Designing with people, for people, as people

Joichem Cooiman, Innovation Officer in Rotterdam
14 May 2021

Talking to Jochem Cooiman, Innovation officer at the City of Rotterdam, we peak into the concept of user-centricity and the learning path of cities involved in the UserCentriCities project.

User-centricity, might be an intuitive concept, but how would you explain it for someone new to it?

Basically, it means involving the end-users. That is the short answer. User-centricity is about how we deal with the users’ side of public services. It is users who help us decide if we need certain services, what we need them for, and participate in developing the services right from the design phase.

Do we take our users into account seriously? Do we involve them in the preliminary design and conceptualisation of services? Do we consider the steps that users have to take? Do we include an evaluation of the friendliness, openness and transparency users can expect from using our services? User-centricity is all these things.

Personally, I like bureaucracy. It helps to keep our democracies safe because everyone has to go through the same processes to apply for the same service. So, what we do is necessary, but it has to be transparent, and it can be more efficient.

Why is it a must-have now?

We live in a period of movement and transition; institutions must change too and adapt. They can design the change that they want, but if they do so, it is like looking in the mirror and saying, “I want to change a little bit”. If you invite others to look at you instead, maybe your change will be more significant.

Through digitalisation there’s a big opportunity to involve more and more people, to close the gap with the end users with easy technological processes and products. It’s also an opportunity because, if you’re already starting a big change by going digital, you might as well involve the people. In the end, it’s not about the city, not about Europe, it’s about the people living there. How we involve people might look different from city to city though, as cities are at different levels of digitalisation and face specific challenges.

Can you give a concrete example of user-centricity in Rotterdam?

When we all faced the consequences of Corona, it was difficult for people to come to the public offices to ask for services, like getting their driving licence, registering new-borns or signing a marriage notice. So, my colleagues from the public service department designed a new digital counter, or digital desk for citizens to interact with the municipality. These services are very important to people, and creating the opportunity to connect digitally in an interactive and personal way was a real game changer.

The digital desk is, first of all, an interactive desk, where citizens get a direct and personal connection, similar to what they experienced at the physical desk at our city contact points without needing to leave their homes. The digital desk opened suddenly, but after its first launch, it has been fed with a constant flow of feedback from the end users with new iterations every few weeks.

The feedback from end-users is recorded using the international System Usability Scale, which measures the usability and friendliness of a product or service on a scale from 1 to 100. Our digital desk scores higher than most of our services. We usually score 65/100, where the desk scored 85.6/100 for the past 4 months in a row. People are really satisfied with the solution, as it responds to their needs, and it shows. People especially appreciate that although the desk is digital, it still offers a personal approach from the municipality.

What’s Rotterdam’s role in UserCentriCities? Why join such a project?

We joined because we wanted to learn about what others designed in the area of user-centricity, but also share what we did and how we did it. The end result, in my opinion, is useless if you don’t know how to get there. So, describing the journey, is more important than telling you what to find. I can show you the picture of a place I visited, but if you’ve never been there, it is more interesting to know how to get there, so you can take your own picture.

So, let’s exchange about the journey. Exchanging our experiences not only helps others, but it also sharpens our vision in what we do ourselves.

Has the project influenced at all how you see your own work in Rotterdam?

Our work evolved. We started with the CityLab010 – Groen licht voor vrije energie, a €3 million annual award for people’s initiatives in the city. Residents could submit their projects to enhance the quality of Rotterdam and get a chance to use some of the subsidies to bring it to life.

Then we thought, we can become more concrete on where user-centricity can be applied. So, we came up with the digital office. And along the line we realised that, in Rotterdam, we have a unique selling point: the UXLab – short for user experience lab.

In the UXLab we ask people to try out a product that we are designing and based on their feedback we adapt it. The UXLab also uses cameras that track your eyes, to record where you look at most, or if you look puzzled when you try to do something that confuses you, as added feedback. UXLabs are getting more and more common in designing public services.

The first draft of the localised Tallinn Declaration was developed through UserCentriCities by 33 representatives from 11 European cities and regions in an online co-creation session in February 2021. What is the project trying to achieve with this? What are the next steps?

Let me use an analogy that we use in innovation management to describe how the adoption of innovation happens: the hamburger, as ‘burger’ means citizen in Dutch this will make more sense as I explain it.

The top bun is the macro level, so it’s very abstract, it uses future oriented narratives used by directors and EU officials, for example. The bottom bun is the micro level. It’s about you and me going to the supermarket, bringing the kids to school, and making everyday decisions. It’s really practical and it’s now.

The challenge is that a lot of the transformation is described in the first one, so we’re talking Green Deal, climate change, economic crisis, platform economy etc. But it’s really hard to explain it in practical terms. It requires the middle level, the juiciness in the middle of the hamburger, where the translation happens.

The challenge for municipalities, who form the middle part of the burger, is to make abstract concepts and principles, like those in the Tallinn Declaration, relevant for someone who lives in our city. We have to change the narrative. To make it practical, to explain what people can do with the Tallinn declaration, what are the benefits in their everyday life.

We have to think about who reads and needs to understand these documents: is it the top bun, the bottom bun, or is it cities who are in the middle and understand both languages? What I find positive in UserCentriCities is that we come up with practical solutions in relation to the declaration, so it makes it more tangible for people.

One of the biggest outputs of the project will be a platform for local authorities to help them assess and compare their user-centricity performance with their peers. Why is it important to be able to compare your performance with your peers?

Innovation and change are impossible without working together. Today’s challenges are too big for one institution, or one city, or one nation, to deal with by themselves.

As cities, we need to experiment and learn about what works, and if we can experiment all throughout Europe and exchange on our experiences, we can advance faster and avoid redesigning the wheel again and again. You can make more steps together, by comparing each other’s work, than by yourself.

Are there any challenges in exchanging through a platform?

Any platform collects so much knowledge, information and data, that it’s often complicated to make sure the right information gets to the right person. It’s not just about transforming it into ones and zeros.

The platform is where I can get an idea of the solutions: a brief summary of the method, the challenges etc. But then I would want to be able to contact the person responsible for that solution. The exchange will be so much richer and beneficial. There is so much sharing nowadays it’s hard to know what’s really relevant to you, that’s where personal contact is most useful.

How about cities that still want to be involved. What’s your message to them?

Let’s just be open and share. If you are interested in anything that you have read about Rotterdam, give me a call, send me an email, let’s see what works. If you just learned about UserCentriCities, feel free to get in touch. I would invite all cities to open up, what’s more fun than sharing knowledge and experiences and being surprised?

Remember the burger! Understand the context of who you are dealing with, but also be open to those who you need to be dealing with in designing public services. Do some context analysis, stakeholder analysis, understand who you are dealing with for the process and the end-user. Understand their position, in the hamburger for example, but also in terms of their values and what they consider important. I think it starts there.

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