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Listening VOICES: Project management that makes listening and learning systematic

VOICES jellymould

Author credit: Jo Johnson, Jellymould co-founder and project manager of a new digital service for VOICES


I’m a co-founder of Jellymould, a small design agency working with charities and social businesses, mostly within the homelessness sector. In my role, I’ve gained 20 years’ experience of leading the design, delivery and ongoing management of numerous digital services and websites. We recently began work on an exciting new project with VOICES, and it’s been interesting to learn about their approach to managing projects and designing services and the similarities between us, despite our different expertise.

Jellymould is a user-centred design agency – that means that we put users, their goals and needs, first. And, for a designer, a user is anyone who will use or be affected by our work, so if a project’s users happen to be people with lived experience of homelessness, it’s their goals and needs that are our top priority. To enable us to do this methodically, we’ve evolved an approach based on Design Thinking, fairly common in modern product design. Apple and Google have adopted it, for example, and it’s taught at MIT, Stanford and Harvard. It involves engaging the product’s users and other stakeholders systematically throughout each of the five steps in the process before coding begins: learn, define, ideate, prototype and test. Our short-hand for this initial phase is “discovery” and the aim is to take our clients on a journey of discovery with us.

That’s the theory. In practice, we don’t always manage to persuade our clients to set aside the time and budget needed. Some feel it’s unlikely we could add to their knowledge of the people, problem, context and solution. I can relate. Money and resources are tight following a decade of austerity, so who wants to risk paying an outsider to spend three weeks in the field just to tell you what you already know. So, it’s far from a given that we’ll get the green light to speak to users.

That’s why, when I gave our plan for delivering a new digital solution for VOICES to project director Andy Meakin, I prepared myself for a possible compromise. Clearly, I didn’t know the organisation or its approach as I do now because Andy didn’t raise an eyebrow at our plan and there was no need to make the case. Now, having worked with Andy and the project team for a couple of months, I’m blown away by the service’s commitment to place people with lived experience front and centre and to “test, learn and share”. So, I imagine Andy thought our plan just seemed like common sense.

Perhaps it should have been obvious to me given VOICES tag line, “listening, learning, and leading through the lived experience of local people with multiple needs”! I was excited to join forces but it’s just so pleasing to see how that mission has been embedded into the process they use to understand the problems faced by people and services, and to create and define solutions.

VOICES walk the walk. Their approach to projects is consistently, uncompromisingly user-centred and collaborative – services are designed and tested by and with people with lived experience of homelessness and multiple needs, and solutions are based on the evidence. The learning acquired is then shared with partner agencies through an expansive, free, city-wide learning programme led by learning and evaluation manager Sharon Sharman.

For starters, Andy set up a great project team, deliberately bringing together people with a mix of relevant roles and experience – Sharon, Darren Murinas (chair of Expert Citizens), Alicia Simmons (former service coordinator) – showing from the off that the agency is willing to invest the time and budget needed to work in a collaborative, non-hierarchical way.

We’re very fortunate to have Sharon Sharman on board as project lead, given her extensive experience. In addition, the trust she’s built with partners around the city through the learning programme has been invaluable to our user research. If designers are fortunate enough to get the time and budget to carry out interviews, the next challenge is to find people who are willing to take part. In homelessness services people are incredibly busy, of course, and a competitive commissioning environment doesn’t exactly make collaboration feel safe. Sharon was able to connect us with a diverse and willing group of user research participants and stakeholders in health, supported housing, outreach, and commissioning. The senior partners we interviewed can’t wait to support the project, a testament to VOICES’ collaborative approach and the relationships they’ve formed through their learning programme, and their openness in interviews has given us critical insights that will inform our design recommendations.

Darren Murinas is the team’s “lived experience lead” and board member at VOICES. Alicia brings her experience of the challenges that people with multiple needs face accessing “the system”, no-nonsense feedback and her obvious empathy for the people with whom she works. We wanted to speak directly to people with lived experience and Darren, and the whole team, were both supportive and practically helpful in making that happen. Listening to peer mentors and service coordinators talk from their own experience and the experiences of people with whom they work, we’ve learnt that the problem we’re exploring not only exists but that it’s hugely important to fix. We’re incredibly grateful for their time and openness and look forward to inviting them and others to test our prototype in the coming weeks.

Seven weeks from project kick off, we’ve just completed our user research interviews and at no point have we felt under pressure to cut this process short and the results so far have exceeded our expectations. Designers have been able to quantify the return on investment that comes from user research and the design thinking approach. Emerging, as it does, from the corporate world, the return is usually described in commercial terms, which I admit I struggle to care about, e.g. increased customers, increased sales, whereas a systematic, user-centred, listening approach, like VOICES’, is of profound importance as the return on investment we’re all hoping to see is a direct impact on people’s lives.

Look out for updates about this project in the near future.

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