What we learnt from the International Design in Government conference

Blog post by content designers Sian Addicott and Robert Gray, and user researcher and designer David Monaghan.

At the end of June, over 200 delegates from over 13 countries descended on Edinburgh for the International Design in Government Summer Conference. Several of us from teams across Registers of Scotland were lucky enough to be there.

The theme for the conference was participatory design. It was really interesting to hear different approaches to involving public in the design process, whether that be service design, policy design, or content design. Here are our top takeaways from the conference.

Everyone is in the same boat

Many of the themes that came across from places as diverse as Finland, New Zealand and Canada were repeated. As a community we’re making huge steps forward to designing products and services from the user’s perspective and involving the user in the process.

But we’re not where we want to be yet. We’re increasingly designing in partnership with citizens, but there are still another 2 rungs of the participatory design ladder to go. We are moving beyond tokenism, though, and this is great progress.

Design at the beginning, not the end

This sounds like a straightforward idea but from the chats we had at the design conference, things rarely work like this. For example, the Ministry of Justice’s workshop looked at user engagement and policymakers.

The workshop suggested that business needs tend to be seen as more valuable than what users need. This often aligns with the idea that simplifying policies won’t attract an intelligent enough audience to the content.

When policies go external, designers usually send the content back with edits to make it more readable for citizen users. This then leads to an often endless loop of re-edits and the content going up and down the policy ladder. This workshop helped us see the process from both points of view. Each group had at least one person who had worked in policy in a previous life.

This let us bounce ideas off them for how collaboration between both disciplines could be improved. Two themes came out of the chats: one, designers need to understand the message policy is aiming for; and two, designers should run workshops on user engagement for policy.

Accessibility and inclusion are being taken more seriously

The keynote speaker at the conference was the brilliant Dr Sally Witcher from Inclusion Scotland. She outlined very clearly how important inclusion is when designing services.

The event itself was also an impressively accessible event, with live subtitles for every presentation and BSL translation for the keynote speeches. It is vital that, as a community, we lead the way.

We must involve citizens ethically

How do we ensure that users are not left more vulnerable by the design process? We need to remember to display our humanity.

The phrase ‘feedback fatigue’ cropped up many times. If citizens are involved in the participatory design process, the process must be inclusive, respectful and leave people feeling valued.

With great service design comes great responsibility

Echoed across multiple talks was the theme of ‘responsibility in service design’. From the accessibility keynote on Monday through to talks given by Alzheimer Scotland and the Department of Work and Pensions, they all showed that small changes can have big impacts.

The difference is when change is based on research that has looked at the service holistically, and the correct decisions are made that have positive impacts for people.

Alzheimer Scotland provide free home tech assessments for those how have been diagnosed and carefully look to how inexpensive off the shelf technology can positively help the individual affected as well as their family. As a contrast, DWP shared some of their research around framing some of the most difficult questions people can face when applying for Universal Credit around being terminally ill.

They had to step back and look at the wider context of applicant’s lives and how they better connect services to make this easier at very difficult times in people’s lives. Both examined small details within people’s lives, but looked at them from a bigger ‘service’ perspective in order to make them work better.

What do you think?

Do you work in the service design discipline or simply curious as to how we’re embedding service design here at Registers of Scotland? We’d love to hear your comments on this article! Let us know below or get in touch with us on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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