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Saving with user-centred design

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Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about improving service delivery and efficiency. Hundreds gathered at conferences such as the LGA Service Delivery Conference and the government-sponsored Public Sector Efficiency Expo.

Little wonder they had lots to discuss; most public service heads are being asked to look at ways they can save on their budgets, whilst teams are experiencing ever-increasing long term pressures cause by increasing demand, the need for better personalisation of services and the knock-on effects of cuts to support services in other areas.

So how do you ‘work smarter, not harder’, while saving money too? If our experience is anything to go by, the secret may well lie in a relatively new approach which uses design techniques to rethink services from the user’s point of view.

A couple of years ago we became concerned that people using our emergency housing service couldn’t always find out quickly or easily enough whether they were entitled to support. For us it’s essential to ensure swift and appropriate help for people who are in danger of losing their accommodation in order to avoid them becoming homeless – once that occurs, the social and financial costs rise hugely.

We decided to take a different approach to understanding how we could become more innovative, and joined the Design Council’s Public Services by Design programme, which allocated a ‘design associate’ to mentor us. That process led to working with service design agency Thinkpublic, and to the techniques which we used to properly understand our clients’ needs, and work out a way of better catering to them.  

So what is this magic mix of techniques? Well, it varies from challenge to challenge, but the basic principles are the same.

First, you have to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ – really find out what your users’ needs are – but using  more effective methods than the old questionnaires or focus groups. We used a variety of approaches, including workshops to identify the sorts of people who use our emergency housing services, using real clients to create composite profiles or personas around our typical users, and conducting our own design research to understand how different sorts of people felt about the Housing Options service.

We were trained in so-called ‘ethnographic’research techniques, using video cameras to record conversations with more than 20 people who were using the Housing Options Centre, observing people as they waited in the reception area, analysing the recordings and editing a short insights film which showed some key themes and areas for improvement.  Using these  techniques had the bonus benefits of developing staff skills  and, by involving them in the co-design process, fostering empathy between staff and service users.

The next principle is ‘fail early, fail cheap’ – small-scale trials of new ideas, with really regular feedback so you can quickly identify the wheat from the chaff. This reduces the risks in innovating new services and ways of working, and helps fast-track the ideas with potential for scaling up.  We used the problems identified in the films we made to come up with over 100 ideas for improving things – we drew up shortlist of four ideas that we wanted to try out.

Right First Time, for example, was an idea to improve the first interaction between customer and the service by ensuring staff know what questions to ask and what information to give. What Next Doc? was another idea to develop information design prototypes which would help housing advisers give customers a document explaining what happens after their first interview. A third idea, Fact Sheets, was about more clearly and accurately presenting details of the Housing Options service on fact sheets used by staff and customers. Finally, Storyboards was an idea to show customers what to expect while they wait to see an adviser through the illustration of various scenarios in cartoons displayed in the reception area.

The third main principle is to create a culture of innovation through a combination of visionary leadership to drive change from the top, whilst fully involving those delivering services and interfacing with users. Our process took a ‘diagonal slice’ through the organisation, so front line delivery staff were learning alongside management throughout the process – and our ‘big four’ ideas came from all levels of the organisation.  

For us, the approach has been transformative. Staff morale has improved, absence levels have reduced, money has been saved and customers are enjoying using a more efficient and appealing Housing Options service in Lewisham. We’ve calculated our estimated annual savings to be over £360,000.

When you think of design you think about plastic cups, shapes of chairs or the next big innovation - but design in public services is more than that. Design has provided a dialogue to shape social policy and to interact and engage with customers and staff to deliver real change and real savings.

So, if you’re faced with the prospect of cuts, remember; the pen may well be mightier than the sword.

Peter Gadsdon, head of strategy & performance, Lewisham LBC

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