Remaining an idealist — leaving Migri after 3 years as a designer
It is now just over 3 years that I started as a service designer at Migri, the Finnish Immigration Service, in August 2017. It has been three eventful years and now that I am flying off to my maternity leave it’s a good time to share some reflections on this time. I decided to have an interview with myself, so here it goes.
Who was I when I came to Migri in 2017?
I was a junior designer, who had worked in consulting before. Actually, my previous job had not even been a design job, I was a front-end developer instead. I remember my first day, and how excited I was. It felt like I was actually starting my first real job after graduation. And indeed, it was my first real design job.
I came with lots of ideas of what I thought needed to be changed. Those were based on everything I had heard about Migri from friends who had struggled with the immigration process. That might be a mistake we all do as juniors.
I also remember that I didn’t even know the exact difference between immigration and integration at the time. And looking back I think I didn’t really have a clue what that meant in practice (that lots of the problems my foreign friends had faced are systemic and have to do with the distribution of responsibility areas of different organisations).
The other thing I remember is how idealistic (not to say foolish) and excited I was about working for public sector! I had left a permanent job for a position of 2 years and 4 months. I hadn’t even gotten a contract when I resigned from my previous job. But mostly I was excited about making public sector better. It’s a dream come true and goes very close to my core values.
What kind of tasks have I done in my time in Migri?
This list can be endless, so I am just listing some things here that I can come up with at this moment in time in no particular order:
Concept design, user research, user observation & user testing, prototyping, systems thinking, workshop facilitation, project management, team building & team management, chatbot conversation design, data analysis and visualisation, presentations, UX design, design system development, classical service design tasks, scrum product owner.
The main thing to see here: As a designer in a public organisation like Migri, where design team is small (we were 3 designers at most) you need to take the tasks that come to you. It’s something that comes very natural to me, since I am not a “design for design’s sake” type of person.
Who am I today in 2020?
I think the biggest change is that in those 3 years I have matured from a junior newbie to a senior-level designer, who thinks that she can take on any design-related task independently (maybe I cann’t? ;) ). I love to work in teams, but I am fine on my own. More than anywhere before I got to work with people from different professions, also those rather far from design by default. This has been one of the great parts for me.
I have also become the “mother of bots” at Migri, no one would call me that openly, but I believe many people still see me as the mother of Kamu and at least bonus-mother of Patrek and Verobot (the bots of Patent and Registration office, and the Finnish Tax Administration). I can live with that. Working on the chatbots has been one of the most intense tasks of my time at Migri and one where I have learned the most in terms of measurable hard skills.
I am still an idealist. I believe that working for the common good is a thing we should all do in our lives. It really goes very close to my core values. At the same time, I have become more pragmatic about what can be done and how fast. I have learned that I shouldn’t try to push too far too quickly. More on that in one of the next questions.
One thing I find important to stress today is that I see design as a means to an end, not a value in itself. That also means having a designer in the team doesn’t really make any difference in itself, if the design expertise isn’t used as an advantage, but at the same time it’s not using the design tools per se that adds value.
When we surround ourselves with other designers (almost) 24/7 (we studied design, our friends are designers, we follow designers on social media, …) we tend to see design as given, as some hard truth that no one will ever question. The reality is very different when you come to an organisation where you are 2 designers in 1000 employees (or for the past 9 months 1 designer in about 900 employees). You cannot cook your own design soup anymore. You need to go and make your viewpoint understood. You need to leave your design slang behind. You need to show the value you can bring to the table, not by adding new methods or more inspiration, but by showing the value that your tools bring. Hard facts that is most of the time. And you’ll face some strong headwind from different parts of the organisation, but you’ll find that you can contribute with your skillset as a designer (and in my case also beyond design — with my understanding and capacity to translate technology into human understandable language). But yes, one of my core beliefs today is: Design is a means to an end, not a value in itself. And this has many practical implications.
What has changed in these 3 years?
During these 3 years there were many changes. We had an uncountable number of official administrative bosses (I think I stopped to count after 3 or 4) in the first year.
In the beginning, I was 1 of 2 designers in an innovation lab, Inland Design, that seemed ambitious and radical, in the last 9 months I was the only designer in an organisation of about 900 employees. I enjoyed both phases of the three years in different ways, since my emphasis also changed during those times.
I have grown to be much more patient at work. You could also say I have learned about the realities of public sector work: Things go slower than you would want but pushing them forward all the time endlessly exhausts you and does not really make them faster. So sometimes I need to start something and then let it sit and do something else while in some heads somewhere these things progress and when I come back to them later, they are actually understood and will go forward…
While in the beginning I was not at all connected to the Government Design scene I now identify as a Government designer and changemaker and I’ve learned to use the existing networks to help me feel part of a community. Without International Design in Government (Thanks Kara Kane and Martin Jordan!) and OneTeamGov (main thanks to Janne Mattila and Tiina Forsell, of course!), the time would have been much more boring and I wouldn’t have learned so well to navigate public sector work as well as I feel I can navigate it today. The OneTeamGov principle that I love most is “work in the open and positively”.
What have I learned?
Here again I could put a very long list. But I’ll try to keep the learnings short for readability’s sake:
· Sometimes you have good ideas, but they need to sit for a while in the heads of decision makers before they can move on to implementation.
· Don’t be crazy about your own fame! Sometimes an idea sits half a year in the head of someone you presented it to, and then he presents it as his idea. This isn’t too bad. You know better and in the end of the day, the important thing is that the thing gets done the right way.
· Sometimes the slowness in public sector is the fault of the workers or systems, but just as often slowness comes from the many restrictions that public sector operates in. I have definitely heard “but it’s in the law” way too often in these years, however sometimes it’s actually true.
· Patience is one of the main characteristics of a designer in public sector.
· Finding an ally who supports you in most your work endeavours is very important. Your advocate doesn’t have to be a designer. It can be anyone, but it is important to find someone who you can trust and who supports you.
· Work can be very intense (to the extent of a burnout), and I needed to learn to take care of my personal wellbeing before taking care of work. You can call this a problem of my generation, or a learning that all idealistic people who love their job will have to have at some point.
· Lots of Finnish! When it comes to Migri related areas I can now run meetings where everyone speaks Finnish and I speak English and it’s totally fine. However, the next step is to speak as well, I know it!
What am I most proud of in these years?
I have survived three years in Finnish public sector!
No, on a more serious level there is one obvious project that stands out, and I can still say that I am proud of it: Starting up Smoothly. I lead, and dare to say influenced quite heavily, the collaboration between Migri, Tax Administration and Patent and Registration Office to create an experimental service of 3 interconnected chatbots. It was definitely one of the most challenging and by far the most intense projects in my Migri time, but we ended up being the first ones able to show more than just a prototype of a chatbot network! We’ve been writing a lot about the project, so go check our website if you want to know more: http://www.startingupsmoothly.fi/
The second thing I am proud to see is some change in ways of working at least in parts of the organisation. It’s hard to say if this is due to our designer’s way of working and showing good example, but at least to me it seems that we have contributed to these small steps of change.
What’s in my future?
Short term the answer is easy: Preparing for the baby to be born and then lots of diapers and little sleep at night. That’s at least the next year.
After that I hope to find a new job in public sector. I definitely want to continue to design for common good and still hope Migri will have an open position again next autumn ;)
Any famous last words?
That’s a hard one, how to finish this?
Maybe I just repeat 2 things and add one extra:
· Internalise that design is a means to an end, not a purpose in itself.
· Live by the OneTeamGov principle “work in the open and positively” and many good things will follow.
· Last but not least, I want to leave a deepfelt “Thank you” to all the colleagues and friends, who have helped me grow through the last 3 years.