Product strategy: year 1 update

Product strategy: year 1 update

We’re publishing this as an update to our product strategy, and to the wider development of the product function at Citizens Advice over the last year. This blogpost is intended for anyone interested in product strategy or product management in the public or not-for-profit sectors, and anyone interested in Citizens Advice.

We are 1 year into our 3 year product strategy. In short it sets out our ambitions for how products and services can help Citizens Advice to thrive at a time of huge challenge. The workstreams in the strategy are:

  1. Radically improve our ability to measure outcomes
  2. Enable a seamless client journey
  3. Validate our tailored, tactical advice strategy
  4. Transform our phone, webchat, email, and video (‘remote advice’) platforms

We treated the first 6–12 months as the ‘adoption phase’ for the strategy. We aimed to establish the foundations for the workstreams to succeed and to start delivering value in a couple of key areas.

In this blog post I summarise the progress on our strategy so far, the challenges, and what’s next.

The role of product in Citizens Advice is growing

This year we’ve added 3 new product teams to the function; we now have 10. The new teams are: client referrals, contact centre platforms, and local Citizens Advice data management. These new teams were each set up to align with a workstream in the strategy, to tackle service-wide problems with a product-led approach.

The change goes deeper than growth, though. Product people at Citizens Advice have started to play a role in wider organisational change, as well as designing and delivering services. We aim to ‘change by doing’ which means we’re well suited to working in fast-paced operational contexts, and we’ve found natural allies in the Operations team. There’s huge potential for efficiency and improvement if we work together to tackle some key challenges, such as freeing up adviser time from administrative tasks to be able to help more clients.

The team has also become more involved in supporting our Business Development team with bidding activities for government funded services. Funders’ expectations around the use of digital products and technology are growing; they want us to provide seamless, internet-era client experiences across multiple channels. We’ve taken advantage of recent recommissioning processes to ensure that we’re building in the right amount of investment in this space to stay competitive.

We’re also helping colleagues explore new avenues for income generation such as individual giving and content monetisation, as well as non-financial ideas such as the support from the Thoughtworks Social Change Lab (see workstream 2 update below).

Although the future undoubtedly holds huge challenges for the organisation, we’re privileged to be able to develop our product function to have a key role in the future of Citizens Advice services.

We’re developing the team too

The product strategy has brought clarity and purpose to our work, which product people tell us is really important to their sense of achievement and to understanding how their work contributes to the ‘bigger picture’ at Citizens Advice. That’s great in itself, and we’ve added to that with some specific activities:

Career development: we’ve introduced an Associate (entry level) position to the product management discipline, the purpose of which is to provide an opportunity for career changers and those early in their careers to get their first break into a product role. There is strong evidence that junior positions are more likely to attract a more diverse candidate pool, which is another important reason to invest in creating this talent pipeline.

Equity, diversity, and inclusion: as well as our work to build inclusive, accessible products, we’re also committed to building diverse teams. We’ve made early strides in this area through changes to our recruitment channels (e.g. advertising on diversity job boards), updating our job packs and recruitment communication materials to make Citizens Advice an attractive place to work, and investing in career development opportunities for underrepresented groups.

Whilst we have improved in some aspects — our gender split is now representative — we still have some way to go, particularly with regards to ethnicity and disability.

To begin making progress we’ve partnered with the UK Black Tech community, led by founder Mark Martin. We organised a Design Sprint with a dual aim: giving community members the opportunity to build their personal portfolios, and generating ideas for inclusive, public-facing digital services. For example, one group came up with a concept for our webchat interface, to provide users with the option to select an advisor based on their first name and photo. The hypothesis was that this would help clients to feel a connection with the person they are speaking to, and to build trust more quickly. The content platform team is reviewing the ideas that came out of the design sprint and will be taking some of these forward in future.

Design Sprint series with UK Black Tech

We also held a series of career talks for UK Black Tech Community members, giving the opportunity to learn about career paths into product design, product management, and software engineering.

We’re making progress against each of our workstreams

Progress on workstream 1: Radically improve our ability to measure outcomes

This workstream is distinct from the other 3 in that it’s targeted at cultural change and evolving our ways of working. The goal for this year was to establish an outcomes-based way of working that allows us to quantify the value that product teams are delivering, and to inform decisions about future work — we did this in 3 ways.

1. Upskilling: the product leadership team were keen to grow our own understanding and capability in outcomes-led product management, before attempting to apply this practice wholesale.

We worked with a product coach to shape a self-led learning plan aimed at establishing base knowledge, and designed simple, reusable exercises for setting outcomes.

We socialised the approach with senior product managers and product managers by setting everyone an objective to experiment with applying an outcomes lens to their existing product roadmap.

Our community of practice designed and facilitated peer learning sessions where product people would bring their draft outcomes-based product roadmaps for input and feedback. This was a great way for the community to learn together, benefit from each other’s experiences, and grow as a team.

I filmed an explainer video where I talk through the purpose of this shift to outcomes, the benefits and challenges, and give some examples of how we are applying it in practice.

Introduction to an outcomes-based approach for Product — explainer video

2. Frameworks: we created a set of standard materials and formats for product roadmaps, outcomes, and metrics; the purpose of this was to provide a consistent way for product teams to communicate with their team, stakeholders, and users. We made a video to show how one of our product teams — the Casebook team — is applying this new approach.

Creating the Casebook outcomes-based roadmap — explainer video

3. Infrastructure: we’ve continued to build out our new data platform. The initial goal was to replace our legacy extract, transform and load (ETL) process and in doing so create a brand new set of data tools and products that can be reused in the future; this work is due to complete soon. This sets us up for a future where product teams can easily add new data sources, enabling a holistic and joined-up view of the client experience across our different services.

Alongside this work within the product teams, we’ve also been supporting a wider move towards outcomes-based approaches in the rest of the organisation (e.g. as part of our annual budgeting process) by sharing our work in the open. We hope that the product team can provide a useful case study in how to apply this type of approach.

Progress on workstream 2: Enable a seamless client journey

In this workstream we’ve focused on tackling the biggest and most common pain point in the current user journey: when a client is referred to/from a local Citizens Advice office to another service, such as a Law Centre or branch of Shelter. Partnership working is increasingly important within the voluntary sector as a way of meeting complex sets of client needs, and many funders now require organisations to work together as part of holistic service delivery contracts.

Having identified this opportunity, we secured internal funding for a new, permanent product team. Around the same time, we successfully applied to the Thoughtworks Social Change Lab, an incredible opportunity that provided us with £250,000 worth of pro bono support from a software development team. This came at a time when we were struggling to hire software engineers at the pace needed to support our growing product portfolio, so it meant we were able to get started much more quickly than we would have otherwise.

The blended Citizens Advice/Thoughtworks product team prototyped and developed the initial iteration of an inward referrals flow in just 10 weeks, and we’ve gone on to successfully pilot this with 15 local offices and 28 partner organisations. By the time our partnership with Thoughtworks came to an end, we’d hired the permanent staff needed to sustain the team long term. The team is now developing the outward referrals flow, and exploring potential opportunities around internal (within Citizens Advice) services.

Progress on workstream 3: Validate ‘tailored, tactical advice’ strategy

In this workstream the majority of our effort has been towards migrating 10,000 pages of content to our new content platform, and rebuilding our public facing website, our advisor facing website, our intranet (used by national and local staff), and our corporate website.

Meeting rising demand for our advice services as efficiently and effectively as possible remains one of our top organisational priorities, and investment in this workstream — intended to maximise the potential of self-service advice — is a critical enabler for that.

As anyone who has migrated content before knows, the task is complex and time-consuming. One reason our case is particularly complicated is because we are not replacing like for like. Instead, we’re attempting many changes in parallel:

  • Moving from unstructured content to structured content served by a content API. This radically changes how our content design team create, manage, update, and publish content and we’ve been iterating and improving the publishing experience to make this as easy as possible.
  • Moving from a full stack content management system to a headless content management system, based on Contentful
  • Creating our design system — a set of reusable tools, components, and design patterns that can be applied and reused across all our digital products, with web accessibility built. We’re really proud that our most recent external accessibility audit resulted in a 100% pass rate against the WCAG 2.1 standard

Of course, WCAG compliance is not the full story when it comes to inclusive design. We need to put equity, diversity, and inclusion at the heart of everything we do, including our people and processes (see team development above).

2 out of 7 advice sections have now been migrated. This initially took longer than we’d hoped, so we explored whether we could find a more efficient way to migrate to the remaining sections. We tested a number of possibilities and selected a new process for content being migrated in a much more manual fashion by Content Entry Assistants, which proved to be far more efficient. This freed up our developers to focus on other engineering priorities such as feature development.

We separated the migration from the rest of the team’s work, to free up capacity to focus on long term objectives around tailored, tactical advice and personalised content. This will allow us to complete the migration while proving the value of the new content platform through a series of experiments around self service advice.

Alongside the migration we delivered our first tailored advice tool on the new platform, which we were able to do thanks to some funding from our Scams Action service. Our new Online Scams decision tree provides personalised advice based on a person’s situation. Part of our wider strategy for tailored advice is to ‘reach people where they are’ rather than expecting them to come to our website directly, and we’re using this tool to explore two new opportunities:

  1. Partnering with Twitter U.K. on a prompt feature to help people who might have been scammed and are searching for help
Twitter Scams prompt

2. Syndicating the tool on relevant partner websites that help people with consumer-related issues

We’re pleased we’ve been able to maintain a strategic focus through the complex migration effort, as this will allow us to maximise the value of the new technology we’ve built for the benefit of clients and advisers. I will be talking about this work at the upcoming Camp Digital conference on the 23rd of June.

Progress on workstream 4: Transform our remote advice platforms

This workstream has been dominated by our largest and most ambitious programme of work: Remote Advice Platforms. This team has the challenge of modernising our phone services, which take around 3 million calls per year. This work is jointly led with our Operations colleagues, as the work entails not only re-platforming our contact centre technology but also radical changes to our operating model and the skills needed to run a modern service.

The co-leadership between Product and Operations teams runs through all layers of this work including joint Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) responsibilities and co-sponsorship by two members of our Executive team. This way of working is critical to the success of the programme, and enables us to define a blueprint for collaboration service modernisation that can be replicated in other areas.

The joint team has done some great work so far:

  • defining 6 core qualities for the new contact platform in consultation with our local offices, advisers, and national teams: interoperable, flexible, scalable, reliable, accessible, and affordable
  • completing a complex and intensive procurement process to select our contact centre platform technology and support services, including the change management capacity needed to migrate to the new platform from our existing
  • designing the operating model and staffing profile to support a new way of working, including a permanent in-house product team and the operational staff to deliver, iterate, and support phone services in the long term

One of the most interesting learnings from the procurement process is the lack of maturity in the contact centre technology market in terms of web accessibility; it is far behind what the public sector requires in terms of WCAG standard compliance, with only a few that meet the minimum threshold. By making the accessibility of user interfaces a core requirement, our options were significantly reduced.

If you work for a public or a charity sector organisation and have experienced or anticipate a similar challenge in procuring an accessible contact centre platform, we would love to hear from you (see my contact details at the end of this blogpost). We believe the market needs to change, and we’d like to be a catalyst.

This is the beginning of a long journey, and we’re optimistic that this work will be truly transformative for Citizens Advice.

So what’s next?

Now that we’re through the ‘adoption phase’ we’re thinking about what it means to move into full operationalisation of the strategy. As Citizens Advice undergoes further change, we know that Product has a key role to play in strategy and transformation. This is particularly true with the need to meet the growing demand for advice services — which are all underpinned by the need for case management, data products, contact centre technologies, and advice content delivery.

While we don’t know yet exactly what’s in store, we have a fair idea of some emerging priorities for each workstream:

Workstream 1

  • Iterate our outcomes frameworks, having tested them in earnest
  • Connect product outcomes to our developing organisational strategy
  • Bring data from other channels into our data platform to give us a more mature view of the client journey as well as enabling product teams to self-serve more freely

Workstream 2

  • Build the outward referrals flow to be ready to begin pilot
  • Begin research into opportunities and challenges around internal referrals (referrals between different Citizens Advice services and local offices)
  • Consider the potential of community referrals; facilitating referrals between organisations outside of the Citizens Advice network
  • Start replacing the separate case management system that supports the Consumer Service, with the intent of joining up our client data

Workstream 3

  • Complete the migration of advice content
  • Experiment with the capabilities of new content platform, particularly in enabling self-service for clients
  • Deliver new tailored advice tools, such as decision trees, for priority areas

Workstream 4

  • Build out the new contact centre platform on Amazon Connect, including all operational workflows, eg interaction voice recognition and call flows
  • Migrate all existing Citizens Advice phone services to the new platform
  • Explore the potential to connect our new contact centre platform with other products such as case management (Casebook) and knowledge management (AdviserNet)

Do you have thoughts or similar experiences to share?

I’d love to hear from you! You can contact me by email or by sending me a direct message on Twitter @kyliehavelock.

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