We’ve all been dazzled by the promise of working in a fast paced agency environments, designing super cool campaigns, innovative apps and social media strategies for well known brands.

The public sector may not have the same type of glamour – but what it does have is users who really need your help.

I have recently finished a year long contract in the public sector and thought it would be interesting to share some of the differences with the private sector work I have done.

In the private sector we often have the luxury of assuming our users are at least reasonably tech savvy, that they have money to spend on the products we are trying to sell them and that they want to use our products out of choice.

In the public sector your users may not even have money to feed their kids. Probably the last thing they want to be doing is using what you are designing.

Why UX is even more important

Probably the first hurdle you will need to get over is the ego-hurting fact that no matter how good your UX design is, these users have far more important things they need to do.

What you are designing may more than likely be a necessary hoop they need to jump through to get the support they need to pay their rent, or to take up work.

Job centre plusHere, UX is less about dazzling and more about reducing friction between users and the services and support they need access to. It is about instilling trust that you are using their data responsibly. It is about ensuring wide accessibility for all types of disabilities and technical abilities.

The nature of public services can mean that you are dealing with a very wide cross section of user types. Edge cases at a scale of the whole population quickly do not become edge cases any more. The 80/20 rule still applies, but you really have to think about how to deal with that 20 in a way you may not in the private sector.

User Testing

User testing is always important in any UX process. It’s how you validate your designs and get to know your users. In the private sector this could teach you how to optimise your conversion rates, or help people get to content more easily.

User testing is always a reality check, but I wasn’t prepared for how much of a check it was during my time working in the public sector.

When something about your design doesn’t work in this context it can mean someone missing a rent payment and ending up on the street.

Regular user testing is central to designing effective public services and keeps your feet firmly on the ground. Fortunately, in the UK at least, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has made that part and parcel of how projects are run. Other Governments around the world are beginning to adopt this model.

Behaviour change

BehaviourIn the private sector using persuasive design is nothing new. Various tricks like using social proof in order to make someone more likely to click a ‘Buy now’ button are common.

In the public sector the goal is far loftier. Your UX work and design has to deliver the policy intent; with the end goal to drive actual social change. Making people more likely to pick up extra work, encouraging them to budget better and so on.

Understanding exactly what you are trying to achieve in the long term will affect your designs. Sometimes the most obvious or most simple design will not deliver the type of behaviour you want to encourage from people.

The importance of content

Content is always important, but in the public sector the impacts of bad content can be severe. Explaining complex policy terms or eligibility criteria to people will be a daily challenge.

An ambiguous form label can lead to people committing unintentional fraud by putting in the wrong information.

The temptation is always to put more additional help text in, but user testing on this project interestingly showed that people were often more likely to put in a correct answer if they didn’t read the help text. The help text was making them doubt their own answers.

Every single word has to justify itself hard to be on your designs as any confusion will lead to drop outs, phone calls or other knock on effects that not only impact the user but tax payer money.

To sum up, doing UX in the public sector has bought me back to why I like doing this job in the first place. Helping real people get help with real problems.

Image courtesy Hernán PiñeraAndrew_Writerfisserman


Chris Mears

Chris is co-founder of UXmentor.me. He has worked with clients such as the UK government, Just Eat & Which? with a focus on service design and transformation.