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The Convergence of Citizen-Centric Concepts in the Canadian Government: Marketing and User-Centered Design.

Earlier this summer, the announcement of a new Minister for Citizens’ Services by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) got me thinking about the drastic increase I’ve noticed in the use of audience-focused business processes and terms across the Canadian public sector. While there is never a shortage of new management buzzwords that come and go with each season, I do think this is a step in the right direction for the public service as a whole.

The marketing mindset

As a strategic marketing consultant who specializes in government initiatives, I have spent a considerable part of my career explaining to public servants what marketing is, what it is not, and how a marketing mindset in a government organization can help it improve its services/programs, and provide more value to taxpayers. 

The biggest obstacle has always been the many preconceived notions of what “marketing” entails, as it is often confused with profit-driven sales, advertising, and top-down demand generation. 

At its core, marketing places great importance on understanding the needs of the customer (target audience). I like to think of it as a planning process for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for your audience.

Marketing should always begin with audience research to better understand audience wants, needs and pains regarding the service, product, or program. This research should then (ideally) guide decisions about:

  • segmentation and targeting
  • positioning (value proposition);
  • actual product/service design;
  • price (non-monetary or monetary);
  • location/channel;
  • promotion (tactics and messaging).

The importance of research

In most government organizations, the “research” component is outside the jurisdiction of the folks responsible for marketing, which means if it does take place, it isn’t done in a way that is specific to the marketing initiative (i.e. the right questions aren’t being asked). As a result, most marketing initiative attempts in government end up reverting to top-down communications, primarily focused on raising awareness/uptake rather than ensuring the service or program is actually meeting the needs of the audience.

User-centred design (UCD)

Enter the newfound popularity of user-centred design and its related terms across government (i.e. design thinking, usability, user experience, etc.) At its core, UCD is an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.┬áRemember that “designers” can be anyone responsible for developing a government service or program.

Similarities between marketing and user-centred design

While marketing and UCD can be considered different domains, they intertwine in several ways. Here are a few:

  1. Customer at the Core: Both marketing and UCD prioritize the customer (i.e. user of the service, product or program). Where marketing seeks to understand and tap into customer needs and desires to shape these services, UCD ensures that services are designed keeping users’ needs and feedback central.
  2. Iterative Feedback Loop: A key characteristic of UCD is iterative design, wherein products/services are continuously refined based on user feedback. Similarly, a marketing mindset is about constant adaptation to market reactions, trends, and audience feedback.
  3. Value Proposition: Whether it’s creating a user-friendly online passport application interface or crafting a campaign attempting to get people to compost, both concepts revolve around the value proposition. It’s about answering the user’s fundamental question: “What’s in it for me?”
  4. Empathy-Driven: Empathy is crucial. Marketers must empathize to resonate with their target audience, and user-centred designers must empathize to create solutions that users find intuitive and helpful.

While these processes each have their unique nuances, they converge in their end goal: delivering value to the intended audience and ensuring satisfaction.  

A step in the right direction

At the end of the day, regardless of the terminology and specific processes being used, I’m just happy to see more focus finally being placed on the end-users of government services. I genuinely hope that the creation of a Minister of Citizens’ Services role continues to emphasize this importance and encourages public servants responsible for service/program delivery to incorporate more of a marketing (or UCD) mindset into their work.

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