Inaction towards human-centred design is no longer an option

Progress

By John Yang*
Monday, 24 June, 2024


Inaction towards human-centred design is no longer an option

Prioritising a human-centred approach is crucial to realising the 2030 Data and Digital Strategy.

The Australian Government’s visionary 2030 Data and Digital Government Strategy1 seeks to revolutionise public service delivery through world-class data and digital capabilities, offering simple, secure and connected services for all citizens and businesses.

With a little more than five years to realise the vision, the stakes are high for the government to overcome some key challenges including the integration of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) across different levels of government and maintaining public trust amidst escalating global and national cybersecurity concerns.

Efforts are underway to implement AI guardrails in high-risk industries and to introduce new cybersecurity legislation. However, a shift in focus is needed to achieve the Strategy’s core principle of human-centred design. This sentiment is reflected in a recent survey2 which found that 64% of Australian IT decision-makers consider building human-centric applications more important than it was two years ago, driven by a mix of business considerations and wider cultural shifts.

Human-centred design focuses on the needs, behaviours and experiences of citizens, developing digital services that are user-friendly, accessible and effective for everyone — regardless of their physical or mental abilities, demographic factors, emotional responses to technology, language or cultural background. This methodology places citizens at the heart of service design, ensuring technology solutions enhance daily interactions with government agencies, simplify complexities, and boost overall engagement and trust in digital initiatives.

To fully realise the Strategy by 2030, inaction is no longer an option, so how can the Australian Government prioritise human-centred design in the development of citizen services?

The challenges are real

Despite the clear and urgent need to embrace human-centred design principles, actualising the government’s vision can prove challenging.

In reality, the role of government agencies is to serve citizens. And yet, one of the biggest challenges in their digital transformation agendas is ensuring all demographics have equitable access. Designing services that cater effectively to varied groups — including the elderly, people with disabilities, remote populations and non-native English speakers — requires extensive research and robust engagement strategies that may not currently be in place at the required scale.

Another challenge is shifting a service design that traditionally focuses on compliance and functionality to one that prioritises user experience and accessibility. This shift demands not only new skills and tools but also a significant change in how government initiatives are conceptualised and evaluated. Success metrics need to evolve from mere service delivery to user satisfaction and engagement, which necessitates ongoing user feedback and iterative design processes. These processes must be integrated into the government’s operational model, which can be a substantial change management endeavour.

Furthermore, Progress recently conducted research3 into the barriers organisations face when attempting to build human-centred applications, and stark parallels can be made in relation to what the Strategy is hoping to achieve.

According to the research, there is a lack of in-house skills and resources in human-centred design, as indicated by 38% of Australian IT decision-makers. This shortage highlights a significant gap in the required expertise necessary to drive initiatives that prioritise user experience and design. Without adequate skills, the ability to create intuitive and accessible digital services for citizens could be impacted.

Further compounding the issue is the complexity and lack of agility in the software development process, as stated by 36% of Australian respondents. This may suggest that legacy processes cannot simply adopt to new approaches such as human-centred design, which requires flexibility and rapid iteration based on user feedback loop.

Additionally, 34% of Australian respondents pointed out the difficulty in measuring whether services are genuinely human-centric, which underscores a fundamental challenge in evaluation and continuous improvement. The lack of tools and technology investment in this area (32%) and a focus on speed of development over user needs (32%) are additional barriers that could lead to digital services that do not fully meet the needs or expectations of users. Moreover, insufficient collaboration among teams and unclear ownership or responsibility for outcomes are issues that need addressing to ensure a unified approach to developing human-centric digital services.

Ultimately, these challenges call for a strategic response. Addressing these barriers is critical for the Australian Government to meet its objectives for the Strategy effectively by 2030, and to ensure that its digital services are truly centred around the needs of its citizens.

Turning inaction to action

Human-centric design is crucial for the Australian Government because it fundamentally shifts the focus from the organisations to the citizens they serve. By understanding and prioritising the needs, behaviours and experiences of citizens, they can design services that are intuitive, accessible and inclusive, enhancing overall user satisfaction and engagement. This approach recognises the diversity of the population, ensuring that digital services cater to varying abilities, demographics and cultural backgrounds. As a result, services become more effective and efficient, reducing barriers to access and simplifying interactions with government entities.

While there is no simple fix, there are steps the Australian Government needs to consider and to proactively pivot towards a human-centred design approach.

Better training of existing talent and more diversified hires

Public sector employees play a critical part in transformation projects. Giving them opportunities to develop their skills can help clarify the best path forward when pursuing human-centred design. Existing teams can benefit from training programs or career paths centred on human-centric design practices, along with hiring diverse talent to help lead these efforts. Moreover, this will help employees feel empowered and engaged in the transformation process.

Continuous education and certification programs

Beyond regular training, offer certification programs for government employees and external partners in human-centric design. Recognising specialised skills can create a shared commitment to high-quality service delivery across departments.

Objective self-assessment

A wide disconnect persists between perceptions of human-centred design maturity and business reality. To achieve the gains government agencies want, they must first engage in more rigorous internal testing, cross-team collaboration and goal setting to settle on a clear current state. For example, developing detailed personas representing various user demographics and mapping out their digital journeys could be beneficial. This practice can help highlight pain points and areas where existing services could be enhanced — ultimately guiding design teams to develop more intuitive and responsive digital solutions. Furthermore, they can then partner with external vendors to bridge the gap — ever mindful of regulatory requirements.

More cohesive design principles and tooling

Government agencies need a more cohesive strategy for human-centric design, and once conceived, measures must be taken to ensure they are routinely followed. With a strategy and goals established, it will be much easier to sift through available tooling and select the ones best suited to each organisation’s use case.

Empowerment through community outreach and engagement

Host community engagement events, online surveys or focus groups to directly gather citizen input on their expectations and challenges with government services. Providing multiple platforms for public feedback can uncover unique challenges and inform more inclusive design strategies.

Incentivise cross-sector collaboration

Encourage collaboration between government departments, private companies, not-for-profits and academic institutions. Cross-sector partnerships can lead to innovative solutions that draw on diverse expertise. Offering grants or recognition programs for teams that demonstrate exemplary human-centric projects could encourage such collaborations.

Creating effective services

It is clear that prioritising a human-centred approach is crucial to realising the 2030 Data and Digital Strategy. Success depends on understanding and meeting the needs of the people being served, not just leveraging innovative technology simply because it is available.

By adopting a human-centred approach, governments can create accessible, efficient and effective digital services.

1. Australian Government 2023, Data and Digital Government Strategy, <<https://www.dataanddigital.gov.au/sites/default/files/2023-12/Data%20and%20Digital%20Government%20Strategy%20v1.0.pdf>>
2, 3. Progress 2024, Human-Centered Software Design: A State of the Marketplace Report, <<https://www.progress.com/resources/papers/human-centered-software-design--a-state-of-the-marketplace-report>>

*John Yang is Vice President for Asia Pacific and Japan at Progress. A veteran in the field of enterprise IT solutions, over the past decade he has helped several global enterprise software companies enter and grow their businesses in the Pacific Rim. He received his education from Fudan University and National University of Singapore.

Top image credit: iStock.com/ismagilov

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