How to Uber Public Services

In the commercial world, successful businesses start with the customer. What do they want? What do they need? What will make their life easier, better, happier, and so on?

Look at Uber.

Hailing a taxi is not always a pleasant experience. You stand on the pavement, in the dark and the rain, in a strange city that you don’t know, hopefully waving your hand in the air as the headlights stream past you. You’re not sure you’ve got enough cash on you. Will the taxi driver accept card payments? They’ve not got enough change on them. They ‘forgot’ to start the meter. Or you spend 20 minutes sitting in a pokey, damp minicab office on the station rank, waiting for the next available car to arrive…

Uber understands and responds to these problems, by thinking through the user experience. You open up the app and clearly see the nearest drivers. You can check their ratings. You select one, choose a pick up point and wait there. At the other end, you hop out and go about your day. Uber charges your card and there’s no messing around with cash or receipts.

Months ago, I wrote a post asking how seriously we took the user experience in the design of public employment services specifically and public services more generally. I’ve ran solution design workshops in which the answer to the question, ‘who are our customers?’ was met with surprisingly blank looks.

This week, I’m going to outline one small, practical step – that you could take today – to change the way that you design your services, by starting to put your users front and centre.

Run an Empathy Mapping Workshop

Creating a series of Empathy Maps is a quick and easy way to start to brainstorm and visualise the needs of your service users. They are most useful at the beginning of the design process. If you are preparing for a new round of tendering, starting to think about what your solution for Work & Health Programme might look like, or you are exploring new markets and new services, you should get one in the calendar soon. If you’ve never, ever done an exercise like this before, then do one now!

Get the right people in the room

You’ve got to get the right people in the room to get the best answers. You’ll want to identify the right people from your business development and operations teams. You’ll want to get front-line staff as well as senior management involved. You’ll also want to get your product development and IT teams in the room.

Allocate time

You should set aside at least two hours for this session, if not a little more. That will allow you to cover good ground without being rushed.

Identify your ‘archetypes’

Spend the first 30 minutes brainstorming six customer archetypes. Give them names and specific circumstances. Make them as real as you can. Use the front-line experience in the room to get this right. For example:

‘John is 50. He was a steelworker for 30 years until being made redundant 2 years ago. He’s not worked since. He’s suffering from depression and is drinking more than he should. He left school with few qualifications. He lacks basic IT skills. He’s got very specific ideas about the kind of work he will and won’t do. He’s resistant to support from his Advisor.’

Create your Empathy Maps

When you’ve got your archetypes, show the group this:


Image from Value Proposition Design, Alex Osterwalder

Spend the next hour using this template to create “10 Minute Personas” for each archetype. Put yourself in their shoes. Use your own experience and research. Bring everything you’ve got to the table. For each archetype, put an Empathy Map up on the wall. Hand out sticky labels, so that the team can get their thoughts into each quadrant.

You should get some really rich material here. It’s also really helpful to think of quotes – things that the service user might say. It helps build the picture. Members of the team with operational experience will be really, really helpful here.


Use the final 30 minutes of the session to review your archetypes, identify common themes and key differences between them. Start to brainstorm ways that you might solve some of the problems you’ve uncovered. Don’t get into to much detail – that’s for another day!

What’s next?

If you dedicate some time to understanding your service users, you’ve taken the first step on the road to creating a service that genuinely helps them. You now need to build on this work. A few suggestions for next steps:

  • Get Design Workshops in the calendar – now you understand your users’ problems, you need to design the solutions
  • Carry out more research – survey current or potential service users, carry out some 121 interviews, organise focus groups. Make sure you’ve a process in place for collating all of the data your gather from these and feeding it into the design process
  • Share the Empathy Maps throughout the business – invite feedback and see what creative thinking they kickstart at all levels

The biggest challenge I’d lay down is this: start with a blank sheet of paper.

So often, our design is iterative, built upon the foundations of something that wasn’t quite the right answer in the first place. Ask your team the question – if we were starting from nothing, what would good look like? See what you come up with.

Are you putting service users at the centre of your design process?

Could you do more?

Do you use Empathy Maps to kickstart your solution design?

What other tools, techniques or suggestions do you have?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

If you’d like to talk through some of the ideas in the post in more detail, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at ThinkWinDo.