When you design for everyone, you design for no one

Sarah Winters, , Content design, Opinion

Sarah Winters and the team look at why a digital campaign aimed at the entire nation cannot make a bad situation better.

Many of us here at Content Design London have worked in government. 

We know the hard work and balancing acts that go into designing and maintaining websites, services and campaigns. The dedication of content designers and user-centred design teams as they continue to advocate and fight for doing good work while keeping decision-makers happy.

We also know that ideas and campaigns are often enforced, even when they cannot meet real-life needs. Vanity projects that make it look like something is happening. Like the government is listening and acting in the best interest of everyone.

But it’s these campaigns that fail, time and again. Because when you try to design for everyone, you design for no one.

Let’s show you what we mean. 

The Help for Households campaign

The Help for Households campaign is a government initiative that “brings together over 40 support schemes to help with the cost of living”.

In reality, it’s a marketing campaign that directs people towards a new website that duplicates content from GOV.UK. 

Our team came together to assess the campaign, looking at: 

  • the user journey,
  • the quality and quantity of information, 
  • accessibility,
  • digital inclusion. 

Excluding people without internet access

The user journey might start when someone sees a Help for Households advert on the side of a bus.

The side of a bus with a green UK Government advert with a yellow banner that says 'Every household will get help with energy bills this winter'
Every household will get help with energy bills this winter, the advert claims. All you need to do is search online for “help for households”.

For many people, the journey starts and stops here. 

There’s no free phone number or point of contact in the ad. 

Without the internet, you cannot access the information.

This is worrying because the amount of people excluded from digital services is rising.

In May this year, Citizens Advice reported that 1 million households disconnected their internet access last year because of rising living costs.

10 million people are unable to access the internet by themselves, according to the Lloyds Bank Essential Digital Skills Benchmark in 2021.

And analysis by Professor Simeon Yates from the University of Liverpool of Ofcom data from 2020 showed that people with limited internet access are:

  • 4 times more likely to be from a low income household,
  • 8 times more likely to be over 65 years old,
  • 1.5 times more likely to be from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups.

When you decide to make information digital-only, you exclude people. You will leave them behind.

Making users do the work

At a glance, the Help for Households website might look neatly organised. 

But as soon as you start clicking around, it’s clear that the burden is on the user to work out which information is relevant to them. 

Every page seems to be trying to address multiple user needs. Users must spend time and energy reading it all to understand what’s relevant to them.

This could be everything, or it could be nothing.

Users are continuously told to check what support they’re eligible for. How much time would it realistically take for someone to do this? 

Not only that, but a lot of the information links back to web pages on GOV.UK. 

The website is putting extra, unnecessary steps in a user’s journey. 

For example, the Household costs page suggests that you use a benefits calculator to find out if you can get benefits to help pay your rent.

Instead of linking directly to a calculator, the link takes you to a benefits calculator page on GOV.UK which explains what benefits calculators are and, further down, lists some popular ones. 

When people are stressed, upset or panicking because of rising living costs, we have a duty to make things as simple as possible for them to find, do or get a thing. 

Content can only do so much

Content cannot solve every problem. 

When complex welfare systems can no longer support people and living costs continue to rise, more content will not make things better.

Creating an online “hub” or “portal” of duplicated information will not make things better. 

A digital campaign aimed at the entire nation cannot make a bad situation better.

What central government should do next

We’re calling on government decision-makers to review their content operations and:

1. Work from one set of user needs

Government needs a centralised set of user needs that’s accessible to everyone across government and informs every project and piece of content. 

A set which is supported by user research, acknowledging that needs and situations change with time. 

It’s possible – see how we built a set of open-source user needs for Covid-19

2. Stop publishing content that does not meet these needs

No user need? No content. 

If you’re legally required to publish content that no one reads, the law needs to change or you need to present the information so that it’s relevant and interesting.

3. Stop duplicating content

Duplicating content does not solve problems. It only makes things more confusing. It confuses users, and wastes their valuable time and energy. It wastes time and money for government too. Money that could go towards fixing problems. 

4. Publish a content strategy

Government strategies rarely get as detailed as to include content. Yet their products and services would be useless without it. We want to see a strategy dedicated to the people, processes, practices and technologies that make up the government’s content operations.

5. Publish success and value models

Each piece of content or service should have clear success and value criteria. Not traffic, but tangible user-centred metrics. Like correct task completion or a drop in call-centre contact. 

We'd like to see a monthly report on the efficiency of content that’s open to everyone. 

6. Be accountable

Just because you’re a single source of truth or information, you should still be held accountable for what you choose to publish. 

Charities like Turn2us and Citizens Advice should not have to be interpreting government information for people.

There should be a minister responsible for digital across government. For the money spent, the time given and, above all, the user experience.

Work for the user

This might seem simplistic. But culture change is about being bold, saying it as it is. 

When you remove the ego, it becomes simple. 

When you work together for a single purpose, it becomes simple.

When you do the work for the user, it becomes simple. 

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