The importance of design thinking
Although collaborative technologies can be assembled as tools that help users do more for themselves, they need to be designed in a way that makes this new kind of behaviour easy. Why? Because people need to feel motivated to embrace the change that collaborative technologies facilitate, so it is important they are designed to be useful, usable and delightful.
So what does design at its best look like? Firstly, do not make assumptions about what people want or assume they will resist change. Many are comfortable using collaborative technologies and more importantly, are enthusiastic about trying new ways of doing things.
With Buddy, professionals were initially sceptical users would accept the changes it would introduce, but during testing there was a high degree of compliance from them. Similarly in Herefordshire, the volunteer service were initially concerned older people would not use Person to Person, but user sessions run to introduce people to the platform quickly allayed these fears, and there has been a steady increase in the number of hours booked through the system. While with Buddi, the tag has helped build trust between offenders and service providers which has reduced disruption to the rehabilitation process.
It is also important though to think about the wider impact of introducing a new technology, because if new solutions appear too complicated or prove too disruptive, you will encounter obstacles.
The first prototype of FLiP, for example, originally linked people's personal profiles to job and training opportunities. However, the team took the decision to simplify the offer and focus on the platform's strengths assessment and profiling features because users said the original was confusing and unclear. As a result they have received more actionable interest in using the tool and have recently secured further funding from the Nominet Trust to scale the tool, and entered a partnership with The Prince's Trust who has agreed to roll out FLiP through their XL programme.
It is important then to develop tools that people want and are comfortable with, so testing assumptions is important as this will generate actionable evidence that will help fine tune what a tool looks like.
When thinking about design, user centred approaches in particular are critical. They ensure developers focus specifically on the needs of practitioners and their clients, develop a strong understanding of the motivations and barriers to change of the people involved, and help them develop the functionality accordingly.
The team from Patchwork, for example, knew the amount of information they wanted to present could be confusing, so worked closely with practitioners to develop a clear and simple interface where changes in an individual's circumstances are immediately obvious, it is clear who else is working with their cases, what their contact details are and if they have a concern, whether anyone else shares this.
User-centred approaches also mean projects reach mock-up and design stages much earlier, and design iterations can happen much more cheaply. During the development and user testing phases, the team from Buddy built a number of prototypes which made it easier for them to test out the reactions of service users and engage practitioners to ensure it was valuable and responsive to their work. Having a working prototype has also helped them identify new opportunities for the tool and demonstrate the platform with future customers.
The use of collaborative technologies in our public services represents a significant change to how they are delivered, but as they become more ubiquitous, their use will feel less obtrusive - just look at how in other parts of our lives they have become such an integral part of the way we live today.
Too often though, design is not seen as part of the development process which ignores how essential it is in our lives. Good design solutions need to be simple, benefits need to be tangible to the user and the technology must be unobtrusive and easy for people to integrate into their everyday lives. More importantly though, gently nudging users to connect this way can only help accelerate the speed with which this change takes place and users are empowered to do more for themselves.