The importance of user-centred design in future public services

In order to make transformation more effective and beneficial in the long term, user-centred design must come into play, says Sam Menter, Co-founder and Managing Director of Mace & Menter

In recent weeks, we’ve seen government departments launch new digital services at record-speed. A world apart from the pre-COVID process. 

Each new live or fast-adapted service represents a significant achievement by teams working under intense pressure. Under these conditions, one might assume there’s little space for a user-centred approach. After all, involving users in the design and functionality of a service means time and effort which, right now, are in scarce supply. 

In fact, the opposite is true: working in this way presents a huge opportunity to get fast actionable insight that can improve live services so they quickly become more effective, more useful, more impactful, longer lasting and ultimately more user-centred. 

Flipping our approach 

Pre-COVID projects were structured around the hard-won process outlined in the Government Service Standard: discovery to alpha to beta to live. The underlying principle behind this approach lies in accepting that we work with ambiguity and probably don’t know the shape of the service at the start of the design process. 

At a high level we probably know what the service needs to do, but the process is designed to help us understand how to do it in an effective way based on the needs of the people using it.  

We build in research to understand the problem and the space around it before defining solutions. It means taking time to explore different solutions before firing off in a particular direction. 

Right now this process has, quite rightly, been flipped on its head. Services are being launched to live in record-breaking time. Delivery teams have been working through the night to launch services in days and weeks that under normal circumstances would have taken months. 

The risk here is that untested design decisions can mean services are hard to use, less understandable and significantly less effective. 

So where does this leave a user-centred approach? 

At first glance it doesn’t look like there’s much space for discovery in the current climate, we just need to launch and refine services as fast as possible. Of course, we can’t delay launching a service that means someone can access an essential grant because their work has dried up, but we can think of these new or adapted services in a slightly different way. 

A live service launched in days rather than months is catnip for user researchers. It presents a huge opportunity to gather insight. If we consider the live service a working prototype rather than a done deal, we can run discovery in parallel with the evolution of the service. 

We can also gather a multitude of statistics around the actual use of the service: where are people dropping out of the service, what are the questions they’re asking and what is the shape of the data coming in? Combining qualitative and quantitative insight like this is the most effective way to determine how to make a service more effective. 

Content is key 

Making sure that everyone can access and understand the information they need has become more important than ever. People are confused and frightened so information needs to be crystal clear and written in a way that is understandable by everyone.  

I heard one instance where an employer thought they weren’t eligible to use the furlough scheme because of the way the scheme information was written and so was considering redundancies as an alternative. Not good. 

Following a structured content design process, including testing live content with users and refining it based on feedback is critical.  

User-centred design as a mindset 

User-centred design needs to be considered as a mindset rather than a project overhead. I’m optimistic that the current crisis is an opportunity to spread this mindset further across the public sector because access to public services is more important than ever.  

User-centred design, in whatever shape it takes, will mean significantly more people are able to access and use the services they need to continue their lives. 

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