Beyond Empathy: Lessons from Public Service Design
Designing with compassion (and not just empathy) enriches any Service Design — and the role of the Facilitator is key.
An elderly man arrives at the entrance of a provincial town hall, dressed simply, looking nervous, a little anxious and lost. Before he enters the building, he removes his slippers and places them by the side of the door. This is not a required practice nor a common ritual. In fact, it puzzles the civic servants walking past or sitting behind their desks. Nonetheless, they welcome him warmly, inquiring after his business at the hall. He enters barefoot and tells them, humbly, that this is his first time to avail of any service from the local government and that he is there to register his identity.
This is not the introduction to a cryptic novel. Rather, it was part of the ethnographic research “download” during one of the many Service Design Learning Labs our team at KindMind facilitates for local governments as part of their Digital Transformation efforts.
What does a seemingly random observation like that have to do with digitizing public services, you might ask? To me, it means everything. It spells the difference between a purely process-driven orientation vs. a kind, inclusive, human approach to design. This becomes all the more important when dealing with services meant to uplift and protect the quality of life of citizens, especially those living in marginalized communities.
While Public Service Design is premised on human-centered principles, the practice can often feel detached and technical with its focus on the systems and processes that enable customer interactions, the grid-shaped tools like journey maps, service patterns, process blueprints, technical diagrams and the like. It’s easy to be solely concerned about driving efficiencies, especially with government services often characterized by the clichés of bureaucracy — time-consuming visits, confusing forms, endless queues, unexpected costs. We forget that the citizens who avail of these services come with unique circumstances and contexts worth taking into account in the design process.
As was the case for our elderly man. We discovered that this was the first time he would secure a legitimate, government-certified Identification Card because this was something he could not possess while his town was under a separatist regime. He was filled with anxiety because he was illiterate and was afraid he would not be able to fulfill the form requirements. But, he was also optimistic because he understood that securing an ID meant he could now benefit from financial support and services he could not access without proper identification. It seems the thought of that had given him such a sense of gratitude which he expressed through the quiet act of removing his slippers at the entrance, a gesture of respect and humility.
These insights inspired ideas for the creation of a more dynamic and responsive local government portal that would enable even those in far flung areas to access public services. Beyond ideas to minimize time, cost and effort, “designing for extremes” — as well as for delight — meant conceptualizing UX/UI features that would ensure accessibility and seamlessness for both service receivers and service providers. It meant testing copy interfaces that emanated warmth and care. It led to prototyping alternative digital channels that could accommodate people without personal access to the internet. It even went beyond digital and into ideas for redesigning physical spaces at the town hall. Ultimately, it generated ideas for inclusive innovations facilitated by the Service Design process.