Government Digital Service Design Standard made simple

By Nick Butler


Stylised figures at work on a project aiming to follow the New Zealand Government Digital Service Design Standard.

Here’s a pragmatic guide to delivering public services in line with the Government Digital Service Design Standard. It’s a series of practical tips that help you follow the Standard in a way that delivers the most bang for the taxpayer buck.

The service design approach is about making government services easy for people to use. Here’s how the government service design resources sum up the benefits:

Using the service design approach delivers a customer-centred service solution that is:

  • low-risk — because you’ve tested potential solutions and learned which solutions worked and which solutions didn’t work for customers and agencies
  • ready to implement — because you’ve found out what the problem or opportunity is and the best solution for that problem or opportunity
  • supported and agreed on — because you’ve collaborated and co-designed with customers and stakeholders throughout the work.

This post shows how you can achieve these benefits while following the Standard’s 12 principles.

Ours is an Agile approach. It’s based on what we’ve learned as NZ’s globally-recognised Agile development experts. We’ve spent 14 years testing and improving our Agile tools and processes, applying what we’ve learned in our development projects and our popular resources.

We’ve put the guide together to further our purpose as a company: Supporting others to create positive and lasting impacts. You can learn more about the work we’ve done to deliver positive impacts for the people of New Zealand in our Government showcase.

1. Identify your users and understand their ongoing needs

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Service design starts with understanding your users. Who are they and what do they need from your service?

Your team can either do the user research yourselves or hire specialists. Doing it yourself helps build empathy by getting you face-to-face with your users. But there’s a bit of a learning curve if you haven’t done it before.

The first step is to check what existing research your organisation has. This can give you initial insights to follow up on and can guide later work. It also avoids duplicated effort.

You can find good guidance on service design user research tools here. Not covered there, but also useful, are surveys (here are some tips).

Don’t feel you have to frontload your work with a massive user research programme. You’ll be able to continue to learn about your users as you go.

Validating work via user testing

User testing is a key part of this approach. The way we work at Boost is to deliver working software in short iterations (usually two weeks). That means that within two weeks of starting development you can get feedback on a working prototype from your users and stakeholders. There’s nothing like it for delivering empirical evidence about how well your digital service meets user needs. For guidance on doing user testing, check out Steve Krug’s classic book Rocket Surgery Made Easy.

As well as guiding future work, user testing can show when you’ve hit the mark. Building the AnyQuestions website was a good example. AnyQuestions creates digitally-savvy schoolkids by letting them chat online with librarians who show them how to identify reliable information on the internet. So we needed a tool that school-age children would actively want to use. To do this we created an engaging set of cartoon characters. As we user tested the designs, a young boy pointed to one of the characters. “That’s me!” he said.” We knew we’d nailed our graphic design work.

A schoolkid uses the AnyQuestions tool on a tablet.

2. Be clear about what you are trying to change and why

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This starts with your business case. This Better Business Cases guidance shows you how to follow Treasury’s Five-case model so you you can quickly define, then deliver, the maximum value.

We’ve found that a co-design discovery workshop is one of the most effective and cost-efficient tools for creating clarity about the positive impacts you’ll have for New Zealand and New Zealanders. Learn more about co-design for digital services. You can also check out this co-design case study to see how the approach works in practice.

Running a one-day workshop to clarify outcomes

In our experience, you can align your whole co-design team behind clear project outcomes, and the path to achieving them, in a structured single-day workshop.

Here’s our guide to running a discovery workshop.

These workshops bring your co-design stakeholders together to collaboratively:

  • build a shared vision of these outcomes
  • distil your user research into easy-to-action documentation
  • position your service in the wider operating environment
  • detail the benefits you’ll deliver your users
  • prioritise and plan how you’ll achieve these benefits
  • identify how you’ll know you’ve achieved your planned outcomes.

Want help running a discovery workshop?

For certain projects, we can plan and facilitate your discovery workshop for you at no cost.

Is my project eligible for a free discovery workshop?

3. Integrate security and privacy proportionate to risk from the outset

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A core requirement of any government service is that it will keep its users’ sensitive information private and secure. So talk with your developers about privacy and security at the start of the project. This helps you uncover any hidden assumptions and plan the required work.

Early on, classify the different types of data you’ll be dealing with. This clarifies the potential impact of any issues. The higher the impact, the greater the risk, the more work you need to do around security and privacy.

Set aside budget and identify external suppliers for security and privacy assurance checks such as:

  • Penetration testing — a.k.a. pen testing
  • Security Risk Assessment — SRA
  • Controls Validation Audit — CVA (checking the controls you’ve put in place in response to the SRA)
  • Privacy Impact Assessment — PIA

Make sure your developers are up to speed with the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) best practices and the technical security standards detailed in the NZ Information Security Manual.

Learn more

Here’s the NZ government’s guidance on designing for security and privacy.

For Agile projects, check out our non-technical guide to security in Agile software development.

We’ve also put together a guide to creating a simple Agile assurance plan for government projects, in line with the government assurance guidance.

4. Be inclusive, and provide ethical and equitable services

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Your user research will have identified any barriers to accessibility. We like to detail these barriers in the personas we develop in discovery workshops. These personas then guide our development process.

Case study on accessible digital services

We’ve put together a case study on providing accessible digital services.

We based it on the Auditor-General’s Digital Access to Information and Services report and the National Library’s experiences providing digital services. The AG’s report identified the National Library website as the most accessible of all government websites they assessed. While the case study focuses on the cultural heritage sector, there are useful learnings for a wide range of government agencies.

The rewards of a focus on accessibility

One of the most rewarding things about providing public services is getting feedback that shows your work is making a difference.

A great example of this was when the Ministry of Social Development was developing the Check what you might get tool. This web application helps Kiwis thrive by making it easy to find all the MSD support they’re entitled to.

User research showed that many people would be under stress while using the tool. This meant we needed to focus on building the tool using the simplest language, the fewest steps and the clearest user interface.

This focus was rewarded when one user shared his wife’s experience using the tool following brain surgery. She was able to complete the process, even with reduced abilities as a result of her operation.

Learn more

Here’s our guide to creating accessible websites.

You might also want to consider completing Victoria University’s Digital Accessibility course.

5. Design and resource for the full lifetime of the service

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The service you design today won’t meet users’ needs tomorrow. Circumstances, technology and expectations change constantly. So being able to respond to this change over the full lifetime of the service is a crucial part of digital service design.

That’s why we explicitly choose only those clients who are looking to provide full-lifetime digital services. Otherwise we can’t achieve our purpose of helping others have positive and lasting impacts. You can learn more about the clients and projects we choose here.

Maintenance plan at a minimum

The minimum you’ll need is a plan for how you will maintain your application to make sure all its components are patched and updated, and any bugs that arise are fixed.

Flexible architecture

In digital service design, your architecture needs to include flexibility alongside the rest of the -ibilities like reliability, availability and maintainability. So make sure your developer is expert at developing an architecture that lets you respond to change.

The drive to create flexible architecture is one reason that we develop our applications in Ruby on Rails. We’ve found that this framework gives the best balance of rapid development, robust engineering and easy maintenance. Here’s our guide to the benefits of Ruby on Rails for web application development.

Cut the cost of change

Working in an Agile way cuts the cost of change. That’s because you only build what is your top priority today, not what might be needed tomorrow. As a result, you can easily respond to changes in your operating environment. In addition to what you learn about user needs by getting working software in front of your users, these changes might include evolving organisational or ministerial priorities, emerging risks or new technology options.

Continuous improvement keeps the benefits coming

The Ministry of Social Development have demonstrated the benefits of this approach with the SuperGold digital experience. The SuperGold mobile apps and website keep seniors strong and independent by helping them find savings anywhere, anytime.

But getting the digital service live was just the start. It continues to be enhanced and improved, now with the help of an army of seniors who can give feedback based on their experiences actually using the service. Moreover, when feedback identified that seniors in provincial NZ didn’t think there were many deals for them, MSD could quickly pivot to create regional spotlights.

A family checking out the SuperGold mobile app.

6. Create and empower an interdisciplinary team

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This principle could really be rephrased as: Be Agile. For example, the approach is tightly aligned with the Scrum framework, the most popular of the Agile methodologies.

To see what we mean, compare how the Digital Service Design Standard describes the way you create and empower an interdisciplinary team:

  • Bring together the full range of skills you need into the design team and/or draw on relevant subject matter experts.

  • Create a sustainable team culture that is open to being adaptive, collaborative and outcomes driven.

  • Learn to support and challenge each other constructively to do the best work and to grow the capability of the team and community.

  • Empower the team to make decisions through the design, build and operation of the service, with governance arrangements that are appropriate to the service being delivered.

with the Scrum approach that we detail in our introduction to Scrum:

Scrum is an Agile framework in which self-organising, self-contained teams work collaboratively and transparently in regular iterations, inspecting and adapting as they go, in order to sustainably deliver maximum value.

To achieve this, your agency will have to empower the team to work this way.

How to succeed using Scrum

Agile training for digital service design teams

It’s certainly been our experience that this Agile approach works. That’s why we started sharing what we’d learned by running courses in Agile. Here are the Agile training options that we can offer your digital service design team.

7. Work in the open

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Working in an Agile way makes it easier to work out in the open. In fact, Transparency is one of the three pillars of Scrum.

There’s a simple mnemonic that helps here — ABC: Always Be Capturing. Record your results and artifacts as you go. Make them visible and share them with your service design stakeholders; it’s a great way to keep them in the loop.

Leverage the open-source ecosystem

We’ve found that it is most cost-effective to work in an open-source and/or permissively-licenced ecosystem. It maximises flexibility and leverages the strength of the open-source communities.

Bake in openness from the beginning

When you kick off your project, talk to your development team about the importance of openness and re-use, so that can be baked in from the start.

One way we like to do this is to develop services around an API (Application Programming Interface). This makes it easier to use the same service across different platforms. For example, the SuperGold API we built for MSD feeds both the mobile apps and the web application.

Importantly, an API also makes it easier for other agencies to consume or expand on your service.

Building an open source API

An example of this approach is the Supplejack API we built for DigitalNZ. Not only is it built on an open-source platform, it can also be used by other organisations under a GNU General Public License. As the likes of Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage adopt the API, DigitalNZ is achieving twin aims. They’re making it easy to find, share and use New Zealand’s digital treasures while providing leadership in the field of open data.

In 2016, Supplejack won an award for the best Open Source Use in Government and is now in use around the world.

8. Collaborate widely, reuse and enable reuse by others

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As we noted earlier, the Scrum framework is well-suited to creating the kind of collaborative team you need for the service design approach.

In Scrum, the Product Owner leads the project by providing the vision of the value the product or service will create. (The “product” in Scrum encompasses the digital services that government agencies provide.) Digital service design can be seen as an ongoing process of product discovery — finding the digital service or product that best meets your users’ needs.

So if you’re leading a service design project, it helps to have a structured process for collaboratively developing and refining your product. Here’s one we prepared earlier: Collaborative product discovery for Scrum.

It shows how you can work with your service design stakeholders to develop:

  • a vision and a strategy
  • prototypes
  • a minimum viable product (MVP)
  • ongoing iterative improvements.

Rapid iteration through re-use

You can see the benefits of a bias towards reuse, and the iterative Agile approach, in the design and development work we did for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s WW100 website.

The site was built to bring the country together to commemorate the centenary of World War I. As the 2015 centenary drew closer, the site required a new focus on events. Rather than build an events section from scratch, we opted for an Eventfinder integration, enabling us to promote events quickly and widely. The benefits of this approach became clear in 2019, when a Colmar Brunton survey showed that 93% of New Zealanders had engaged in WWI activities.

9. Design for our unique constitutional and cultural environment

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Co-design is about more than just what you develop and who you develop it with; it’s also about the way you work with people.

You’re more likely to create an effective partnership if you adapt the way you work to the cultural preferences of your co-design group. Where some people want to cut to the chase and start sharing spreadsheets, others prefer to get to know each other over a cuppa before chewing over the topic at hand. So it’s worth checking out how your co-design group prefers to work.

He Tohu: the power of partnerships

We were lucky enough to play a part in a project to bring New Zealand’s unique constitutional landscape to life, a project that in many ways exemplifies the power of partnerships.

The He Tohu exhibition preserves and makes public three iconic constitutional documents: the 1835 Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi and the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition. He Tohu is a partnership between the Crown and Māori, with significant input from women’s groups nationwide. Boost built He Tohu online, the web presence that promotes and supports the exhibition.

The banner for He Tohu online. This project was a good example of the kind of the partnerships that power the Digital Service Design Standard.

10. Use digital technologies to enhance service delivery

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The service design approach integrates digital services into the users’ overall experience, and all the channels they might use.

This means that digital services work best when developed in collaboration with the people who deliver services across the other channels, your help desk, call centre and customer service teams for instance.

Creating a feedback loop between the various channels helps drive improvement across the channels. Your help desk, for example, can let you know when they’re getting lots of calls from users struggling with the same issue in your digital tool. If your frontline staff use your digital tool when helping clients, all the better. This helps keep services consistent across channels and gives frontline staff a direct insight into the users’ experience with the tool.

Digital services procurement guide

11. Be a good data and information steward

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When it comes to information management, less is more. If you only collect what you absolutely need, it’s easier to manage.

You can see the benefits of this approach in the Check what you might get web application we built for MSD.

Not only did MSD rigorously limit the number of questions asked to make the service as easy to use as possible, they also made the decision to store none of the information that users supplied.

Additionally, the tool was designed to be transparent about its workings. Not only does it tell you what you might or might not get, it explains why.

Learn more

Information management for government agencies

12. Be transparent and accountable to the public

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For a digital service design project to be transparent and accountable, you need to be clear about where you’re going, and how you’ll know when you’ll get there. You also need a development partner who will be transparent with you.

You start with your vision of benefits your digital service will deliver for New Zealand and New Zealanders. The vision provides both a destination and inspiration. At Boost, this usually comes out of the discovery workshop that we kick off projects with.

You can then identify how you’ll determine if you’ve delivered these benefits. Detail the metrics that show you’ve achieved what you set out to.

Now you can track these metrics and make the results transparent. Post them prominently in your workspace, and publish them widely.

That way your service design team, and the team of 5 million, get a clear view of the positive and lasting impacts you’re having.

Questions and feedback

If you have any questions or feedback, email me at: [email protected]

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