DWP – Digital debt

A citizen account allowing people to understand the money they owe to the DWP and other selected government departments.

The thing

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) recovers money owed to government, including on behalf of a number of other departments. The existing method of collecting this money is difficult for citizens and DWP staff alike. It currently operates by post and phone during normal business hours, which limits opportunities for people to get in touch and manage their debt. Citizens also have to call a variety of different departments to gain a complete picture of the money they owe. This is a time consuming, laborious task that relies on citizens piecing information together to get the big picture. After a period of discovery, it became clear that a digital service could help to relieve these burdens and assist citizens in gaining access to their personal information when and where they needed it.

My role

Working among a small multi-disciplined team, I led the interaction design on the Alpha phase of the service.

The problem

The existing process relied on citizens putting in a considerable amount of time and effort to fully understand the how’s and why’s of the money they owed. During the early period of discovery, it was clear that debt is a sensitive topic and can be extremely stressful for people. The current end to end process lacked sensitivity and failed to grasp the context of citizen’s lives. The team needed to provide a service that could better notify and transact with citizens and provide a clear visualisation of the who, what, when, where and how of the money they owe.

Working with researchers

Any alpha phase of a new government service relies upon the fantastic work of user researchers. Without the work of our researcher, we would have failed to truly uncover the problems citizens were facing on a daily basis.

Interviews and observation

In order to gain an understanding of the problems that the current process posed, it was vital that we got out of the building (GOOB) and spoke to citizens and staff.

The team worked together to conduct interviews with:

12 off benefit citizens
17 on benefit citizens
10 local debt support organisations
4 national debt support organisations
We also worked together to track, listen to and analyse 1,962 contact centre calls.

We also conducted research with:

7 debt centres
4 telephony agents
3 work queue administrators
1 post administrator
4 team leaders
3 command managers
2 operations managers
4 contact centre managers
6 specialist teams

This gave us a better understanding of the issues agents and staff were facing in regard to the money citizens owed.

Creating personas

“I’m really confused as to why I keep getting benefit payments when I’d told DWP a number of times that I was working again… I don’t want to get into debt with DWP”

Anne, 28

In work, has 'affordable' debt

“I have no idea when the repayments are going to end”

Paul, 35

In work, has a repayment plan

“When you are under pressure with debt and not in the right frame of mind, it’s difficult to understand what things even mean”

Nicola, 28

Claims Universal Credit, Vulnerable

“I struggle to keep track of my deductions and I don’t understand why I end up the go-between – between Universal Credit and Debt Management”

Sarah, 24

Claims Universal Credit

Inclusive from the start

When we’re designing services, it is vital that we make sure that they work inclusively for everyone.

In order to understand the needs of a wider spectrum of people, I worked with the team’s researcher to:

  • visit 4 drop in sessions at libraries and training centres
  • interview 4 digital assisted trainers
  • interview 3 UC work coaches
  • interview 13 members of the public
  • interview 26 people who have accessibility needs and claim benefits
  • interview 4 people whose second language is English and claim benefits
  • interview 3 citizen’s advice advisors

Journey mapping

After a period of synthesising the data gathered through the discovery research, it was important to gather stakeholders together to explain our early findings and develop a ‘to-be’ user journey for a new service. It was vital to include stakeholders at this early stage to ensure that they felt involved in the development of the service and to gain their valuable input on things that we may not have considered. We spent time with stakeholders considering the user journey of different types of users, following our personas, which were then placed on the wall for maximum exposure. These journeys gave us a strong reference point for understanding the direction we initially believed we wanted to go in.


The next step was to use rough sketches and then the GOV.UK prototyping kit to iterate on design ideas. My design process always starts with a sharpie and a piece of paper or a stack of post-it notes. This gives me the chance to rapidly sketch my thoughts and ideas without having to get caught up in deciding which tool to use. We worked through numerous iterations of different designs, each of which was put before users so we could understand the best direction to follow. Below, you can see examples of how the design of the service developed. These journeys gave us a strong reference point for understanding the direction we initially believed we wanted to go in.

Don’t replicate telephony processes

The ‘business’ had initially wanted to implement existing telephone processes online. Based on our research findings, it was clear that the telephony environment is viewed very differently to a digital service. It was initially felt that we should be taking an initial payment when a user sought to set up a repayment plan. While this made sense on the phone, it proved to be an extremely confusing journey for people online. Usability testing found that entering debit or credit card information, prior to entering bank account details, provided numerous stumbling blocks due to the length of journey and perception that users were entering financial information twice. By inviting stakeholders to observe usability tests, we were able to show that telephony processes don’t always translate well online. The area highlighted below shows the additional steps that needed to be taken in order to process an initial payment.

The letter

Receiving a brown envelope from the DWP fills people with anxiety and dread. We wanted to try and change the tone of the letter and alter perceptions of the department. Research showed that people often ignored or put off opening the letter they received from the DWP letting them know that they owed money. When they did eventually open the letter, they found the wording of the letter was technical and unclear. Over time, more and more content had been added to the letter without considering whether anything should be removed. This meant the letter had become very disjointed and confusing over a period of several years. We found that when we provided users with a letter that was styled in a very different manner, with fresh content, we received a much more positive response. I designed a variety of different letters, which were put them in front of potential users for feedback. This helped us to iterate on the design and content. This is a radical shift in the way the DWP communicates with people and this service is pushing the limits of internal expectations.

GDS assessment

We passed! View the Service Standard Assessment.