Podcast 🎧 & blog: Digital vulnerability cannot be fixed in a boardroom

19.04.2023 | Federico Plantera

Nothing about us, without us. From foundational principle of representative democracy, to inclusive approach to service design. The journey of this quote is long and spans across centuries, but gains renewed relevance today – when digitalization is ubiquitous, and public services must be designed for all, not just the ‘most’.

Margus J. Klaar is a strategist, service designer, and founding partner of agency Brand Manual. Services that are accessible to the most vulnerable, improve usability for everyone else too. So where do we stand on the way towards that, and how much do we really listen to people’s particular needs?

More on this at the e-Governance Conference on 30 May. A wonderful preview, instead, in this episode of the Digital Government Podcast.

Who are we designing for?

At its very core, and applied to digital service development, the Latin maxim that inspires this session has a straightforward meaning: good design takes into consideration who you are designing for. So let’s imagine, with a practical example, that we are going to design a chair for our mother.

“Once you prototype a chair that does not fall apart, then you’ll ask your mother to sit on it and ask her if she likes it or not. You will take her comments and go back to the workshop, a little angry that you didn’t get it right the first time, and you are going to make version two. Then version three, four, five, until your mother says it’s perfect,” Klaar begins with.

“It is then, that you will have designed something, for someone who can use it the way they want to use it.” Maybe with some specific add-ons your mother might have asked for. But ultimately, that is the whole idea of inclusive design. “In service design, that means expanding the scope to target groups you are designing for, and involve them actively in the process of creating that solution,” Klaar says.

Consider the minority, and make better services for everyone

This does not mean that, so far, all service design has purposedly discarded the opinions of the most digitally vulnerablein society. But the tendency to focus on the better able mass, so to say, has definitely been there for long.

“It’s actually quite common, in terms of user groups, to design for the mass of people who are going to use a certain service. But when you add vulnerabilities related to variables such as age, degrees of disability of different kinds, these so-called extreme cases tend to fall out of the majority group of consumers – and therefore they are not considered as important as that majority of reference, which is there by default,” Klaar points out.

But there is a paradox here. “People who have specific problems or issues in using a product, however, do have definite opinions about it. Using the insight of these very specific and narrow user groups to fix the service in general, as a consequence, will make a service more usable  for everyone else too.”

Through another example, let’s take how cityscapes have become more accessible, once vulnerabilities were taken into account. “When we started focusing on the most vulnerable, such as someone bound to a wheelchair, and made cities completely accessible to that person, then suddenly the city is accessible also to other sensitive groups to this issue. The elderly, little kids, people who walk without paying attention to the sidewalk.”

“If you make something vulnerability-proof, then that product or service is automatically going to be easier to use than before for everyone else too. But in order to do that, you need to involve and take into account in the process those vulnerable groups,” Klaar explains.

Speed of digital development should not increase inequalities

Now, we all know that digital tools are here to help. But has the fast pace of digital development, at the same time, made things worse for vulnerable groups along the way? Speed of change should not come with disadvantage.

“Just before the pandemic, I was at a conference in Cologne (Germany) where a professor put it very nicely – until the 20th century, a person was born and died in the same technological timeframe. If they were born seeing a horse and buggy as means of transportation, they probably also died seeing a horse and buggy. Or take messaging, information – what we are receive in a single month, a person in the Middle Ages did not receive in an entire lifetime.”

Back to the present, add digital devices to the picture. “If you add on devices that are digital, where it’s not obvious what they do, and they are not usually part of your life experience, then certain users will have a really hard time understanding how this thing actually works. And that creates digital vulnerability. Especially for the elderly, but also in other segments of society where digital is just not part of the everyday routine,” Klaar explains.

Addressing vulnerability means going to the people, listening to what they do in their lives, and what digital vulnerability actually means for them. Because it might not be what we expect it to be. That is the foundation of service design and the whole idea of ’nothing about us, without us’. To get out of the boardroom, meet and empathize properly with people, and not just presume that we know better,” Klaar concludes.

Join the discussion with Margus J.Klaar and Kristina Reinsalu at the e-Governance Conference on 30 May in the panel discussion “Digital vulnerability cannot be fixed in a boardroom”!

Register now to ensure your spot at the official website of the e-Governance Conference.

And whether in person or online, join us to build better and inclusive digital societies, together.