Cookie monsters and cargo cults: UX in digital service delivery

This week, not unusually, I have been reflecting on what is digital. Partly it’s been fueled by the LocalGov Digital group heading to GDS for conversations about how we can work together, partly by current work, partly about in person and on Twitter conversations.

My thoughts can be summed up as:

  • digital is about more than websites
  • minimum viable product is still too frequently seen as digital success
  • there are still too many ‘cargo cults’ around systems and digital delivery.

I’m going to skip over the first point for now (as interesting and important as it is). Mainly because I wasn’t able to go to GDS with the LocalGov Digital group this week and I’m sure (well, I hope) they will blog about or around this thought.

Instead I’ll reflect a little further on the other points.

Minimum viable product vs desirable product

This train of thought was re-fuelled by a tweet I saw yesterday from Paul Brown – it showed a plain cake (minimum viable product) against a Cookie Monster cup cake (desirable product). They are both edible but the second has the added value of delighting before you eat it.

It struck me as a good way of visualising what is happening with digital delivery in local government, and probably some other sectors too. Namely that systems, websites etc are still at a very basic level – they are the minimum viable.

They exist, they have a level of functionality that ticks boxes, they probably fulfill to a satisfactory the needs of the business (or at least a part of it). They may fulfill the needs of the user, but probably at this level only partially. This is the no frills delivery of digital, the basic range.

So, look at the desirable product. For me, in the way I’m thinking about this, that is the means of delivery which has been designed with the user in mind. It’s a richer experience that goes beyond basic delivery toward delivery that delights. It’s the bit that is ‘digital by design’ (the phrase LocalGov Digital borrowed from Carrie Bishop), the bit that makes the digital service so good that people that can will choose to use it (to paraphrase GDS).

Is the no frills product delivered because it’s cheaper? I don’t think so. I think it’s more to do with a lingering low level of digital literacy by / in organisations. The desirable product can be delivered to cost (maybe even cheaper) if the right expertise is involved at the right stage of development.

And this is where, by taking a side step, we look at the same problem from a new angle and it leads into my last reflection:

Cargo cults

Cargo cults were a metaphor I hadn’t thought about in a while until they cropped up in coversation this week. But having been reminded the idea seems to fit with the one about levels of digital service delivery.

The metaphocial use of the term is used for an attempt to achieve outcomes by replicating circumstances in which the outcomes have been achieved before, without understanding or knowing about underlying mechanisms. It’s a metaphor that could fit much digital delivery at the moment ‘we’ve built a website / bought a system, therefore our outcome will appear’ followed by a perplexed ‘why isn’t the outcome happening?’.

These two thoughts converge – buying / building a digital service doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll achieve your outcomes or delight the user. It’s the intricacies of the systems – turning it from viable to desirable – that will do that.

And don’t we want users who don’t just manage to get through a digital service by luck or perseverance, but who want to tell others about the how surprisingly easy (or even delightful) their experience was; those who become the strongest advocates for your organisation.

If that is what we want, then how are we going to tackle the skills divide or structures that are stopping or slowing this down from becoming the norm?

Maybe it’s something that LocalGov Digital  and GDS can tackle together as it’s been the elephant in the room for too long.

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If you’d rather read my words about music you can do so on Louder Than War. And you can also find me on Twitter.

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