The time is now for research-led change

16th June 2020

The word unprecedented is used a lot right now.

It’s become a synonym for weird-ass, which is fine, because language is fluid, except it’s not quite fine, because they are not synonyms. There are things the word unprecedented wants us to stop and consider.

The things are: there’s no precedent for this thing, right now. There isn’t any past experience we can draw on. We don’t know what to do.

As individuals, we don’t already have a set of techniques for successfully avoiding our fellow citizens in the street. There are no Victorian etiquette guidelines that deal with the difficulties created by indecisive people in supermarket one-way systems.

If we are one of those supermarkets, or a town planner, or a university, the problems we’re having to invent solutions for are even bigger. We’ve never had to retrofit our existing, car-based infrastructure to cater for the increased numbers of cyclists, walkers and joggers who all need to stay as far away from each other as possible.

We’ve never had to work out how to explain to a roomful of six-year-olds that it’s important not to touch things, or each other, or even whether it’s a good idea to try. We don’t know how best to do that – and nor should we. That’s the point of unprecedented situations.

It’s OK.

An unprecedented opportunity

This situation is unique in its challenges, but it has other unique features, too. Never have we been so patient with our online orders, so appreciative of our rubbish collectors, so uncomplaining about the wait for our fish and chips. So understanding that everyone is trying to do the thing we need them to do while also wrestling with unfamiliar tech, trying to home-school two children, and still doing the endless washing-up. That everyone, in fact, is human. Just like they always were.

“We’re trying to figure it out” has become about the only honest-sounding answer. Nothing quite works, and everyone’s trying to figure out how to make it work, and everyone else is being patient and considerate of the time that takes, and the hiccups along the way.

Changing services to fit the new normal

If there has ever been an opportunity to stop and think, it is now. About the new normal, and how to make sure it’s one that everyone can participate in. About how to deliver services well, not just online. About thoughtfully combining our new need for distance with all the other requirements that a space has: ambience, for example, or efficiency.

We know lots of services will need to change, in some cases quite fundamentally. We’re encouraging our clients to pause before making those changes and make sure they have the answers to some questions:

  • What’s important to the people using those services?
  • When are they afraid?
  • When are they angry?
  • When do they want information, and when do they want reassurance?
  • Before duplicating the old way: which bits didn’t work anyway?
  • What would people be happy to lose?
  • What about your service most worries them, now that we can’t interact with the World in the same way we used to?

Doing that research now means you can avoid making expensive mistakes. You can focus on what’s important to users. You can gather feedback on ideas before the internet gets to hear about them, and does what the internet does best. Importantly, you can make sure you don’t build the wrong thing.

Using research to make the right changes

We’ve been working with Bristol City Council to build an approach to recruiting foster carers that works both during this pandemic and after it, by understanding the very real challenges and concerns that people have. We’re bringing together small groups of fostering service providers to share and discuss these findings, and help them apply that to their own challenges.

We’re also helping the Council get ahead on understanding what people will want from cities after this enforced pause. Will visitors still interact with new cities in the way they used to? Will citizens want to return to the old ways, or will they want to change? What compromises are they willing to make, and what for? Where do smart cities fit into the plan?

And we’re working with Scope on content design for covid related help and information, running research with users to help identify missing information, highlight ambiguities, and ensure the tone of voice fits the situation.

If you haven’t worked with service designers before, or you’ve been considering what doing research like this would actually give you, please do get in touch. We’d love to talk you through a recent project and show you the results so you can think about how a human-centred approach could help you relaunch the right services in the right way.

What can we help you with?

We are specialists in service design, user research, discovery and prototyping for public serviceshealth and the third sector. To find out more, contact us on 020 7193 8952 or email [email protected].


About Mace & Menter

We are a team of user researchers, UX and service design specialists working with public sector and technology companies to improve the way people experience services.

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