Taking a user-centred approach to designing letters for residents.

Most letters are awful. We’re talking about those jargon-filled letters from councils, government and even businesses that say too much whilst not telling us anything useful and stressing everyone out.

Bradford Council recognised this as an opportunity to do better and create a change across the entire organisation, which led us to create the Letters Hack event. With every department already involved in some letter creation, it was a great opportunity to bring staff from across the organisation together in multidisciplinary teams to introduce a new, user-centred way of solving problems to start making a change.

The Letters Hack event was just that, a high-energy, deep-dive into how we can deliberately hack letters, breaking down content and design to make a substantial change and better outcomes for residents.

Make a letter better

Why letters? They’re something every department across every council creates and something every person receives (think junk mail, bills, summons, etc). They’re also a symbolic quick win for bringing teams together to get their hands dirty while learning new ways of working.

Letters are not inherently bad. They’re a means to achieving a goal, helping people be informed and sometimes take an action. But a poorly designed letter can elicit visceral responses from dread to excitement. With so much power to shape the feelings of citizens, why would we allow letters to hide behind the excuse of statutory needs, lack of better templates and bureaucratic jargon? It’s within our control to do better.

The hack

We strongly believe that people learn best by doing. So we created a fun, hands-on day helping staff identify what’s wrong letters, learning new problem-solving approaches and practical tools to rewrite letters across any service. Combining techniques from content design, UX writing and qualitative research, staff worked together in multidisciplinary teams to redesign real letters.

Empathy for people is the key to everything we do. Our best services only come when we focus on user needs, in this case, residents and people receiving letters. To help staff understand their residents, think like them and understand their needs, we introduced example profiles of residents based on our research, which the teams then adopted and advocated for throughout the day.

As teams got hands-on and tactile, blocks of content were cut, discarded, rewritten and moved to create the best outcomes. Everyone found they had a firm grasp on what a clear set of goals and actions could mean for people with different backgrounds and abilities.

Do better than the letter

By days end, everyone left understanding the power of visible problem-solving, coming up with lots of different ideas and drawing solutions. Each attendee took away a personal mission to improve a letter sent by their service and we’re delighted to see that new versions of letters are already being tested.

Yes, we can do better than a letter. With so many options for communicating, fixing an analogue method can seem like we’re missing the digital trick. But going after digital for the sake of digital can be an excuse for dismissing existing communication mistakes. Step one is making a better letter because good communication is universal.

This post was co-written by the FutureGov Bradford project team.

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