The HR help desk pilot

The HR service desk provides valuable advice and guidance to employees of Bucks CC along with staff from schools and academies across the county.

Just how valuable? In the last 12 months, the team received over 24,000 emails and over 14,000 calls. If you include contact made through other channels, they get about 180 new queries a day. That’s a lot. It’s not going down and it’s not sustainable.

That’s why we have started building the HR help desk form. It’s a digital service that allows users to find out the answer to a HR question by either asking a HR advisor, or be directed to where they can find the answer online.

Why we are doing this work

As I said at the start, it’s a service valued across the county, but it’s getting trickier to manage demand, so we’re currently speaking to users and looking at different ways we can offer aspects of the service.

We believe that by reducing the queries that come in and speed up how quickly we can resolve those queries, we can improve the experience for users whilst securing the sustainability of the service.

It’s not about closing the phone lines, it’s about reducing the queries by phone so there’s someone who can pick up your call when you really need it.

How we are speeding up query resolution

Quite often, questions come through that are missing crucial bits of information, like the month a copy payslip is required.

Instead of the advisor responding with the answer, they have to ask more questions first. This makes the whole process longer for everyone involved.

To make sure an advisor receives all the required information up-front, the HR help desk will ask for specific information depending on your question. This will mean a lot more questions can be answered first time.

How are we going to reduce the queries

There’s a wealth of information on the intranet or on schoolsweb. Chances are, the answer to a question is there but it’s hard to find. We know this isn’t good enough.

We are going to improve the content of our pages, starting with the topics that generate the most questions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be more information, but it will be better quality and easier to find.

The pilot

We’re taking a digital approach to this work. A digital approach mean means smaller, faster, incremental improvements. These improvements are tested early and often with users, to ensure we are building the right thing. Which is why we have chosen to run a pilot.

We know the service is not finished, but we feel it’s developed enough to test with users and check to see whether we are building the right thing.

In fact, the service should never be finished. Using data and user feedback, we will be continually improving how the service works and the information it provides.

Better yet, we also hope this data will provide the insight needed to fix some of the problems that generate confusion and questions in the first place.

The pilot takes place from 8am – 6pm, Thursday 22 December
Feedback can be sent to

How we’re getting better at sharing knowledge within the team

We’ve got a great mix of experience and skills within the digital team. There’s pockets of expertise, from user research and accessibility through to design and content which we can draw on as we work towards building digital services so good, people prefer to use them.

A few weeks ago, we realised we needed to get better at sharing these ‘nuggets’ of expertise with other members of the team. So we put our heads together to work out the best format.

As we all sit in front of screens far too much, it had to be away from our desks. It also had bring us all together, in real life, not just on a slack channel. Finally, we’re all super busy at the moment, so it had to be quick.

Last Monday, we had our inaugural ‘Ten minutes of top tips and a tipple’.

The rules we simple:

  • 3 topics from 3 members of the team
  • 10 minutes per topic
  • 1 pub

Organising the session was simple as well. Three members of the team put forward a topic they wanted to share which I then turned into buzzfeed worthy headlines (too much coffee that afternoon). Booked a date in everyone’s diary and chose a pub*.

*Tip – Check the Wifi or mobile signal in the pub first. I picked one of the oldest public houses in England, which in hindsight, wasn’t the best idea.

Here’s a roundup of the session.

The topics

Facilitating – Helen Gracie

Helen recently went on a 2-day facilitation course (for humans, not cats) and shared with us some of the best tips:

  • Get your group to do the writing, it makes them feel like they own their ideas
  • Encourage your group without asking biased question like ‘was the experience bad?’
  • A good facilitator should get involved as little as possible

Firmstep forms and processes – Becki Boraston

Our very own forms guru Becki guided us through a letter template wizard that she built. Something even Firmstep said couldn’t be done!

Why letters? It’s part of the work we’re doing for the complaints team. If a member of the public writes to use, we’ll write back and the solution Becki has built makes it (look) easy.

You select a header, which is dependent on the department, write the body of the letter, then select who it’s from, along with a signature. This is then automatically generated into a PDF that can be printed off and posted out.

Prototyping – Liam Hawkes

Prototyping is a great way to show users or a service the thing. Something visual they can see or even use, that doesn’t take too much effort on our part.

I gave the team a brief overview of the prototyping tool I use, Invision. This included how to setup a new project, added different screens to a prototype and adding interactions, like making something a button.

Preparation is key

One thing I learnt is, no matter how much you know about a topic, you still need to prepare. Teaching a topic in 10 minutes is harder than it sounds.

Everyone found the session really useful and couldn’t wait to get one, or even two in the diary before Christmas.

We’re always up for a challenge, and the next one is to share these skills and expertise with the rest of the organisation. It’s a much bigger job, but one we’ll start by making the next ‘Ten minutes of top tips and a tipple’ an open invitation to all colleagues.

5 interview tips, not from a user researcher

Even if it’s not your official job title, most of us will (should!) find ourselves carrying out some user research throughout a piece of work.

Having recently ran a round of interviews with service users and being far from an expert in the field, I thought it would be worth sharing some tips on the technique I learnt along the way.

Know what you want to know

As you’ve chosen to carry out interviews, you hopefully have an idea of what information you want to get from your participant. I found it useful to highlight what I wanted to know  and then prepare some questions that would lead to the right answers with the right level of detail.

If the topic is particularly challenging or difficult, you might want to write these questions in a variety of different styles. This may help you get answers, whilst taking into account the mood of the conversation and feelings of the participant.

Hit record

Writing or typing notes can really disrupt the flow of an interview. What’s worse is trying to take notes and listen to the participant at the same time, especially if you’re like me and useless at multitasking.

I found recording the interviews to be a massive help. It meant I could fully focus on the participant and then write up my notes afterwards. It also surprised me to hear little details I failed to pick up on until I listened back to the interview.

Here are some bonus tips on recording interviews:

  • No special equipment needed. Most smartphones should do the trick
  • Be upfront. Ask permission and explain your reasons at the start
  • Face the phone down. Calls and notifications can distract you and the participant
  • Start off easy. A few opening questions at the start can put the participant at ease. They often quickly forget you’re even recording

Let it flow

To improve the flow of the interview, slot your questions into the conversation rather than making it apparent you are reading off a set list. This is made easier by carefully preparing the order of your questions so they naturally flow from one topic to another.

Don’t interrupt

This is short and sweet, don’t interrupt your participant. You’re there to hear what they have to say, so ensure they have finished speaking before moving onto the next question.

The post interview chat

I’m proud of this one. Over the course of the interviews, I very quickly learnt to never stop recording until the the participants had left the table/room. Quite often, the most useful information and unexpected answers came while chatting after the more ‘formal’ interview questioning had finished.

Forget it’s even an interview

All of these tips should work towards making sure your participant feels comfortable with you and relaxed with the questioning. To get the most detailed and honest answers, you want your participant to forget they are even being interviewed.

By doing this, you’ve got the answers you want, useful information you weren’t expecting and importantly, built a positive relationship with someone who can hopefully help again further along the process.



Finding digital opportunities in unexpected places

I’m Liam and I recently joined Bucks CC as a digital lead and service designer. My job is to support the digital projects already underway, along with exploring new opportunities to fundamentally reimagine how services are delivered across the council, ensuring we meet both the needs of the user, and those of the business.

Don’t just ‘digitise’ an existing service

At a time when councils have to cut the costs of delivering services, residents and businesses are expecting the same, if not better, level of service. Using digital has been seen by many as the solution to both.

Traditionally, this has involved attempting to ‘digitise’ an existing service with a focus on the operational needs of the council rather than those of the people who use the service.

Quite often, this neither manages to achieve the savings or meet the user’s expectation.

The design of services

Recently, the focus has moved towards using digital approaches to design how services should be delivered. This approach includes:

  • Starting with the user
  • Understanding needs before finding solutions
  • Making small, iterative improvements
  • Breaking down silos and collaborating

As proven by organisations like GDS, this approach is an opportunity to deliver savings and deliver better outcomes for residents and council alike.

Spotting opportunities

Quite often, opportunities come out of high level board meetings, specifically looking into where digital has yet to be utilised to meet the latest round of saving targets.

It’s unfortunate that this is the focus, but we’re also lucky in knowing that using a digital approach, we can meet both the savings target and user’s expectation of the service.

Over time, these ‘untouched services’ are going to become harder to find, but during my short time at Bucks CC I’ve spotted a goldmine of opportunities.

The goldmine

When I started, the two projects that were handed over to me were:

  • Digital post room
  • Paperless office

Now I must admit, they didn’t fill me with excitement, in fact at first, I struggled. However, I very quickly realised that both these areas held the key to identifying so many other services across the council that had not yet started using digital or were only partially taking advantage of its capabilities.

Even after a brief look through postage data or printing volumes, I’ve uncovered so many new areas to explore. Ones that could really benefit from digital to help them save money and more importantly, meet user needs and expectations.


Furthermore, post and printing are services that stretch right across the council, so it turned out that these were the perfect projects to kick-off my role here at Bucks CC. They have allowed me to meet lots of people very early on and quickly apply one of the most important skills of a service designer, building relationships.

Through these new relationships, and developing knowledge of the teams and services in the organisation, I hope to continue the wave of culture change to put the user at the heart of ‘digitisation’.