Create psychological safety… and four other Agile content lessons

The Welsh Government wants to plant 86 million trees in 9 years – plain language guidance can help, write Heledd Quaeck and Joe Badman

11 March 2022

User-centred content is contributing to NRW’s ambitious tree-planting plans © Plant for the Planet/Flickr

The environmental and other guidance Natural Resources Wales (NRW) creates can be complicated, as well as having to respond to a fast-changing policy and legislative landscape.

Over time, our website has become a repository of such information – a digital filing cabinet with too much stored inside.

We know from our website analytics and feedback from public-facing staff that our content does not always meet users’ needs. Users get confused, abandon their journeys part-way through and end up seeking help from real humans in our Customer Support Hub.

We wanted to revisit our approach to content creation, placing users at the centre. We’ve built capacity in user research and content design and have made progress in embedding user-centred approaches in pockets of the organisation. But, as there is so much more to do, we went to the market for help.

Broad skills – and good vibes

We needed a broad range of skills including user research, content design, content strategy, service delivery and product management. So we appointed a consortium (a mixed group with a common goal), which includes folks from dxw, Crocstar and Basis. As well as having the Agile skills we needed, this team could do the work bilingually – and we liked their vibes.

The Welsh Government has set an aspiration to plant 43,000 hectares (110,000 acres) of new trees by 2030, rising to 180,000 hectares by 2050. That means planting around 86 million trees over the next 9 years.

Woodland creation is a big priority for NRW – planting more trees has obvious environmental benefits – and user-centred guidance promises to help people seeking to plant those trees.

Different motivations, different needs

However, we very quickly discovered a broad range of user groups with different motivations and needs. We also found an equally wide range of subject matter experts (SMEs) working on different parts of woodland creation.

[The combined Natural Resources Wales team's sprint plan] detailing what the team does on each day of the week. The team use Monday's for sprint planning, Tuesday through to Thursday for daily standup and Friday's for show and tells and team retro.
The combined NRW team’s sprint plan

Based on the user data we already had and feedback from SMEs, we focused first on content about funding for farmers and landowners to create new woodland. This group has the biggest positive potential environmental impact. Funding is high among their concerns and the funding landscape is complex.

The team established a fortnightly cycle of ‘sprints’ (recurring periods, of usually 2 weeks, in which a team agrees a certain amount of work will be done). Agile working is still in its infancy at NRW and we wanted to use this project as a means of demonstrating the approach.

We are halfway through our second sprint. We’ve interviewed a whole bunch of users, created some content to test and drafted the beginnings of a website proposition and content strategy.

Lessons learned

The project is still in its infancy but, in the spirit of working out loud, we think lessons have emerged that might be of interest to people involved in similar projects in Wales. Here are 5 things we’ve learned so far.

1. Build psychological safety from the beginning, especially for blended teams

Our team brings together people from four different teams (including NRW). It took time to get to know one another and build trust. We held workshops to understand our challenges, create a roadmap and figure out how to work as a group.

We used check-in rounds and encouraged everyone to participate by distributing talk-time in meetings, which we kept light and fun. Despite most of the team not knowing one another before Christmas, we are making quick progress and enjoying ourselves at the same time

2. There has been no real resistance to Agile working – but that’s no accident

NRW’s well-established governance arrangements might have hampered our ability to work in a more Agile way. Not so. Show and tells have been well attended by stakeholders and SMEs. When we’ve needed their input to unblock an issue or for some quick feedback, they’ve given us time.

To create these conditions, we’ve done lots of stakeholder management in the background. We’ve involved SMEs in setting our priorities and have given quick updates at boards. Heledd, our product owner, has kept up contact with stakeholders throughout.

3. If you don’t really know where to start, just take the first best step

We’re still at the beginning of the road when it comes to user-centred content. We have lots of users, with lots of needs. We don’t yet have good data on the big issues they face, so we could easily have got bogged down working out where to start.

Instead, we used our best guess about where to begin using the information available to us and cracked on. That has allowed us to create content quickly, get feedback on it and demonstrate what user-centred, Agile working looks like to NRW.

The Welsh Government has set an aspiration to plant 43,000 hectares (110,000 acres) of new trees by 2030 © Josh Hill/Unsplash

4. What works in English might not work in Welsh, so test content in both languages

By testing content with users in Welsh and English we’re learning which terminology people are comfortable with, in both languages.

Had we only held user research sessions in English, and translated content from English to Welsh, we would have missed out on this information. Plain English might not translate directly into plain Welsh and vice versa.

5. You can’t always improve the end-to-end user journey on your own

Now we’re creating content, we’ve realised that people often need to interact with other organisations to complete their journeys (such as applying for funding). While we can improve our content, we can’t work on content created by other organisations – which may belong to the public, third or private sectors.

This is a tricky one because we want to create a consistent experience for our users end-to-end. In the past, we have created NRW content to address concerns with content elsewhere. But in the long term, this approach risks adding to users’ confusion and creating a significant content management issue.

We are still wrestling with this issue now. We’d love to hear from others who have come up with solutions to a similar challenge.

Heledd Quaeck (@helivans) is digital manager at Natural Resources Wales and Joe Badman (@Dyn_Drwg) is managing director at Basis

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