Reflections on what might have been
I’m grateful to John Fisher, CEO of Citizens On Line, for a conversation we had about supply and demand, digital inclusion and the way that it’s supply led. I’ve been looking at the American experience; the whole social media idea appears to be far more embedded there than here. That may be just an impression but I think it stems from the social media phenomenon being driven by consumers. The desire to influence products and product quality has taken hold so that the social media environment is a way of talking publicly about a product or service experience. This means that in America, politics is getting wise to a consumer driven experience and is getting engaged with consumers. Here in the UK politics is driving the initiative and trying to get consumers engaged.
The consequence is that the supply side has overcapacity. We are awash with initiatives and yet 29% of people in the UK still do not engage with “digital”. At the same time, politics seeks not only to drive the initiative but also to control the dialogue. This is partly because of the nature of local authorities that tend to be hierarchical and inward looking. This means that messages flow down and outwards, not in and upwards.
If it’s not supply led, then what is a “Core offer” for digital inclusion? Lyndsay Grant of NESTA (Grant, 2008) highlights the generally accepted benefits of digital inclusion, improved access to learning and skills, and subsequently to employment and also to provide a citizen voice. We need, she says, new modes of learning and access to make a voice heard and an understanding that projects work best in the locality for which they are designed – we cannot change the world. Her view is that a user centred approach in the design of learning is appropriate, it is socially just, powerless people have power when they are involved in the process and to enable this articulation learners must be supported by means of scaffolding.
I find this way of thinking attractive. I do not believe that a knowledge economy is possible without a knowledge society.
On the same theme of design a piece by Robert Fabricant takes a slightly different view of user centric design:
“We have been operating under the assumption that the primary challenge is to convince businesses to focus on fulfilling user needs with higher quality products, with more meaningful experiences? But what if the ‘users’ themselves are the problem?” (Fabricant, 2009)
Fabricant argues that a User Centric Design process will emphasise the benefits of an experience, such as ‘convenience’ rather than more meaningful sources of social value. I take this to be alluding to the situation we see when people are asked how they would like to access Local Authority Services. The majority will say, by telephone! Thus the “Death Star” is born and “one stop shop” call centres spring up all over the country. No matter how good the scripts and no matter how well trained the staff, what sort of social value is created and what sort of user experience do we have?
In short, Fabricant argues, user behaviour is always subject to influence. While Fabricant is speaking in the context of design generally it strikes me that his principles can, and should, apply equally to the design of services. His idea is that design should be for social systems, not individual needs because: “it is within cooperative systems that personal fulfilment has the best chance of intersecting with broader social values. “
“Social innovation in the age of networks is a process of change where new ideas are generated by actors directly involved in the problem to be solved.” While participatory design can be used as a technique within a standard UCD process, social media technologies are allowing it to play a more transformative role.” (Fabricant, 2009)
Lean thinking has gained a lot of traction in local government, particularly in process re-engineering for call centre delivery. Lean originated out of Japanese manufacturing and by a process of iteration, involving the people who actually did the work, it developed very efficient processes. The problem with Lean thinking is that it tends to emphasise the supply side experience.
I was fortunate to be a part of a workshop for the participants of the Digital Challenge competition led by Jonathan Drori, now a member of the action group for the Digital Champion, Martha Lane-Fox. The workshop looked at market segmentation, the creation of archetypes and the development of scenarios. It was a day well spent. There is a thought provoking presentation by Hugh Graham which looks at a process of design using emerging stories. He promotes a very similar approach to design:
Understand the context
Fail early and often (Graham, 2008)
The difference between this approach and the Lean method is that it develops the design through the user experience and then tests the design through a number of different user experiences. In a sense it forms the scaffolding that Grant talks about while avoiding the pitfalls that Fabricant highlights.
So what does all of this tell us about the “Core Offer” for digital inclusion. I believe that the core offer should arise from the dialogue with the final 29% not from a selection from the existing supply side, in other words, capture the emergent story rather than develop the supply side offer . What does this look like? It delivers something that people want now. It delivers through friends and trusted agents. This means that we must build the capacity of the front line services. What of the existing supply side? It has to be there, there has to be a place for people to go next, it is what it is, but I doubt that it is the Core Offer.