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Tea and empathy: ThinkPlace discusses capacity building, digital transformation and human centred design in Bhutan

“It has become clear to us that tea is an extremely important part of the functioning of Parliament,” said ThinkPlace’s Bill Bannear to a group from Bhutan’s Department of Information Technology, “so we would like you to design something, using the skills you have learned, that enhances the tea experience.”

ThinkPlace was invited by members of the Bhutanese government to deliver a presentation on digital transformation and the basics of human-centred design. Charlie Mere and Bill Bannear from ThinkPlace Australia, and Manny Fassihi from ThinkPlace Singapore, presented to ICT professionals across Bhutan’s government in various departments.

Our team was in Bhutan to conduct research on the future design of eParliament. While we were there, we noticed that even the highest profile events and its speakers would be interrupted by tea. At least one member of the meeting or workshop would need to leave the room and find a catering crew, order the tea and pay for it too. Where tea had been pre-ordered, there may be time spent trying to figure out when it would arrive. This could take up to 30 minutes of a person's time during a meeting. A few teams in Parliament shared the ‘chasing tea’ duty on a roster. Once the tea arrived, it would be greatly appreciated, but the meeting would have been disrupted.

When we relayed our observation to the group at the presentation, there was laughter and eye-rolling. It was clearly a ‘known issue’ and made for a great demonstration design exercise: how would you improve this process? The group responded well, thinking through the aspects of the problem and figuring out which part of the experience needed focus: Speed of delivery? Reducing booking time? Correctness of the order? Temperature of the tea? Variety of the accompanying snacks?

Product-centric thinking without local context is risky

Our normal tendency would be dismissive of the current behaviour i.e. why don’t they just book catering in advance? Can’t there be a form or calendar system? Why don’t catering teams follow the calendar? Following this logic (i.e. dismissing existing behaviour as ‘wrong’), it would be tempting to buy a ‘best practice’ overseas catering management system to solve this problem. Surely people will realise how good the system is and change their behaviour? Insert misplaced sales pitch and expectations around being ‘disruptive’ and ‘innovative’ here.

The common outcome of this thinking is ICT systems that see limited uptake and adoption because they haven’t addressed the local context and instead seek to impose a different (overseas) context. Needless to say, this approach most often leads to poor return on the investment, not ‘innovation’ or ‘disruption’. Also, it is not in the interests of vendors of large ICT systems to customise their products for local contexts. Buyers of ICT are often scared of investing locally over a large, overseas successful system. The trade-off is that there is no one focused on the importance of local factors in a traditional ICT procurement process.

Even a small amount of research can mitigate the risk of massive project failure

A small amount of research can help. For Bhutan, we found that working calendars in Parliament are not universally used. Generally, people are hard to schedule meetings with in advance but are extremely flexible in the moment. People prefer SMS and other means of tracking each other down for meetings. This is not a wrong method, it simply is how it is.

Installing a calendar-oriented tea booking system or any other system will not change this behaviour, no matter how good it is. Behaviour can be influenced, but not fought against or dismissed. The solution must be designed to accommodate the modus operandi.

A major difference we wanted to impress on the group was that it is not the users’ job to learn a system, even if that system is successfully used elsewhere in the world.

Human-centred design concepts can reduce risk and improve quality of ICT projects

We had no way of developing this local approach to calendars if we had just explored best practice research or overseas case studies. Human-centred design techniques such as early research and reframing the problem can enhance the focus of a project and its budget by defining the correct problem and solving it with a better solution. These steps follow on to other techniques such as prototyping and testing to reduce risk and improve product quality.

The conditions for ICT projects to be successful, innovative and achieve major positive change (or ‘disruption’) can be enhanced through these basic techniques, especially if there is a local team using them.

When we put the right design question for our tea scenario to our group of local ICT folk, they came up with novel, innovative solutions that we wouldn't have ever thought of. We are hoping that if we work in Bhutan again, we will see a thriving, locally developed e-Tea solution.


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