Redesigning the Philippine Public Service with UX

The recent years have witnessed UX design evolving from being treated as an afterthought to being one of the key differentiators of the software product industry. Its focus on user research and testing, reference to human psychology, and preference to iterative solutions have proven its impact in transforming the way the technology industry works. So much so that industries outside technology have also extended and formalised the “UX position” to improve physical product design, company culture, and more.

This trend highlights the notion that UX principles and practices, if not universal, are extremely flexible. They guide designers in making a usable product. Usability could mean many things (accessible, useful, effective, efficient), but it is and should be a success metric that products and services ultimately aim for. And in the Philippines, there is a grave need for such a metric to be considered.

A plethora of opportunities await UX here. For decades, we Filipinos have submitted redundant, inconsistent records, fallen in line for at least half a day for a clearance, waited months to arrange appointments for a renewal, and traveled miles to get our applications approved. While we vehemently express our disappointment over the state of our public service, we have no choice but to accept the way things are because we’re stuck with it.

Public service has morphed into this unrecognisable burdensome entity that fails to do its job of helping us and supplying our needs. Don’t we deserve better? Don’t we deserve services that are not only efficient and reliable but also thoughtful and well-designed?

There are numerous UX principles that have proven its usefulness in drilling down problems, filling the usability gaps, supporting efficiency, and more. It’s high time that we start utilising them to improve the overall experience of our own public services. The list below are handpicked principles and practices that fit nicely into our country’s context:

UX Principle: Dive deeper.

Quantitative research supported by UX’s qualitative user research methods has been a game changer in the field. Dedicating more time and effort on learning about a certain segment through long interviews, extensive diaries, and constant communication methods give deep insights about the audience — an important factor in creating an well-informed design in the future.

These research methods should be easy to execute in a culture as open as ours. However, these methods are foreign and very formal. They are far from the casual conversations or late-night kwentuhan sessions that we engage with our friends and family. Of course, it naturally becomes difficult to open up; what makes us different is that we don’t give up trying to connect.

We try very hard to connect by adapting and showing a simplified view of the actual story. In interviews held in an unfamiliar setting, Filipino interviewees tend to be wary or shy, leaving out details, especially negative ones, from the conversation. This is unfortunate because negative feedback is a loud, neon sign for opportunities to improve a service.

It will be our job as designers to look beyond this view, and find undertones of their statements, and most importantly, verify them. These intricate details could mean the success or failure of our solution.

Things to remember

Listen and observe. We should listen not only to the meat of our users’ stories, but also pay careful attention to how they talk. How do they call their assistant? What term do they use for a workflow? What other names do they refer to their documents? As we talk to them, observe where and how they work. Researchers often witness that what users say do not always reflect what they feel or how they see things, but observing their gestures, expressions, and environment can give further insight.

Identify the problem. Our solution can only be as good as how we frame the problem. We cannot spend months designing a solution that nobody needs. It is important to make sure that everything is considered before pointing out the need, goal, and pain point we want to solve.

UX Principle: Draw the forest and the trees.

Research usually ends up in a pile of information that makes it difficult to frame the problem. Small but critical information have the tendency to fall under the cracks. To avoid this, UX teams use mind maps, journey maps, affinity diagrams, and more to as essential tools to lay out information systematically.

Let’s consider this case: Passports are crucial. They are globally considered as the endgame of all identification cards. We can easily assume that acquiring something important should be easy as saying: Prepare the requirements, show up, and get your passport after a few days.

We all know that the our journey here is painfully the opposite. Months are needed even before the actual process: preparing the requirements means a week’s worth of travelling from one agency to another. Printing your government-issued IDs could take months. Even the supposedly final step of showing up at the venue means waiting in line for 4 hours — and let’s not forget the hassle of traffic jams before even getting there. The negative scenarios and special cases are overwhelming and seemingly endless.

However, when we draw the journey, we drive the “mystery” away. It allows us to map every detail, name who is accountable, locate the hiccups, and observe emotions. This activity makes it possible to see the problem for what it really is: a mess — but a solvable mess.

Things to remember

Acknowledge the bigger things at play. It is important to locate touch points and name the departments/groups who are responsible in that part of the journey. This is especially important in the Philippine setting: agencies feel like they operate in silos. Coordination is key; discussing effects of changes will not only allow us to learn about their constraints and limitations but also give them time to prepare for possible changes. This will make it easier for us to deliver a consistent experience to the users.

UX Principle: Don’t look for that one big idea.

One of the most important guiding principles of UX is that solutions don’t come from a single person alone. Collaboration is given much importance even with different workflows. Design sprints, brainstorming sessions, and workshops have their own ways of encouraging both individual and team ideas when designing a solution.

This is notably difficult to exercise given our culture of recognising the expertise of higher-ups and the influence of outgoing colleagues. We can say that we just genuinely respect them, but we cannot deny that we always assign a special chair or reserve the kabisera (the centre seat of a table) to our big bosses. While we don’t deny their ability to suggest insightful ideas, people from different roles may offer fresher, and more adventurous ideas. More ideas mean that we can hone the solution better. After all, there would be no idea to flesh out if we don’t have enough to keep and to shelf.

Things to remember

Avoid HIPPO. HIPPO means “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”. We can avoid involuntarily putting it on a pedestal by suggesting ideas anonymously. We can do this by compiling everybody’s suggestions without any names and allowing people to evaluate it without offending anybody.

Don’t force a decision. There will be moments when we could be stuck in a standstill when it comes to deciding an option. A/B Testing, a method that allows users to choose between two variants of an interface, flow, or process, could be used to help us arrive at a conclusion.

UX Principle: Blame the design, never the user.

There is no question if we put enough effort and thought into the solution but there will always be moments when things will go awry. When this happens, the best case scenario is that users will demand an explanation straight from us, otherwise, they will tell their friends and family about it. The worst case, however, is when some of the users question their capabilities and blame themselves when something wrong happens.

The sad thing is, when it comes to our public service, we will keep feeling like this because we have no choice. There will be people from far-flung provinces who will need to travel back and forth because they have the wrong document, breadwinners who will need to let go of a day’s pay just to fall in line, or senior citizens who will write their first name on the last name field because of their failing eyesight. The last thing they need is us service providers blaming them for something that we can solve.

We do not have control over their lifestyles and their constraints, but we have control on how we offer our services. It is our responsibility to improve the solution and we are accountable for mistakes. This is why UX tries its best to ensure that the design is robust. Identification of negative case scenarios, risk assessment, acknowledgement of limitations, and proper error handling are some of the practices that helps this case.

Things to remember

Create a forgiving design. It is important that in our designs, we follow accessibility guidelines, use existing patterns, add safety nets, and apply the concept of affordance to our designs. It is our obligation to make sure the users feel empowered and confident when using our service.

Life in General Principle: Believe that it’s not impossible.

The problem with our public service is not simple. It is the likely outcome of decades of band-aid solutions, adjustments to socioeconomic and political climates, and cultural considerations. To recognise these complexities is the first crucial step in reshaping our public service.

The next is to believe that it is not impossible. Public service is like the Operations Department of our country, we need to believe that improvement is possible.

The last is to actually redesign it in a systematic way so at least we’ll know what we did right or wrong.

Yes, it will probably take years of endless negotiations, gut-wrenching heartaches, and overall disillusionment, but we’ve signed up to be designers, and that’s probably written between the lines of the job description.

I work as a UX Designer and I am an interviewee-suddenly-opens-up-about-his-life-and-majestically-tells-me-about-his-frustrations enthusiast.

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