Exploring the needs of customers using digital public services

Making digital transformation work for citizens and local government


Renfrewshire Council commissioned Snook to conduct in-depth research into the needs of customers using digital public services. The project sits at the crossroads of digital transformation, delivering efficient and sustainable public services, and the Tackling Poverty strategy, which aims to reduce digital exclusion.


The challenge

Renfrewshire Council embarked on an ambitious programme to transform its digital service offering. The programme aimed to meet customers’ changing needs while delivering savings and efficiencies. However, it had to take into account that a large number of these service users are most likely to be digitally excluded. How might we design services that also help remove barriers to digital participation? If we get it right for those who face the most barriers to digital, might we then get it right for everyone?

Renfrewshire Council had a second objective for the project: to demonstrate the benefits of design-led approaches and start the process of embedding design throughout the organisation.

  • “We really want to see service from the perspective of our citizens and respond as a council to these. We want to hear from our most vulnerable users.”
    Rhona McGrath, Head of Customer and Business Services

What are the barriers to accessing digital services?

The research focused on building an in-depth understanding of:

  •      Why do customers phone?
  •      Why do they come in person?
  •      What are they trying to achieve?
  •      What are the barriers to digital services?

The original hypothesis was that customer barriers to digital engagement centred around two main factors, technological access and digital skills.

With over 66 days of research, we completed in-depth interviews with 83 citizens and shadowed 80 Council Customer Service phone calls. We quickly discovered that the digital barriers to access were only the tip of the iceberg…

Public services are complex by nature, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable customers and benefits. There is an added layer of complexity brought on by the fact that services grow incrementally over time. Customers are confused by the interdependencies between organisations and rarely understand the difference between Local Authorities and third parties. Local Authorities inadvertently put up additional barriers by designing from the outside in, forcing customers to understand the Council’s processes in order to interact with them. Finally, digital barriers to participation – access, technology, and skills – reduce customers’ ability to access services.

However, the research also highlighted the role of the ‘helpers’ – people who cut across all of these barriers to support others. ‘Helpers’ include staff from housing associations, local youth clubs, family members, or friends who have accessed services before and speak the language the Council speaks.

How did we do it?

Throughout the project, we worked closely with the Renfrewshire Council team to review the insights to date and reevaluate the direction of the project so that we would continue to focus on the greatest needs and opportunities.

The team set up a design studio inside the Council where staff could participate in the project’s progress. Focusing inwards, we conducted staff research through 20 interviews, 4 workshops, and 2 early insight sessions. Looking outwards, the research shadowed over 80 customer phone calls, conducted 25 customer centre visits, 83 customer interviews, and 5 drop-ins.

Building design capacity

Renfrewshire Council wanted to use the project as an opportunity to expose their teams to new ways of working and embed design throughout the organisation. The teams shadowed us throughout the process, from kick-off to recruitment, interviews, workshops, synthesis and presentation. Even the recruitment strategy for the research was designed to help develop stronger links so that they could continue the approach. The project delivered a Service Design Handbook documenting the methods used during the project. Finally, the project delivered a series of recommendations and ‘next steps’. These were presented as potential project briefs to bring the strategy to life and facilitate its adoption.

The impact of our work:

The project is helping create a person-centred understanding of customers.

Personas, user stories, and journeys replaced data-led profiles. We used storytelling to show people in their environment and with their support network. The deliverables reflected the complexity of needs, which requires local authorities to work across departments, and sometimes across organisations – customers aren’t just customers but also parents, patients, workers, or tenants. It also demonstrated that organisations need to understand how customers’ needs evolve over time, and that their interactions should not be seen as a series of one-offs.

The Digital Transformation team is applying a Service Design approach to new digital forms.

They are now considering the entire service from start-to-finish, not just the form in isolation. The project delivered a Service Design Handbook to support their work.

The project demonstrated the benefits of design-led approaches and highlighted opportunities to build up in-house capabilities.

The Council’s Digital First Strategy looks to incorporate design approaches to tackle the complexity of customer needs, plan the service delivery and the resources to deliver these. The project has been presented across the organisation to build up design capacity in order to deliver impactful campaigns and effective staff-centred transformation programmes.


  • “Snook helped us develop a much stronger strategic understanding of the Service Design approach and to start building in-house expertise in Renfrewshire Council. They proved to be a great choice of partner in our move to adopt service design as a core approach to the improvement of services and access for all our citizens"
    David Amos, Head of Policy and Commissioning Renfrewshire Council

Looking to re-design digital services with citizens?