User-centred design in public services: What now and what next?

A balanced look at desirability, feasibility and viability can help us navigate the increased scope and challenge for User-centred Design in public services

Rebecca Kemp, our Design Director at Future Foundry was invited to give the opening keynote at Service Design in Government 2022. “SDinGOV” is an International community event, designed to support professionals who manage, design or develop services for governmental, health, educational, emergency or civic technology organisations. This year it was hosted in Edinburgh on Wednesday 28th – Friday 30th September 2022.

Here’s Rebecca’s highlights from her talk “User-Centred Design in Public Services - What Now and What Next?

I’ve been lucky to work in user-centred design in central government and the non-profit sector for 10 years, and we are approaching the 10 year anniversary of the Service Design in Government Conference. The crowd-sourced theme of this year’s conference is ‘What now and what next for user-centred design in public services?’, so I’m sharing these thoughts to get us started.

There is more need than ever for User-Centred Design in public services

The ongoing effects of the covid-19 pandemic plus the cost of living crisis are placing increasing demand on public services. People with the highest levels of access needs are likely to be most affected, and in need of services that work in the moments they need most support. User-centred design approaches can be used to great effect here, to make sure services are inclusive and accessible. User Centred Design professionals are ideally placed to bridge the gap between policy and economic aims, and the daily experiences of individuals and communities.

A time of growth and challenge for the User-Centred Design community

This context provides a huge opportunity for User-centred Design experts to contribute to improving public services. The community has grown in ranks and capability over recent years, and it’s fantastic for old-timers like me to see so many new faces at events like Service Design in Government. We delivered more quickly and at more scale than before, with just two examples being the NHS Covid App and my previous team at Citizens Advice.

This growth has helped colleagues from other professions understand more about what User-centred Design can deliver at scale. But it may have raised unhelpful expectations about pace and resilience. Individuals and teams delivered extraordinary things during the pandemic, but working at this intensity long-term can lead to burnout. We need to pace ourselves in our lives and in our jobs.

Let’s do more on viability

Within that context, how can we evolve our methodologies? During my public sector work, I relied on the GDS Service Manual for guidance. Here at Future Foundry we share the focus on desirability and feasibility, but we place more emphasis on viability than I’ve seen in public sector design work. Viability is about the financial or social value we expect an experience or proposition to return, the costs and the overall business model. This helps us focus on which propositions really should be taken forward. It gives us discipline by tying the costs of delivery precisely to the anticipated value.

Commercials and business models might feel far from our design comfort zones. But let’s embrace them as a way to prioritise where we can add value, and hold ourselves to account on creating better public services. A balanced look at desirability, feasibility and viability can help us navigate the increased scope and challenge for User-centred Design in public services - which we must do to help people get the services they need.

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