When user centred design of public services is a risk

If talking to users seems risky, the dangers of ignoring them are far greater.

It’s easy to involve users in designing new digital services for the public sector, such as applying for a driver’s licence. In fact, it feels obvious and sensible to do that. But sometimes involving users carries risks.

Many public services are controversial. People are sensitive to changes in the services that touch on stress points in their lives - things like bin collections and school admissions. Changes to those services are always news. If distorted rumours of changes leak to the press then project teams can find themselves under pressure or, worse, on the receiving end of political edicts that limit their ability to explore the best possible solutions.

Internal facing services can also be sensitive. Where you’re trying to change how different arms of government, agencies, or partners work together, the users will be employed by powerful stakeholders. If one of those stakeholders feels that they’re going to be forced to use a service that they don’t like, they can make life difficult for project teams.

In either of those situations, it can feel like involving users in designing public services is a risk that’s not worth taking.

But there’s a reason that the UK Government’s Digital Service Standard demands users are involved not just once, but at every stage in the process: the benefits of user centred design far outweigh the risks. User research does away with false assumptions about users, and uncovers hidden needs and problems that are essential to success.

Nevertheless, the risks are real. You do need to think about participants’ reactions to user research. You do need to frame your research questions carefully. And you do need to make sure stakeholders feel listened to.

Over the years, we’ve dealt with many sensitive relationships and difficult situations. We’ve helped launch a public health service that risked the ire of the press by being honest about the allure of illegal drugs as well as their dangers. We’ve helped design the ticketing system and fare structure for a controversial public transport service. And we’ve designed new systems that put changed working practices for influential government contractors. We’ve avoided finding ourselves in the press or seeing our clients hauled up before their political masters by following some simple principles.

People want to be on your side

People are usually pleased, curious, and flattered to take part in user research. They’re ready to be on your side; all you have to do is demonstrate your sincerity and good intentions and they’ll support you. This doesn’t need to be complicated. For instance, we make sure to thank people throughout the process - when we invite them, when they turn up, and when they’re done.

People want to be respected

People want to know that their feedback will be used thoughtfully. The more sensitive the topic, the more important this is. So it’s worth spending time during interviews to explain what happens next.

Telling people how much scope you have to change things, and how their feedback will be used shows that you trust and respect them. They will usually repay you by showing you trust and respect - even if they’re anxious about how things will work out.

Help them set priorities, not red lines

People often have conflicting requirements. When you talk to them, they can often present those requirements as red lines. But if you accept those red lines, you can be boxed into impossible positions. Instead, help participants to discuss their needs in terms of ‘priorities’. Which is most important? Where would they make trade-offs? What are the consequences of one trade off versus another? That discussion will help you to arrive at a richer understanding of their needs, and avoid sounding as though you’re making a promise to never cross a red line.

Frame your questions

Sometimes you’ll ask a question or show a design because you’re interested in finding out what won’t work. That risks upsetting your participants. Taking care to frame your questions (‘I’m about to show you something that is a very early draft’, ‘I’d like to ask you a question that may sound foolish’) signals that you’re willing to listen to negative feedback. That reduces the sense of conflict, signals that you’re flexible, and means participants are less likely to get upset.

It’s valuable to talk to difficult people

A minority of people are defensive or angry. Inevitably, it’s because someone has treated them badly in the past and they’re afraid that this time will be the same. Left alone, those people are landmines waiting to explode. But if treated properly, they will drop their opposition and can become your biggest advocates and allies.

Good interviewers are comfortable defusing anger, and prepare for that possibility. There are a few simple steps to follow here.

Step one: listen to their grievances, summarise what you’ve heard, and acknowledge the difficulties they’ve faced.

Step two: check they’ve told you everything and ask permission to propose a solution.

Step three: explain that the aim is to make the service as good as possible, and that their feedback will have an impact. Don’t oversell it. You’re not promising to be perfect, just better.

Step four: listen to their response, and be prepared to go back to step one and start again. Patience, calmness, and honesty are the most important tools here.

Keep listening

If you’re worried that someone may talk to the press, or an influential stakeholder, then you may want to ask them to sign a confidentiality agreement before they turn up.

However, producing any such agreement can be a trigger in itself - it’s hardly a sign of trust and respect. So make sure that you explain why you’re asking them to do this (‘it’s early days in our project, and we don’t have a solution that’s good enough to share’), and if you think there’s a serious risk, then make sure they can keep talking to you (‘you’ll still be able to contact us and ask us questions’).

Better that they talk to you, than they let their anxiety build up and talk to someone else.

Head towards the sound of gunfire

Years of user interviews have taught us that the most valuable conversations are the ones where people react strongly, where they say ‘no’, and where they get upset. If you avoid those conversations, you avoid the greatest opportunities to deliver an outstanding service. The secret is not to avoid conflict, but to prepare for it calmly, professionally, and confidently.

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. He's author of 'Simple and usable' and an invited speaker at design conferences around the world.