Digital Service Design: Five Laws of Success

Gerald Power, RedQuadrant’s customer-led transformation lead

This is an update of a piece written for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) several years ago. Since it was written a lot of things have happened. Access to the internet in the UK is now near universal with Ofcom stating in summer 2020 that 98% of households have access to fixed line internet speeds of at least 10Mbs although a stable 13% of households are not online. Smartphones have overtaken laptops or tablets as the device of choice for accessing services and 79% of UK adults personally use a smartphone. [i] The coronavirus pandemic has also forced rapid shifts to virtualised and digital service delivery models that had been in planning for years. However, many local and central government organisations have not yet fully exploited digital in their delivery models and are anxious about the investment and risks. This makes it all the more important for Local Authorities to look at how to design, procure and implement digital services successfully. The ‘laws’ below are an attempt at a simple summary of good practice and emphasise the value of using a variety of independent providers do deliver digital transformation rather than a single supplier. I am also very happy to work with Bloom helping Local Authorities access the kinds of specialist expertise they need to deliver really effective digital change.  

Law zero:  Digital transformation is a wicked problem

If the laws of thermodynamics can have a ‘zeroth’ law, a law so obvious and important it was initially overlooked, then there is zeroth law of digital change and it is that digital change is a ‘wicked’ problem, you will recognise the properties of wicked problems which are as follows: [ii],[iii]  

  • They don’t lend themselves to linear service design techniques and can only truly be evaluated as a whole design rather than the sum of separate parts. This means it’s very likely you will have to work iteratively and apply different approaches to different stages of the digital transformation process, potentially working with different stakeholders, suppliers and subject matter experts at each stage.
  • They don’t have clear boundaries as they are often parts of larger problems. Issues such as back office systems architecture, layers of legacy and bespoke software, ever changing delivery models and customer behaviours all shape the problem of digital delivery. You will have to accept that defining boundaries becomes part of the design process and you may still be doing it at implementation and beyond.  
  • Their solutions are never right or wrong just better or worse.  There are so many possible solutions to digital problems in terms of process design, system hardware and software choices and configurations that it’s probably impossible to find a ‘best’ design. This makes it really important to be able to work in an Agile way and understand when you are near enough to optimal to stop throwing effort at the design solution.

This is all critically important as it means that linear approaches to design, procurement and implementation typically won’t work well or won’t work at all. This influences every step of the journey from the initial analysis of the problem, through business case development and specification setting, to procurement approach, to implementation and then transition to the ‘new normal’ for service delivery. But, none of this is new and the tools available for ensuring you deliver the intended outcomes for wicked problems include:

  • ICT system auditing. This is an essential early action and specialist suppliers can now use quite sophisticated software based approaches to automatically audit your data systems and architecture. This is often much more effective than the traditional lists and spreadsheets sent around an organisation as it provides direct evidence of what’s being used how and when. They often provide very useful insights into things like licence usage, traffic levels and key interfaces very early in the process simplifying later decisions.
  • Systems thinking. This can help you describe complex processes and digital systems in simple enough ways to gain design insights and can help from concept to implementation.  Expert support is typically needed; but once you have the systems models they can be invaluable in communicating with stakeholders, making decisions and navigating change.
  • Benefits based requirement setting. This links to systems thinking and is typically essential in pushing commissioners or sponsors to actually define the benefits they anticipate in a way that can effectively drive a procurement process and design.

Law 1: Business cases and benefits realisation remain essential

Project teams can became so overwhelmed by the complexity and uncertainty of a major digital change project that they became victims of the ‘magic numbers’ business case for digital which goes something like this: 

Digital must be cheaper and better. Firstly, we have lots of guidance from Central Government that tells us how much cheaper and better it will be when services are digital and the Government Digital Service (GDS) will tell us how we need to go about it. Secondly, the private sector has gone for digital in a big way with retail, banking, insurance and most other things you can think of. QED it must be impossible not to be more efficient when you invest in digital. [iv]

However, this is not far from the Elon Musk/Gnomes business case. While that’s amusing it’s also true that many large central and Local Government digital change programmes have failed on this point, assuming they can generalise on the benefits of digital. [v] However, if you have accepted Law zero and taken appropriate action it should always be possible to create a business case based on outputs and outcomes that is agnostic of the technology or design. Calculating savings from channel shift is something I have previously written a paper on and although it requires effort it is relatively simple. [vi] It should also be noted that the business case tends to define the tendered requirement and that it’s remarkably difficult to change that requirement once a contract is awarded. It’s also likely that good suppliers will not bid if your tender requirement does not make sense to them. Again many organisations have been down this road already and means of ensuring you get the business case right include:

  • Coaching. Really big change projects can often be like nothing your teams have ever encountered and so it can make sense to call in coaching and specialist technical support to coach your team through developing the requirement and the business case.
  • The ‘Red team’ approach. One of the best approaches is to call in external scrutiny at key stages in development of the case. If you have a big organisation these may be mostly internal. If you are smaller you may need to appoint external scrutineers.

This can seem ‘over the top’ but when you consider the costs and risks associated with even modest ICT projects, up-front investment in getting the requirement, business case and procurement right rapidly repay the investment. This is something the NAO is always hammering home to Central Government, invest early and get the requirement right.

Law 2: Map the journey but don’t get lost mapping the whole world

Journey and process mapping is of course a critical part of any digital change programme without which the whole value proposition and business case can collapse and that’s why some much GDS guidance on mapping user needs exists. There are many tools are available which can map journeys and processes to improve usability and improve the chances of internal and external stakeholder support.  However, this kind of work is expensive in terms of time, effort and cash so it needs to be targeted so you map what you really need to map and ignore the rest even if it’s interesting:

  • Demographic profiling and user skills assessment offer ways to accurately estimate what proportion of service users and your personnel could complete a process online. There are many good providers of this kind of support, it should not be expensive or take very long for most situations and can be incredibly useful in identifying and managing risk if targeted well.
  • Process and journey mapping techniques allow accurate representation of the ‘as is’ and potential ‘to be’ process options in forms that allow easier analysis and comparison.  However, beware not all mapping is equal and you need suppliers who can work efficiently and effectively focussing on the journey steps that matter most to delivering outcomes.
  • Cost mapping and experience mapping techniques can identify opportunities to optimise the balance between improved customer experience and cost savings.  

In all these areas there will be opportunities for developing skills in-house as well as a need to call in external skills as and when needed. It’s also vital to do this at the right points in the process so it shapes the requirement development, design and implementation stages.

Law 3: You tend to deliver what you measure

When learning to ski a good tip is to look where you want to go and for this reason always avoid looking at trees or cliff edges. It is surprising how many organisations attempt service re-design and transformation without thoroughly understanding where they want to go and what they are looking at. Any change manager or SRO will sleep much more soundly knowing that that monitoring is in place that will let them know if change is occurring as anticipated.  It may seem obvious but many organisations fail to link existing and future metrics into their digital change programme as a means of testing whether benefits are being delivered. However, getting these metrics, KPIs and governance structures in place should not be that onerous.

  • Most Local Authorities have automated systems in place to log contacts and transactions in near real time and typically the benefits of digital lie in pulling contact away from old channels. Calling in subject matter experts can help you harness these data streams to get effective MI and KPIs in place and link them into digital implementation plans.
  • Calling in support on governance and project and programme management can also be very useful, particularly if an organisation is not experienced in managing major change projects and/or complex ICT project and having external coaching can massively reduce risk.   

This links to Law 1 and the fact that even if savings and improvements are possible, they won’t necessarily happen without close management.

Law 4. You normally have to push

Even if you have done your journey mapping and service design well people won’t necessarily migrate to it without a nudge. Trials, beta-tests, expert advice and design support will all help reduce risk; but until it goes live you will not know how much re-work it will need to be fully optimised. Many Local Authorities have invested in very good, highly usable digital service delivery options only to fail by not promoting them effectively. Others get it 98% right and then fail due to some small but very important problems that block uptake and don’t get removed as things not working was not part of the implementation plan.  Approaches and methodologies for moving customers to digital channels and optimising uptake are well established and typically involve using existing touch points and channels to promote the new service in a systematic way, essentially it’s a marketing and promotion campaign.

  • Although no two Local Authorities will be identical, it is always sensible to start by looking at approaches that have worked elsewhere.
  • Templates and methodologies are available for planning a ‘marketing’ or ‘push’ phase of implementation to achieving an accelerated uptake of new online services.
  • Techniques including focus groups, web analytics and live web-chat can all be used to iron out problem steps in processes and fine tune the user experience for digital services.

Law 5. Assisted Digital is better than no digital

There will always remain groups that are unable or unwilling to engage online. Latest Ofcom figures imply a stable 13% of households without a fixed broadband connection and 21% of adults not using a smartphone. However, this should not block development of digital services as extensive support is available for designing alternatives for those who cannot engage via new digital routes. In reality the numbers who cannot use digital are probably similar to the numbers who could not use paper without support due to language, literacy or other problems. There are many well established approached to reducing digital exclusion and meeting the equality of access obligation.

  • There are many providers that map both ‘not spots’ in terms of internet and 4G/5G access and areas where literacy, language and basic skills will be an issue. This can be very valuable in quantifying problems, targeting support and engaging with elected members.
  • There are well proven partnership models for digital inclusion using national or local partners which can offer broad or much more targeted support. Having a proven model can again build confidence in elected members and residents.
  • Expertise can be brought in to design digital services that have the widest uptake possible through including more difficult to reach groups in the service design.

About the Author: Gerald Power

Gerald gained a PhD from Manchester University and joined the Ministry of Defence on its science and technology fast track programme. He went on to specialise in change and benefits realisation with a particular emphasis on the role of technology, skills and behaviour change in the effective delivery of outcomes. During his career he has worked with The Cabinet Office, DWP, DH, HMRC, HMCTS, DEFRA, DfT, Directgov and DCLG as well as many Local Authorities implementing change. His most prominent role within government before leaving to become a consultant was with the Cabinet Office where he provided advice to ministers on the economic case for digital services and on delivering cashable savings. He continues to work for clients on channel shift and service transformation and is currently the service lead for digital change with RedQuadrant.  

Gerald indulging his love of hill walking, taking a ‘leap of faith’ from Eve to Adam on Tryffan, Snowdonia.

[i] Statista 2020, April 2020 UK data, 60% of people over 16 said their smartphone was the most important device used to access the internet. ONS 2019 data, 84% of UK adults had used the internet “on the go” in 2019, using a mobile phone, smartphone, laptop, tablet or handheld device. Ofcom Communication Markets survey 2019, household internet take-up remains at 87%, and 79% of UK adults personally use a smartphone.

[ii] Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Richard Buchanan. Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2, (Spring, 1992), pp. 5-21

[iii] Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. HORST W. J. RITTEL and MELVIN M. WEBBER. Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169 

[iv] PWC. Champion for Digital Inclusion:  The Economic Case for Digital Inclusion. October 2009. Page 47. Table 12: Average costs of transactions in different channels

[v] This was a famous Elon Musk quote in response to being asked for details on his planned Mars colony project, essentially saying we don’t have a plan yet, but we do at least know we don’t have a plan.

[vi] Channel Shift: Realising the Benefits. Dr. Gerald Power.