What public services feel like

There is a walk-in COVID testing centre right by my house. A few weeks ago, I had the unexpected pleasure of using it and dear diary, it got me thinking.

You rarely see or experience services in their entirety right in front of you. You do with other things that are designed, like posters or websites, where the output is relatively contained and controlled. Services can take weeks to get through, span multiple different interactions that can take you between websites and physical spaces and phone calls. At the walk-in testing centre, it was all there, a theatre of public service design playing out right in front of you. In a dumb attempt at service design critique, I’m going to paint you a picture.

You can book your visit in advance, but don’t have to. Slots are available on the day and the one by me uses an external service to help you book them. Appointments feel like something that could be a common component to reuse across the public service, but it’s tidy enough. Anyway, you turn up to this youth club on a quiet road. Signage is just about clear enough so you get in the right lane. There is someone outside to tell you to put your mask on and get your email confirmation ready.

You get inside and the sports hall is divided by barriers that form a route that guides you to the 5 or so testing stations. There aren’t many people inside and the whole thing feels airy and temporary. A staff member scans a QR code in your confirmation email. It takes them to a sign-in page on the 3rd party for appointment booking, which I suspect logs that you showed up.

You’re told to scan another QR code that’s printed throughout. You do, and land on a GOV.UK service. It’s just a form that asks about symptoms and then takes your details. Presumably, this connects your appointment record to your NHS record. It’s simple, clear, and stupidly fast. Nobody involved needs an app or a particularly smart smartphone. It’s QR codes, highly performant websites and simple forms all the way down.

You show your confirmation page and its green glow to a member of staff and they note your confirmation number down. Then you get called to a testing station where a window separates you and a member of staff, with a mirror above the window. You have a chat, you’re passed a swab and are told to stick it in your nostril and on your tonsils for a few seconds. You do that, use the mirror to make sure you’re going in the right place, with a staff member using the window to do the same. Swab then goes in a box and you’re good to go.

An hour later, you get an email and a text message powered by the wonderful Notify. The email has a crisp NHS logo at the top and it tells you whether you’re infectious or not. The local authority’s appointment system sends through a similar email, but you don’t mind it coming through twice. User journey, done for now. Obviously, my experience touches very little of the politics and power dynamics that are at play in this service. Are the staff paid living wage? will you get sick pay if you test positive?, are just some of the questions that an actual critique should be asking.

Designers in government often talk about not having enough case studies of good cross-channel end-to-end service design, but this felt like one. Years of putting users at the centre and obsessing into what they need have gone into it. You could see all the ideas add up to something that’s almost a style, an aesthetic: lo-fi, small pieces loosely joined, but entirely human and personal.

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