How NSW Department of Education has used design thinking to transform digital services experiences

Director of digital experience design shares the four-year journey he's been on to transform the department's technology and approach to be more customer-led

It’s not often a digital experience leader tells you he wishes staff could be more like Io, the Jupiter moon transforming itself completely every 12 months. But it’s an apt analogy for the way all of us need to strive to be more adaptive and evolutionary in our approach to customer experience design.

Speaking to CMO during the recent Adobe Symposium in Sydney, NSW Department of Education director of digital experience design, Peter Buckmaster, shared his now four-year journey assisting the government agency embrace a customer-first approach to the way students, parents and teachers engage digitally. It’s a work-in-progress story stretching from embracing human-centred design thinking principles and mindset, to new technology platforms, cross-collaboration and unified data and digital capabilities.

On the technology front, Buckmaster has spearheaded a migration of 2200 school websites on legacy platforms to Adobe Experience Manager. This substantial task provides a unified foundation from which both the department and the schools it serves can start to better personalise and adapt digital experiences and content for teachers, students and parents.

“In our case it could be for a prospective parent, and we have content around open days, for example,” Buckmaster said. “For a current parent, it could a school be reminding them that contributions to school fees are up, or formal tickets were on sale. The significant step has been syndicating content and distributing it evenly.”

It took two years for Buckmaster to sell the dream in and go through procurement, with the project then completed in 13 months.

“We spun up three environments, built all the scaffolds and four themes to allow schools to be different and customise their school, and to migrate all the content, and we ensured the sites were mobile responsive,” he explained. “The impact was significant. We also integrated a school finder, which was a huge step. Up until two years ago, no one published their school boundaries, so a parent didn’t know if their child could get into a particular school.”

Off the back of that, Buckmaster and the team are piloting an online enrolment form across the Castle Hill Primary School in Sydney. This allows parents to firstly confirm their child is in the catchment area, then secondly, complete an online enrolment form.

“In the old world that process could take up to three weeks, whereas in the new world, it can take 10 minutes,” Buckmaster said.  

The public-facing and intranet site, Education NSW, will also be migrated to the Adobe platform by November. The site attracts 2.75 million unique visitors per month.

“This allows us to move to an experience concept of ‘destination you’, and to distribute content in such a way that a parent going to a school website, education NSW or use the mobile app, can find information whatever location they want to interact with us in,” Buckmaster said. “It’s about moving away from the traditional concept of engagement and marketing, to improving learning outcomes for a child. To do that, we’re talking about taking curriculum material and serve it to a student in the context of their environment.”

Transformation stations

To support this quest, the department is completing a digital strategy, with a focus on mass personalisation. A schools-oriented digital transformation program of work is also focused on improving learning outcomes largely in classrooms, while making the teaching experience better. The vision is to expose schools and staff to technology while ensuring children get access too.

And all of it requires data from disparate systems to be more accessible and actionable.

“For example, with students there’s reporting and performance sitting in one spot, but then there’s also the data about wellbeing. How can we connect the data and overlay it so we understand if a child is in emotional distress, it will have an impact on their education is key,” Buckmaster said.  

He cited the interesting problem of solving parent identifiers as a major hurdle. “There’s no such thing as a parent login. This raises the question on what data we have around a family – we only have student records, as an example,” he said.

Initially, NSW Department of Education is looking at facilitating a resource hub, designed for teachers. “But if we do that based on personas, we can quickly shift to a parent,” Buckmaster said.

“We know a parent engages in their child’s learning greatly increases the outcomes. The idea is we have the content that we can logically filter and resurface in a different experience. Then there’s the student lens as well – being on one platform allows us to change that very quickly.”

Up next: The cultural shift and adoption of design thinking, plus judging success

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The cultural shift

Such ideas have been there a long time, and more recently, the department has run ideation sessions to nut out concepts further. But what’s really fuelled efforts is embracing human-centred design. For Buckmaster, design thinking is about creative problem solving.

“Four years ago, I remember putting in a deck about how we deliver a strategy, and people just didn’t understand it,” he recalled. “But what you saw was corporates like Westpac starting to use design thinking and it having a dramatic impact on their customer experience. This allowed them to create a significant relationship between you and the bank.” 

A big step forward for NSW Department of Education was adopting a global experience framework (GEF) for digital services. Rather than redeveloping every time a website or portal is built, this is about building a code base and toolkits of things that can be reused.

Another macro step forward has been adoption of similar practices at sister departments such as Service NSW and the Digital Transformation Agency, and a cultural shift towards cross-departmental collaboration.

For example, NSW Department of Education worked with the NSW Department of Finance, Services and Innovation on its pilot online enrolment form via an accelerator.

“We co-located and worked to launch things quickly and fail fast,” Buckmaster said. “People in government used to look at me horrified at such a concept, whereas now controlled failure and test-and-learn is widely accepted as the right thing to do. It’s really come from that cross-collaboration in government.”  

An early cultural step forward Buckmaster cited was rebranding the digital services function to digital experience design. This helped with the emphasis on the design component, and in shifting project management into product. Cross-functional teams and being more squad-based are other key elements in the mix.

“Projects have a finite start and end date, so the next most important thing is ensuring people see it quickly moving from project to a product. That’s what gets you the continual evolution,” he said. “And that fosters proof-of-concepts, testing and if it fails, iterating. That has been fundamental in changing our team structure.”  

Along the way, NSW Department of Education has recruited skills as well as worked to build up internal teams. “In the old days, people generally thought a career would last 5-10 years and if that was the case, it was easier to bring someone in. But these days if we’re doing things right, those roles could be redundant in three years,” Buckmaster commented.

“However, the core capabilities will always be there. Whether it is collaboration, working in agile, fast environments and the creative thinking capabilities - those are the core things.  

“If we move to lifelong learning and learn to learn, then we need to encourage people to focus on evolving their careers. I also think it’s not necessarily my job to give someone a career; it’s my job to support them in their career. But they need to support themselves in terms of learning new skills.”  

Of course, there’s plenty more on the operational front to be done. A big one is the nature of things like procurement changing. Buckmaster admitted government is not there yet.

“In the waterfall model, you did the business case, costed it, then went and built and launched it. Nowadays, people recognise you just need a small amount of money to get a proof of concept done, and the outcome may be you throw it away, or it becomes an amazing thing you then scale,” Buckmaster said.

Judging success

Changing the dialogue on digital and investing in digital has been Buckmaster’s biggest achievement to date.

“Being able to do things where I’m able to secure funding to put in an enterprise solution. That’s the fundamental piece. Making people realise there needs to be an investment,” he said.  “But I’d also say being able to walk into a room and talk about design thinking and know it, is another fundamental step forward. Then for people to do things like having a design system and one brand and unified thing is the other.”  

There are hard metrics to meet for NSW Department of Education too, such as improving learning outcomes for a child. “My job is to make sure we facilitate that well in a digital world,” Buckmaster said.

Internally, meanwhile, he’s looking to reduce admin overheads by 20 per cent. Already, basic content authoring and asset management has been improved, with drag-and-drop imagery and artificial intelligence (AI) used to scan an image and auto-caption it.

“Principals are extremely busy people who need to be focused on leadership to their teachers. If there’s a sports event and they just want to get comms out to make people feel good about it and encourage community, we want it to be very simple to do,” Buckmaster said.  

Longer term, Buckmaster expected a massive uplift in the way parents communicate with the department and schools.

“As the Department of Education, we have these great minds and great resources are being built. Why aren’t we sharing them? Increased engagement with parents is significant, because it has direct implications on the learning outcomes of a child,” he added.  

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