become concerned about the spread of the virus in the UK. We worried when anyone coughed in the office, and we all took hand sanitiser wherever we went. On 3 March we were asked not to come into the office if we were showing any symptoms of the virus.

A week later, shops starting selling out of hand sanitiser. Essentials like toilet rolls, pasta and paracetamol were also starting to disappear. Coronavirus began to dominate every news story, as each day something new and unexpected happened. Things were starting to get a little scary.

On Monday 16 March, the majority of people were still working from the office. Our team was busy doing a run-through of the assessment slide deck. Some people were self-isolating at home, but most of the team were in. The assessment was still to go ahead in Manchester the following day.

Ok, they’re not coming after all

At 4.30 pm on 16 March, the face-to-face assessment in Manchester was still on. At 5pm the government announced that everyone should now work from home where possible. At 8pm a decision was made for the 5-hour assessment to be fully remote.

The morning of 17 March was taken up with large scale MS Team and Skype briefings about working from home. The first of these was not a great success. There was a delayed start due to technical problems and not everyone could get onto the call. We were all unsure about what this might mean for the assessment.

Will the tech hold up?

We started the assessment at 11am using Google Meet. After an initial hello, we turned off video to try and reduce any bandwidth issues. The product owner and user researchers talked through the proposition, research and testing. When it came to the content design section of the assessment, I talked through the narrative of the content we’d used in the prototype.

Our UX designer then demonstrated the prototype design, linking in the user researcher and me for examples of how we’d iterated the prototype after each session of testing.

It was less tense than a face to face assessment. There’s the obvious ease of anonymity and sense of distance you get on a conference call. Although the flip side to that is the lack of body language to help things flow. But we all responded really well to the challenge of giving out the essential verbal cues.

When it was over, the product owner and delivery manager were really pleased. We all felt it had gone well. The whole thing had seemed easier than anyone expected!

As schools close their doors, the news comes through

Although we believed it had gone well, you still never know. But on Friday 20th March, we got the news that we’d passed! Another unprecedented event in March! This time a positive one. It was a piece of great news amongst the chaos of the pandemic.

I got the good news as I was collecting my children for the last time from the after-school club at their primary school. That afternoon, schools across the UK closed to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The team are just about to start on private beta – such a great achievement! Sadly, I needed to give up my place on that journey to look after my children now that school is shut. But I’m happy I got the chance to do my bit. Go forth “Get into teaching” team! You’ll do a great job. And who knows, once this is all over, I might get to re-join you for public beta.


Image by from Pixabay.