How the User Centred Design Lab has joined policy with delivery

Coral coloured sticker saying "user centred design lab" on a plastic stationery box

Although we've mentioned the User Centred Design Lab in previous posts, we've not been very clear about what it has done, and how it has worked. In this post, we'll do both.

Civil servants who understand digital ways of working

The lab is a team of people who help colleagues across DfE to be user-centred. Lab people have a particular mix of skills and experience that makes them good at doing this. Specifically, they:

  • have direct experience of delivering services for schools
  • understand the education policy background
  • know about digital working methods, and implementing the service standard

As Emma Stace, DfE’s Chief Digital Officer, said in her post a few weeks ago, that the lab specialises in helping DfE colleagues make the shift from writing policy to designing policy, basing policy decisions on user research and data and learning from real circumstances in the real world.

Some of you might have read articles about bringing policy and delivery closer together, or our own James Reeve arguing that they should be the same thing. That’s precisely what the lab team are here to do.

Helping teams do user-centred policy design

Lab members work directly with teams across DfE. Sometimes just for a few days, or sometimes embedded within those teams for weeks or months at a time. It gives teams as much help as they need, and as much as they ask for - without taking over.

The lab team members speak two languages: the language of educational policymaking and delivery, and the language of user-centred design. They understand both sides of the equation.

They can talk confidently about DfE and the work it needs to do, but they can also talk confidently about service design to meet user needs, about iteration, about user research, and about making use of the tools others provide to make service delivery easier.

They’re well qualified, credible advisors for colleagues who don’t know as much about those things yet. Perhaps the best way to understand how the lab works is to look at a couple of examples of things it has done.

Improving uptake of modern foreign languages at GCSE

Drawing of a teacher at a whiteboard with the words Hola, Bonjour, Guten Tag and japanese characters.

Some years ago, all pupils had to study a modern foreign language course up to age 16. But when that requirement was dropped, take-up dropped too. The government wanted to boost these numbers. There's now an ambition for 75% of GCSE students to be studying a language by 2022 as part of the English Baccalaureate.

The lab helped the policy leads set up a team to design policies to boost uptake – not by just writing the policy and handing it down to schools to implement, but by designing policy based on user research in schools. In particular, they wanted to test a hypothesis: "technology could play a role in encouraging more students to take foreign languages at GCSE."

With help from the lab, the modern foreign languages policy team ran a 6-week discovery, focused on user research interviews with students, parents, teachers, headteachers, heads of language departments, and so on.

The discovery uncovered 2 things:

Students wanted to hear from people who had studied foreign languages before them, and were open to hearing how the subject had expanded their career opportunities.

Technology exists that could help reduce workload for foreign language teachers – for example reducing marking by providing instant feedback to pupils – which could help encourage more pupils to take up foreign languages

As a result, in February the team will start to prototype ways of directly connecting university level foreign language students with their younger counterparts who are about to choose GCSEs. We’ll have more to say about that once this ‘alpha’ phase is complete.

Improving funding content for schools on GOV.UK

Another lab project looked at the way schools apply for funding for school improvement. Money and support was available to under-performing schools, but applying for it and getting it had been a long and complicated process.

Again, people from the lab worked with policy experts to investigate further.

After interviewing a number of people working in schools it emerged that one problem was simply a lack of clarity. School leaders struggled to find clear and accessible information about the funds available, and the means of applying for them.

The team realised that clear, accessible guidance could meet the user need they'd uncovered. So they did some content design and put new guidance in one place on GOV.UK.

The result looked like this:

A screenshot of the School Improvement Support guidance page

This simple, structured page was designed to assemble all the relevant information in as simple a way as possible. It uses the sort of language that the school leaders would use. If you google “school improvement support”, this page now comes up as the top result.

Screenshot of school improvement site showing contents, what you can get. Underneath it reads "local heritage education managers work with clusters of schools across England to coordinate training, offer curriculum support, broker partnerships with local heritage providers. Schools not directly involved can benefit from the resources developed, including online classroom resources for key stages 1 to 5

Under each category of support are links to further pages with simple, structured content, listed in a way that research suggested would meet user needs: what support is available, the eligibility criteria, when the support is available, and how much it costs.

User testing shows that schools leaders are now able to find the information they are looking for much more easily, saving them valuable time.

Better policy decisions, not just big shiny services

In both of these examples, the end result wasn’t a new digital service, and that’s what makes the User Centred Design Lab different. It’s not just here to make whole new services, but to help teams rethink problems facing schools in a user-centric way.

Both resulted in policy decisions being made as a result of digital specialists and policymakers all working together in a single multidisciplinary team.

The solutions vary, depending on the user needs, and that’s the whole point. Until you start being user centred, and until you start finding out what those needs are, you can’t predict what the results will be.

We like to judge our success on the answer to a simple question: are we making things better for children, schools and the people who work in them? So far, we think the answer is yes. We’ve learnt a lot in the past 18 months. Now we’re thinking about the future - where can we go from here?

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