Andrew Travers

Andrew Travers is a designer and researcher. He’s the author of Interviewing for research.

Case working and the user

Posted on 16 Mar 2018

This week, I was back in London to attend Designing Caseworking Systems, a meetup organised by Chris Taylor, one of the designers I’m now lucky to get to work alongside at the Home Office. This might sound like pretty dry stuff, but case working is the thing I’m more excited about in government than anything right now.

We’re in a fortunate, and hard-earned position in government: there’s a maturing design language and patterns for public-facing digital services and a broad understanding of the coherence it has brought to digital public services and the benefit to users: simpler, clearer, faster.

In departments like the Home Office, we’re focussing more and more on how that design language and those patterns might apply (and need to flex) to the other side of these services: the case working systems used by civil servants and agency workers.

We’re designing at the opposite end of the scale in a way: for public-facing services, we’re often dealing with one-time transactions, designing to explicitly avoid our users needing to become experts in our interface. With internally-facing services, we might be designing for experts (and novices who will, in time, become experts), who are using the same digital service all day, every day. It calls for thinking differently about who the users are in this context, the role of the digital service, the actual experience of work we’re involved in creating, and satisfying a somewhat different set of user needs.

Elle Tweedy, one of three excellent speakers on the day, gave a really thoughtful talk on the work Futuregov are doing with three London boroughs authorities to reimagine their complex mix of social care systems.

I was particularly taken with a point Elle made about the opportunity to really rethink the relationship between the case worker, the case working service and the actual user of the service (who I’ll refer to from here on as ‘the service user’). The digital service can often sit as a barrier, sometimes literally, between the humans involved in this process. As Elle explained, it doesn't need to be like this.

If we imagine what a modern digital case working service might look like, it’s probably not something that only the case worker can see to the exclusion of the user. Probably not something where the user only appears as a line, a 'case' in a case list.

It might instead be something that starts from a principle of assuming the service is open to both case worker and service user. With more emphasis on shared screens and an ability for both the case worker and the service user to contribute independently. It might involve designing for different contexts of use, including collaboratively over a shared tablet screen. Of course there will often be compelling reasons why information has to remain confidential from the service user, but you can immediately start to see a chance to change how it feels to be a service user. A more transparent process. A user better able to understand where exactly they are in that process. A user who has agency, is an active participant rather than a passive recipient at the mercy of a contact centre. There’s a more collaborative, informed experience, rather than a user and their case being shunted through a series of process gates and escalations, never visible, never understood.

It can be easy to lose sight of the human, the user, where case working meets digital service. Perhaps we don’t readily think of our service users as also being users of the case-working service itself. Maybe we should.