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Australian Bureau of Statistics

Applying innovative and experimental design thinking to 2021 Census

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is Australia’s national statistical agency collecting, analysing and publishing data to inform the country’s important decisions on a wide range of economic, social, population and environmental matters.


The Census of Population and Housing is a critical source of information collected every five years about Australians and the way we live. The information is used to shape Australia’s services and infrastructure needs, like locating health, education and transport services where they are needed. 


The Census allows us to understand the cultural, economic and social diversity of our communities, providing information about the population across small geographic areas. 


In preparation for 2021 Census, the ABS, under the Digital Service Standard (DSS) process, engaged ThoughtWorks for the Alpha phase to design and test the online Census form with Australian users.

With Census data-collection and analysis a primary focus for the ABS, our recent project with ThoughtWorks allowed us to test, learn and innovate in a digitally transformative landscape.
David Nauenburg

Director Census Digital and Paper Service Census Branch, Australian Bureau of Statistics

Key to our efforts, was the goal of improving on the user experience of the previous Census. Our vision was to design and test a solution that would meet users’ needs and enable them to complete the Census online, without having to seek help from the ABS.


What is Alpha?


Using the Digital Transformation Agency’s Digital Service Standard approach to service design, Alpha is the phase following Discovery. The goal is to build prototypes of the service and test these prototypes with users. Alpha provides an opportunity to find problems with the design of the service and decide how to solve them.


It's also an important stage to identify the biggest risks for the beta stage as early as possible. By the end of Alpha, the team should be clear on exactly what needs to be built in beta.


Working together


Our goal was to design a digital service that was simple and intuitive for people to use.


We needed to ensure the service was not only accessible and easy to use, but inclusive of the entire population including people experiencing homelessness, tenants in share houses and secure apartments, remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people, remote and transient populations, people with disabilities, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse groups (CaLD) and older Australians.

We took a Hypothesis-Driven Design approach during Alpha that allowed us to define a problem, create a hypothesis and prove or disprove our assumptions through user research in collaboration with the ABS team.
Katherine Alsop

Service Design Lead, ThoughtWorks

To achieve this, we established a blended ThoughtWorks/ABS team and adopted agile ways of working. We set up two week sprint cycles in which to design, build, research, synthesise and showcase findings back to the wider Census programme.


Using the evidence collected at the end of each sprint, we considered when to iterate further in the next sprint, or to focus on a different problem. We also introduced human-centered and experimental design concepts and conducted extensive user-centered research to learn which approach worked best for respondents.


The result


Innovative, experimental design thinking and extensive user research during Alpha, resulted in a functioning, responsive prototype of the online Census, which we used to test new concepts and build on insights from previous sprints. This prototype is still being used by the ABS to support further testing on additional parts of the service delivery blueprint.


Our research, recommendations, design approach and final product formed the first draft service blueprint and Alpha Findings Report that, in addition to new ways of working, provided the core ABS team with a firm basis to move forward with a roadmap.

Through this collaboration with ThoughtWorks, we have a prototype of the online Census form taking into account user and business needs. This prototype will be used to inform ABS as we move into the Beta build activity.
David Nauenburg

Director, Census Digital and Paper Service, Census Branch, Australian Bureau of Statistics

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