Keep your users close and involved – successfully designing a user-centric service at Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

The concept of ‘users first’ should, by now, be an unchallenged principle when designing digital services.

This is never more vital than when working on government services, where millions of users – across the full spectrum of the digital inclusion scale – need to grasp quickly what they need to do, how and by when.

Hence that wonderfully simple design principle from the Government Digital Service (GDS),“Do the hard work to make things simple.” But there’s another GDS phrase that’s always struck a chord: “Civil servants are users too.”

Unlike a member of the public who’s applying for a passport for the first time in 10 years, government workers use their systems all day, every day. That’s a very compelling argument for making sure we design for how users need to work – which is not always the same as designing to make things simple or elegant.

Keeping the end user in mind – staff are users too

I work in the reform programme at HMCTS, on the Family Public Law (FPL) digital service.

The service lets local authority solicitors make online applications to courts for orders to safeguard the welfare of a child, often in emergency situations.

Applications are swiftly checked by staff at the Courts and Tribunals Service Centre (CTSC), passed to legal advisors in the appropriate court, and proceedings quickly begin.

As well as FPL, staff at CTSC work across other HMCTS services, such as Divorce, Probate and Civil Money Claims. These all feed into the same back end system, Core Case Data (CCD), which – unusually – affects the front-end designs.

We needed to find out what this ‘one size fits all’ back end system meant for CTSC staff working on FPL cases, and how we could refine things to reflect how they need to work.

We established a working group of CTSC staff, with whom we created and prioritised a small backlog of improvements to incrementally introduce.

First on their list was the ‘Documents’ tab.

Understanding the problem

All parties on a case need to file certain documents before every hearing. In child safeguarding cases, there can be many hearings, each with hefty bundles of documents.

These were then stored in a single tab. It was the job of CTSC staff to sift through this unorganised, confused and mangled mess to check that everyone had filed everything they should have.

To understand how they did this – and to learn how the front end needed to function – we held remote co-design sessions using Miro visual collaboration software.

During the sessions, our CTSC group explained how they worked. To check documents before hearings, they count back through the History tab, then through the Documents tab to marry up who uploaded what, when.

These simple conversations were enough to get us started on some ideas for quick wins.

Simple ideas, big effect

Through these remote sessions, we worked together to:

  • split the large, unwieldy Documents tab into 3 categorised tabs – correspondence, documents relating to specific hearings, and application supporting documents

  • create structure within these tabs – with clear labels showing who uploaded what, when

  • display documents in a useful order, prescribed by CTSC

  • write practical guidance hint text on document upload pages, to prompt users to give file names meaningful, descriptive names – vital for CTSC staff when checking documents before hearings

  • ‘pin’ important notes to the ‘top of the case’ – which they could choose to be visible to just CTSC staff or all parties

These are all simple things, of course. But they are simple things that have made the world of difference to our users.

Often, at the end of our calls they would tell us that the session were “the best part of our day” and ” it’s just nice to be heard.”

We’ve held many more co-design sessions with CTSC to make their system how they need it to be.

These screens rarely look like the simple, clean one-thing-per-page designs of public-facing services – but they are, we can confidently say, just as successful.

Simple document tabs structure designed during CTSC co-design session
Output from our first co-design session
Quick wins decided and prioritised during co-design sessions