Tailor-made services for citizens, a designer community is born

Designers Italia calls upon the world of design, both inside and outside the Public Administration: to strengthen the role of design thinking in the planning of digital public services

by Matteo De Santi and Lorenzo Fabbri

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano

Image credits: Discoveryuno, Nooone, Eli_chan, Divemastervivi, Liralen. Graphic design: Matteo de Santi.

Vittorio is worried: he has to pay for school meals for his kids right in the middle of a critical work day (he should have done it the day before, but he didn’t get to it in time). Marta reviews the clinical examinations she will need to bring to her doctor tomorrow: she is frightened, her hands are sweaty, and her heartbeat is a little faster than usual. Giorgio is angry, with himself more than with the police: the last thing he needs is another fine. Marco and Laura have their heads in the clouds (is it possible they’re in love?): they forgot to ask for some documents in time, documents indispensable to completing the latest formalities in preparation for their marriage.

Credit: Discoveryuno on Flickr

Vittorio, father of two children, Marta, hospital patient, Giorgio, always driving his car a little too fast, Marco and Laura, about to get married. These are citizens who have something in common: they are all dealing with public services that, thanks to the Internet, are now available in digital form.

Of course, these services are not widely used yet, but within a few years, most people will be using the Internet as their main tool of communication with the Public Administration. This will lead to incredible savings in time and money. Digital technologies are changing our lives, how we access information, obtain services, contact experts, or relate to the state: they help simplify things and, if done well, reduce processing time and the possibility of errors as well as costs.

But, there is a second factor that unites the affairs of Vittorio, Marta, Giorgio, Marco and Laura, and that is that they are all finding themselves getting in touch with their emotions. We rarely describe ourselves through our feelings, preferring instead to paint ourselves as rational, coherent, purpose-oriented. But the fact is, let’s admit it, we’re not being totally honest. The truth is we are inconsistent, distracted or superficial, and sometimes we overwhelm ourselves with our own emotions.

Credit: Nooone on Flickr

And then there’s the fact that we are incredibly different from each other: unique and yes, even unpredictable. This is where the role of digital design emerges, which has, over the last few years, established its key role as the glue between technology and people, a contact zone between bit and emotion. The mission of design today, in the modern sense of human-centered design, according to the principles of design thinking and, in the context of studies of human-computer interaction (HCI), is to be a meeting point between technologies and people.

Digital is changing the form of public services: the role of design is precisely that of keeping the citizen at the heart of this transformation process by putting technology at his or her service.

Designers Italy was born to improve the lives of citizens

Today we present Designers Italia, which we have worked within the past few months in collaboration with AgID and which represents an evolution of the “Design guidelines for Public Administration web services” project. Designers Italia wants to be this meeting point and to do it, it must call the entire world of design to the table, both inside and outside of the Public Administration. Our goals:

  • to seek to understand citizens across the complexity of situations, needs, and moods in which they live;
  • to include the people’s point of view in the process of designing and choosing technologies;
  • work hard to make technology simpler, through a process of continuous improvement;
  • help people understand the new digital tools and give them ways to familiarize themselves with the changes.

In these years we have learned one thing: if procedures and technologies are complex, users will get tired and frustrated. However, if you can simplify and build a relationship of trust, then people become an incredible ally in the establishment of effective public services.

The challenge is this: to make citizens feel comfortable, to ensure that technology is experienced as a worthy ally for obtaining certificates, getting information, booking an appointment or paying a fine, and not a source of frustration.

Of course, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to come up with solutions that take into account the unpredictability of human behavior, the variety of situations and needs, and earn citizen collaboration. To do this, we strongly emphasize the importance of design in improving the lives of citizens, and we support the central role that it needs to have in designing public services. We wrote about it a few months ago, at the beginning of this adventure, in Diego’s post that talks about the projects we are working on and the technological principles of our team:

Because digital products and their interfaces are a living body (…) We would like to introduce a logic of development and continual improvement. We want to think about language and together rewrite the principles of communication that exist between the Public Administration, enterprises and citizens.

And, more specifically:

(…) we can fit the whole world into our pocket with our telephones, we also need to be able to fit public services. To achieve this objective, we intend to offer guidelines, examples and rapid software development kits that can help administrations provide a modern, coherent, and simple user experience for all citizens.

Made to measure services, serving the community

To achieve this result, you need skills, a huge amount of work, and a lot of passion. We have started to take some concrete steps forward, for example, by developing a new version of the PagoPA platform that allows — and will allow more and more in the coming months – to pay fines, taxes and services online, like school meals (we talked about it here, in the post by Giuseppe Virgone). But, we can’t do this alone.

We know there are incredible energies inside and outside of the Public Administration, the issue is knowing how to activate them. That is why today we are launching a community that acts as a reference point for the design of public services.

Designers Italia wants to be the community for those who recognize the principles of design thinking, both inside and outside the public administration, and for those who want to collaborate to strengthen the social and public impact of digital design. The site is first and foremost a community of practices: we want to strengthen skills, encourage networking, facilitate the encounter between supply and demand. On the site, people can talk about concrete projects that can synchronize people with the country’s top priorities. We can compare best practices, thanks to a forum with sections dedicated to service design, user research, content design and user interface design. In each area we publish kits, which are a set of tools available to everyone: guides, checklists and templates, prototyping tools, and open source code to create digital services without ever having to “reinvent the wheel”.

Today, among the many novelties, we like to point out that we are, for the first time, proposing a UI Kit for the Public Administration, and we will be launching it as a project open to the contributions of all designers (the UI kit stands alongside the software development kit for public sites).

And because we believe that it is important to talk to designers, especially in places where designers like to hang out, we have chosen to host the project on Behance, the international design community, where from now on there is a space dedicated to the design of the Italian Public Administration.

More generally, the kits we provide are a starting point for designing prototypes of sites and services, reducing complexity and improving user experience. There is also a section dedicated to the design of infrastructure services (like the PagoPA payment system) and to the various types of sites and services (for example, municipality sites). Naturally, all the published material is open source, subject to constant changes and improvements thanks to the community’s contributions. The management of the community will be entrusted to the Digital Transformation Team, in collaboration with AgID, and a network of collaborators we will identify in June: all designers with different specializations (from user interface to content, from information architecture to research). We are heading in the direction of the creation of a real and proper “design system” of the Public Administration.

All the tools available on the Designers Italia website: towards a design system for the Public Administration

The model we have in mind is an open model that invites all people in the Public Administration who recognize themselves in the principles and techniques of design to come forward. Our aim is to foster dialogue with private subjects, encouraging everyone to participate: freelancers, small software houses and specialized design agencies.

The design system we offer intends to:

  • affirm shared standards. The community serves to improve these standards and to evolve them through the sharing of experiences: for this reason, there is a forum with several discussion threads and a blog that presents study cases and trends in design. We ask all people involved in design within the Public Administration to come forward and contribute;
  • foster dialogue between external professionals and the world of public administration. For this, we will devote space to information and operating tools on how to organize and participate in a public procurement. We ask all professionals interested in working to improve public services to come forward and participate;
  • leverage common solutions, such as the PagoPA payment system, in order to initiate a process of continuous improvement and encourage adoption by as many administrations as possible;
  • create site and service templates, and for that we will launch pilot projects in different areas (for example, Municipalities) and then start a process that will allow us to generalize the solutions identified and thus, to make them available to others.

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Technology and people: developers and designers

There is a memorable scene in the Simpsons, the famous cartoon series by Matt Groening (one of the most recognizable manifestations of contemporary pop culture), in which Homer finds himself having to deal with a nuclear meltdown. In this particular episode, Homer is working as the safety inspector at the local nuclear power plant. He is stationed at a large command dashboard and when the alarm sounds, the responsibility for intervention is his. All the lights start blinking and sounding, the countdown starts, Homer has a few seconds to make a decision. He does not know what to do and starts to panic, he looks wildly through the instruction book before returning to a memory of a training many years before in which the instructor – while Homer was distracted – had tried to tell him what to do. In the meantime, the clock is ticking, there are only a few seconds left in the countdown, there’s nothing else for it but to try a random button. Homer closes his eyes, pushes the button and, as if by magic, the nuclear fusion stops, everyone is safe, the danger has passed.

Homer and technology

This story has a lot to tell us about the relationship between people and technology, and more generally about the design of services. As longtime fans of the series, we find ourselves in Homer’s defense: we wonder why the alarm system was designed so badly to put poor Homer in serious trouble. Hadn’t anyone thought of a way to keep him awake? Why does he have to control such a complex thing by himself? And why, in the most critical phase, is he totally isolated? Do the procedures take into account the possibility that the controller has a panic crisis? Because yes, these things can happen. And also, why are the buttons blinking and sounding all at the same time?

But this isn’t just the instinctive reaction of two Simpsons fans, accustomed to forgiving Homer everything (how can we not love him?). These are also the questions a good team has to ask itself every time it designs a technology system, to make sure that it has been made to the measure of a real person. And of course, if design is to be the bridge between technology and citizens, the design community will have a privileged relationship with Developers Italia, the public service developer community we launched a few months ago, which was discussed in the post by Giovanni Bajo. We will launch joint projects to foster collaboration between designers and developers.

Developers Italia, the community of public service developers

We like to think that Designers Italia can become a place where the right questions are generated, questions that will help properly guide investment choices and the development of public projects, and a space in which every day, problems are solved with competence, passion – and why not? – a healthy obsession with simplification.