A quick reflection on inclusive service design from #A11yScotland

Through Girl Geek Scotland I was lucky enough to be given a free ticket for the Accessibility Scotland conference on 25 October (in exchange for compering a lunchtime lightning talk session, which was a sheer delight and I very much got the better end of the bargain). In fact, before I go on, I have to shout out Accessibility Scotland for being so generous that they also gave us 2 free tickets to offer to our volunteers. We love it when conferences support diversity in this way; many women in small SMEs and startups (of which there are hunners in Edinburgh) may not always have good opportunities for this kind of professional development, and we all know about the power of developing networks and who you know…

First up, Accessibility Scotland was hands-down one of the best conferences I’ve been to this year. I’ve got a lot of scribbles in my notebook and many grand plans, but I also know my own weaknesses, and so I’m going to get a first blog post out quickly.

All the speakers were excellent, but the two talks that stood out for me on the day were Cat Macaulay (Accessible public services – are we there yet?) and Matt May (Designing without empathy).

Cat Macaulay’s talk outlined the work that the Scottish Government is doing in inclusive service design in order to meet complex challenges (with the devolution of certain powers to Holyrood comes the need to design new health and welfare services for example). She described the tendency to design services around the structure of the public sector rather than focusing on what should be a single user journey. She emphasised the need to support users of services, especially when they are most compromised e.g. dealing with critical health care issues, and ensure we design systems that embody dignity and respect (in line with our National Performance Framework).*

Her core message was that unless you have a diverse team involved in the design of services, and by extension are using inclusive and accessible methodologies to ensure equity of participation, then you are likely to fail in delivering services that serve users well. Adopting more inclusive design processes is a process of collaborative sense-making and ensures that your research data is evaluated with a level of in-built challenge. It also engages citizens with collective problem solving, which is what’s required to tackle some of the biggest challenges that we have as a society. She talked about the importance of spending time to fully understand a problem space before rushing to design, and why having an inclusive approach is vital to getting this right.

( (c) Scottish Government, from The Scottish Approach to Service Design)

However, she also stressed that getting things right requires some level of failure, and in the public sector this is not easily tolerated. It can often feel like we’re berated for not trying, and then berated again for trying and failing. It’s also simply not possible to give everyone what they want but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from striving for good design. We should be as good as we can for as many people as we can.

She highlighted the Scottish Approach to Service Design that her team have published as a means of sharing this vision.

“This is a framework to guide how we design user-centred public services and not an attempt to create a template/toolkit for designing any service. It’s about how we all agree on and support the set of core ideas and intentions we need to build into our organisations to ensure we design the right thing, before designing the thing right.”

The other talk that has stayed with me beyond the day was Matt May, Adobe’s Head of Inclusive Design. The main argument he put forward was that we need to remove empathy from the design process as far as is possible. That’s not to say that we should be uncaring, but he presented a number of pieces of research that pointed towards compassion being a more effective approach.

The phrase that really brought it home to me was “I feel *for* you”. Matt was clear to point out that when you take that approach you’re not being inclusive. You’ve in effect negated the other person and put yourself in their stead. He emphasised strongly that feeling stuff is not equal to knowing stuff, and listening to the lived and difference experience of others is vital. The link to Cat MacCaulay’s talk is kind of obvious in terms of having diversity and equality of participation, but for me he went a step further and also brought in the need to let go of a bit of ego. Very kindly he shared some great resources on Twitter after the talk too.

Apart from feeling massively reassured that we’ve got someone like Cat leading the digital development of public sector services in Scotland, I found a lot in both of these talks resonated with how we have been trying to change up the development of learning technology policies and services at Edinburgh, in particular ensuring that our students are working with us as colleagues to define and shape services (we have a long tradition of consulting staff, but we tend to “do” to students).

I talked at the QAA conference in 2018 about our experience of this within our lecture recording work, and since then we’ve had students help shape the development of the blogging service, the subtitling service, and our project to improve the use of the VLE (and beyond – my colleagues who work on our website, our enterprise portal, and our digital skills programme all do the same). Beyond expressly including students in the design and development process for new services as active members of the team (and consulting a wider set of students where possible) we also work with student interns on the day to day running of our services. My own experience is that this does 2 important things:

  • Stops us defaulting to lazy stereotypes about “students” and forces us to engage properly
  • Creates a sense of belonging and community for our students. Influencing the running of the University feels good. If you don’t believe me have a read of some of our student intern blogs.

However, it does leave me thinking that we’re still not doing enough to be inclusive. By and large it’s the students who are physically at Edinburgh who are taking up these opportunities. Are we doing enough to reach out to online students? part time students who are also working? and what design and consultation methods could we use to ensure their equal and full participation?

* Scotland is one of a handful of countries that aims to push beyond GDP as the major measure of national success: “The NPF is Scotland’s wellbeing framework. It explicitly includes ‘increased wellbeing’ as part of its purpose, and combines measurement of how well Scotland is doing in economic terms with a broader range of wellbeing measures.” (Scotland’s Wellbeing Report)


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