Are the design cycles of digital products and services in lockstep with the lifecycles of the people they are created to serve?

Brian Dargan, Strategy Director at Mentally Friendly*

William Gibson once said “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed”, and he was right. The proof lives in Silicon Valley, where the majority of unicorns and startups are founded and run by people in their 20s and 30s. And either by accident or by design, their products and services seem to appeal primarily to city-dwelling millennials. Which is all well and good for companies in the private sector who can be ruthless in focusing on a target market at the exclusion of all others. But how do you do that in the public sector, where your users are everyone and digital literacy is varied? How do you choose which services should be digitally re-invented and which should not? Making choices is also more complicated that being single minded, it also requires a more strategic point of view as strategy is all about what you have to sacrifice to achieve your objective.

When you’re designing for government you’re designing for everyone. Or as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “Government [is] of the people, by the people, for the people” — not just young urbanites with a high disposable income and a sense of novelty when it comes to digitally disrupting an existing product or service. How do you design useful digital services for a middle aged, middle class audience with an average level of digital literacy? With an aim to digitise 70% of government services before 2019, this is the challenge that the New South Wales Department of Finance, Services, and Innovation (NSW DFSI) asked us — Sydney-based digital product and service design studio, Mentally Friendly — to explore.

We know that the only way to effectively design seamless solutions which meet real user needs is through codesign. So, in the interest of designing for ‘the people’, we (Mentally Friendly and NSW DFSI) decided to design ‘with the people’ to prioritise which NSW government services and transactions could and should be digitised. Over eight weeks we ran four agile research sprints using co-design and design thinking methodology. Our focus was to uncover insights through workshops involving a diverse range of citizen-customers to inform the priorities for NSW Government’s Digital Government Strategy.

So, where do you start when somebody asks you to find out what the 7 million people who live in NSW and use government services want? “You must first define reality”, as Jack Welch or Max Du Pree both once said. While we could never have hoped or dreamed to go and speak to 7 million people (certainly not in eight weeks), we could segment the NSW population based on what we know to be reality. We know that no matter who you are or where you hail from, a person will have some level of engagement with government services (low or high) and some level of digital literacy (low or high). And thus, a segmentation framework, which defined reality, was formed.

Upon workshopping to citizen-customers from each of these segments, we uncovered six personas, and a life cycle in which they each have a place. Within the low government engagement, high digital literacy segment, we have Jennifer — she’s a 25 year old “digital native” who won’t wait more than 30 seconds for a website to load and is sick of getting calls from her parents about how to use their smartphones. Up in the high government engagement, high digital literacy, we have ‘Janani’ and ‘Patricia’, 41. Janani is a 32 year-old who, like Jennifer, is a bit of a digital fiend. Meanwhile, Patricia -10 years Janani’s senior — is starting to fall “behind the times”. Though she can get from A to B using her handy Google Maps app, she’s not exactly a regular on Uber.

Moving over to the lower end of the digital literacy axis, we have ‘Paul’ (51) and ‘Charles’ (62) — who both have a high engagement with government services, and ‘Elia’ (72) — who has a low engagement with government services. Charles and Elia share a distrust of Government and its use of technology, which Elia captures eloquently when he grouches “I don’t trust the bastards!” while waving his walking cane in the air. Paul hasn’t quite reached Elia’s level of cynicism just yet, but let’s just say he’s not exactly undergone a seamless digital transition. You might find him sorting through the junk in his email inbox one by one, just as he would his letterbox, thinking “is there no way to stop this junk coming through!”

Each persona desires specific functions from the digitisation of services, unique to their position in the lifecycle. For Jennifer and Janani, it’s all about innovation, innovation, innovation. The Jennifer’s and Janani’s of the world are the ones who most of the private sector’s digital services are tailored to currently, as they’re built by their peers. But as time passes and age shifts us along this mortal coil, engagement with government services increases while digital literacy plateaus and eventually everyone becomes their own version of Charles and Paul.

Charles and Paul have been paying taxes for 30 odd years, they’ve had kids, they’ve put them through the school system, they’ve paid more parking fines and had more doctors appointments than they care to remember. It’s all starting to get a bit repetitive, but they sure as hell don’t like change. With all this in mind, Charles and Paul don’t ask for much — just make things more efficient, please. They don’t need a reinvention of the wheel, they have specific tasks that they need to do and they just want digital to make it more efficient for them.

Yet As distinct and diverse as our six citizen-customer personas and their needs are, we discovered four principles they can all agree on:

There’s an inherent tension between generations which technology only magnifies. As the poet Philip Larkin reflected “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad” little did he know that in revenge for this, the young would work to fuck up the internet so Mums and Dads would end up not enjoying using it. If we’re to live like happy families in this digital world we need a set of universal principles — guidelines by which we should design all digital products and services intended for general public use.

*Like everything we do at Mentally Friendly, this article is an example of co-design

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