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Every so often new ideas come along that make you rethink the starting principles from which you design. Recently two ideas have come along to change my thinking when it comes to designing for vulnerability.

A vulnerability spectrum?

The first idea was Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit, which looks at disability as temporary, situational or permanent.  “The Persona Spectrum” is a brilliant, succinct reminder of how everyone can have impairments at times, such as when they’re driving or holding a baby, and it’s a great piece of design in itself.

The Inclusive Design Toolkit made me think about what would happen if we applied a similar spectrum approach to vulnerability. Too often we consider vulnerability as binary: you are either vulnerable or you’re not. But how would we change the way we designed if instead we considered vulnerability as permanent, situational or temporary?

People move in and out of vulnerability at different times in their lives. People can be particularly vulnerable during life events such as having a baby, experiencing a bereavement, or being the victim of a crime. These are times that often trigger engagement with government. And they are life events we are designing for in government at the moment.

Vulnerability also has different dimensions: it may be physical, emotional, or financial. You may be physically vulnerable if you are homeless, emotionally vulnerable if you have lost a loved one, or financially vulnerable if you have lost your job.

But often the only vulnerability we consider is a nondescript permanent vulnerability. The response to which is similarly nondescript assisted digital support. We also try to ensure we meet accessibility standards (and rightly so). But what if this frame of thinking means we are missing out huge numbers of people in the middle whom we tend to assume have enough digital ability or education to allow them to use a digital service with ease?

Let me give you an example. Tertiary students have been the target audience for a number of digital government services, based on the assumption that they are ‘digital natives’. However, the student population also has a disproportionate instance of anxiety. How does this anxiety manifest itself in the way students are able to access services? Customer insight tells us it often leads to them picking up the phone and speaking to someone.

The Result 10 research found that 52 per cent of respondents reported spending a lot of time checking and asking questions to make sure they were doing everything right when dealing with government. Almost a quarter said they felt nervous when contacting government agencies. Thirty-nine per cent of customers felt an agency did not seem to understand the effect its decisions had on them. And this mattered a lot. These statistics were based on the general population. What if we asked the same question of people who were experiencing vulnerability?


The Inclusive Design Toolkit also acknowledges that designers have biases, something which it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of occasionally. Especially our lesser known biases. For example, my colleagues and I are generally resilient. We have enough physical, emotional and financial resilience to help us weather most storms. While we may experience vulnerability in one of these areas from time to time, it’s unlikely we will experience vulnerability in all three simultaneously. That is a privilege and a bias. How do we design for those who may have less resilience?

"Killing off the one that didn't make the cut."

The second idea that changed my thinking was a post by Stephen Foreshew-Cain, Executive Director in the UK’s Government Digital Services. In the post, he writes about the shifts we’ll see as we move from a ‘government of the industrial age to a government of the digital age’.

In Foreshew-Cain’s imagined future, ‘digital won’t be a thing any more’ and ‘policy making will be service design.’ We will not only be designing for digital, but using digital technologies to help us learn about what’s working in a way we don’t today. He writes, Imagine being able to create two slightly different versions of a service, and see which one works best. And then, having done the research and iterated and improved the better one, simply killing off the one that didn’t make the cut.

The idea is exciting because of the fluidity it suggests could become part of our decision making cultures (from a technology perspective it’s already possible). It’s a fluidity we will need if we are to design for vulnerability with any success.

The most enduring of ideas

To design well for vulnerability — temporary, situational and permanent — I believe we need design that is forgiving, reassuring, and kind. We will probably only discover what exactly that is through exploration, testing and iteration.

Internationally, good work is already happening on how we design for people with cognitive disabilities. Online conversations are happening about how we design for those with anxiety. Whole books have been written about web design for stress cases. Behavioural science also has much to teach us about choice architecture and cognitive load.

In New Zealand, as more life event projects come on-stream we will be able to draw from the work of others as we begin designing for vulnerability. It will have implications for our design research, prototyping, user testing and build. And, while a great strength of service design is its close engagement with users, we must be sensitive to their vulnerabilities. We must remember that most enduring of ideas: first, do no harm.

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