You’ve got to look at the whole service

Avoiding the solution

It’s the easiest thing in the world. Looking at a service on the face of it, and making a decision on a solution before you’ve really understood what the problem is. There is a gimmicky term for it called Solutionising (sorry). It happens everywhere and more recently it happened in the Home Office where I’m helping out as a User Researcher. It was nobody’s fault and the key is we caught it before it was too late.

Making things “digital by default” is sometimes misleading Digital by Default is a great stance but can lead you to think of digital solutions instead of the underlying problem

On our team we’ve been tasked with reducing paper from the customer journey and making the act of proving things simpler. More specifically we’re looking to remove the need for applicants to send in paper bank statements stamped by the issuing bank. Naturally we saw in parts of the business that these bank statements are common.

We were working on settlement applications and digging a little deeper into the cases we saw a strong correlation. Applications with a legal representative had a lot more documentation compared to those without. We receive around 40,000 applications which include legal representatives on this specific application route. Digging even further we then realised that we don’t actually ask for bank statements at all as part of this application and it turns out that the legal representatives are just sending in this extra paperwork driven by hope that it will improve the chances of an approval. We were about to design a solution for a need that actually doesn’t exist. The real need is for the user to understand more accurately what they do and don’t need to prove and how we need to go about completing this;

  1. What do people send in that we don’t even look at?
  2. How can we better inform the user of that?
  3. What do we really need to know?
  4. How can we most efficiently capture that evidence?
    For example, do we already hold that information elsewhere in Government?

The real problem of proving things to government

It’s a problem that’s rife throughout the Home Office but it’s also a government wide issue. People sending in evidence to prove things which can’t be used as evidence. Family photos, school yearbooks, their kids sketchbook, leaflets they receive through the post, an MOT test certificate, a death certificate… This is all an attempt to prove why their application should be approved and be allowed to stay in the country and could be a lack of information, an attempt to encourage empathy or a lack of confidence in the process. It’s sad when a person feels the need prove their partner is officially dead when in this specific case we didn’t ask for it.

These people (who have to spend days building their application) are sending in their most prized possessions, and the Home Office has to accept and return all these documents at huge expense. It’s a real shame (but understandable) that they feel in such a position that they’re willing to risk losing a piece of their family history, for the ultimate goal of just being allowed to continue their life in this country. Empathy is the key here throughout the research and design process and in addition to asking for “mandatory documents” we should also be thinking about “things we don’t need you to send us” or “what can we do to reduce paper we didn’t ask for?”. The Home Office benefits with less paper, the customer doesn’t have to send in that original self portrait their kid drew when they were 4 years old.

Look at the service and you’ll find things hidden in there which are easier to fix than you think. We’ve got a lot of work to do in the Home Office but we’re working hard to make things simpler, easier and less traumatic for everyone involved.