Five things to remember about changing service provision to respond to lockdown

It’s easy to rush into changing a service to meet the demands of a post-COVID 19 world in lockdown but it’s worth pausing before making changes. Failing to consider users risks wasting resource by providing a service that won’t be used because it’s not accessible. Even worse, it could mean that we unknowingly increase the isolation or exclusion of our most vulnerable users by introducing new barriers for them to overcome in order to access services. Here are five things to think about before making changes.

1. It’s still about your users

The most important factor in service provision is understanding your users and their needs. For many services, the current change in circumstances will mean that the picture of your users that you have built up over time has changed, quickly. This will particularly be the case if you’ve interacted with your users physically in the past. In this case, you may not know:

  • how many of your users have access to the internet;
  • how fast their internet connections are;
  • what devices they are using to access the internet (phones with small screens? Tablets?);
  • how many of your users have the skills that they need to be able to safely interact with content online.

If you’re not sure, then it’s best to ask your users, and to ask them before you spend money on providing a service that they may not be able to access. Do this using a channel that they can all use (e.g. some organisations have used GOV.UK Notify to contact all of their staff with letters sent in the post). You may also want to consider prototyping new approaches, and testing these with your users.

2. Not everyone has the internet, or the skills to be able to access services online

The composition of skills and access to the internet amongst your users will change significantly depending on the service, and will often challenge stereotypes and preconceptions. Some government services have more users unable to use an online service than users for whom this presents no problems.

The only helpful generalisation we can make is that it’s more likely than you think that some of your users will have problems accessing online content. This could be through a lack of skills, equipment or access to reliable and performant internet connections.

Recent research by Barclays estimates that, in the UK, 6.4 million people have limited digital skills and 4.3 million have no abilities (with 8 million still estimated to be lacking digital skills by 2025). ONS figures also say 1 in 10 people in the UK adult population are digitally excluded. Other research estimates that whereas 16% of those digitally excluded in the UK are excluded due to cost, 20% are excluded due to a lack of skills. This means that the provision of equipment is only a potential fix for some users, as others won’t have the skills necessary to use the equipment that is provided.

3. Not everyone who has the internet has the same type of access

It is tempting to design services, or at least fail to test services in any other scenario, on the assumption that users will have fast internet connections and up to date desktop or laptop computers. This can be far from the case. Internet connection speed can have a far greater impact on a service than the equipment being used to access it, and is not a factor that can be easily fixed. Equally, some socio-economic groups – including economically disadvantaged young people – may have greater access to smartphones than to devices with larger screens [1].

Testing a service and making sure it works on a mobile device with a capped data limit can result in a wholly different approach to the service. The decision on whether to pursue a real-time or an asynchronous service is particularly dependent on connection speeds. Make sure you don’t simply understand whether your users have internet access, but that you understand what type of access they have, and what devices they are using to access it.

4. Traditional approaches – post, print, radio, TV, telephone – can still work

Government service provision has moved away from print in the past decade but, in a COVID-environment, the postal service is one of the few service infrastructures that can provide a service to anyone with a postal address without the need for further investment. Access to postal services is cheap and easy, thanks to GOV.UK Notify, which will send a letter you upload by 3pm the next working day as long as you upload it to them before 5.30pm. Some organisations have been using this approach to distribute information, e.g. to shielded individuals, and some local authorities have also undertaken leaflet drops.

In addition to print, there is broadcast media. Some organisations are using local radio to broadcast messages to people. There is some evidence that more people have access to smartTVs than the internet, which opens up the potential for delivery via services such as YouTube. Where digital video content has been made available, the ubiquitous DVD may still provide a fall back option for those without any other type of access.

Phone is meanwhile being used by individuals who don’t have access to video conferencing software: many platforms allow people to dial in using a traditional phone alongside video conferencing guests. GOV.UK Notify’s ability to send bulk text messages is also being used by some organisations.

5. Design for everyone else

As Cordelia McGee-Tubb puts it; “inclusion is like making blueberry muffins – it’s a lot easier to put the blueberries in at the start than at the end” [3]. I think many of us are now at a point where we are drawing breath after the first wave of changes made in response to COVID-19 and lockdown. This is a good moment to consider how inclusive we have been in the changes we have made, and to consider the nature of the changed services we are considering providing in the future. Services that rely on large screen devices accessing high-speed broadband may have been a quick fix but may not work for all of our users.

It is always tempting to base approaches on our own experiences, skills and perceptions. The recently published Scottish approach to Service Design warns of the danger in doing this:

If we use our own abilities, opinions and experiences as a baseline then we make things easy for some but difficult for everyone else that doesn’t have the same needs as us. Diversity is a resource for better design as it opens up research to more citizens with a wider range of abilities“.


[1] I say “may” here because I have seen this evidenced in (no longer current) survey data that was never openly published and I’ve seen it confirmed in user research sessions I’ve been involved in conducted with people with low digital literacy (as assessed by the digital literacy scale). Neither of these is even close to definitive, so this suggestion exists somewhere between hunch and hypothesis. I’d be delighted if anyone else can point me at any additional data on this, particularly given the equivalent data that exists for some developing countries.

[2] Of anything I’ve written this year, “design for everyone else” is the phrase I most want to make a sticker out of.

[3] I stole this quotation from Lou Downe’s book “Good Services” and the section on Lou’s 11th principle “A good service is usable by everyone, equally”.

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