How NSW Department of Education is embracing human-centred design

Digital services director shares how design thinking and a customer-first mentality are now driving the department's ambitious plans to launch a unified digital experience

The NSW Department of Education’s ambitious plans to make core online information services a seamless, customer-first experience for teachers, parents and students is seeing the group increasingly embrace human-centred design.

Speaking at last week’s Relate Live conference in Sydney, the agency’s director of digital services, communications and engagement directorate, Peter Buckmaster, shared how the principles of design thinking are being applied as the department rolls out a global experience framework (GEF) for digital services.

He noted government is experiencing a wave of innovation, thanks to a change in thinking that sees citizens increasingly treated as customers. On top of this, government services increasingly need to be ‘phygital’, bringing together digital and physical into physical spaces, Buckmaster said.

The GEF is a global experience language that acts as a foundation for uniting the digital services approach DET takes. Rather than redeveloping every time a website or portal is built, this is about building a code base and toolkits of things that can be reused, he explained.

As an example, Buckmaster pointed to Westpac’s global experience language, designed as a “single source of truth” for creating consistent customer experiences across its digital landscape. The portal includes resources on how to plan, design and build digital assets including consistent user interfaces and functionality.

One of the ways GEF is being employed is to provide a centralised information portal for teachers, parents and students at the education.nsw.gov.au domain. This will see four core sites – corporate, curriculum, public schools and the intranet – consolidated into a single space.

Buckmaster said the first thing for DET to do was to launch a proof of concept project looking at what the experience language needed to address. The department manages about 200 websites and chalks up 2.75 million unique views per month.

The second part of the work was diving into the discovery and empathy phase of design thinking.

“You don’t need for research to have stopped, just starting diving in,” Buckmaster said, adding the principles of “launch quickly, fail fast” and iteration are vital to being user focused.

“The empathy phase is about getting out, putting ideas in front of people and collecting stories. When we went out in the field, we looked at ideas and how we develop that in schools,” he said.

Among the problems identified included DET having too many websites, duplication in content in multiple locations as well as poor content quality, issues with usability and user experience and confusing functionality.

“For example, teachers needed to log in six to nine times per day to access content, access speeds were an issue, and they wanted to go to single location,” Buckmaster said. “It made us realise that sometimes you need to solve the basic problems to push ahead. So that is something we’re doing.”

The next phase of design thinking is concepting and ideation. In DET’s case, Buckmaster said this involved bringing an assortment of people in a room, such as teachers and accountants, to come up with ideas. It also involved a co-creation process with end customers, all aimed at generating as many ideas as possible.

“We want to validate ideas, so we quickly prototype them,” Buckmaster continued. “A prototype can just be on paper, then you take that back out to the field and narrow it down to one or many two ideas. That’s the idea you continually go out with, improve and test.”

User testing is crucial to developing good design, and Buckmaster said DET’s preferred approach was through lab tests. Alongside this, DET tapped into user personas and journeys.

“The idea is when we want to design, we want to put a face to design,” he said. “We have about 50,000 teachers, all of varying degrees of connection, and we educate 750,000 students daily. We have a passionate bunch of people who are doing good for the community. We also have an area for student assisted travel that helps 10,000 kids with a disability to get to school every day.

“These are the sorts of stories and profiles that go into building this material.”

Buckmaster said video was critical in articulating these users and how they interact with DET’s online services back to the rest of the organisation. It was also a way of showcasing new digital functionality such as virtually assisted chat prompts.

“During development, and as we tell these stories, videos are powerful biggest thing with managing change is fear of what it’s going to look like,” he said.

Along the way, DET pulled together drop-in centres and roadshows, taking an exhibition-style approach to presenting information about its GEF plans. On show were user interviews, concept designs, user research findings, teacher personas, prototypes, and user journey linking.

“It’s about engaging feedback; we create a song and dance and sell it in,” Buckmaster said. “We are just at the beginning, but the thing is that this work is never finished, it’s about always improving.”

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