Universal Credit: customer experience without compassion

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Money Box’ isn’t often where you go for a scoop with political ramifications but today’s announcement by the programme that families on Universal Credit will miss out on payments over the festive period adds some excitement to what’s often a ‘worthy but dull’ feature in the Saturday schedule.

Leaving aside the politics for a bit, this is a story about service design that’s anything but customer-centric.

And if you’re on a low income, it sucks.

Because December happens to be a month with 5 weeks in it, anyone with an income paid weekly may go temporarily go over the threshold for paying the benefit. The Department of Work and Pensions helpfully informs you that this might happen and gives you instructions on what to do.

So, what’s the problem? Anyone with a grip on budgeting should be able to cope, yes?

Well it all depends on what your perspective is.

If you’re designing a service from a provider perspective, you tend to have an idealised view of how customers or service users might behave. In this case the ‘ideal customer’ will be a sensible, cool-headed type who can ‘do the math’ in order to make sure that a four or five weekly pay packets spread out nicely over a month. That sounds like a service designed by someone comfortably on a monthly salary, not by someone in a ‘hard-working family’ who’s ‘just about managing’ – take your pick from the pack of vacuous political clichés.

In fact, Universal Credit is a service that appears to be designed around a monthly income model. The problem is that, if you’re in a job that’s low paid, you’re likely to be weekly. And possibly with a highly variable pay packet if you’re enjoying the exciting world of zero hours contracts. The outcome you want is some degree of financial stability.

Genuinely customer-centric design would match benefit payment to weekly income, meaning that the claimant could have a reliable view of their income every week. (In a world where online payments are er, universal, this seems entirely appropriate.)

Genuinely customer-centric design would also not make people wait six weeks before getting paid or require them to wait up to 5 minutes to talk to a human being.

Genuinely customer-centric design wouldn’t have the Children’s Commissioner saying that the impact of universal credit had not been tested on families with children.

The intention of Universal Credit – ostensibly a simplified benefit system that avoids people being better off not working than working – is fine. The implementation seems to ignore the needs of those who it’s intended to benefit.

When you design a service, you need a profound understanding of how real customers behave and what their desired outcomes might be.

Another word for this quality: compassion.

(This post also appears on The Next Ten Years.)

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