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What you want versus what you need: a guide to service design for the public sector

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(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

You might have seen the recent news that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has begun collecting device and connection data from users of GOV.UK in a bid to improve the performance of the platform. This is part of a continuing drive in government to understand audiences and what devices they use, so they can create services that better meet user needs.

To see real success from initiatives like this, we need to not only consider the citizens visiting the platform, but also the people on the other side who manage and maintain it, and those who provide the services themselves. We’re all using the same system, after all, and it should work for everyone. A holistic approach that considers everyone's needs, is what’s necessary. So, at the beginning of an engagement, where do you start?

Considering everyone: service users, stakeholders and administrators  

Taking a quick look at services as they are now, for example, a local authority website, it won’t take long to find an element or two that is not quite working for the digital age. Whether it’s the difficulty to understand or use contact forms, the visual design of the website itself, or the software used to manage a particular service.

The goal of any digital design engagement should be to work out how the service could be made more accessible and convenient to its users and the people who manage it, and then implement the change to make that a reality. At a time when citizens are predominantly accessing services remotely, it needs to be as simple as possible to manage, at both ends.

Having worked on many projects in central and local government, I know how important it is to understand the context: why people are using the service, how it’s being used, where it’s being used and in what circumstances. It’s not just about designing good software. Is someone using the service standing up outside in the rain using their mobile to connect? In the office with great internet and several monitors? These things matter more than you might expect.

For digital delivery partners, it’s vital from the early stages of the design process to work with your stakeholders and get a deep understanding of the outcomes they want. Ask and ask again: “What are you trying to achieve?”. Guide them to build the right thing to achieve those outcomes, rather than the same thing but make it ‘more digital’. This approach requires more digging and usually some extra support, but it’s the only way to achieve digital proficiency and fully accessible service. That extra work and support for service providers and those operating and maintaining the service has the knock-on effect of a great service for the people who use it.

What do different stakeholders really need? 

You have to do the research to get to the bottom of this, because it’s different every time. Helping probationers secure housing is different to helping a teacher find employment. Everyone wants the process to be easy and reliable. That’s something we all have in common, and a good starting point. And no matter who you are talking to in the public sector, they always want the best outcome for the person they are working with, or for.

For the citizen, it’s slightly different. You tend only to connect with government services when things aren’t going right or you want to get something done quickly, so it’s important for processes to be as simple and straightforward as possible. When logging onto a site or accessing a service, you don’t want to see lots of information that isn’t relevant to you or flashy graphics. You want something that works. 

One of the interesting design challenges in the public sector though, is that most services are designed for the majority - public services belong to all. But many government services are used a lot by relatively small numbers of vulnerable people with complex needs. For that reason alone, their primary need is services that are designed for a diverse audience and accessible to all.

Thinking of the tech before you understand the problem is also a common pitfall, and reflects the tendency to focus on wants rather than needs. Shiny new tech is great but thinking of that before thinking of the outcomes isn’t helpful. The end goal is a good service, not the implementation of new technology. Again, think of who is going to be using the service and those managing it - what is their end goal? Everything else stems from there.

Having a service design mindset 

There are a number of ways to reach the end goal of an accessible service for all, one that is easy to use at the front end and easy to manage behind the scenes. Setting off on the right foot is key.

Avoid jumping to conclusions. Designing solutions too early without considering the needs of service users and stakeholders, as explored above, is a recipe for chaos.  

Use different methods of research to help you get to the bottom of things. Observe how people do things, consider the context, and look at competitors or other service providers to see what is being done elsewhere. Above all, ask the right questions to understand what the desired outcomes are, and find the evidence that will guide the process.

The strategy behind good service design 

Yes, sometimes organizations can confuse what they want with what they need. This often comes from the desire to push a new solution through quickly or resolve an issue as soon as possible. It’s the delivery partner’s job to guide them to the point where the real need is so evident that it can’t be denied. 

Good design isn’t just a part of the strategy; it is the strategy. Helping organizations to translate their ideas into products and services that work for everyone is paramount. Develop abstract ideas into concrete solutions by working as one team, continually testing and questioning, and looking at the evidence. Only then will those that manage the service, provide the service, and use the service, all have a seamless digital experience.

Coca Rivas, director of design, dxw

Coca Rivas is director of design at digital agency dxw.