The public sector needs to take a leaf out of the design industry’s book and understand how users experience services, says Mat Hunter.
Last month I upgraded my satellite TV subscription to be ready for hours of HD London 2012 sporting action. I signed into my account over the internet, hit a couple of buttons and was done by the time my two-year-old daughter woke up from a nap. Later this week I intend to book a holiday, pay a few bills and do the food shopping, all via the internet, and I expect the experiences to be equally hassle free.
What’s remarkable is that these different experiences are so similar, despite the diverse range of industries and institutions involved. Just a few years ago, setting up a television subscription, buying vegetables and carrying out personal banking all happened in very different contexts and in very different ways. The universal platform that is the internet has meant services have been re-designed so they are simpler and more similar.
It has been a hard lesson for many companies – consumers now expect similar levels of service across diverse industries – but that lesson has now been learned – mostly.
However, the public sector has been somewhat slower to come round to the idea that a well-designed consumer experience matters. When you don’t face competition in your market, why bother? In these times of austerity, surely we can’t actually afford to create slick, user-friendly experiences?
Whether you believe in a moral duty to offer citizens a better experience, better designed services usually mean lower delivery costs for the public sector. The simple truth is that a poor consumer experience creates noise in the system, and that noise feeds back on the providers of public services.
Let me start with two examples that actually live in the real world (not online), which demonstate how better customer experiences mean lower delivery costs.
A couple of years ago, the Design Council’s Public Services by Design team was asked to take a look at Lewisham Council’s housing options service. It is a vital, frontline service, and the housing options team helps those who are homeless, or about to become homeless, understand what services and support is available to them.
By helping the Lewisham team understand the service from the customers’ point of view, they were able to redesign it so that it communicated much more clearly to those that were tired, stressed or had poor English language skills. This improved communication with customers reduced confusion, which reduced repeat appointments, which reduced workload, which reduced costs. Happier customers and an estimated £7,000 invested in service design is expected to reap £360,000 savings a year.
More recently, the Design Council ran a national design challenge to find solutions to the violence and aggression experienced by staff in A & E units, a problem that costs the NHS approximately £70m a year. The problem, the designers concluded, was the lack of information provided for waiting patients, their families and friends; a failure to manage their expectations was causing frustration to boil over into anger and aggression.
The solution? A relatively inexpensive and easily retrofitable information signage system that is being installed and evaluated in the NHS trusts, all convinced that more informed customers will be happier customers, which in turn will mean safer and happier staff with less sick leave and reduced need for counselling.
And back in the online world, the power of design is being harnessed at the heart of government. Since the summer of 2011, the Government Digital Service – a crack team of designers, developers and technologists within the Cabinet Office – has been transforming the way in which citizens will access government services. Its flagship project is the single government domain (gov.uk) through which all of us will be able renew our car tax, pay council tax bills or find information on employment rights. With government websites costing well in excess of £100m per year there is plenty of efficiency to be found and they believe that good design will be at the heart of the solution. It has recently published 10 design principles to guide what the websites do.
I hope that the principles of good design will be an inspiration to the architects and deliverers of all public services and prove that happier customers cost less money.
Mat Hunter is chief design officer at the Design Council
Source: the guardian