Working on an inclusive digital transformation for the public sector

by Joannes Vandermeulen [6 min read]

Namahn works regularly with the public services on a variety of challenges. The aim of our work together is to improve the online experience for public services offered to citizens in Belgium, but also assist the organisations in changing their culture.  

The objective of one of our projects is to translate the complex context of inclusion into actionable recommendations. As a governmental service, it’s even more crucial to be mindful to avoid excluding users.   

It is always a pleasure to talk about digital inclusion. Focusing on “design-for-all” is a rich source of inspiration. By creating services that are as close as possible to the reality of users, we’re able to celebrate the diversity of different profiles and their needs. 

Over the past year, physical reception points for citizens in Belgium have been restricted and many even closed due to the Covid health crisis. The pandemic and consequential lockdown has accelerated the need for accessible and inclusive online sites. Now, all people who were not confident with digital technology are pushed and sometimes forced to do their procedures online. Inclusion has therefore become one of the priorities of service redesign or creation in the digital public space.

One of the expectations of teams in government is to have a deeper knowledge on the topic of digital inclusion. The topic is well known to some but is still rather vague in terms of implementation. As designers, we add value because we synthesise complex information in an engaging format, so that insights can be easily shared internally.  

Generally, when working on digital inclusion, we aim to banish preconceived ideas that people may have on who is excluded and why. Although this term originated in the differently abled community, it is not limited solely to people with disabilities. Inclusion means equal opportunity to access services in all sectors.  

As a result of our research and interviews in the project for the federal government, we established variable factors regarding inclusion:

  • Situational aspects: being stressed by a crucial process (validating a payment, validating the sending of a file, etc.)
  • Temporary aspects: such as a hand in plaster, difficulty to access internet (a problem with the internet connection, lack of availability of digital equipment, etc.)
  • Permanent aspects: not having the right digital skills or lacking confidence in their ability
  • Autonomy: not understanding the language, not being able to do things alone (having to wait for someone to be available to assist), change in situation (separation or loss of a partner who used to take on certain tasks)

All of these factors constitute obstacles for citizens trying to access digital platforms of the federal government. Any individual person may encounter these obstacles with more or less influence.  

Another one of our client’s expectations was to be guided in the research and analysis of citizens’ needs. Through our observations, we were able to identify several guidelines:

Conducting iterative research with diverse recruitment

This involves establishing recruitment grids for interviewees that are in line with the client’s strategy and the needs of the service or product being built.  

Developing for mobile applications first

Very often citizens, if they can, carry out their administrative procedures on a computer (tax returns, etc) and consult their various accounts on their mobile phones (consulting benefit payments, etc). However, there are many people who have only a mobile phone rather than a computer their disposal. Therefore, designing and developing an administrative site for a mobile version first and making sure it works properly, and then developing a desktop version, contributes to the inclusion of the greatest number of people.  

Simplifying communication

Excluding the use of administrative jargon to use simple words that can be understood by everyone will facilitate access to information and the smooth running of online procedures for all citizens.  

Include end-users in the design

As a client or designer, we have biases that do not allow us to have the necessary perspective to consider all the barriers of citizens in terms of their specific needs. Therefore, it is essential to involve the citizens themselves in the design process as early as possible to have a better understanding of their needs.

Reassure and support users throughout their journey

Taking the steps to reassure and support users throughout their journey is key, because each administrative step has a consequence, whether it is a further action or inaction as a result of what a user does. These are moments when citizens need to know if their information has been taken into account, if they are on the right page or at the right service. Digital technology and the absence of a human presence (physical or telephone) can negatively reinforce any feeling of doubt. Therefore, all instructions are extremely important such as those that explain the context of a process, clarify at what stage in a process a citizen currently finds themselves in, and confirmation emails or other notification elements used to guide citizens.  

Ensuring that there is coherence between different platforms

Citizens often must navigate between several interfaces, be it e-mails or websites. It is important that they can easily and immediately find their way around. Graphic consistency between the different platforms and reassurance elements are necessary for user confidence and a fluid navigation.  

Creating a simple link between platforms and support materials

This can be done through chat, a telephone number, frequently asked questions (FAQ), YouTube links for explanatory videos, visuals (posters, illustrations), instructions for use or examples of the procedure. The most important thing is to know what citizens value most at different points in the process, as this varies according to the service used.  

Accessibility includes adhering to international standards (such as These accessibility techniques validate the development of web products and services that are usable for all and therefore defined as inclusive. At any time, you can test your website or service to see if it complies with the accessibility standards.

How do we suggest conducting a design-for-inclusion project?

Coach the project team

Provide an agile way of working, with frequent collaboration and accessible co-creation tools. Practice what you preach and avoid design jargon, make things visual and have a clear overview of progress in the project plan. Organise, throughout the project, workshops with the different stakeholders to ensure the feasibility of the recommendations and create buy-in.  

Carry out inclusive and iterative user research  

Take inclusion factors into account when recruiting the end-users for research. Make sure you make your interviews accessible for non-digital savvy participants and offer different options (via telephone or in person).

Our methodological tools and focus on inclusion provide solid guidelines for the creation of services in our projects in the public sector. Flexibility and responsiveness are two other key factors that need to be taken into consideration. Inclusion requires going beyond pre-constructed norms in order to create an environment “for all” instead of asking people to adapt to the easiest way possible. Our collaboration allows for teams to put themselves in the shoes of the citizens to better understand the elements that need to be improved.

Our input on this project for digital inclusion was primarily in the research and analysis stage. For our client, it was the first time that experts had intervened so early in the timeline of a project, during the scoping of the challenge.  

Working on inclusion can mean working continuously on projects, because needs change and blocking factors are sometimes revealed long after the launch of a service or project. This is part of the life of a product or service. A product is never finished, it requires constant evaluation to provide an optimal service over time.  

Overall, this project was a positive and enriching experience both for our client and for us. They saw the value of our working methods and will continue to use these tools and approach in the next stages of their project. We made inclusion a tangible challenge, they now feel (a little bit more) comfortable tackling.

Personally, having the opportunity to show project teams the strength of user-centred methodologies reinforces my desire to continue contributing to the improvement of services to citizens.