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From user-centred design to co-design

A person holding a heap of soil in their hands

Hi, I’m Janet. I used to work at the Government Digital Service (GDS) and have also worked on digital and other types of delivery in various other bits of government, including NHS Digital and the Department for Education (DfE). 

In my current role, I’m Programme Director for the Future Farming and Countryside Programme at the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). We’re here to help farmers and land managers make farming and the countryside more sustainable and productive. You can read about our programme over on our blog.

This post is about how we’re using a co-design approach to design our policies and services, how that’s different to the user-centred approach set out in the Government Service Standard, and why that difference matters.

Start with user needs; improve digital services

The first Government Design Principle, which started life in GDS, is: start with user needs. Understanding your users and their needs is the basis of the Service Standard, and the UK government’s approach to designing and delivering digital services.

This approach helps us to understand what our users need from a particular service or transaction, and make sure that we design services that meet those needs. 

It helps us make forms work better for people. It helps us to make transactions simpler, clearer and faster. It can save us and our users a lot of time and money.

However, this approach has some important limitations when we look at things beyond relatively straightforward transactions:

  • it doesn’t help us understand the relationship between policy intent and user needs – you need to understand both in order to achieve real-world outcomes
  • it doesn’t help us with things that aren’t services such as laws, policy decisions, stewarding big complex systems like health or education, or setting and enforcing rules
  • it can lead us to miss some of the complexity of people’s lives and the context they’re operating in, because we tend to focus quite heavily on individual transactions and services rather than the wider picture

Take a user-centred approach to everything for users

When I worked in DfE, we wanted to apply user-centred ways of working to a wider range of things the department did. We also wanted to join up policy intent and user needs to achieve specific real-world outcomes, like recruiting more teachers or attracting more people into apprenticeships.

We wanted to bring together policy and delivery and make the whole department fit for the digital age, not just have a digital team as a siloed set of specialists working in very different ways to everyone else.

We wanted to do things differently, not just make things more efficient.

This required us to think about how to apply the principles of user-centred design and delivery to a broader set of things, and how to help everyone in the department develop the skills, mindset and understanding they would need to do that. That means digital skills, tools, mindset and ways of working for all public servants, not just digital teams. 

We did this because we reasoned that if we applied user-centred practices more widely in the organisation we’d have:

  • fewer bad ideas making it into delivery
  • more things working better for people
  • better policy outcomes
  • less failure and waste

We developed 6 user-centred practices for all civil servants, regardless of their particular profession or area of work:

  • define the outcome, from users’ perspective
  • understand users
  • test assumptions
  • involve users
  • observe actual behaviour
  • deliver, test, learn and adapt

This approach helped us link together policy outcomes with user needs and apply user-centred practices to a wider range of things ‒ 2 of the limitations of only using these approaches within digital teams. But it still didn’t give us ways to understand and respond to complexity.

Co-design things with users

In the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, we’ve made a commitment to co-design our policies and services with users, not just design things for them. 

That means that we work actively with farmers, land managers and other users, all the time. We identify and work through problems together through meaningful, ongoing discussions, rather than solely relying on formal consultations about policies and observational user research relating to specific transactions.

We respect, value and understand our users’ lived experiences and insights, rather than focusing only on their specific needs relating to an individual transaction or service.

For example, we’ve been working with farmers, inspectors, land managers, environmental groups to understand what’s wrong with the way environmental and other farming rules are set and enforced, and how we might improve things. We’re now going to run some experiments to try out different ways of operating to achieve better outcomes in ways that work better for our users.

We’re also running 70 tests and trials, where farmers and land managers are leading projects to try out ideas and ways of operating to help inform the design of our new policies and services. There are about 3,000 farmers involved in these tests and trials.

This co-design approach is helping us to try out a range of different ideas, in partnership with our users, all at the same time and at a small scale so that we can learn relatively quickly and efficiently and apply that learning to the design of our services as we roll them out more widely.

A few lessons

There has been plenty written about how to do effective co-design – I won’t repeat that all here. Some of the main lessons for us so far have included:

  • be honest and direct: set clear constraints, make it clear what’s up for discussion and what’s already decided, don’t waste people’s time with things that look like co-design if you aren’t really going to act on what you learn
  • build trust: people aren’t used to government officials working in a genuine co-design way, you will need to build trust over time by demonstrating that the co-design work is for real
  • this stuff is hard because it’s hard, and you won’t always get it right – learn and adapt your approach as you go
  • co-design is not about pleasing everyone all the time, it’s about respecting and taking everyone’s views and experiences into proper consideration – you will still have to make some hard decisions that not everyone will like or agree with

Right approach, right context

I’m not advocating a single approach for all circumstances here or saying that co-design is always the best way. The approach you take will depend on the particular context you’re working in and what you’re trying to achieve. But I do want to suggest that we could probably take a co-design approach with more things, more of the time, and that if we did we might get much better results.

If you’d like to follow our work, subscribe to our programme blog, “Future Farming”.

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  1. Comment by John Mortimer posted on

    It is very good to see the simplistic nature of UX, widening into some of the fundamental concepts of Design Thinking. Both moving away from simple User Needs to truer understanding of what matters, and co-creation, are both essential to embed better redesign principles in gov services.
    When we move away from simple purely transactional services, to those involving complexity, the approaches and competencies we have also need to change.
    Great to see the culture of Design Thinking emanating into the staff and collaborative working.
    Maybe this might mark a beginning of the widening of the 'Digital by Default' simplicity that crashed against the reality of citizens.

  2. Comment by Alan Rider posted on

    Great blog post Janet, and I do remember working with you from my years as Assisted Digital lead in GDS (where the simplistic 'Digital by Default' mantra lead to some real problems for vulnerable offline users, including farmers) when we were both there in the early days. Your Be Bold call to action was inspirational too. As I often used to say back then, and now, there are lots of clever people working in Government and on services, but the smartest person in the room is always the user. Keep that front of mind and you can't go far wrong.