To a user, a service is simple. It’s something that helps them to do something - like learn to drive, buy a house, or become a childminder. It’s an activity that needs to be done. A verb that comes naturally from a given situation that cuts across transactions, call centre menus and around advisors towards its goal.
But this isn’t how government sees a service.
For government, services are discrete transactions that need to be completed in a particular way. Because of this, they need to be easily identifiable so that the people who are operating them can become familiar with them and assist a user to complete the task. So we’ve given these transactions names, nouns, that help to keep track of them. Things like 'Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR)' or 'Statutory Off Road Vehicle Notification (SORN)'.
'SORNing' a vehicle in order to stop paying tax on it
The trouble with names like these are that you need to be introduced to them before you can use them, meaning that part of ‘doing a thing’ means learning what government calls the thing you’re trying to do.
Imagine walking into crowded room and trying to find a doctor, and only once you’ve learned her name can you ask her to help you. That’s how using a lot of government services works.
This confusion drives millions of users to call government call centres for help, or worse, attempt to use a ‘service’ in the wrong way or in the wrong order leading to failure for the user, and vast amounts of unnecessary work for government.
In the past, we used advertising to ‘educate users’ in our nouns. Forcing the kind of brand familiarity that came naturally to well used objects like Sellotape, Hoovers or Biros.
The Directgov advertising scheme that taught the UK to ‘go directgov’ in order to tax a car.
But in reality most government services are used only once or infrequently at best, so brand familiarity really isn’t very useful.
That means people who’ve done it before need to fill in the gap and provide our service for us. For those with the means, that’s a lawyer, accountant, or professional ‘government translator’, for everyone else it’s probably a friend or a family member - whose advice may or may not be right.
Quite simply, our services are designed for expert operation, which worked perfectly well when services were provided by trained expert humans, but means that these services don’t work unassisted on the internet.
These noun services aren't helpful. We need to turn them into verb services.
Turning nouns into verbs
The first step to fixing this is find out what your users are actually trying to do when they’re using your service.
Choosing the right verb is difficult, and will mean that you need to do user research to find out what your users are trying to achieve and how your service fits in with that.
After several rounds of user testing, the Home Office changed the name of ‘Immigration Health Surcharge’ to ‘check if you need to pay towards your health care in the UK’ - a service that allows visitors to the UK to pay for the cost of healthcare.
Not all verbs are equal
Often a user’s perception of what government might be able to do for them is so low that they will skip straight to the noun that they think applies to them.
Our job is to intercept that process.
Equally there are things that a user will not presume to exist as a single service.
Our job is to understand how that overall task breaks down into smaller tasks a user identifies as something they need help with.
To add to this, there will be many different users, with many different tasks that will run through a service that serves many different needs - like a licence - so a service might have many different starting points as a user becomes more experienced or their needs become more specific.
Verbs will change the way your service works
In a world of easily shared government as a platform, services will be cheaper and easier to make. When that happens there will be more services, more closely targeted at user needs.
Service failure, and the calls and casework associated with it, will remain one of the biggest costs in government - and for users - unless we change the way that we work to reflect the needs and language of users.
This isn’t going to be easy. It will mean massive changes to the way that our services work as the verb/s we choose to describe them gradually affect what it is they do, but without it we will continue to provide services made for a world that no longer exists.
We've uploaded the poster shown in the picture above as a PDF. Feel free to download it and spread the word.