The Cabinet Office’s Fast Stream and Early Talent programme aims to identify leadership potential and diversity in the Civil Service candidates. Cyber-Duck was originally engaged to craft a paperless system for the Fast Stream Assessment Centre exercises – but it became so much more. Informed by research, we designed and developed a reassuring and robust digital exercise experience which helps the Fast Stream centre operations and assessment teams manage the whole process with ease.
The Cabinet Office’s Fast Stream and Early Talent (FSET) programme aims to equip some of the brightest graduates of all backgrounds with the knowledge, skills and experience they need to be future civil service leaders.
Following an independent report published in 2016, FSET has made good progress with improving the diversity and identifying the leadership potential of applicants. Now, the Cabinet Office wanted to increase this even further through user-centred digital tools that will enable the automated delivery and administration of exercises via tablet devices in the Fast Stream Assessment Centres (FSAC).
Civil Service candidates are referred to the FSAC after a successful online application, video interview, eligibility sift and numerical assessment (if applicable). FSAC involves a half day assessment, where 30-40 candidates are given leadership, analysis and group exercise via tablets, when assessors grant access. Applicants can interact with a timetable and preparation content, with the ability to digitally highlight and make notes.
Following a competitive tender process, Cyber-Duck was chosen to ensure the new FSAC digital platform meets the needs of candidates, regardless of background, or technical competence, by providing an inclusive, intuitive user experience. Our objectives were to:
Guide candidates through the processes/exercises, enabling them to flag content and make notes.
Have a user-friendly CMS that’s appropriate for the current/future requirements of the website.
Agile user experience deliverable
Initially, the brief focused on the idea of going 'paperless'. Together, Cyber-Duck and the Cabinet Office team realised early on that without a carefully planned transition, this could impact accessibility for both candidates and administrators. We agreed that we use this opportunity to create a digital experience that could encourage and reassure candidates, in a human way.
Alongside this, we could support the Operations team running the day, via control, dissemination and registration of content. This was surprisingly complex. For example, with the group exercises, the day could start with a group of 6 that’s reduced to 4; Operational administrators needed to be able to change the assignment, on the fly, in a live environment.
Cyber-Duck helped the Cabinet Office by designing and developing a responsive, accessible, and secure web application that delivers the 3 core FSAC exercise types (group, analysis, and leadership) via a range of formats, to make the content more inclusive and engaging.
By applying Agile project management principles, we worked collaboratively with FSET’s stakeholder team through a series of two-week-long sprints; we co-located at key periods, such as during early discovery, and during alpha and beta testing.
Cyber-Duck’s evidence-based design ensured that the needs of FSAC’s candidates and assessors were at the heart of each decision. We focused on providing a better user experience across user journeys, with a clearer, more intuitive navigation system, that is validated with real users and meets the GDS service standard.
User experience strategy and design
We kicked-off with a discovery phase that built our understanding of how the FSAC works and its candidates. We began with stakeholder research and workshops that clearly defined the goals, objectives and team alignment.
Together, we sketched typical user journeys and created proto-personas that covered higher and lower confidence candidates, alongside the internal CMS users. Through the demo, we knew our tool would need to house introduction/instructions, materials (through a mixture of media) and the ability to navigate between sections. Next, we drafted user stories for candidates, admins and assessors. The final personas and user journey maps were referred to throughout design and development.
We carefully designed the one exercise as a template, moving from initial user flow and wireframes, through to art direction and a functional prototype.
During our research, we observed that candidates from lower socio-economic groups (and BAME candidates, to an extent) felt less confident in the assessment centre setting (not through any fault of the excellent FSET team). They felt like they didn’t belong or ‘fit in’.
By design, we could provide an informative yet welcoming atmosphere that could reassure stress, nerves and help candidates feel included. For example, the FSAC exercise starts with a tutorial that introduces candidates to their device, schedule and notes.
It instils confidence by reaffirming that the candidates are in the top 6% of applicants (so absolutely deserve to be there!). We consciously chose diverse imagery so candidates could see people who ‘look like them’ and feel like they belong more. We also included encouraging comments from previous FSAC participants, so that candidates could hear from peers who have been there and done it before.
We developed a robust Drupal 8 CMS, configured as an LMS platform, to give the FSET team the flexibility to create and manage the assessment material. Drupal 8 is renowned as a leading open-source platform for efficient customisable data structures and storage for dynamic pieces of content.
The functionality required was different from a usual website, where a user clicks to access different sections. Instead, the Ops team needed to control all candidates’ experience from their own ‘master’ tablet device. We developed a dynamic timetable for candidates to check their personal schedule between or during exercises.
The Ops team would unlock an exercise for candidates; their tablets were refreshed with a password to access their next exercise, which they entered when they wished to start. Dynamic content was then delivered to the candidate, depending on their number and size during the group exercises. This password protection was important as all exercises were strictly timeboxed. Security and performance were paramount; we ensured access to the application was locked down to assessment centres only.
The frontend was developed using modern standards (based on HTML5 and CSS) and focused on achieving the WCAG AA guidelines; we added touches to assist accessibility.
The frontend included flexible blocks and templates, as the app needed to simulate real-world scenarios that Fast Stream candidates might find themselves in; therefore there were blocks and templates for content such as email threads, social media, or newspaper articles that candidates would need to review and respond to as if it were a real-world situation.
We also built functionality for highlighting and annotations so a user could highlight and make notes on passages of text, and view all of their notes/highlights in one place if they needed to quickly refer back to them.
To ensure the new web application could meet FSET’s goal of increasing diversity and leadership skill identification, testing for accessibility was critical. We started validation and iteration at the prototype stage with neurodivergent candidates, including dyslexia and autism.
We ran tests that simulated a standard FSAC assessment day, with 20 candidates for alpha and beta versions of the tool. It meant we could observe how candidates would naturally use the device during and in-between the exercises. The days also tested the Ops team functionality e.g. the activation of exercises.
We investigated the:
- Basic navigation – can users find their way without prompts?
- Learnability and inclusivity – can users learn the features in an encouraging way?
- Content – is the tone of voice and content design accessible?
- Ops team functionality – was it easy to activate exercises?
The app allowed the user to submit feedback at the end of each exercise; we consolidated this with a paper survey, to collect further qualitative and quantitative insights. We summarised key themes, takeaways and made iterative improvements to each version of the web application.
Based on empirical research and testing, Cyber-Duck crafted a web application that could deliver the core FSAC exercises in an accessible, usable and ultimately inclusive way. Through a series of Agile sprints, we configured Drupal and HTML5 technologies to deliver the assessment exercises with high performance and security.
The Cabinet Office’s mission of identifying the leadership potential of applicants, regardless of their background, was important to us. We successfully passed both alpha and beta GDS service assessments, leading the preparation and presentation. GDS described it as “well-prepared and engaging”; demonstrating how through Cyber-Duck’s ISO-accredited (9241-910) user-centred and iterative design process, we clearly met the 14 service standards.
The app was launched by the Cabinet Office in November 2019 to coincide with the latest Fast Stream assessment cohort. Initial usability trials were highly encouraging in terms of positive user responses:
- ‘I found the tutorial (before exercise) on the iPad helpful’: 83% positive.
- ‘The iPad delivery would make me more likely to want to apply for a graduate role in a civil service/government department’: 71%
For example, the leadership exercise:
- ‘I found the iPad easy to use overall in the exercise’: 91% positive.
- ‘I found navigation across pages straightforward on the iPad’: 94%
- ‘I found the iPad App engaging/enjoyable’: 94%
- ‘I preferred doing the exercise on the iPad compared to paper version’: 82%
Crucially, overall diversity outcomes exceed those from previous years’ data. Most significantly, there was a 27% increase in success rates for disabled candidates – from 11% to 14% of the intake. They have since been shortlisted for the Target Jobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards 2020 "Best Innovation in Student Recruitment" award.
“The site design is incredibly innovative and modern which is really refreshing to see... It's been a real pleasure working with the Cyber-Duck team on all elements of the project.”