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How to design inclusive local services

By Coca Rivas, director of design at dxw

When designing public services, we know that every demographic needs to be considered – there is no ‘one size fits all’, and it’s vital to make sure the needs of some of the most vulnerable don’t go unnoticed.

Without inclusive design, some people will find it hard to access the services they need. Others will simply fall through the cracks. This feeds dissatisfaction with public services as a whole and keeps widening the digital divide.

So, what are the first steps you should take as a local authority to make sure you are designing services that meet the diverse needs of your community? The GDS design principles provide a good starting point, though these need to be properly embedded within your policies. It’s also important to remember that while making services accessible is one factor, truly inclusive services which are built for everyone is what the public sector needs. As many ambitious local authorities know, good design is the foundation for that.

Understand your needs

When building a digital service for your council – especially from the ground up – the first step is to understand what needs fixing. What isn’t working for your users?

To identify the pain points for people using your product or service, you will need to carry out some user research. Do some usability testing and review the data to understand people’s journey and anything that is acting as a barrier. Is the process easy to follow? Is the language clear for everyone? Are you meeting accessibility needs?

Understanding excluded people though, requires a different approach. That needs community engagement, seeing the context in which people live and understanding their experiences. It means going into that environment and having a conversation with local people, or with the local charities and organisations which help groups that are seldom heard or under-represented.

If you’re working with a digital partner to build your service, make sure they understand the importance of this type of research.

Promoting equity

We know there are many different reasons why people don’t or wouldn’t be able to use a service. There is a tendency in public services to evaluate and make decisions based on the things that will benefit the majority. This frequently leads to exclusion because public services are more often there to support those in need, at times of need.

Understanding this will change the design choices you make. To avoid exclusion, councils should instead be prioritising approaches that promote equity. Exploring the context and history of a service or problem gives you space to learn which groups have been under-represented, or have experienced poor access in the past. Centering research and the design process around those groups will help you create a genuinely inclusive service.

The steps to inclusive design

In general, good, and by definition, inclusive design should be underpinned by a solid set of principles that you always adhere to. Below are five important principles that can help set the foundations for service design by local authorities:

  • Find the truth

Do your research properly and be clear about the challenges you face as a council, so the evidence is there for you to make the case for designing the service in the first place. There is plenty of commonality between local authorities, whether it’s paying council tax or accessing support, so there is real benefit to be had from sharing knowledge and understanding common patterns.

  • Take ethics seriously

Remember that when you are carrying out research you are dealing with sensitive citizen data, and take steps to keep it secure.

  • Be methodical

Be methodical, but not rigid. When carrying out research, teams should have the freedom to be creative as long as this is founded on a strong understanding of the context. Make sure it isn’t a tick-box exercise, and keep a good balance.

  • Make the research inclusive

What kind of research activities will you carry out to include groups that weren’t represented before? Make sure you engage with different communities, understand their culture and language, and how they respond to different messages.

  • Build on existing evidence

Use what you already know and tap into existing research. This could be academic research, work done by other councils, or feedback you have from existing users or third sector partners.

The right to access public services

Accessing public services should be a right, not a privilege, so local authorities should be focusing on providing truly inclusive services. Good design enabled by research is the process to get you there.

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