Designing beta public service: Finding the courage to be imperfect
When Oslo's transport authorities wanted to design and implement a new transport system for Ruter, they knew that providing useful, legible information would be as critical as the lines themselves.
To understand more about how citizens would use and interpret information, the service design company Live|Work set up a prototype model of a station and watched how people moved through it. They celebrated the theatricality of the approach, creating a 'set' and observing actors make sense of the environment around them.
We've heard a lot about prototyping as a valuable method to test the viability of innovations quickly and with minimal risk. But the discussions at a conference held at the Danish innovation agency MindLab in Copenhagen earlier this month extended to the implications of the wider principle behind prototyping as a method. This was the principle of 'beta' public solutions - whether services, systems or policies - and the changing expectations applying this principle could imply.
The term 'beta' is increasingly familiar in software development and refers to an early stage, rough or initial launch version of a new website or service. Beta versions are launched to invite testing and feedback from service users. The term is a label to signify the stage of development, excuse flaws and imperfections, and to actively seek input from users in helping to make the site better.
Though it may seem like semantics, just think about it for a moment: what impact might a 'beta ethic' bring to how we currently design and develop public policy solutions and services? How might it help to overcome some of the challenges governments face when trying to innovate, such as an aversion to risk and public criticism? How different would the engagement of public citizens and professionals be when a beta version is launched first? Beta reframes four critical perceptions:
- Firstly, beta reframes the role of the public in the design and development of public services. In technology development, new websites or platforms in beta explicitly invite interaction and comment from site users. Criticism is welcomed, and can contribute to improving the service. Instead of static consultation, beta methods allow for dynamic evaluation and feedback.
- Secondly, beta encourages a 'launch and learn' culture in governments. The label forgives any early issues and reframes them as opportunities for improvement. Pilots or prototypes of new services are common across different areas of service delivery, such as current family intervention pilots or community budget sites. Developed in beta, this gives an opportunity to learn more about what works from these pilots, and adapt accordingly.
- Thirdly, beta provides a platform for shared development and coproduction of solutions. Nesta's work to support coproduction in public services - such as in six health localities as part of People Powered Health - shows how new platforms for exchange can access the insights and resources of citizens to improve service design and delivery. How might this principle extend to how we evaluate the efficacy and experience of innovation in services?
- Finally, beta indicates a culture of continuous improvement. Trial and error, learning and adapting - principles inherent in this stage of usability testing - are important in ensuring that services adapt to our changing needs and expectations.
Advocates of design methods have argued for their value in generating new insights on problems and possible solutions by enabling empathy with those who might use a service. By tracing the journey of a citizen through a train station, we understand how their needs affect how they use and judge information. But we think that beta could also be a powerful principle in permitting more space for vulnerability and 'not knowing' in governments as it frames expectations of imperfection and need for improvement. How might this encourage a different type of connection with citizens?