Case study - DEFRA

Defra logo

Leaving the EU and Common Agricultural Policy has presented UK farming with the biggest challenge in a generation.

With new legislative powers at the UK's disposal, a new agenda was set for the future of farming as part of the 25 year Environment plan.

To meet non-disclosure agreements, information maybe obfuscated. Views written are my own.

cow in field


Agricultural Environmental Schemes (AES) have been part of the farming landscape for over 20 years. Their aim is to offset the impact of intensive farming to help preserve our environment.

Accompanying the uncertainty that Brexit created for many UK farms, came an opportunity to bring a new mandate through the 25 year environment plan, including:

  • Clean air
  • Clean and plentiful water
  • Thriving plants and wildlife
  • Reduction in and protection from environmental hazards
  • Adaptation to and mitigation of climate change
  • Beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment

The challenge

Previous schemes had struggled to strike the balance between uptake levels and environmental benefits.

Key objectives included:

  • Design a new simple service to replace existing AES with improved scheme uptake
  • Working across the Future Farming programme to create a joined-up experience for farmers
  • Rebuilding trust with the farming community after years of mixed farming messages

My Role

Service design

Working closely with Defra's Policy team, Forestry Commission, Environment Agency and Natural England to understand goals, scope and constraints.

ELM service
Identifying pain points within current Agri-Environment Schemes (AES)

Listening to the experiences of farmers and foresters to understand the farming context, pain points and opportunities.

Service map
To-be service mapping; end-to-end, front-to-back

Interaction & content design

Understanding the bigger picture then refining the detail:

  • Sketching preliminary designs and drafting content for interfaces and user guidance
  • Building responsive HTML / CSS prototypes working to WCAG
  • Testing and iterating the interface to optimise user experience
  • Working to GOV.UK design patterns
HTML snippet
Rapid prototyping using the GOV.UK toolkit

Research & analysis

Meeting with a wide range of service users to understand their needs, experiences and identify opportunities.

Call centre workshops
Workshop held with an operational team to understand the types of calls and when they happen.

Formulating and running workshops, conducting analysis and building evidence to drive design decisions.

Call centre workshops
Analysing feedback to inform our understanding of the problems.
Design sprint storyboard

The Design Sprint

The following case study details a 5 day workshop conducted with the Environmental Land Management (ELM) and Tree Health policy teams as part of our wider Alpha work.

We were keen to explore how we could encourage different workstreams to work together to help deliver positive policy outcomes whilst supporting the needs of our service users.

Bringing together the right people for the amount of time needed was one of our biggest challenges. After some convincing (and diary juggling) we confirmed our invites and set a date.

We based our workshop on Google Venture's process. If you're interested in running your own event, GV provide more detailed information (opens in a new tab).


Programme level

  • Investigate how design thinking can be applied to policy design
  • Create wider awareness of user centred design methods to deliver tangible learning and help de-risk delivery
  • Build a workshop format which can be reused to enable rapid learning across other workstreams

Service level

  • Create common understanding of the ELM / Tree Health problem space
  • Drive policy discussion and expedite decision making
  • Generate and evaluate ideas, build a narrative and prototype


Tree Health, Forestry Commission and ELM identified a candidate problem to focus the design sprint activity:

A land manager receiving ELM payments finds a tree disease in their woodland.

We explored this scenario from a user’s perspective and investigated a simple service design which supported wider tree health resilience.

Day 1

Start at the end

Day 1 agenda
Day 1 agenda

Sprint goal

We discussed and agreed what a successful outcome looked like:

Our services support and incentivise woodland managers toward good behaviours which deliver a resilient woodland landscape.

Setting a goal
Agree what an ideal future looks like and map potential risks to delivering our goal.

Sprint questions

Sprint questions
Writing our sprint questions from risks and future view statement (the goal).

Mapping the problem

Mapping the problem
Indentifying user groups and mapping out the journey steps to reach our goal.

Ask the experts

How might we
Capturing and grouping ‘How might we’ statements after interviews with specialists.
day 2
Day 2

Sketch ideas

Day 2 agenda
Day 2 agenda

Pick a target

Pick a target area to focus on
An area was targeted from the problem space which the team felt would be the most valuable to explore further.

Lightning demos

Lightning demos
We captured and discussed examples of websites, products and services which solved similar problems to our target problem.

Sketch ideas

Sketch ideas
Crazy 8s ideation to help sketch-out different ideas.

Create & review gallery

Create and review gallery
Ideas were pinned up on the wall and presented back to the team.
day 3
Day 3

Create a storyboard

Day 3 agenda
Day 3 agenda

Speed critique

Speed critique
Summarise each set of ideas capturing key themes.

Create the steps

Building the storyboard
Building the completed storyboard for prototyping.
day 4
Day 4

Create the prototype

Day 4 agenda
Day 4 agenda

Building the prototype

Interaction design
Interaction design
Interaction design
Interaction design
Interaction design
Day 5

Test with woodland managers

Day 5 agenda
Day 5 agenda

Unfortunately the final day of user research was delayed pending agreement from senior stakeholders and we didn't get to test our prototype. However we did take many positive learnings from the design sprint.


To close, we held a retrospective to discuss what went well and what could be improved in the future.

Despite not being able to test our prototype with users, we felt many of our program and service sprint goals had been achieved:

Program level outcomes

  • Successful investigation of how design thinking can be applied to policy design
  • Wider awareness created of user centred design methods
  • Creation of a reusable workshop format to enable rapid learning across other workstreams

Service level outcomes

  • Common understanding developed of the problem space
  • Policy discussion across workstreams with rapid decision making
  • Team ideation, evaluation and build of a testable idea


On reflection, we felt that the time and effort to organise and facilitate the design sprint paid dividends in terms of the insights and common understanding created.