Skip to main content

This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Designing for a relationship, not a user

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Design, Our services

When was the last time you helped someone do something online? A few personal examples from me: during a prototype testing session I talked a participant through how to share their screen with me, while on a whatsapp call with my mom I talked her through how to switch our voice call to a video call and last year while abroad for a conference, I sat next to a fellow speaker and helped him as he completed the online public health passenger locator form for entry back into the UK. For the purposes of this blog I’m going to call this informal support. 

Next question. Do you have any formal ‘authority’ in place? Perhaps you’re a parent or a guardian. Perhaps you have a lasting power of attorney in place for your mum or your dad or your granny? I have a power of attorney in place for my sister. The UK Gov Good Practice Guidelines (GPG) identifies three different types of authority:

  1. Delegated authority is when someone nominates a representative to do things for them. Eg. Lasting Power of Attorney. 
  2. Asserted authority is when a representative is able to declare/assert that they have the authority to act on behalf of someone else. Eg. A mother opening a bank account on behalf of her child does not need the child’s agreement to do so.
  3. Appointed authority is when a third party has the legal power to appoint someone to act on behalf of a subject. Eg. A court-appointed company administrator. 

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll refer to all these authoritative examples as ‘formal support’.

While working on modernising lasting powers of attorney, I’ve come across tens of stories and anecdotes, just like the ones I’ve shared with you above, where participants talked through how they received help from or gave help to a friend, neighbour or family member while completing their forms. These stories are often accompanied by tales of woe; because once they had a lasting power of attorney in place, they quickly discovered how difficult it was to start using this really important document. 

As a result of this work, I’ve started seeing the absence of informal support and formal delegation journeys everywhere and I cannot stop thinking to myself, why do we make it so difficult for people to get the help they need? The reason I’m getting on my soapbox about this is because this isn’t just a design flaw. In some instances, this absence becomes outright service failure. 

When you start adding up the numbers, you quickly start to see how important supported journeys are. There are nearly six million lasting powers of attorney and counting in the UK, with around one million being added each year… and that’s just one kind of formal support. Supported journeys aren’t a chance occurrence, they are a certainty. 

Why is it important for us to design ‘in’ support?

The simplest answer to this question is because informal and formal support are a key feature of human life and as a result, our services should be flexible enough to cope with a supporter-in-tow on the other end of a screen, telephone or paper form. However, there are a number of other important reasons too.

Reduce fear and anxiety

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard how filling out government forms overwhelms people. There is a real fear and anxiety in getting it wrong or getting into trouble because they got it wrong. Very often, it’s this fear and anxiety that drives people to seek support and reassurance from someone else but that, in turn, concerns people that by including someone else, they’re doing the wrong thing. Designing ‘in’ support and delegation makes it known to people that getting support is perfectly ok and normal.

You could include an entry point for a supporter at the very start of the journey, like this.

Reduce errors

Designing in support means that we’re able to reduce errors when people are sharing information with us. When you’re helping someone complete an online form, it’s easy to default to ‘your’ details when you see the word ‘you’ or ‘yours’. Customising the journey with names reduces the cognitive load on the supporter and can help to reduce errors.

Avoid this: Do you have an account?

Rather this: Does Wendy have an account?

Reduce delays in access to public services

This is especially important with regards to formal supporters like guardians, attorneys, appointees and others because the person we intended to speak to, our imagined ‘user’,  isn’t driving the car but is rather in the front seat, so to speak. For those with a formal support arrangement in place, they are relying on service providers to know what these arrangements are, how they work, and to have a process in place to verify the arrangement. Without this, a potentially vulnerable person and their supporter is left in significant distress. Verifying the relationship between two people also ensures that should any queries arise or notifications need to be shared, that we contact the right person. Calling someone who has dementia and questioning them about, say, identity documents is not helpful.

Design for a relationship not a user

Once you open this box, you realise there is a lot to think about. For starters, there’s the fact that you’re having to reframe the design challenge in front of you because you’re now having to design for a relationship not a user. That’s some real weirdness right there and it takes some getting used to. Then there are other design challenges that crop up like capturing consent from the person getting the support, and adapting guidance so that those who are supporting have the language they need to explain what the service is requesting and what decisions need to be made clearly to someone else. Building in safeguards, to reduce the risk of undue pressure and coercion, takes time. Consideration also needs to be given to how the kind of supported journeys that are described above should be designed differently to professional support services that solicitors, accountants, charities etc provide. However, this is a blog and not a thesis and there is only so much space that I’m allocated. If you’d like to read more about this topic, I’m starting to document my thinking in a framework that I’m publishing on this Google Doc over here

As more public services and national infrastructure, like single sign-on accounts and identity, move online, the design of informal and formal support journeys will need to move from nice-to-have into the territory of accessible and inclusive design practice.

So the next time someone asks you, “Will it scale?” The answer is, “It has to”.

Sharing and comments

Share this page

1 comment

  1. Comment by Em S. posted on

    I am so glad this is finally out and hopefully shape the way services are designed going forward. We absolutely need to make changes to the way we design user journeys. It is a pity that it has taken a pandemic for us to realise that assisted support, particularly in times of crisis, for those who do not have the backing of a legal document such as an LPA has long been a dire necessity to be recognised particularly when interacting with government.


Leave a comment

We only ask for your email address so we know you're a real person

By submitting a comment you understand it may be published on this public website. Please read our privacy notice to see how the GOV.UK blogging platform handles your information.