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Discovery to Beta: putting users at the centre of the design for new digital services in education

Updated: May 12

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), sponsored by the Department for Education (DfE), brings together the former responsibilities of the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) to create a single agency accountable for funding the education and skills training for children, young people and adults.


Aligning with the department’s data strategy

The funding for educational institutions is delivered through various funding streams. The processes used to gather data for calculating the value and allocation of funds were time-consuming and complex. Teams had developed their own processes, on varying technology stacks, with limited consistency between teams.


The production of datasets was one of the steps in the process to be digitally transformed, contributing to the department’s data strategy of reducing complexity and improving consistency. The objective of the Funding Data Service (FDS) project was to align the preparation of data with this strategy, whilst enhancing functionality from legacy technology solutions that were being decommissioned.


Introducing agile ways of working - Discovery and Alpha

For Discovery we deployed an agile multi-disciplinary team consisting of a user researcher, business analyst, service designer, data analyst and developer. In alpha the team adopted scrum methodologies and ceremonies (sprint planning, stand-ups, show and tells and retrospectives).


A large amount of user research, business analysis and service design was needed during alpha. User research consisted of interviews, contextual enquiries and user surveys to help develop user personas and to map user journeys. Interviews were conducted with small focus groups, starting with single teams and then moving onto larger multi-team meetings. This helped encourage richer discussion and alignment between different groups.


The business analysis covered stakeholder analysis, process mapping and backlog development. This work demonstrated that the service had a relatively small number of users, but the majority were experts in their discipline. Our focus, therefore, was to consume as much of their domain knowledge as possible and to ensure that we had a good understanding of their current pain points.


“I always appreciated the FDS team following up on the feedback we provided as users because it felt like you were keen to build something that would work for us.”

Choosing the right technology

During alpha the technical team carried out data modelling, technical spikes and developed prototypes to prove our riskiest technical assumptions. For example, our first major technical challenge was to securely transfer data from a SQL server instance behind an internal firewall to cloud-hosted, MS Azure data storage. A technical spike was conducted to investigate the use of Azure services to do this, and desk research conducted to understand all relevant security frameworks.


The technical stack consisted of:

  • Front end: Angular 12, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

  • Back end: .NET Core v5, microservices, Azure web services, Azure functions

  • Data stores: SQL Server, Azure SQL server, Azure Blob storage, SQL SSIS packages, Azure Data Factory


At the conclusion of alpha the team had:

  • validated that a digital service would help resolve the problem

  • identified the people and process change necessary for the new service

  • agreed the tech stack and

  • developed an approach for developing a Minimal Viable Service (MVS) for Beta.


Developing the Minimal Viable Service

The MVS would encompass a digital system for sourcing, managing and publishing provider data, including integrations with other digital services. This would deliver extensive value for the client and enable the decommissioning of legacy functionality.


Using Scrum and working in 2 week sprints the team established a regular delivery cadence that supported dependency and risk management at a programme level.


We adopted a behaviour driven development (BDD) approach across the team (development, quality assurance, analysis and design) to refine the understanding of user needs and pain-points. Early stage wireframes were iterated to hi-fidelity ‘development ready’ designs based on user feedback collected in design working sessions. User stories incorporated ‘gherkin syntax’ style acceptance criteria to give both the development and quality assurance teams a clear understanding of the expected user experience. The quality assurance team deployed an ‘automation first’ approach to testing, improving consistency, frequency and efficiency in test execution.


Putting users first

“I did feel like I wanted to put the extra effort in for FDS as it felt you listened to me as a user of the service and actually took on board what we wanted”

Due to the seasonal nature of the user’s workload (peaks around term times), the timing of the MVS go-live date needed to coincide with the start of a new funding year to prevent operational disruption. Before the release of new functionality, the team conducted usability testing sessions with key users. This was critical to the product achieving user acceptance, and the feedback captured in a ‘near-live’ environment was analysed, refined and ultimately added to the product backlog as development ready user stories.


The team worked closely with users in group and 1-to-1 settings, delivered regular ‘show and tell’ sessions with stakeholder groups including senior leadership, other digital services and potential future users. ‘Show and tells’ were used to drive a common understanding of the project’s progress and the service itself, and to capture input from a wider cohort. This helped to manage expectations and dependencies with other teams.


Growing the service

The goals were to deliver an MVS service that would meet user needs, deliver value, prevent operational disruption, and create the foundation for future scaling and enhancement. The MVS went live after 5 months of intensive work, supporting the delivery of £691 million in annual funding for 16-19 year olds. Following MVS the team have:

  • transitioned to a hybrid live-support and development model, supporting day-to-day operations alongside the delivery of new functionality.

  • released new functionality weekly, ensuring value is provided quickly and incrementally.

  • onboarded new Funding Streams, meaning the service is now supporting the annual delivery of billions in education and skills funding.


The team received excellent feedback throughout for their user-centred approach and were widely recognised as an exemplar for agile software development.

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