Helen Spires provides an Introduction to Design within Government

A designers skill-set

A designers skill-set

There’s a rich history of design in the public sector, but still a lot of misconceptions about what designers actually do.

Working across the various Government departments currently are a mix of Service Designers, Content Designers, Interaction Designers, User Experience (UX) Designers, Graphic Designers and Visual Designers. We often wear a mixture of these professional hats in our day-to-day jobs, as well as dipping our toe into user research, development, policy and data analysis, stakeholder management and system architecture. As designers, we need to equip ourselves with a generous arsenal of skills, champion our users, be a visible presence and support our agile team to share these design thinking skills.

Design critiques are also an essential part of this skill set. Although criticism seems inherently difficult to take, a good designer will need to learn to take the feedback from their peers, clients, and bosses to solve a particular problems. Critiques also serve to help broaden communication skills, as there is always the opportunity to articulate why you did what you did or to better explain your idea. We need to take the opportunity to learn from the points raised within a design critique and see it as an invaluable tool to bounce our design ideas around. As with learning any new skill, the more critiques we participate in, the more honed this skill will become.

The user is king

Understanding our users and their needs helps us design better services, this enables us to addresses the problems rather than focusing on solutions. It’s the reason we are employed. User journeys are useful because they help contextualise what you’re designing from the user’s perspective, and keep that point of view as the focus of design. If the whole team has a window into the users experience, it allows the team to have a shared view and everyone can contribute to and learn from it.

Yet we can’t understand our users, or their needs, if we don’t have empathy for them. Government services are used by millions of people with a wide variety of skills, circumstances, experiences and motivations. So when we design digital or other channels of services, we have to design them for everyone.

Accesibilty improves usability for eveyone

Read more at Accessibility: the GDS blog

We need to ensure that our services are accessible. Accessibility means that people can do what they need to do in a similar amount of time and effort as someone that does not have a disability. It means that people are empowered, can be independent, and will not be frustrated by something that is poorly designed or implemented.

The goal is to make our services as accessible as possible; to exclude no one. In order to do that we need to design services that can:

  • Be perceived; e.g recognition of the content or action, possibly with the aid of assistive technology,
  • Be understood; e.g simple english and common interactions are used,
  • Be operable; e.g users can navigate and complete actions easily,
  • Be robust; e.g to handle changing technologies and future infrastructure.

02. Accessibility

Image: Alistar Duggin https://accessibility.blog.gov.uk/2017/10.23/an-accessibility-reading-list/

Not having all the answers is okay

A well conceived idea is just that, an idea. If we want our design thinking to have an impact we need to get our ideas out into the wild. Proving and more importantly disproving assumptions, or hypotheses, is the key to agile methodology and a successful service. If we fail fast- we fail cheaply. So we need to challenge the idea that failure is a bad thing, when in fact every failure simply narrows the field, so that we are able to make headway in the right direction.

It’s wrong to blindly follow the most well-trodden path because that’s the easiest thing to do. It’s okay to take stock and change course; in fact it becomes the right thing to do when our user research demonstates it.

Power of prototypes

Finally, following on from challenging our assumptions, another skill-set designers have within government is prototyping. Here at the NHS we use our own prototyping toolkit, a close cousin of the GOV.UK one, so we can make and test our design ideas out with real users without the cost of development.

User testing is phenomenally powerful in helping designers solve the real problems of our users. If the design doesn’t address itself to the user need, the design is flawed. This kind of quick iterative approach allows the design to incrementally improve yet still be deliverable to tight timescales.

As designers we’re principally problem solvers, and at the NHSBSA we have some real juicy problems to solve. Although iterative digital delivery is relatively new to the department, it’s evident that design thinking plays a critical role in that successful delivery.

Featured Header Image: Kate Ivey-Williams https://designnotes.blog.gov.uk/2016/03/30/why-we-user-journey-maps-in-government