Assisted Digital – what it is and how to do it well

What is Assisted Digital?

There will always be people who won’t or can’t use digital services:

  • Access
  • Confidence
  • Skill level
  • Language
  • Literacy

When government started creating new online transactions, digital services were created, with offline ‘Assisted Digital’ support, so that in theory no-one was left behind and unable to access services.

Why did I want to learn about Assisted Digital?

Assisted Digital is something that Product Managers are supposed to know about. The DDaT capability framework says that a good Product Manager “Understands the importance of assisted digital” and that a good Senior Product Manager is “Able to identify and implement solutions for assisted digital.” I didn’t know much about it and wanted to learn.

Assisted Digital is the 2nd most searched for content in the service manual. Not having a good Assisted Digital approach is a common reason for services to fail service assessment. Most importantly, it’s my responsibility to make sure that this is taken seriously. This fits with our design principles: “This is for everyone” and “Build digital services, not websites”. I’m not currently working on a service, but it’s likely that I will be at some point in the future so I want to be ready.

So I did some reading and spoke to some knowledgeable and smart people, including Roxanne Asadi and Ben Carpenter at GDS, who’ve both spent a lot of time working on and thinking about Assisted Digital.

How well is government doing with Assisted Digital?

In general we’re not doing a great job. Recent Inclusive Services research showed that Assisted Digital channels “are the most likely to be needed by the most vulnerable users, but are the least likely to be switched on or user-centred”.

The narrow language of “digital by default” and “digital transformation” often led to a narrow view of service design that saw Assisted Digital as of lesser importance.

Tom Loosemore, co-founder of the Government Digital Service, reflected on Assisted Digital recently:

“I could have avoided the need for using the phrase “assisted digital” by making it clear that we should be using Internet-era service design to reach all users, regardless of channel.”

“by separating out “assisted digital” as a different thing, and by handing responsibility for it over to a separate team, we as leaders of GDS created an artificial divide in both our language and our actions.”

“Rather than challenge the “one size fits all” approach to service design, the words “assisted digital” suggested that one size for all was just fine, and that people with additional needs could or should be “assisted” to navigate a single path, common to all.”

And Assisted Digital options are needed by lots of people. For Personal Independence Payments, 50% of users were using Assisted Digital.

How might we be better at Assisted Digital?

  • Refer to ‘Service Design’ rather than ‘Assisted Digital’. This makes it clear that this is integral to a holistic service, and not a bolt-on. Focus around the user’s needs and end-to-end problem, rather than the mechanics of the service that you’re offering. This seems like the single highest impact strategic move you can make.
  • Include Operations people in designing services – not just Digital people. Otherwise we prejudice ourselves towards digital only, and don’t think about the other channels and implicitly reprioritise them. In government departments, often the Operational people and the Digital people were/are separate teams and directorates. So it wasn’t/isn’t easy to get them to cooperate.
  • Include non-government interactions in your service design
  • Create and share design patterns for Assisted Digital. It should be as easy to reuse designs for a non-digital interaction as it should be to copy a front-end component like a button on a website.
  • Make sure you understand the needs of all your users deeply, including people who don’t have skills and access to digital. If you take this as your foundation you’ll likely do a good job.
  • Iterate and test your Assisted Digital offering just as much as you do your website.

Some changes that leaders can make:

  • Think more broadly about the goals behind our service design, and the metrics we use to measure the success of services. If we just judge services on how many people they’ve moved online, how much they’ve reduced the headcount in a call centre, and reduced costs, then we aren’t giving teams licence to take Assisted Digital seriously.
  • Don’t just build teams of digital specialists to build a digital service. You need operational people as well.
  • Accept that Assisted Digital has a cost. Plan to invest some of the money you save from channel shift to digital in Assisted Digital.

Examples of services with good Assisted Digital

Rural Payments. Offered drop-in sessions and home visits. These were cost-effective as they were for a small number of people.

Student Loan applications. They found out that about 5% of users needed support. They mapped out how the call centre would take calls and help people, and tested it. They triaged calls and offered a visiting service. The volume was very small so they could pay for this – they just had to retrain people at their existing contact centre.