Digital empathy is absolutely crucial for creating user-centred and accessible government services, and our team of service designers and software engineers work hard to bring user needs to the forefront. By prioritizing users' experiences, government and enterprise organizations can build trust with citizens and clients alike and ensure that marginalized entities are not left behind in the breakneck shift toward digital services.

Lets explore three quick wins that you can employ today, to help you leverage digital empathy within your organization and improve your public services.

Creating new software with clear instructions can be a complex process, so we are pleased to share three general steps we see delivering value, that you can follow:

1. Use plain language

Plain language is an easy and effective way to show digital empathy. By using language that’s easy to understand and jargon-free, government agencies can help citizens access important information and services. To make sure your content is easily readable, use readability calculators to check the readability level of your content and adjust it accordingly.

Remember that people of all reading levels and abilities need to use the service—and deserve to have their needs met by it. But remember too, that plain language is not simply a favour you’re doing for certain people with less aptitude. Plain language helps everyone navigate services more quickly and easily. Even the most familiar, savvy, and educated users—even service designers themselves—can become confused by unclear instructions. And they can become overwhelmed when in the types of stressful situations that often lead to people needing to navigate services.

Plain language not only makes the service more effective at guiding people through its processes, it also reassures people that the service is designed for them, that it is not an impenetrable bureaucratic wall.

Readability is not about whether the user is competent enough to determine what you mean. It is about whether you as a design team and service provider are competent enough to ensure that all users know what you mean. Design teams should understand what their designs do, and why, well enough to explain them simply to an outsider.

It’s also important to consider who needs to find the language plain. Different communities speak English in different ways, and speak languages other than English. Consider whether you have accounted for this diversity in users, and where resources should be put into expanding language options.

2. Provide clear instructions

Clear instructions are essential for creating a user-friendly digital service. Use visual cues like arrows and icons to guide users through the process and break down the instructions into simple steps. You can also provide help text to explain any unfamiliar terms or concepts. This approach will ensure that all users, regardless of their digital literacy skills, can access government services with ease.

As with plain language, the goal is for an outsider of any level of reading or familiarity to be able to know what is being said to them and what they should do. Remember that many users navigating important services fear doing things wrong, and running afoul of impersonal proper processes. They are trying to situate themselves in an unfamiliar space, and some of that anxiety is removed when each page of that space goes out of its way to situate the user in terms of where they are in the process. With effective digital services, users shouldn’t need to estimate where they are and what they should do.

This can often mean not only explaining what to do on a certain page but also how that stage fits in the broader context. Navigation should also account for what users’ overarching goals are: what did they come to the service to do, and what do they do at this particular point to get closer to that outcome.

Again, it’s about empathy—the ability to see each part of your product from the perspective of someone new to it, without the understanding of the broader picture of it that you have, and with a range of different needs within the service navigation and circumstances in their life as a whole.

3. Incorporate feedback

Incorporating feedback from citizens is a critical aspect of digital empathy. Provide a feedback mechanism, like a contact form, or chat, that citizens can use to submit feedback easily. Acknowledge and respond to feedback in a timely manner, and use this feedback to continuously improve your digital services. By engaging with users through various channels, such as surveys, focus groups, and social media, you can gather insights and identify areas for improvement.

Remember that feedback is also about trust. When people are putting time and thought toward helping a system improve, it builds trust to show them that that input is seen and valued. Put in place ways to follow up and to demonstrate how input has been incorporated. Consultation is not a box to check, it is a relationship. It also fosters trust to be clear from the start about how the data they provide will be used, and to make clear any privacy factors.

Building trust and an ongoing feedback relationship is especially important with communities that have historically been ignored or mistreated in government services.

Creating more, better, and more accountable ways to involve people in service design helps make that design more attuned to their needs and those of others like them. But empathetic service design is about more than gathering the right info for designers—it is also about better incorporating the public in the services they use.

Digital empathy requires technology leaders to prioritize user-centred design and be sensitive to the human impact of digital solutions. By embracing digital empathy, government agencies can create more accessible, inclusive, and effective digital experiences for all users. And we hope that by following these three strategies, you can increase digital empathy within your organization today.

Image Credit: Alfonso Estevez / Midjourney

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Alec Wenzowski

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