2015 was an ‘annus horribilis’ for UK housing providers, plunging them into what the Financial Times described as their biggest financial crisis when the July Budget saw the Chancellor impose a rent reduction of 1 per cent a year for the next four years. Coming hot on the heels of cuts to welfare and changes to how welfare payments are made, it leaves housing providers searching for ways to manage significantly reduced cash flows without providing a poorer service to their tenants.
One way to address this ‘triple whammy’ is to reduce administration costs through the use of digital technology. However, many tenants are older or vulnerable people, and others lack easy access to online services, so it’s vital that personal support is still available. The challenge for housing providers is to ensure that they invest wisely by developing digital services that will actually be used, reducing costs while freeing up their limited resources for more difficult cases that require personal intervention.
Designing services that users actually use
As digital services provider DXW, we have been working on public sector projects for almost eight years, and we have a simple guideline to help organisations ensure that their digital services will be effective. We believe that services will only be successful if the target audience actually enjoy using them and prefer them to the alternatives. If users can find answers to their questions or make a payment quickly and easily on a website, for example, they are less likely to contact a call centre or customer service department. They will also spread the word about how easy it is to use the digital service and encourage others to do the same.
A hard-working website can improve straight-through processing, and if 80 per cent of user traffic goes through digital channels, the call-centre team can be smaller and more specialised. They can focus on people who really need personal support rather than spending time handling routine payments and simple queries.
Release a working service quickly, and learn as you go
Finding out what users want and how they would like to interact with a digital service requires user research and testing. But this needn’t prevent a new service from being up and running quickly.
To keep costs and timescales down, DXW recommends an approach which is diametrically opposed to traditional public-sector IT projects; avoid up-front design and specification and instead focus on delivering small bits of functionality, designing and testing as you go. Learning from real experience leads to better decisions, reducing development costs. And focusing on delivering working software quickly speeds up delivery.
We also believe in keeping things simple, and avoiding ‘reinventing the wheel’. Wherever possible, we recommend using component-based architectures and APIs to minimise the need for new code.
TVHA – not just digital and usable
Usability and reuse have been successfully combined in the MyTVH service which we developed for Thames Valley Housing Association. Having tried to implement a digital service in the past with limited success, it wanted an easy-to-use online service that would enable tenants to make and track payments, book repairs and manage other aspects of their tenancies online. The solution also needed to interface with TVHA’s legacy IT systems.
DXW designed and developed a digital service based on Ruby on Rails to meet TVHA’s needs. During this process, we identified two factors which proved to be key to its success.
The first arose during focus groups with tenants to discuss how they would access the new service. We found that many people didn’t have a PC, laptop or broadband, so support for desktop browsers wasn’t the most important feature. The majority of tenants owned internet-enabled smartphones and were happy to use them to access the internet, so a responsive site that worked on mobile devices was clearly the way to go.
The second success factor followed the initial launch of the MyTVH service, when it was found that very few tenants were actually making payments. At the time, payments were made using a third-party payments service. Further investigation found that the need for users to leave MyTVH and log into a different system was a major barrier. Using a third-party service also meant that TVHA couldn’t provide real-time payment information on a tenant’s accounts. We designed a new payment tool using Barclay’s ePDQ transaction engine which solved both problems.
The results have been a 27 per cent shift from phone to online payments, while transaction costs have reduced by 40 per cent from 49p to 29p per transaction. The portal has raised overall satisfaction levels among tenants and staff, saved time and money for both tenants and TVHA, and is a key plank in TVHA’s strategic plans to improve collections and arrears. MyTVH won a Digital Innovation of the Year award in June 2014 and TVHA is continuing to add new features to improve services to tenants.
It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense
There’s no magic to designing digital services that people actually enjoy using, and you don’t need a huge budget. If you find out what users actually want and keep testing your design with them to make sure it does what they’ve asked for, you’ll get something that they’ll use when it goes live.
And by reusing existing products and services, you can keep costs down. Save bespoke development for the aspects that are unique to your organisation (which are usually relatively few). Get those right, ensure that they interface with any legacy systems you need to keep and you can introduce digital services quickly and effectively in any organisation.
Harry Metcalfe is the managing director of DXW.