Service Design Network
Author - Service Design Network

Little over 850.000 citizens live in this diverse, beautiful city. From Marc to Mohammed. From baby to granny. From garbage collector to PhD student. Every citizen has their context, needs, wishes and challenges. How to design online services that can be used by everyone?

Service Design Award 2020/21 Finalist Project

Inclusive Digital Services for the Municipality - by Koos Service Design

Category: Professional Non-profit / Public sector

Client: Gemeente Amsterdam

Location: Netherlands

Make an impact on 850.000 citizens

It is the ambition of the municipality to increase the self-reliance of the citizens and to combat inequality. To create a city, supported by technology, that has value for all of its citizens. Knowledge, information and education should be accessible and available for everyone.

The objective of the project was to create guiding design principles for the development of inclusive digital services. These design principles will ensure that all citizens can benefit equally. The municipality teamed up with a service design consultancy to tackle this challenge. Together we selected three diverse target groups of which we expected would have the most issues with digital services.

In sum, we are proud to say we conducted 57 interviews, completed 3 design sprints and built 3 prototypes in about 30 days. The results, values transformed into design principles, are used every day by the municipality to give guidance in the improvement of digital services. The outcomes are used at this moment for the refinement and development of new solutions (both online and offline) and to start a conversation around inclusive design. This way, we are one step closer to offer citizen services working for everyone equally.

“We conducted 57 interviews, completed 3 design sprints and built 3 prototypes in about 30 days”


Qualitative research & three design sprints

Inclusive design is important, especially for service designers in the public sector. If we just rely on our own experience and abilities, we will design services that are easy for some people to use, but difficult for everyone else. It is our mission to:

  • Make public services of the municipality accessible, understandable and usable for everyone;
  • Learn from diversity by including a diverse group of people, early in the process;
  • Reflect on our biases and avoid tendencies for exclusion in the process continually;
  • Focus on providing citizens and designers with the means and power to make their services more accessible;
  • Design for “extreme users” to make our products more accessible for everyone;

To design inclusive online services for the municipality, we first needed to understand our audience’s needs, pains and desires. What is the problem we want to solve? For the project, we focused on three research questions:

  1. How do citizens want to communicate with the municipality?
  2. What are the values and needs of these citizens?
  3. How might the municipality fulfill those needs?

It is simply impossible to speak to everyone. Therefore, a selection was made of target audiences that might have difficulty with online services: citizens with a minor mental disability, citizens with a different cultural background, and elderly citizens of 75 years and over. These groups were selected because they represented three main challenges: cognitive limitation, language barriers and cultural differences, and physical barriers.
The project was divided into three sub-projects one per target audience.

Each subproject consisted of 3 steps: qualitative research, thorough analysis, and a design sprint with user testing. Every subproject took approximately one month to complete.

Step 1: Qualitative research

  • 46 qualitative interviews of 60-90 minutes each
  • Conducted at their home or at their daytime activity
  • Generative techniques: context mapping (homework booklet)

We believe qualitative research is the go-to method to research needs. Conducting interviews at the home of the interviewee adds an intricate layer of contextual insights that other (or digital) environments lack. Going to the houses of citizens meant that we could have a look at the (lack of) computers, mobile phones and apps.

Step 2: Analysis

  • Clustering of needs
  • Customer Journey mapping
  • Value pyramid of Bain

Since the research was very broad and preliminary in the design process, there was no straight path to move from interview transcripts into insights. First, clustering post-its with quotes of the interviews resulted in the formulation of main insights. This allowed for a better understanding of the needs, pains and gains of the target audience. Second, for each target audience, the most important values were listed.

High level customer journeys were made to get an understanding of the steps, activities and experience of using an (online) service of the municipality. This journey consisted of four phases: fantasizing, scanning, planning and transaction. This meant almost all services of the municipality could be fitted in this high level journey. From applying for a parking permit to renewing your passport. Within each phase of the journey, needs, and suggestions on how the municipality can address those needs are listed.

After completing the analysis of all target audiences, all customer needs were plotted on the value pyramid of Bain3. This generated insights on how the target audiences relate to each other and how the municipality can fulfill these needs.

Step 3: Three Design Sprints

  • 5-day Design Sprints (based on SPRINT by Jake Knapp)
  • Idea generation, benchmark, sketch, prototype, test
  • User test: 5 citizens, 60 minutes each per test

For each target audience, a sprint was conducted to get from problem fit into solution fit with customer validation. Two designers were involved in each sprint, consisting of four days in total. On the first half day, the problem was selected and presented to the client. On the second day, a benchmark was conducted and ideas were formulated. Followed by the creation of the prototype and test setup on the third and fourth day. A prototype test was conducted with five participants on the fifth day. Finally, the results were presented to the client. This process was repeated three times, once for each target group.

The scope of the prototype was directed on the biggest insights. For the first sprint, one of the main insights was that citizens with a minor mental disability like to call the municipality when they have a question. In fact, most of them knew the phone number by heart. However, getting the right person on the phone takes time and requires courage, and calls are a big expense for the municipality. This leads us to the prototype question: how might we make digital service more appealing by applying the benefits of calling to digital services?

In one day, we built a prototype of a chatbot. Citizens were invited to test it and try it out. We learned a lot. Part of the testers liked the chatbot because it was just as personal and fast as calling. But we also found that there is a lot of resistance to using technology. Some citizens wanted to take their time when dealing with an issue. They felt that they needed to respond too quickly when using the chatbot.
This process was repeated for the other groups.


All of the 57 participants agreed: it’s all about the basics. However nice or innovative your solution may be, citizens will choose the solution that is most convenient to them.

What “convenience” means, depends on the person. Most often it is something they are already familiar with, like calling or visiting the service desk. Knowing your customer is key in offering the right solution. Therefore, the ideal service of the municipality should be convenient to all citizens, and should provide reassurance and certainty.

As output of the research, the municipality received an extensive report with customer insights, prototype results, and design tools needed to create inclusive services.

  1. Research findings per target group and their main values

    Detailed report based on qualitative home interviews, including the values of each target group5. We learned that target groups should not be defined by demographic factors like age. Instead, one should look at specific contexts, needs, pains and gains. For example, within one elderly couple the behaviour differed extensively: the lady used the latest model of a smartphone, while her husband still used a rotary dial phone.

  2. High level customer journey per target group and the role of the municipality in each phase

    These matrices show how the municipality can address the needs of citizens when purchasing an item or using a service on a high level.

  3. Guiding design principles for inclusive solutions, plotted on the Value Pyramid of Bain7

    The values correspond to the needs discovered in the user research and are divided over for types of layers of needs: social impact, life changing, emotional, and functional. It is a very clear and straightforward method that provides useful insights for this project and beyond. Whenever the municipality wants to design a (new) service, they can use the pyramid as a compass to guide them in the right direction.

  4. Nine comparison cards that offer guidance in inclusive solutions

    After speaking to a lot of citizens all across town, we realized something unexpected. There is a major overlap in needs between the three target groups, however, the reasoning behind it differs. For example, each group values confirmation and assurance. Citizens from different cultural backgrounds want to have proof and confirmation in email, in case something goes wrong. Many seniors wanted reassurance because they do not feel competent in using digital tools. Citizens with a minor mental disability want to be sure they are taken seriously and not fooled.

    To get a good understanding of the overlap and differences between the groups, inclusive design cards are created. For nine major topics (e.g. respect, tone of voice, preferred communication channel), the view of the target groups is explained. This provides guidance in creating the right solution that is inclusive and appreciated by citizens.

  5. “Use of channel” graph

    The kind of communication channel citizens prefer to use, depends on their context. Factors that influence this choice are urgency, complexity, and time. When an issue is complex, the majority of citizens like to get personal help. They rather pick up the phone than send a text message or use chat. Social media like Facebook and WhatsApp are not preferred when getting in touch with the municipality. People feel they are (still) too personal to use for professional contact.

  6. Validated prototypes that can be used for further testing and iteration

    During the project several prototypes were created. Thanks to the test, we discovered what had potential and what was not worth pursuing. It saved the municipality a lot of time to do user testing early on in the design process.

“The project is used as showcase to talk about the importance of customer-centric and inclusive design. ”


Did the project match the initial objectives? Yes, absolutely. In the beginning it was not clear what the outcome would be, looking back the output is richer and more practical than we dreamed of. We have learned a lot about the diversity during the project. Some learnings we want to share:

  • Be aware of your own bias and assumptions, anyone can experience disabilities. When looking through someone else’s eyes, you become aware of your own blind spots.
  • The user creates the boundaries and not the designer, officer, environment or digital system. The values of the user make a product or service meaningful.
  • Showing inclusive design is not a check mark in your work by doing research with a variety of people. It is about participation and involving everyone in your design process continually.
  • Don’t look at your biggest target group, but at minority groups or even at individual level. It is the collection of minority groups that form the majority of the society.
  • Test as soon as possible and validate your solution. This way you know if you have the right solution to your problem. It will save you a lot of time and money, because you will not spend resources on building a solution that is not desired by your customers.

When looking at the impact of the project, three big achievements stand out:

  1. Foundation for what inclusive design can mean for the municipality.

    The outcome is strongly supported by civil servants who can make a difference in mindset and policy. Already incremental changes are made based on the guiding principles. For example: the ‘tone of voice’ findings are input for the new style guide of the website. The ‘simplicity’ findings are used in ‘Language for everybody’: a non-digital project to simplify letters on A2 language level to help illiterate citizens.

  2. Internal & external awareness

    The project is used as a showcase within the municipality to talk about the importance of customer-centric design and inclusive design. On the following events the narrative has been presented:
    • Digital Inclusion Day: 6 February 2020, 65 persons reached. Nationwide event about inclusive design in government, the research was one of the major talks organised by the municipality.
    • Talk for SDN Marathon, 22 April 2020, 600 views.
    • Stand at the SD in Gov conference, 19 November 2019, 800 visitors within 3 days.
    •“Theme Thursday”, Meetup, April 2019, around 60 persons.

Accelerator for starting more comprehensive research

The solutions that were tested with prototypes during the project. New projects are started to make services more accessible physically. Tests have been done with remote viewing, video-calling, video chat, service tools for the blind & hard of hearing in City Offices and text notification.
Besides, the biggest department of Research, Information and Statistics is building a user platform with experts by experience, e.g. citizens with a disability. They collaborate with these experts more closely in research projects than before.

The municipality is able to provide inclusive services by embracing service design and involving the citizens in defined projects. The platform is set up for all departments in the municipality and to answer political questions.

Finally, services got easier to understand for citizens. Coming up are the projects ‘Digital confirmation’ and ‘Improving the search function of the websites’. Results of user needs are translated into specifically defined projects. Nowadays, when a user asks for extra support in understanding, this can be provided by different services such as one contact person and digital notification. The main goal is that all 872.380 citizens are able to independently use the digital services as much as possible.


Finally, services got easier to understand for citizens. Coming up are the projects ‘Digital confirmation’ and ‘Improving the search function of the websites’. Results of user needs are translated into specifically defined projects. Nowadays, when a user asks for extra support in understanding, this can be provided by different services such as one contact person and digital notification. The main goal is that all 872.380 citizens are able to independently use the digital services as much as possible.

Inclusive design is important. We believe that it is our responsibility as service designers to design services that can be used by as many people as possible. Good design is not about shiny features and fancy functionality. It should work. Be convenient. Simple and understandable by all sorts of people that use the service. It is often hard to go the extra mile of applying inclusive design since the biggest impact is not made in the details but in the majority.

For this municipality, we are convinced that we are one step closer to reaching this ambition. However, there is still a long road ahead. We hope to help other municipalities across the world to improve the inclusiveness of their services.

Project Team:

Serena Westra

Marloes Meerburg

Ingrid Pfrommer

Support: Ingrid Nooijens, Anuschka Sital, Ella Baars, Ton Wallast, Jules Prick, Sanne van der Linden, Stephanie Vastert-Viersma, Winand van Hasselt, Mariska Graat, Kiki den Blanken

Related Community Knowledge

Service Design Award Transforming the US Health System: A toolkit for designing a new era of Alzheimer’s care

Transforming the US Health System: A toolkit for designing a new era of Alzheimer’s care

Service Design Award 2023 - Professional Commercial Finalist

Continue reading
Service Design Award Nemo: The Finnish Maritime Single Window

Nemo: The Finnish Maritime Single Window

Service Design Award 2023 - Winner, Best Commercial Project

Continue reading
Service Design Award Inspiring Action for Teacher Retention from the Inside Out

Inspiring Action for Teacher Retention from the Inside Out

Service Design Award 2023 - Professional Commercial Finalist

Continue reading
Service Design Award Fast Stream: A new post-pandemic digital service

Fast Stream: A new post-pandemic digital service

Service Design Award 2023 - Professional Commercial Finalist

Continue reading