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Users > Technology

Earlier this month, I attended the Service Design in Government Conference, with fellow Lead Consultant Sara Di Domenico, to connect with others doing similar things in government and revisit design principles and issues that are sometimes taken for granted. Here are my reflections….




The Conference opened with a fantastic key note speech from Matt Edgar (Head of Design, NHS Digital). His discussion of what is going well at NHS Digital, as well as the team required to put it in place, set a good example of how other departments might aspire to bring the disciplines of user centred design together. However, it was short, simple, sentence that stuck with me and set the tone for the rest of the Conference: “No AI before the IA”

It has already been established by the great work that my colleagues are doing at NHS Improvement, that machine learning can be a force for good in digital services. In our case – potentially saving lives: . But what Matt so succinctly said, shows that no matter how advanced, useful, or innovative the technology – if you can’t get the basic user experience right, and put your users at the centre of the design process, your service won’t work (and won’t meet the user need).

We Question Our Project and Barcelona’s Transport Department (TMB) continued the theme by considering user needs of metro signs(!). Creating new signs on the network costs TMB hundreds of thousands of Euros – and many tourists (their main users) can be left confused if they are not explicit and language neutral. However, through user research, they find that most travellers use signs at surface level, and understand where they are going prior to reaching the platform. Therefore, no matter how intelligent and interesting (think lights, colourful symbols) you make the signs, people don’t need them underground –surprisingly, if you remove them from the station entirely they are not missed. Taking away some of these signs this could save TMB a lot of money in maintenance and manufacturing. Despite this being a non-digital service the lesson is wide reaching – don’t make it if it doesn’t meet a user need.

Similarly, Molly Watt (founder The Molly Watt Trust) provided insight into using assistive technologies to help design digital services. Again – starting with the user – and doing it right from the beginning – showed how much easier it is to make the design usable. I also learnt lessons in appreciating the difference between how people who are born with, rather than develop accessibility needs, interact with digital services. Furthermore, it is important to consider that everyone at some point in their life will have (either temporarily or permanently) an accessibility need – injuring an arm, impairing your hearing through listening to music on headphones, or having deteriorating vision as we age.  These needs can be situational – there was mention of how athletics apps have appreciated this, and do it so well we probably don’t notice. Buttons are much bigger for whilst running, to appreciate your loss of motor skills – music volume is lowered when interacting with your phone, to make sure you are more aware of your surroundings whilst your vision is impaired. We didn’t need more reasons to think about accessible design – but that makes it really hard to ignore.

The entire Conference provoked thought that will be important to take back to the Informed Solutions’ UX & UR Community of Practice and share with my colleagues and also highlighted why we conduct Discovery and Alpha phases on projects to check that there is a user need, and how to address it, prior to introducing the latest technology to solve all the problems.

Richard Phillips, UR and UX Lead    

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