Designing a Way to Improve Outcomes
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I was in my final year of design school when I learned to celebrate the power of design as a tool to change behaviour and enable positive impact. It was in 2012, at my graduate show in Bangalore, India, when I presented to the world an ergonomic motorcycle helmet for women I had designed in collaboration with one of India's leading helmet manufacturers. Back then, there was no such thing as a helmet for women in India’s commercial market.
I had observed that although women made up nearly 7.2 Million or 15%1 of scooter and motorcycle riders in India, on average, men wore helmets more often than women. Why was there an absence of a ‘helmet-wearing’ culture amongst women, subjecting them to an unnecessary safety risk? I decided to unpack my curiosity by interviewing women on their experience with helmets. I observed and interviewed young women going to college on their mopeds, mothers picking up their children from school on scooters, and women professionals driving to work and back. I spent time listening to personal stories of women from big metropolitan cities such as Bangalore and Chennai, and women from smaller towns such as Vellore and Belgaum. Starkly, what stood out for nearly all the women across my studies was their deep dissatisfaction with the helmets available in the market. Descriptions of their discomfort ranged from helmets being too tight, too loose or simply ill-fitting.
In familiarizing myself with the process of product development for female consumers, I came across an approach informally referred to as “pinking and shrinking,” indicating superficial adjustments (such as colour) for a perceived female taste. “Pinking and shrinking” is usually based on little more than common stereotypes. The practice reflects a traditional gender bias that forces women to adapt to products that are not designed with them in mind. Determined to uncover examples that overcame these aesthetic traps, I had a true “aha” moment chancing upon human factors research on women from the United States Armed Forces2. This study explored the cases of women in the U.S. forces who experienced discomfort by wearing helmets that were designed for male soldiers. The study showed that the lack of a helmet designed for female soldiers ultimately affected their performance, safety and effectiveness3. For me, this was a golden find because―in the world of design research―military personnel are often identified as “extreme users.” Extreme users are those who are on the extreme of the spectrum; their needs are amplified and their workarounds are more notable. The needs that are uncovered by extreme users―such as women in the armed forces ―can often inform the needs of the wider population, such as helmet design for women who ride motorcycles.
Thanks to many of these insights, by 2014, an improved helmet was developed by an Indian helmet manufacturer and successfully entered the commercial market. This helmet was designed based on female-specific safety requirements from orthopaedic surgeons, research from the armed forces and importantly, the pain points of the women for which it was designed.
I introduce this story from my journey because it speaks to an early lesson in the role that design can bring towards shaping actions, behaviours, and even culture. Design is a better answer than enforcement because it allows us to navigate complexities such as women’s “safety and self-expression.” This is also why I have recognized it to hold an essential contribution to the context of Government.
Using Design Principles
As a public servant, I continue to celebrate the value of design, but my design practice has moved beyond the traditional definition of designing for a distinct product or service, to applying my skills and mindset as a designer towards solving complex public policy challenges. This application of design principles to help craft decision-making in an organizational context is known as “strategic design.” In my previous role as a design researcher at the Privy Council Office's Innovation Hub (the Hub), I had the opportunity to advance strategic design as a tool to inform and inspire user-centered values in the public sector through co-designing policy solutions with departmental teams and stakeholders.
An example of one such project was a user-centered review of client experience for the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) spousal sponsorship program. The project was entitled “Family Class Design Challenge” and took its starting point in the recognition that sponsoring a spouse is a deeply personal experience that has many implications on people’s lives, finances, and plans for the future. With Family Reunification being a priority for the Government of Canada, the project looked to gain insights in improving the spousal sponsorship experience by adopting a human-centered approach while maintaining an efficient financial cost of systems. The Hub facilitated a three-week immersive process, involving a twelve-person interdepartmental team from IRCC along with one person from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, for the purpose of designing a better experience for the immigration process of spousal sponsorship.
Using a design research methodology, the project was divided into three core phases: problem finding, problem framing, and problem solving. The first phase of “problem finding” involved conducting ethnographic field interviews with a range of stakeholders. This group included IRCC officers from the Montreal call center and the Mississauga case processing center; advisors from Toronto’s legal clinics, community centers and immigration consultants; Canadian academics; and finally, users of the service themselves―Canadian citizens who had experience interacting with IRCC for the spousal sponsorship process. Phase two or “problem framing” followed with qualitative data analysis―making sense of everything we heard and synthesizing this data to generate a list of insights and opportune areas for intervention. The final phase of ‘problem solving’ brought the solutions to life using rigorous design, prototyping, and testing techniques.
From developing simple implementable ideas to helping enable a more citizen-centered culture change at IRCC, the project achieved a number of successes. Some of these include replacing the impersonal pre-recorded messages used by the IRCC call center with a more welcoming message, providing immigration agents at the call center with training so they can ask questions that better recognize clients’ needs, and a pilot initiative to send a confirmation text message to applicants who had opt-in to receive notification as soon as their (precious) application package arrives in IRCC mailrooms. Individually, these changes might seem small but together, they reflect the culmination of valuable insights gained from a highly empathetic research process. One such finding was that the people interviewed cared more about transparency and having access to information about their applications during a lengthy waiting period than they did about the actual length of the processing time. Moving towards delivering immigration services from a human-centered perspective represents a powerful step in a government department striving to place the needs of its clients at the center of its operations. This process has equally turned the IRCC participants of the project into change agents, giving them the confidence to challenge their assumptions and organizational agendas, and collaborate on new projects focused on the benefit of clients.
A crucial success of this project is that it has inspired similar design-led initiatives across the public service. These measures complement the government’s efforts to make itself more open, transparent, consultative, and responsive, thereby spreading the message that design interventions can help shift culture in a large bureaucracy.
One of the agencies that champions this message is the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which recently launched the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), a digital delivery unit focused on helping federal departments build government services that are simple and easy to use. I am proud to be a design research lead at CDS, as this role allows me to inform the design process from the perspective of the end user using a range of innovation research methods and analysis frameworks. CDS recognizes that “digital” isn’t just about using modern information technology; it’s about problem solving using strategic design, agile methods, and proven technologies to improve how services are delivered. Successful digital solutions that are developed are then replicated across government. Inspired by digital transformation units such as the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service (GDS) and the United States’ 18F, CDS focuses strongly on bringing together external digital talent and government partners to build multidisciplinary teams in order to break down traditional functional siloes and match talent to project work.
By enabling strategic design capacity throughout the public service, government can help effect meaningful change in its internal processes and its external interactions with Canadians. Design is no panacea but as the work of CDS, the Hub and other public sector design strategists show, it can play an important role in meaningful and action-oriented government change. Perhaps most importantly, a well-considered use of design can reinforce a culture of keeping Canadian citizens at the center of those changes by including and validating them as the paramount stakeholder of the country. And together we can all celebrate the better outcomes that result.
Mithula Naik is a Design Research Lead at the Canadian Digital Service, a newly formed digital delivery unit housed at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. In this role, Mithula advances strategic design as a tool to inform and inspire user centered values in the Canadian public sector. This is shaped by her trans-disciplinary expertise in design methodologies, ethnography, business strategy, and systems thinking in the public, private and academic sectors. Mithula's passion for product, service and policy innovation is driven by a fundamental concern with identifying the unmet needs of people in specific socio-cultural contexts. Previously, Mithula was the Design Researcher at the Privy Council Office’s Innovation Hub. Mithula holds a Masters degree (M.Design) in Strategic Foresight and Innovation from OCAD University, Canada, and a Bachelors in Product and Interface Design from Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology, India.
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