Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.

Designing People Centred Policy: How can user centred design help public services?

This article was first published on the c&binet site.


Today’s public servants face complex and often contradictory challenges.

Service user’s expectations, conditioned in part by the rapid improvements in service experience in the private sector (particularly online) are rising. Meanwhile, after a period of inflation busting spending on public services, the word in Whitehall is budget freezes and maybe even cuts. On top of this, the outcomes demanded by citizens and communities are more and more complex, systemic and personal and the demographic trends point to this complexity increasing as our society ages.

These challenges are as varied as they are difficult. How do we enable patients with chronic conditions to take care of themselves better? How do we include partners from other sectors such as charities or even families in our service delivery systems? How do we encourage personal responsibility for service outcomes? What policy frameworks will best support innovative practices? How do we do more with less?

As we head towards the second decade of the 21st century the challenges are significant and pressing. Our traditional local authority and national public service frameworks, focused on centrally organised delivery and designed over 60 years ago for a different set of societal problems, were not built for these problems. We need new approaches for understanding people and their needs and then translating these findings into operational services and supporting policies. But how to find out what people need?

One, perhaps unexpected, place to look for inspiration in finding the tools to start addressing these problems is to examine at how the design and development of consumer technology products has evolved over the past 20 years or so.

Over the past few decades information technology software and hardware has moved away from the centrally located, institutionally controlled, main frame and into millions of homes (and now pockets) of an increasingly large and diverse number of users, with a correspondingly large and diverse range of needs. Sound familiar?

Faced with this bewildering proliferation of devices, services and users, product managers, business executives and software and hardware engineers are increasingly turning to design research techniques to bring them insights into how people are actually using these products, and what underlying needs and behaviours are driving these uses.

These design research methods fuse research practices borrowed from anthropology (principally an ethnographic practice that emphasises time spent in the field), with ergonomics and usability (understanding how people use stuff) and participatory design techniques (workshops and creative tools that enable participants to ‘own the exchange’ and contribute their ideas freely). Jan Chipchase of Nokia Design is perhaps the best-known advocate of this type of work.

Companies such as Engine Service Design are now borrowing elements of this practice, (along with a range of other design-led tools and techniques) and applying it to the public service challenges discussed earlier. Some examples include our work with Kent County Council to design a Social Innovation Lab, a project with Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire to develop transport services for patients, and an initiative with a SureStart centre to develop a service to engage Dads.

Of course, there are huge differences between designing better technology products and better public services, but there are some underlying principles that are remarkably simple and surprisingly disruptive when applied to the challenge of public service design:

Understanding of the user experience comes from ‘deep’ design research techniques. Genuine moments of insight come from an in depth understanding of the unique challenges faced by individuals, which is gained from time spent with people. The currency of ‘experience’ deals with emotions and moments in time that cannot be captured in statistics and trends analysis, and research outputs such as journey maps and ‘day in the life’ stories need to be carefully designed to capture these experiences for use by policy makers and service managers.

The user experience must be the primary source of insight, and the central organising principle of a programme of change. In the case of technology products the ‘user experience’ normally means the points of interface between people and products, in the case of services the user experience normally means the journey a user takes between interface points, as well as the actual touch points they interact with. Understanding and visualising these journeys (actual and ideal), and tying them to the emotional understanding gained from deep research creates a shared, empathetic platform for service re-design.

Users must be involved in (co)designing the solution. A user just telling a researcher about their concerns and worries gets us nowhere (well, it gets us a research report). Design research methods don’t separate research from action – they are one and the same thing, focussed on creating a better experience. This means that users must be directly involved in co-designing the solutions to their problems (and then maybe later maintaining the resulting service design), alongside expert designers who can bring their ideas to life through prototypes.

Designers must be involved to create prototypes. Participatory, user centred design research techniques give us the framework to understand and diagnose the real issues and problems behind users’ experiences of public services. However, in order to act on that framework, to imagine a better situation or system, you need designers who can make things real through developing and iterating prototypes of the solution. We’ve found that this is especially valuable when dealing with intangible design artefacts such as services and experiences. Prototypes bought to life through drawings, mock-ups and models create tangible evidence of progress and change and allow stakeholders to evaluate and improve on options through a hands-on process of iteration.

The research must be tied to a wider product/service development programme. The design research techniques employed by the consumer electronics businesses mentioned earlier are of course tied-in to their wider new product and service development processes. This must also be true of any public service redesign. Outputs from deep user research, co-design sessions with users and the refined service prototypes must be delivered into the parts of an organisation that knows what to do with them. Recommendations for system level changes need to go to policy heads, innovative ideas for new delivery mechanisms must go to the right service managers, and the change must be joined up often through shared communications.

Designing public services around the user experience of service runs counter to many of the output focused, target driven organising principles of current public service models, but its vital if we’re to transform 20th century public services into a shape that can address the 21st century’s social challenges. User-centred design research techniques will play a valuable role in getting us there, and I’m very excited to be taking part in the journey.

Further reading:

David Varney’s Review of Service Transformation
RED Transformation Design Report
Engine’s Public Service Design Practice
Design Council’s Public Services by Design Programme