Design thinking meets officialdom and the webmaster (finally) wins

For public administrations, their entire value proposition lies in the provision of services; bureaucracies don't manufacture anything, after all. Register a birth. Pay your tax. Apply for benefits. Get your bins collected, your appendix removed, your fire put out. But, as anyone familiar with the frustrations of officialdom will be aware, public services were largely first conceived with the objectives of the organisation in mind. It's only been in the past decade or so that anyone thought to consider the users.

We've recently been reading up on the work of the team behind the Spider project, an EU-funded outfit that has produced a handy Service Design Manual that lays out the what and why of design principles as they apply to public services.

Service design is an iterative process of designing a new service or improving an existing one, carried out in collaboration with users. The Spider project advocates the use of  the Double Diamond process, a UK Design Council tool, which consists of four steps that "alternate between a broadening and a narrowing movement in the process.

According to Spider, "It is especially important for public authorities to understand that the designing of a service goes beyond simply the procedure at the counter. Both the front and back office processes need to be evaluated and aligned."

Ultimately, as users, we don't tend to remember the service we receive so much as we remember the experience we had – and whether or not we plan to repeat it. But some administrative experiences are so complex that you wonder if their creators ever realised there would be real-life users at the other end at all.

According to this manifesto from IDEO, a global design consultancy that brings design thinking to public (and private) organisations, "Design thinking is a disorderly process. Designers make educated guesses, ask out of the box questions and form hypotheses that assume that new evidence will invite or require a rethink."

Which doesn't sound like the kind of thing that would go down well in a bureaucratic system, but it's an established discipline that is picking up steam. We enjoyed this interview with the US Department of Agriculture's Jeff Greenfield, who talks about the use of human-centred design to improve the National School Lunch Program. According to Greenfield, "Household application error puts access to healthy school meals at risk for some children," arguing that a newly-designed, simplified process will help reduce the kind of error that arises as a result of previous, cumbersome design formats and the instructional documents that accompany them.

The project applied design principles to the school lunch application process in order to uncover "insights into unique experiences, systemic challenges, and unmet individual needs that hinder program enrolment."

It's about digital services, not websites

Technology alone can't achieve the type of fundamental re-engineering of public services because the problem is not, à la base, technological; it's how to move from a bureaucracy-centric culture to a service-oriented one.

In the US, the Obama administration is trying to make the American public's digital encounters with the federal government as pain-free as possible. They've recently released their Web Design Standards guidelines and it contains much of the common sense you might expect.

"Joanne's" user story highlights a subject very close to our hearts here at Digital Transformation; how the use of technology in the public sector is all too often relegated to improving co-ordination across the arbitrary divisions of government.

Users, as in citizens, don't care about what departments concern themselves with the provision of a certain task. They care only about the task they set out to do when they logged on to their machine.

And now, spare a thought for the webmasters of the world

We recently came across this great article pitching a common-sense approach to real-life content governance, which highlights the sorry plight of the office webmaster.

Here's the scenario: you're a webmaster of your organisation, and a colleague approaches you and requests demands that you publish a banner front and centre of your organisation's homepage, and they want it done yesterday. However, you know that it's not the best place for the banner, it doesn't contribute to achieving your organisation's communications objectives, there are other communication priorities that take precedent, and so on.

This is a handy explainer on how webmasters can prioritise the objectives of the organisation without compromising relationships with colleagues. I was so impressed at how accurately the blogger described this dilemma that I forwarded it to a webmaster friend I know. He replied with a one-line email:

Best thing I've read in a while.

I wonder if he'll take up the advice. (I suppose I'll just have to keep an eye out for improvements on his company website to find out...)


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