Tales from The Engine Room

In this episode of Tales from the Engine Room, host Caroline Beavon interviews Becky Miller, a service and policy designer working for DEFRA, the UK Government Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.


What is Tales from The Engine Room?

Meet the people who make up The Skiff a coworking community in central Brighton, Sussex, UK. Interviewed by Caroline Beavon.

Caroline Beavon (host): Hello and welcome to Tales from the Engine Room where we meet the people who make up the Skiff, a co-working community in Central Brighton,
Becky Miller: Designing services or public policy, it's not about things just looking pretty, like if they don't work, people have bad experiences, they'll be real consequences for people's lives.
Caroline Beavon (host): I'm Caroline Beavon, I'm a digital storyteller and I'm a member at the Skiff too. Across this series of interviews, we'll meet freelancers, remote workers, solopreneurs, and small team leaders, asking them the question, what are you working on today?
This week we meet Becky Miller, a multidisciplinary designer working for DEFRA, the UK Government's Department for Rural Affairs, and find out why research is so important in her design process
Becky Miller: Today. I'm, working well. I work remotely, so working kind of collaboratively, kind of tag team with, a user researcher on my team. And we are together putting together a research plan to go out and speak to the people that we're designing services policy for at the moment? I can't be too specific. Yes, we're working really closely with them, putting a, putting kind of a plan together that will then hopefully next week start going out on recruiting participants and putting together discussion guides and that kind of thing, but with a view to, designing something. So that's why kind of working always found it really good to work. Researcher and design their kind of hand in hand from the research all the way through to design.
Caroline Beavon (host): Yeah. I think that's, that's something that, some designers don't even think about is they just, you know, they're given a brief, they do the work, they create the thing. And maybe it's, it's not part of the, the original brief, but they, they don't sometimes think about the use of it, you know, the users, what they want from it.
Is that, is that the kind of thing that you're, you are getting into or is it far more complicated than that in terms of the research and, and use?
Becky Miller: Yeah. No, I mean there's definitely an emphasis on yeah, the users. And I guess when you say often we take it back and we say, oh, you are designer then people do think of like aesthetics and making stuff look pretty.
Yes. Which is like, yeah, it's definitely beyond that and it's kind of making things work well and if you're gonna make anything work well, whether it's piece of furniture or a poster or piece of public policy, you need to go and speak to the people who are gonna be using that thing at the end of the day, otherwise you know, you'll put a lot of effort in and it probably won't work as you expected. Um, so it's all about like de-risking what you're doing like by going and speaking to people. And I suppose actually still the research kind of gets siloed and often it's, it's kind of, researchers do the research and then it gets handed over to designers but I've always worked in quite small organizations and, and went and studying. You kind of do the research yourself. That's part of the design process. Um, I really value working with researchers cuz they're more expert than me in research, but certainly in order to translate research into actually delivering and designing something, it makes sense to work like hand in hand research and designer through the research and design process, if that makes sense.
Caroline Beavon (host): That's great. So how, so how does that help in terms of your design process? You know, traditionally it would be research is done, report is given, or the information is given, and then designer runs off and, and designs it.
Is it literally you, you will bounce ideas between each other? You will say, does, how does this work? And are you going through rounds of research as the idea develops? Or as the work develops.
Becky Miller: Yeah, ideally, like I've always seen research as a very iterative process and even the whole. Design process, like everything you're doing, even if you're making prototypes, they're like research probes in a way.
And everything you're doing, whether it's research or right at the beginning or yeah, later prototypes, they're all just building an understanding of your users and your subject area and you are de-risking the thing that you actually kind of put out there live. But even when something's live, you know, you're still, you should still be getting feedback on that and constantly iterating it. So yeah, ideally loads of rounds of research, but when you work in big organizations, you'll also have to get permission, you know, to do each round of research. So currently, I, I don't know if we'll, how many rounds of research there will be, until we, you know, sometimes need to right, we need to deliver something.
So, um, always advocate for doing stuff kind of small and quick and agile rather than making, you know, plans behind closed doors and then make putting something live cuz that's kind of more risky.
Caroline Beavon (host): I've never met a designer who has such a hands-on role in terms of the, almost the, the steps before most designers are approached.
You are, you are really getting under the hood of, of the problem and solutions and working with researchers and that's such an interesting, process, which a lot of designers wouldn't have a, a role in that or, so that's fascinating that you've, you've got that, um, that relationship with your researchers.
Becky Miller: It's not always like that, I should say actually though, because I do, I do find still that there's this thing of like, oh, user researchers do that bit and then we'll bring a designer in. But I, I find it really difficult to operate in that way because, when you are doing the research and you're out speaking to real people, um, for me, that's when the insights start to emerge and that's when the design starts to happen. You'll start to like, join up the dots and you'll be like, ah, yeah, this, and you're learning and like almost the design starts to emerge through the research process. It's. It's not like, it's fascinating. I think lots of people, well historically, you know, designers have been like these like design superstars.
I think designing services or public policy, things that really need to work and it's not about things just looking pretty. Like if they don't work, people have bad experiences, they'll be real consequences for people's lives. So you have to be viscerally for me, a designer, I have to be viscerally involved in the research cuz that's where it starts.
Caroline Beavon (host): So did you have any experience with the farming community before you had this job? Is it something that you were passionate about to start with or was it, did it just sound like an interesting role in its own capacity.
Becky Miller: I was asked if I wanted to work on the farming program, which is really topical, and I grew up in the countryside in a small village, so I know farmers and my aunt and uncle were dairy farmers and
Caroline Beavon (host): Okay.
Becky Miller: Yeah. So I was like that. Yeah, I definitely have a connection to that in the countryside. Um, so yeah, definitely, and I'm quite, I've always been passionate about the environment as well, and obviously that's how we use the land in the country is like key to kind of whether we're able to meet our net zero and biodiversity targets and yeah.
So I think it's a really interesting space to be, to be working in, at the minute
Caroline Beavon (host): how do you feel that your family connection to the, to that sector and, and you know, having relatives who were, who farmers and, and dairy farmers. Is that something that has just brought so much more insight? You know, if I ended up working on a job with farmers, I would have no clue about the challenges or the pitfalls or the personalities or the, the culture of it. So has that been a, a real benefit that you've got some family experience in that area?
Becky Miller: Um, I think it helps being able to genuinely say that when you're speaking to farmers, because there, there is, understandably like a disconnect between, you know, people designing policy or services for them and you know, their actual experience on the ground. So it helps to kind of build trust with. Your users. I really hate the word users. Mm-hmm. Farmers. But that said, until I started doing this role and getting under, under the hood of like what it is to run a farming business, which is what it is at the end of the day, I didn't have all that insight and, um, no, I didn't really understand the challenges and, and how tough it is for them.
With any design project I've had, like almost the first thing I wanna do is immerse myself in that, in that landscape of whatever you are designing. And it, yeah, I think people maybe sometimes don't do it cuz they're like scared of it because it is a bit, feels a bit scary or going into someone else's space. I guess that it, it's a research activity, isn't it? I'd take that approach on any project. I did projects around how would you get more people cycling and so for that I just kind of like went and talked to loads of different, I was in London at the time, so I went and kind of spoke to different bike hire companies, but shadowed cycling officers and cycling groups just to that understand what the lived experience is like for the kind of people that you are trying to help or understand.
Caroline Beavon (host): Yeah, no, that makes perfect sense. And you made a really interesting point earlier about how this research informs the design process and gives you ideas and, and it actually fuels your creativity.
Becky Miller: For me, it's like that's where the gold dust lies, and even like the difference between like you kind of user research. I I, I learned a lot about ethnography in recent years and that going in with a really open, kind of more of an open, led by the participant type research, um, they often reveal those like unknown unknowns that you weren't expecting to hear, but actually that's like the gold dust where you actually realize, ah, that's actually, we need to kind of pivot and that's kind of where we're gonna have more impact. Um, that's what would really help people. It feels more logical to me. It's like, well, Of course when you, since that process of listening to people and observing and spending time with people, right? I don't think any of it's rocket science, basically. It's all quite logical if you think it through and it's like, oh yeah. Otherwise, if you just sit there in, in isolation and I'm a designer, I'll come up with an idea. I'm really creative. It's like, it's just more risky you're just guessing really at the end of the day.
Caroline Beavon (host): Is, is this the biggest organization you've, you've worked for or do you have a history in working for kind of big ...no,
Becky Miller: No, yet I've, I've only worked in government for coming up five years. Yeah. So before that I worked in very small organizations and not really as a designer per se, either. So, but always originally trained in design. Um, that's what brought me to Brighton. But it was a very practical course, very hands-on making stuff in the workshop and it didn't really lend itself to being easily employed as a designer.
Caroline Beavon (host): Artisan.
Becky Miller: Yeah. Um, although I'd always been like very kind of like critical designer has really like interesting on social issues and why are we making more stuff? Yeah. And that kind of stuff. Um. And kind of self-taught skills of graphic design and web design, you know, but it, it was really hard to get a job as a designer off the back of that.
Um, so I just, ended up working in lots of small organizations, but always with that kind of, how can we make things better? Doing bits of graphic design and just. Yeah, guess do and doing kind of service design, but without realizing it.
Caroline Beavon (host): Okay. So what, what were your job titles and what did you end up actually doing?
Becky Miller: I doing like a, a PA to a designer. That was my first job. Um, and yeah, ended up designing a website and doing some graphics and branding and also doing the company's environmental policy. They didn't have one. It was a furniture design place. Um, And also like doing their kind of CRM system. Boring. But again, that is kind of design in the basis of a lot of like services or businesses. Yeah. Is that your bedrock of your kind of foundation, of your customer database? Um, and then I've worked in lots of cafes and shops in between, you know And lots of internships. But then I did a stint in a music venue in London, which was, I guess multi-service organization, if we wanna frame it through service design.
That was a lot of, um, that's probably my best job ever because it wasn't all just behind a screen there was lots of people and we had an amazing shows where you kind of, you know, gave people amazing experiences in this beautiful building.
Caroline Beavon (host): How, which venue was it?
Becky Miller: It was Union Chapel in London.
Caroline Beavon (host): Oh, I've heard beautiful things about that venue.
Becky Miller: Yeah, it's a really special place I felt like privileged to kind of be there for a few years. I learned so much. Again, there was only like a very, very small team of us behind the scenes. So if you could see the opportunity to improve things, then you could just kind of get on and do it. Like for example, it is a really old listed buildings. It's really hard for people who are coming with, um, disabilities or in wheelchairs. So how can we make better? So this one lady who always came around the backstage door and we just like user research, had a conversation with her and understood did like literally walked along through the venue with her and she was describing, you know, her pain points and stuff, so didn't realize, but that's kind of like a classic kind of service design type approach to solving problems. So yeah, did a lot of that kind of stuff without realizing it, but in practice. Yeah.
Caroline Beavon (host): That's fascinating. Mm-hmm. That's fascinating. So now obviously you work for DEFRA, you work in a part of a big team, but you are remote. Are you entirely remote apart from when you're in the field? So you, you are here based at the Skiff
Becky Miller: Variety for me is, is really important when it comes to where I work. So, um, Yeah, I can't work at home the whole time. I, but yeah, this kind of me combination between home, the skiff and in the summer, jumping on my bike one or two days a week works really well.
Caroline Beavon (host): That sounds lovely. What is it about this place, the Skiff itself? Because, you know, everyone uses it in different ways. Everyone's got different things they need from it. I like it because everyone else is working and really focused, and I get distracted so easily. So the fact that I'm in a room full of people with their headphones on and big monitors. It's like, oh, that's what we're doing. Okay. And I'll sit down and work.
What does it do for you? This coming to the Skiff?
Becky Miller: Yeah, definitely, definitely. That you described. So everyone else is, is working. That's easy. Um, it makes it easier. But I think cuz I live on my own, it's, it's a social aspect, which is really nice. Um, it's also the, the mix of different people. I love the fact that you have the Show and Tells here. So coming somewhere like this where you've got a whole range of freelancers, people working for different organizations, um, it just reminds you of that there's other things outside your big organization and it. It kind of, um, yeah, I just think it's just really, it's really inspiring and it helps lighten my day.
Conversations aren't all about working in the organization you are in.
Different ways that people are working and what they're working on. I found that, I just think that's also a really important part of being creative person is exposing yourself to things outside your bubble. Um, and this is perfect for that.
So, yeah, I love it. And it's something I started, I guess I was saying it was like prototyping with my like, how I work. I kind of started in lockdown where I was like, I can't do this. The co-working spaces were open, some of them. So I start, I, I, uh, tried a few round Brighton, so I've tested out a few. Um, and the Skiff, yeah, really works for me.
But changed jobs during the pandemic and I moved back to Brighton. So it's like reconfiguring my life and figuring out that balance between work and um, and home life and, yeah.
Caroline Beavon (host): So where is your role evolving? Like where, how do you see your, your own sort of career development evolving? Or do you have like a job in mind or have you now got your dream job? This. Is this it?
Becky Miller: I think I, I definitely prefer working in smaller organizations. Mm-hmm. Just because you can be more agile by the nature of it, um, and you are closer to the kind of people you are impacting. So I like to work at Union Chapel so much. Um, I think I, I would love to find work in Brighton and kind of use some of the skills and experience that I've kind of, um, well always learning, but try and use some of that to do more kind of like kind, it's a buzzword at the minute, like place-based design, but like I really enjoy bringing people into the design process. So like creating more engaging ways for people to participate in the design process, cuz that it really enriches it.
So I've got like lots of side project ideas, keep thinking about whether I could go down to four days a week. But again, the Skiff is. Great for that because you're able to start making connections locally. Like even through the Skiff newsletter, someone read someone who's not in the Skiff, who read the newsletter, um, and I did the one of the Show and Tell last time or the time before, and they're a service designer too, so I'm gonna meet up for her with coffee. So it's really nice way of kind of starting.
Yeah. That's the other good thing about The Skiff for me, it's like long term, I'd love to find work in the local community and feel like I was really part of Brighton through my work as well. So I'm thinking it's like a, like starting to build that local work community. I don't know what will happen in the future, but I'd love to find work in Brighton and kind of be, yeah, there's lots of challenges in the world, aren't there a climate change? All of this stuff. And I do think that kind of participatory design can, can be part of the solution. So I, I'd love to find a way of doing that.
Caroline Beavon (host): Amazing. Mm-hmm. You said, um, that you have some side projects in your head floating around your head. Um, Can we dig into those a little bit? Are they just ideas? Are they Oh, I wish one day. What have you got through bubbling away?
Becky Miller: Yeah, just around cycling. I'm really passionate about cycling as a, like a, a way, not just cuz it, like all the, the ways they measure cycling is like, oh, it's good for your health, it's good for air pollution stuff. But actually I think it. It transforms. Um, the, it's all really like nuanced things that it does to people in cities and spaces that dial up like, like social tolerance between people just because you make eye contact with pedestrians compared to when people are in cars and it,
There's a brilliant film that was made in the Netherlands called Why Are We Cycle? And it, and it really deals with all of these, all the, the kind of the nuanced benefits that you get from cycling. Um, anyway, I'd love to do, um, this project called Cycle Census, cuz when we were doing census a few years ago, there's a question about does your household own a car and does it own a van? But there's nothing about bikes.
And I was like, actually, if we need to plan our cities to be more climate resilient and all that stuff, like you need to know how many bikes we've got in our population and if their cargo bikes and stuff, because that really impacts planning infrastructure, which is why they ask you about cars and vans, right?
Yeah. Um, so I, I'd love to kind of, I was like, I'll just start small. I should just start it on my street, but do cycle census and, but do it in a more ethnographic way, right. I've found, through other work I've done around cycling, everyone's got a story about a bike. Like you just have a cycle helmet on the table and people will start telling you about the time they fell off their bike or something.
So I'd love to just invite people, I guess you could do it through an Instagram channel, but also maybe do some more in depth interviews like this with people and then do some lovely portrait photography, and then maybe show that as an exhibition, but that, and invite people to, you know, submit their picture of themselves and the story about their bike.
Then have an exhibition as a jumping off point for then doing some co-designing. You could have a big map up on the wall and get people to be like, this is my favorite bit to cycle because, and you'd almost then start redesigning what Brighton would look like for bikes, but do it with people.
And if you gave everyone the chance to have that space for reflection and make the connection to what it means to them, if it could identify some areas maybe in Brighton that the council could improve, that they, and they wouldn't have taken that approach.
I really wanna do that project. Cause I think it's quite feasible to do.
Caroline Beavon (host): That sounds fantastic. Yeah. I'm gonna do a quick round, couple of quick, round questions if that's all right.
Let's start with a very easy question. What's for lunch today?
Becky Miller: Oh, um, I've got some, some kind of like carrot split yellow pea dahl thing that I made on the weekend.
Caroline Beavon (host): Are you a batch cooker?
Becky Miller: I am, yeah.
Caroline Beavon (host): I've already just discovered the joys of batch cooking and it's changed my life, like being able to go home after work and have dinner in five minutes because I, I, I took a chili out of the freezer that morning and it's like, yes, I've got dinner. Past me was so forward thinking.
Becky Miller: What did you do before?
Caroline Beavon (host): Oh, just cooked when I got home and just generally just went, oh, okay what have I got in the fridge? Or have to run to the shop and buy something overpriced and stupid. Or get a takeaway!
If you didn't live in Brighton where you live now. Where would you live? Anywhere in the world.
Becky Miller: Anywhere in the world. Either upper mountain or by the beach.
Caroline Beavon (host): Any particular mountains or beaches or just, just those environments appeal?
Becky Miller: I did a couple of ski seasons. That's why we have a real affinity with like mountains and just waking up every day. I don't know. Yeah, they're special, but I, I do love the beach in Brighton.
I think being just like close to nature, but like really awe inspiring nature that kind of puts, puts you in your place. Like you are just small. It's like someone once told me it's like good to go down to the beach sometimes you are feeling really stressed or angry, just chuck a stone in the sea and it's like, doesn't have much of an impact.
Caroline Beavon (host): My final question is if you could earn the same doing any job. What would you do?
Becky Miller: I dunno. I felt like I would want to have a, like a, yeah. My favorite job was working at Union Chapel cuz it had a bit of everything. Mm-hmm It had, yeah, it just had a bit of everything. You got to speak to all sorts of people from like Tom Jones to, we had homeless people cause there was a homeless shelter there too, you know, so you've got such diversity of people and it was in person, but it had online stuff and it was a beautiful building.
I guess I'd like to be outdoors more though, like Okay. Doing work with farmers. I'm kind of like, actually it's really made me think I don't want a job where I sit in front of a desk for the rest of my life.
Yeah, being physical, but Union Chapel was good for that as well. Cause I had to take the bar order in like twice a week, which was going up and down like from the ground floor to the first floor with the whole bar order. So that kept me fit as well. Um,
Caroline Beavon (host): I love jobs like that where on one hand you're like answering phone calls from like people and, and you know, organizing things and doing things, and then also humping boxes upstairs.
Becky Miller: I think it's good for your brain. Like it just, I felt like very on it and alive rather than some, I think just sitting at and looking at a screen all day, I'm probably not my best self or I'm not as switched on. It's not no.
Caroline Beavon (host): No, and that idea of, I love small organizations because it's very much a team and very much a hands-on approach, so,
Becky Miller: And then that is what I like about the Skiff like, because it is community. Yeah. And everyone kind of pitches in when stuff needs doing it. It's not, yes, we, we pay and have a membership, but it doesn't feel transactional. It, it feels like we're, we're all in this together. And I think that that is missing from lots of services. Speaking as a service designer, like I think when you just design for transactions. It, it's, you lose the kind of the magic and the atmosphere and the nuance that you can, that can be designed into things, and I think that's what we've got here
Caroline Beavon (host): Its that community feel.
Becky Miller: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And actually I think that's probably like a, like a need that we all have, but it often gets designed out of things because they're just designed to be transactions and they kind of miss that kind of really basic need we all have to feel belonging.
Caroline Beavon (host): And you can find out more about Becky's work at beckymiller.co.uk.
If you're interested in working alongside people like Becky and myself, head to theskiff.org.
And finally, don't forget to subscribe to Tales From the Engine Room, and we'll see you next time.