Exploring whether voice is a step-change in how customers interact using technology and if it is, how we might best approach designing the voice experience for customers of council services so that sector-wide efforts are consistent and employ best practice.

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

This discovery project breaks into three parts a common problem facing local authorities;

The first part of the common problem is understanding whether voice truly represents a long-term change in user behaviour or is simply a novelty with a short shelf-life. Over the last couple of decades, local authorities have built online services to work on desktops and laptops first and then evolved them to work on the smaller form factors of smartphones and tablets. Along the way other interfaces such as QR codes, interactive-TV and apps have diverted effort and resource into building for proprietary systems but ultimately little market penetration and user take-up. Will the use of voice be as fundamental a step forward in the control of technology as the widespread adoption of the keyboard, computer mouse and touch screen and hence worth investing in?

The second part of the problem is understanding how users might expect voice services to operate. This project will explore whether and how the techniques of user research and building common service design patterns can be applied to the voice user experience. As part of this work, the project will also explore the local authority services that people might expect to be able to access using voice and developing proposals which employ common service design patterns for a small number of identified services.

The final part of the problem is taking a co-ordinated approach to voice across the sector and understanding the costs and benefits that may arise from adopting voice. Left unaddressed there is the risk that councils will reinvent the wheel many times and deliver inconsistent user experiences in their efforts to create voice enabled services, or perhaps ultimately create services for a dead-end technology. This project will explore what opportunities there are to work together using shared approaches and solutions.

A significant dependency related to the problem is the proprietary technologies used in the market, offered principally by the big players Google, Amazon and Apple and the issues this presents in respect of developing solutions, along with attendant concerns around privacy, accessibility and the ethics of implicitly endorsing their business practices through the use of their platforms to deliver services.

Our early assumption is that voice offers real benefits to the visually and mobility impaired or those who are isolated, as well as greater convenience to those who seek ever quicker and frictionless transactions in their busy lives.

We plan to test our assumptions by undertaking user research with those who use voice services, to better understand their experience and also thoughts on their future use. We will also research with those who do not use voice assistants to understand what barriers there are to take up. We will conduct this research with a broad base of users within the almost 750,000 combined population of the partner authorities in this bid.

The research methods used will be drawn from the GDS Service Manual, specifically those recommended for the discovery phase such as creating personas, interviews, focus groups, observation and experience mapping. We will research with a broad range of users, including those with disabilities and low digital skills.

We assume that there will be widely available information and research to answer the question about whether voice represents a shift in user interaction with technology. We assume there will be experts in the field who we can contact and obtain their opinions for this part of the project.

We will explore the current market for voice services with a particular focus on voice services provided by the public sector, in any country. We will reach out to those who have developed these services to gain their experience and lessons learned.

From our research we expect to identify a range of potential use cases. For example, we might find that people use voice services to check what is on at the cinema. We might hypothesise that people would also use voice to check what is on at a leisure centre. These use cases will be prototyped using low code tools such as Voiceflow, then tested with users to validate them. These examples of potential use cases could then form the basis of a future alpha project.

We will research the potential costs of creating voice services and through a business analysis exercise attempt to identify cost savings and benefits arising. This will involve collecting customer demand data from partner authorities and developing models of telephone or face-to-face contact that could be avoided. We will also look at related administrative activity that could be reduced through the use of voice.

An output from this project will be a summary of the costs and benefits that might be expected as a result of pursuing voice technology.

The cost of the problem at this time is difficult to quantify due to the nature of the topic; voice assistants are barely out of the ‘early adopter’ phase of the adoption lifecycle and are yet to go fully mainstream, if they will at all. However, the scale of the problem is nationwide and it applies to all districts and authorities.

Councils are not allocating budget towards developing voice services at this time. However, we might imagine that if or when voice becomes mainstream in the future, local authorities will take a familiar approach to development – duplicating effort, procuring different solutions and reinventing the wheel. We will seek to understand the costs involved in developing a voice service, then scale up for the sector.

A survey conducted by the Click-Away Pound project in 2016 showed that 71% of disabled customers click away from a website they find difficult to use, representing 6.1 million people with spending power of an estimated £11.75 billion.

Although the WCAG guidelines for accessibility might resolve many of the issues encountered by disabled users, it is not a magic bullet for a seamless user experience. Using a screen reader or magnifier, keyboard shortcuts and other assistive technologies simply makes what would otherwise be an impossible task, possible. Even so, more than half of respondents using assistive technology cite filling in forms on websites as an issue.

We can imagine that similar problems are encountered on public sector websites, despite their compliance with WCAG guidelines. Whereas in retail the consumer often has the choice to go to a better website, that is not the case when taking online services from a local council where their only alternative is to pick up the phone.

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council annually receives 1300 requests to pick up clinical waste but the online form caters for just 22% of demand, with the rest coming in by phone. Could voice assistants take this demand and provide savings for the sector?

This discovery project represents an opportunity to get ahead of the game and set out the pros and cons for local government use of the technology.

The partner authorities will leverage the investment they have already made over the last 6 years in the Smarter Digital Services (SDS) team, who provide specialist digital user experience skills. Hosted by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and working on behalf of contributing partners, the team have extensive experience and practical application of user research, business analysis and project management in the local authority environment.

Governance of the project will be established through the lead authority partner, with the senior responsible officer taking on the role of project executive / sponsor. Points of contact at each partner will comprise the remainder of the project board and approve the project’s plans and progress reports. All partners on this project have a strong track record of progressing collaborative projects through to completion on time and within budget.

Project schedules will be created and shared via a collaborative document solution, e.g. Office 365 and project meetings will be held virtually via Skype for Business. Project tasks will be managed and monitored via trello or similar. All project work will be undertaken with regard to appropriate GDPR requirements for user research, for example gaining consent to use video or audio as part of presentation material.

We will take advantage of the 3 day Agile for Teams course for the collaborative project team and use the project as a catalyst to promote other digital training courses available for councils signed up to the Local Digital Declaration, including senior leaders to attend the Local Leaders Digital Accelerator.

We will identify an officer from each partner to undertake the User Researcher training and have them participate in the user research part of this project, with the objective of building greater use of this approach in future projects.

We expect support and guidance from the Local Digital Collaboration Unit to help guide the work and ensure that we are meeting expectations for sharing assets and delivering work of value to the wider sector.

We would welcome input from local government peers who have experience in developing voice enabled services.