When designing a service it’s impossible to predict everything upfront. Each project features many challenges, and in your alpha you will start exploring solutions for these.

You may need to bring more developers and designers into the team, who will help you to build and test prototypes and possible solutions for your users needs.

By the end of the alpha you should have a clear idea of what’s required to build a beta. The whole phase should not last longer than about 6 to 8 weeks.

Watch Sarah Richards, GDS Content Design Lead, describe what happens during the alpha phase.

The objective of an alpha

The objective is to build a working prototype. This will be used by stakeholders or a closed group of end users to:

  • gain greater understanding of a service
  • test design approach
  • test some technologies
  • begin to form the team
  • gain shared understanding of the service at a coding and integrations level
  • understand what or who you will need to deliver a beta

Continue to build upon and analyse the research you have commissioned on user needs and use this to set up an open, engagement process with your stakeholders. Involve a wide range of stakeholders from the private, voluntary and other parts of the public sector. Run a series of workshops with these stakeholders to develop your options.

Following demonstration of your alpha, you may choose to discard the code and start fresh in the beta. If, however, your code is effective you may continue to iterate against your prototype.

Develop options for the assisted digital support for your service. To help develop the options, continue to build upon and analyse the research you have commissioned on user needs. Bring in the expertise of organisations working with people who are offline and users themselves. Run workshops to develop your options.

What should be in your alpha

The alpha doesn’t need to be a complete, end-to-end transaction. You’re looking to demonstrate just enough so users gain some understanding of the service.

Think of it as a proof of concept:

  • is the solution appropriate?
  • is your approach viable
  • do you have enough understanding of your users’ needs to meet them?

If not, find out more and make a new prototype.

Alpha phase duration

The alpha phase is another relatively short phase. At GDS, we try to limit these to about 2 months, running in week-long sprints over a 6 to 8 week period.

Team requirements

This phase involves a relatively small core team, who will be capable of rapidly iterating solutions. It will probably expand and contract in size as different specialisms are required.

This core team will be a mix of stakeholders, and makers (designers and developers) particularly those familiar with user research. It will be led by the service manager.

Outputs

The outputs for the alpha phase are:

  • high level story cards
  • plan for beta and running of the live service (decreasingly detailed)
  • working basic system that provides limited functionality that can be shown to a number of users
  • understanding around legacy systems to replace or wrap or integrate with
  • cross-functional requirements
  • decision to progress to beta phase
  • final analysis on the research you have commissioned on user needs
  • options for the assisted digital support for your service

An ideal alpha

For a worked example, we have written up some information on an ideal alpha.