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7 areas where human-centred design was exceptionally useful in the public sector during COVID-19

By December 5, 2021July 8th, 2023All, Direction7 min read



Published on December 5, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 mins
Data and humans can interact to provide solutions
  • The problem: Adopting a human centred design approach to public service transformation can be a lengthy exercise.
  • Why it matters: How to apply a highly structured approach to public service transformation and continue to inspire timely decision making is extremely critical during a pandemic.
  • The solution: The pandemic pressure proved to be a great opportunity to test some of the core principles of human centred design. Embracing a good character, focusing on what matters most and practicing an evidence based judgment continue to be not only doable but also necessary.

The pandemic has revived our faith in the human ability to adapt and survive during challenging times. Many of us have shown our appreciation for health care workers’ tremendous fight on the front lines. We’ve seen mums inventing hugging machines to let their kids safely hug their grandmas and grandpas. We were fascinated by creative ideas for weddings, marriage proposals and the announcement of newborn babies.

As design becomes a bigger part of decision-making and programme development in governments, it is critical to engage in inclusive design.

As advisors to governments, we have too witnessed another silver lining to the pandemic. Here are seven ways it’s brought the best out of the human-centred design discipline and the people who work in it.

We’ve used data to prioritise

Human-centred designers in the public sector are always advised to focus on what’s important. But this is challenging when everything is urgent.

Data is a designers’ best friend during a pandemic. And when we combine quantitative data analysis with qualitative techniques, it can help us determine which of the needs of citizens demand the greatest attention. If the way a citizen interacts with a service — their customer journey — doesn’t work well, sometimes a couple of hours spent answering questions is super useful. Who is affected? When and where does the citizen struggle? Why is it happening? These questions can really help you ensure your service creates value for those who most need it, in areas that are most impactful.

Consider this example. An entire application process for financial benefits offered by a government agency was moved online during the Covid-19 pandemic. Citizens complained that the new way to apply was not easy to use, and the uptake of the online process was very slow. Designers found out that many citizens started the journey and abandoned it before it was complete. Web analytics pointed out which page had an issue and prevented people from completing their application. By using data from web analytics, designers managed to sort out the journey problem very quickly and contacted those who started the process and didn’t complete it. Because they’d already entered information, they could now complete the application process.

We’ve had to be humble

Unless you remember 1918, this is your first pandemic. No-one can feign knowledge of how we can best address it. We’ve never had to adapt our services to these circumstances, and we cannot pretend to know how the pandemic affects the diversity of citizens.

We also never had so much quantitative data at our disposal to inform our response. The challenge we may find is that a lot of nuance and richness is lost in quantitative data. Relying only on quantitative data may contribute to us designing programmes that allow many to fall through the cracks. For example, in the early stages of the pandemic labour market data in one region indicated that fewer women were losing their jobs than men. It wasn’t until we interviewed citizens about their pandemic experiences that we discovered that some women in the service industry were being furloughed as opposed to laid off, and therefore being counted as employed. This could have an impact on their ability to qualify for financial aid and other programmes designed to help. Add disruptions to childcare, homeschooling, and frequent changes to employer policies, and you get a much richer picture of how women have been affected. Quantitative data can tell us “what” and “how much”. Qualitative research can help explain “why”, and how we might do something to improve a situation.

We’ve found safer, more inclusive and cheaper ways to prototype solutions

Human-centred designers rely heavily on prototyping before a service goes live. They help when we’re experimenting with a new way to deliver the service, delivering it in a new environment, or designing a new sequence of touch points with citizens. Prototypes help us refine and win more confidence in the solution and reduce unnecessary expense in the long term.

Typically, we rely on focus groups or observations for prototyping. As the pandemic has made physical interaction all but impossible, digital means have become essential. Virtual workshops and focus groups carried out from designers’ homes are not only safe, they’re proving cost-effective for reaching a wider range of people, including historically underrepresented groups living in remote areas. Designers now can incorporate sound and inclusive feedback on initial prototypes into their journey maps in a couple of weeks or less.

We’ve worked with what we already have

Many government agencies had to make quick changes about how to continue to serve citizens safely and responsibly. Prototyping might be the last thing you want to do when you don’t have the luxury of time.

Many human-centred designers managed to strike a balance between acting quickly in the circumstances and making quality interventions to improve services. One of the things that we found particularly helpful is identifying exactly what you want to learn from the prototype before carrying it out. You could be surprised how many of your pressing questions could be answered without engaging a customer. Using existing data or role-playing with your team as customers are just a couple of ways you could use to reduce the time and cost required to prototype solutions.

We’ve trusted the science

One of the many things public sector designers have been doing during the pandemic is helping to create content to accompany newly-designed user journeys. Designers can draw upon robust research, particularly in cognitive psychology, to convey vital information effectively and increase its reach. That can reduce the amount of time we spend on trial and error, which is important given the cognitive overload we’re all experiencing and the time pressures of the pandemic.

We’ve had to produce plenty of things — but providing insights is more important

As design becomes more ubiquitous in government agencies, demand for the products of design increases. Executives are now requesting personas or journey maps. These artifacts can be great if developed and used properly. Personas help to bring evidence on citizens’ needs to the decision-making process. They humanise otherwise abstract issues.

While the demand for design in government is a good sign, it is easy to become overly focused on the artefacts.The challenge now is to help executives understand the work required to create them. “We’re dealing with a review of our social assistance programme — I need six personas by next week” is an unrealistic request if one is to produce evidence-based personas. We know that the value of design comes from the process of arriving at the artefacts and the insights that can be derived from this way of working.

Design has become a bigger part of decision-making in government

During the pandemic we saw examples of governments choosing to put the needs of citizens above process. They adopted a service orientation over a compliance orientation. It is definitely better and more important to get help to people in a timely, imperfect way, than to rigorously apply a process designed primarily to ensure those who do not qualify, do not get aid. These trade-offs demonstrate empathy and humility. Conducting rapid design research. and introducing design interventions to inform policy and programme development has helped bring empathy to the decision-making table.

As design becomes a bigger part of decision-making and programme development in governments, it is critical to engage in inclusive design. We need to treat design research as a team sport: involving executives, developers, analysts, front-liners and users as equals in the process.

This article was originally published on Apolitical


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