LearnFest: Doing the hard work to make things simple

Nic and Helen welcome participants to Learn Fest

LearnFest is a council-wide festival of curiosity, learning and doing.

We’re a team that loves to learn by doing, so we knew our session was going to get people up and moving.

But how could we get our colleagues to think like users?

We’re task-based creatures. We love making lists and getting things done. And we’ve come to expect the world to be designed to make it easier for us to do things.

Processes are designed by a few people to be used by many. We expect the designers to do the hard work so we don’t have to.

So completing a few tasks like introducing themselves, sorting socks, making tea, ordering something online and matching people to their belongings should be a piece of cake.

Task 1: introduce yourself

Easy! Just follow our simple instructions:

In the Service Design Team we think clear communication is VERY IMPORTANT to achieve your personal and corporate goals. For us prolixity is surplus to requirements, verbosity is verboten and waxing lyrical will get you nowhere.

To further illustrate how these points are germane to participants in our first activity we would like you to INSTRUCT your fellow colleagues to arrange themselves according to a number of different factors. These will include their total tenure within the organisation and whether it is odd or not odd.

As we suspected, this exercise was a complete disaster. The jumbled and complex instructions, which focused on the team and the team’s goals weren't much help to our participants. Luckily, we'd written some short, plain-English instructions just in case, so eventually we all knew who we were.

A learn fest group takes part in a welcome exercise

Task 2: game, set and matcha

What’s better than a nice relaxing cup of matcha green tea. A bit different from ordinary teabags, but just a few simple steps to follow to make the perfect brew. Or not. Much to the chagrin of our parched participants, we had neglected to set out the simple steps in our instructions. Some were written in complicated language others with words jumbled or obscured, which is what you might see if you had dyslexia.

a group making matcha tea at learn fest

Needless to say, things quickly went to pot, and our guests were left stewing. At least some of them were brave enough to try their creation, but most, including a trained chef, were left frustrated and unrefreshed.

Task 3: airing our dirty laundry

Sorting out laundry and pairing socks isn’t anyone’s favourite task, but pretty straightforward right? Wrong. We gave our participants glasses that mimicked the effects of macular degeneration. Suddenly life for our participants got much trickier.

a group matching socks with glasses mimicking the effects of macular degeneration at learn fest


Task 4 : you’ve been framed

Everyone shops online these days because it’s so easy, don’t they? Maybe not if you’ve got motor issues that mean you use a keyboard instead of a mouse. We asked our participants to buy a photo frame from the website of a well-known high street store using only the Tab and Enter keys to navigate.

A group navigating a website using the tab key at learn fest

Nobody managed to complete the task, and we found later it was actually impossible to go through the steps on this website without using a mouse. Customers with accessibility issues will probably choose a different website, but imagine if that was a resident trying access one of our services. You can’t compare the market for local services.

Task 5: who’s who

Over our lifetimes we meet countless people, and it’s natural to make assumptions. So matching 15 pictures of people with 15 pictures of what was in their handbags shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. The people were different ages, races, shapes and sizes, and some of the things they had in their handbags were pretty unexpected.

A group trying to match people to the contents of their handbags at learn fest

No one managed to match more than 5 people to the contents of their handbags. The wool and needles didn’t’ belong to the old lady, and the glittery stars and stripes underpants didn’t belong to the bearded man in the checked shirt.

When you’re providing a service it’s always vital to identify your assumptions. You can validate or challenge these through user-testing and research. One thing is guaranteed: people will always surprise you.

Over to you

We certainly enjoyed ourselves, and even with our tricksy surprises, the participants seemed to as well. Here’s what they thought:

“it was fun and interactive”

“easy to make assumptions about what we think is typical”

“definitely a reminder to think about people’s experiences, especially online”

“challenging, stereotyping, and looking at things differently”

We hope we helped our participants to think like users, and how their needs and requirements can vary. Understand this, and you’ll see why we think it’s so important to do the hard work so the user doesn’t have to.

If you weren’t able to make it to one of the sessions, or would just like to know more about how we work, get in touch with the Service Design team by emailing

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  1. Comment by Mr M P Cole Esq posted on

    That’s sound like a great session - woo!

    • Replies to Mr M P Cole Esq>

      Comment by Caroline posted on

      Thank you Mr Cole. Sorry you missed it - but there's always next year!

  2. Comment by Emma Francis posted on

    Very thought provoking. Even though I wasn't able to attend (being behind the scenes at LearnFest) reading your blog and understanding the activities in more detail has definitely given me pause for thought.

    Thank you again for being part of ECC's first ever LearnFest!!

    • Replies to Emma Francis>

      Comment by Caroline posted on

      Thank you Emma. We enjoyed it too and we hope you can join us next year!


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