How can human-centred design improve UK education?

As we approach the decade’s midpoint, increasing numbers of UK government agencies are looking inward and reassessing how their existing systems and structures are supporting those they are meant to serve.

With the constant state of change, they have become increasingly passionate about the role of comprehensive digital transformation in this, particularly its role in enabling agile and personalised processes that can improve the experiences they deliver. However, embarking on a successful digital transformation requires more than just updating technology, but also understanding how citizens will react to it.

A key part of transforming how the UK public experience government services is making them more human. After all, serving people is an agency’s purpose. And yet, one of the biggest challenges in their transformation agendas is ensuring all UK citizens have equitable access. New systems that are not used, or are not used right, do not deliver the expected return on investment. People spend time re-learning, sending questions, asking others for help, or avoiding new systems, which can negate the expected benefits that come with a digital transformation for both the agency and the people they serve.

Delivering service experiences for a populace with hugely different needs takes human-centred design. It means designing products, services, or experiences for—and with—the people who use them. It is about understanding stakeholders as people with multi-dimensional needs rather than as a one-size-fits-all customer segment. It is about seeing people through the lens of their life moments. Think of it as problem solving with immersive empathy.

Recent research highlights the clear opportunity for government departments to bring humanity into these experiences. It reveals that one in three people in the country feels treated more like a number than a human when they receive public services. Not only is this finding eye opening, but in addition, 30% think that agencies don’t treat their concerns with sensitivity, which is up from 20% in 2019. 

The irony here is that while human-centred design can profoundly transform experiences, putting people first is innovative (which is good) and disruptive (which is challenging). Departments can sometimes be reluctant to pursue something so different and unfamiliar. Yet increasingly, they want to push against the status quo to improve experiences.

Education is one of the areas that is seeing this change occur. Covid-19 was, in one way, the “tech tipping point” for teachers, students and administrators across the country.

Although schooling faced considerable challenges, the UK education sector rallied to find solutions and kept learning institutions up and running. The changes implemented by digital transformation not only helped manage pandemic disruption, but also laid the template and platforms for education to take its transformation agenda in a more truly human-centred design direction: putting all parties involved and their needs front and centre.

Lessons from across the pond 

One example of this process in action can be seen across the pond in the state of Tennessee and the launch of Best for All Central. Created by the state’s Department of Education, it is a one-stop, online resource for administrators, educators, students, and parents.  While numerous other educational organisations also quickly stood up these types of portals, Tennessee used it as a springboard to advance the department’s desire to advance equity and access to high-quality educational materials, leveraging the momentum of the rapid pivot to “turn on” virtual schools for the state’s nursery through secondary students.

With the platform established during the pandemic era, the department then started to explore the next evolution and how to better deliver on its mission of equitable access. Over the course of four months they used a collaborative human-centred design approach to map out the next evolution of Best for All, which included surveying numerous stakeholders and focus groups.

The result was the identification of several future state experience concepts including an interface refresh, onboarding tour, personalized dashboards, and an educator learning portal. They are among several enhancements that are now helping the Department give education stakeholders (from students, to administrators, teachers, caregivers, and parents) what they need to improve educational outcomes for the people of Tennessee.

In addition, the process created several different and unique “personas” that represent and document the specific needs and motivations of different stakeholder groups. Personas provide a way for government communicators, UX designers, content strategists, development teams and other citizen facing departments to understand and segment the public. With established personas, education teams can develop content, products, and conversations that are tailored to the mindset of the relevant audience. It all leads to experiences that put the end user first.

A shift in mindset

Human-centred design demands a department’s willingness to experiment—to evaluate, learn and tweak based on feedback on concepts and prototypes that are not finished. This iterative way of working is often alien in public service. But it is key for getting to solutions faster without wasted investment and for providing outcomes tailored to the people being served.  

Embracing human-centred design requires a big shift in mindset, but it is possible and more importantly it’s necessary in UK’s public services. While it is human nature to come into a big project with assumptions, it is possible and even – dare we say more fun - to come in with open minds. Instead of embarking on a journey to validate preconceived notions, using human-centred design listens for possibilities. Because who knows better than the people who use a service what the experience should be?

Written by Avik Batra, Managing Director, Service Transformation at Accenture, and Bree Fouss, Service Design Lead at Accenture Song.

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