Design Principles: name the ways

A UK not for profit, the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST), has come up with a set of ten design principles for charities building digital services. 

This is s pretty crowded field and there are a bewildering list of examples or principles for various specific variations of design. CAST decided that charities needed something specific for them and took the following approach: ‘Th[e] process was always about building on what already exists, and finding ways to help get principles embedded in organisational cultures and processes  There is already lots of great thinking that’s gone on around the idea of digital design principles, both in Government contexts Government Digital Service, 18f, Government of Canada), and in international development (Principles for Digital Development, Alidade). So rather than create new principles from scratch we conducted extensive testing and research with dozens of  people working in grantmaking organisations and charities. This included 1-1 interviews and workshops with sector leaders. We tested the existing sets of principles using exercises like card sorting to help understand how people prioritised them, where they overlapped, and equally where there were gaps. As part of this research we also investigated where are how principles are used effectively in existing teams.We used this research to identify a long-list of key principles, and ideas for how to make them tangible, accessible and useful to the sector. We then held further in-depth interviews with charities and funders and this culminated in a large open workshop where over 30 different organisations.’

Julie Bishop, Director of the Law Centres Network (LCN), was involved in the process. She reports: ‘What struck me was the extent of activity across the sector and that the issues for the funders were similar to the charities … As a small charity, with minimal staff and no tech department but with a real need to find ways to extend our limited resources through digital assistance, coming together with other organisations across the charitable sector to hear what they were working on in the tech space was invaluable. Having to think through common problems to identify a small set of themes then focus on a simple doable process or principle that is possible to keep in mind, clarified for me what LCN needs to do next, showed me we can do it, and reinforced that the small affordable steps we are taking is not a just biting around the edges but a valid approach.’

Much of the value for those involved in the process was probably as much in the process itself as its conclusions. These, however, were the principles that arose out of the project. Below are listed the Government Digital Services own ten principles which may indicate where CAST got their first draft. This is CAST:

  1. Start with user needs and keep them involved*
  2. Understand what’s out there first
  3. Build the right team
  4. Take small steps and learn as you go
  5. Build digital services not websites
  6. Be inclusive
  7. Think about privacy and security
  8. Build for sustainability
  9. Collaborate and build relationships
  10. Be open.

For comparison, here comes the GDS:

1. Start with user needs

2. Do less

3. Design with data

4. Do the hard work to make it simple

5. Iterate. Then iterate again

6. This is for everyone

7. Understand context

8. Build digital services, not websites

9. Be consistent, not uniform

10. Make things open: it makes things better.

There are differences but these would appear more likely to be due to the different roles and position of government and the charity sector. A better test for the UK principles might come from comparison with the design principles (this time, six) developed by the US doyenne of their application to law, Margaret Hagan: 

1.Make the users of legal services more empowered and intelligent. Many people want more input and oversight of the process they’re going through. They want a collaborative relationship with their advocate …

2. Provide process-based views of legal work to empower professionals and lay people who are working on a matter. Show a person how the system works step-by-step process. Like a board game, show them the various pathways, and what their start and end points are …

3. Foster a collaborative relationship between the person and the advocate. In the past, lawyers often times thought of themselves as the ‘adult’ and the client as the ‘child’ — hiding details from them, not explaining why they were doing things, and not expecting them to contribute much …

4. Always give the Bird’s Eye View that Swoops In. When we talk to lay people about what they want to be better informed, they consistently request a map. They want to see a zoomed-out version of what the legal terrain that they’re on looks like, as if they were using Google Map …

5. Be Simple on the Front, and Smart at the Back. Any tool or interface should give a guided, limited path for a person to follow. People don’t want a lot of choices to make — they want to be told what the best strategy for them (and for most people) is, and then to follow it. Giving too many options or information hinders engagement …

6. Provide Multiple Modes that Let People Customize the Experience. We know that not all people like to take in information in the same way. Some people are visual, others like to read. Some like to be totally in charge and dig into reasons and background information. Others want to stay high level and delegate analysis and decision-making to others …’

The advantage of adding consideration of what we might call the Hagan principles is that they help to show the underlying orientations of the GDS and CAST versions – though they do not necessarily conflict with either of them. She is concerned to draw out what focusing on the user actually means. She wants to empower them through greater understanding the nature of their journey through the system. That must be a good idea and, for example, there seems great value in those designs that show users how they are progressing and the nature of the remaining steps. 

To the extent that they deal with the management of programmes, none of these sets of principles deal with one issue which may be crucial and, very practically, is a source of one of my beefs with the implementation of digital services by Her Majesty’s Court Service in England and Wales. A commercial organisation introducing a new digital system would have financial goals by which it would know if it was successful or failed. Transfer of this approach to seems to the not for profit or government services seems crucial – for management, accountability and inspiration. A commitment to such indicators raises vital questions like: how many people are you hoping to assist? how? and how will you measure that? At the present time, particularly, when agencies all over the world are experimenting with new provision, there is another question too. How are you going to put information about your success, failure and assessment into the public domain for the benefit of all?

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