Nomensa’s head of design Will Wellesley-Davies recently hosted a webinar exploring the trials and opportunities for local government as their services become increasingly digitised. Alongside design insights and expert commentary, he also provided his vision for the future: local government that’s truly integrated into our lives, growing alongside each of us and advocating for everyone.

You can find the full video of Humanising the design of local government on our YouTube channel, but if you’d like to learn some of my key takeaways and lessons – read on.

Analytics aren’t everything

Will explains that UX design can often slip into the trap of relying too much on logic or only prioritising what is visibly evidenced. And this isn’t to say there is no space for data in design, quite the opposite in fact. Rather, we need to retain the human element to understand large numbers in context and prioritise our workstreams accordingly. Analytics can tell us that a cohort of users interact with a service in a given way, but we need to think holistically about how other tasks and services fit into this process.

Similarly, Will noted how while some services may only be used by a fraction of the public, the service rendered can be equally – if not more – important than areas of the site that generate more traffic. Consider the difference in approach necessitated by redesigning a tool that checks what day your bin will be collected as opposed to a service supporting fostering children. The former may attract more users, but the latter is essential to get right.

Keeping colours and emotions in mind

Most of us will be familiar with a colour theory, or at least have a rudimentary understanding of it spanning ‘red means danger and blue makes us happy.’ But just as typography and the flow of content can be harnessed and adapted to improve functionality, so too can colour.

"Our emotions are influenced by conscious and unconscious reactions,” Will explains. And while our lived environment drives our behaviour, staggeringly only 10% of our experiences are lived consciously. And there’s a lot of evidence behind the psychology of colour. For example, one study found that children got better exam results when they took their test in a pleasant environment.

Tapping into our innate biases and colour preferences can be a simple way of subtly shifting user perception. But choice of colour should also be dependent on the circumstance or context a design appears in. For instance, colours that cause a visceral or instinctive reaction in us may work well in branding as it helps us remember it, but such strong colours could distract or distress us when we’re moving through more functional areas of a website, like a council tax form.

Moving beyond the GOV.UK design system

To create truly human centred experiences, we have to “[put] people’s emotional needs and capabilities first.” Nowhere is this approach more evident or necessarily than in local government. Personal capabilities, limitations or disabilities must not only be considered, but designed into the very fabric of our digital systems.

But it’s not always straightforward. Will says that while every digital product always begins with the best intentions and with user needs front and centre, “design over time can be messy.” Sporadic additions to a website can tangle up its IA, while years of organic but unguided growth are further compounded by conflicting amends made by various teams and policy makers.

Before we know it, we’re facing a knotted web of digital services. So, we turn to tried and tested approaches instead of thinking beyond the GOV.UK design system. Will explains that while the GDS library is excellent for first bridging the digital gap, over time it can “strip away [a local government’s] personality. It can become less human.”

Crafting a bespoke design system speaks to the community a local government represents. Instead of relying on someone else’s assets or one-size-fits-all components, creating a design system can help forge stronger bonds with residents by speaking to them in a distinct voice. These guidelines can upskill and direct internal teams as they become more digitally mature, as well as act as a device and springboard for telling better stories.

Learn to think like an architect

Next, Will leans on architecture as a metaphor for a web build, after all architecture is essentially a way of organising information. This kind of structure applies to both physically moving through these buildings – compare here a website IA to a blueprint – but also how the amalgamation of visual factors shape our emotions and experiences.

Design can push us into a different mindset, helping us to heal or distracting when necessary. It’s interesting because we instinctively know this, but we so often forget. Environments for primary school aged kids are often chocked full of elements and colours tailored to their learning and comfort. But by the time we get to university, this consideration is completely gone.

Architects have long known and designed human emotion into their structures. Will says it’s time digital designers did the same. Consider the grandness of an old government building. They give us a sense of structure, authority and most crucially, continuity. They give us something firm to get a footing in the future. Digital environment should be no different.

Take a hospital corridor. Functionality needs to be built into its structure, with space left for a bed to be manoeuvred and related services established close by. But it also needs to be human. It can’t feel cold or too clinical. Colour and decoration can add real warmth and a sense of comfort. And this focus on environment can lead to improved healthcare outcomes. For instance, studies have shown that patients resting in a room with a window recovered half a day quicker than those without.

Designing for the future of local government

Will ends his webinar with an aspirational vision for the future of local government services. Local government is at the heart of our communities, and digital poses an opportunity to strengthen these ties and add real value and relevance to the user through simple but personalised experiences.

To create a local service that champions every user, we need to change the way we think and approach design. There is a great deal of emotion inevitably wrapped up in these services, so it’s important that we as designers move past just updating the aesthetics. It’s in this contrasting of emotion, space and intention that we spy a real opportunity for improving our digital services.

He says that while these services “may not be radical, they are important.” Unlike businesses, brands or financial institutions, local government services stay with us and “support residents in almost all eventualities of life”. These services thread through every aspect of the human condition in a way that goes beyond just punctuating major life events with bureaucracy.

Humanising local government

User experience is never determined by a single template or icon, but it is within these micro communications that individual design choices are standardised and become systems. Understanding how structures fit into systems and then into libraries means we can unpick the architecture behind a website. This doesn’t necessarily mean we need to pull everything down and start again. It’s like a house – if you understand the base structure, you can change the flow and intention of the space.

We trust services, people and places that we recognise ourselves in. Applying a visual narrative to our digital systems can help deliver style, substance and truly engaging and memorable experiences. And illustrations can help bring services to life and have a real role and connection with the community. It helps hold users’ attention, bridge value and facilitate better conversations.

Paying attention to the symbolic elements of colours or designing around human psychology can unlock their power and usefulness. Spanning both conscious meaning and implied subtext, subtle changes in design can drastically change a user’s perception of a digital service. So how will you use this new knowledge?

If you’re unsure where to start, you can check out Will’s webinar, Humanising the design of local government on our YouTube channel, or contact our team of expert customer experience designers today. Whether you’re embarking on a website redesign and build, or want to conduct user research to better understand your users, we can help. Give us call on +44 (0) 117 929 7333 to find out more.

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Join our next FREE webinar ‘The content-first approach: How to get a competitive edge through great UX’ with Principal Content Designer Steven Shukor at 2pm BST on Tuesday 11th May. Sign up now.

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