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National Highways

Our contributions helped steer the Dart Charge service successfully through their GOV.UK Service Standard Alpha assessment at the first attempt, which was a first for Highways.

National Highways had launched a major programme to update and improve the customer experience (CX) and functioning of their Dart Charge service. Cyber-Duck was brought on board in a service design leadership role to help embed a user-centred design approach into the service. We brought our user-focused perspective and service design expertise to work with key stakeholders and their suppliers. Our contributions helped steer the Dart Charge service successfully through their GOV.UK Service Standard Alpha assessment at the first attempt, which was a first for Highways.

Who are National Highways and what did they need?

National Highways is the government organisation which builds, maintains and operates Britain’s motorways and major roads. They are responsible for the Dart Charge, a congestion charging system on the Dartford Crossing - the bridge and tunnels that crucially connect the M25 between Essex and Kent. Cameras capture vehicles’ number plates as they use the Dartford Crossing and drivers have until midnight the following day to pay the charge; if they don’t, they will be issued a penalty charge notice (PCN).

Ultimately, National Highways’ goal was to reduce the number of PCNs being issued; this is a government service, with an ethical duty to make sure everyone can pay easily and correctly.

As an added factor, the Dart Charge service had previously failed to meet GOV.UK Service Standards. To achieve success with Alpha this time, they needed support from a team with in-depth knowledge and experience of working to UK Government Digital Standards (GDS). That’s where Cyber-Duck came in.


  1. Ascertain UX/CX gaps in the service; identify skills gaps and support with procuring the right people and services to build a successful multi-disciplinary team (MDT)
  2. Guide the entire multi-faceted team on GOV.UK service standards; support throughout the Alpha assessment stage to reach those standards
  3. Introduce and embed the best Service Design principles and toolkits
  4. Oversee prototypes for the new service using the GOV.UK prototyping toolkit and repeated iterations through user testing

What was Cyber-Duck’s role?

Cyber-Duck was brought onto the project late in the game, as the last contractual partner to join. The project plan and requirements in place stated that National Highways wanted to ensure this service met GOV.UK standards and passed its alpha CDDO service assessment, but there were no details on how this would be achieved by any of the contracted suppliers. 

Working in an agile manner is a critical requirement to meet the government service standard.

We needed to steer on the necessary operational and cultural changes to enable effective agile ways of working across multi-disciplinary and cross-functional teams.

The goal was to help assure the delivery of a coherent, smooth end-to-end project in this Alpha phase of work, and establish the Service Design principles that the owners of the Dart Charge service could then use to successfully meet user needs and solve the service pain points we identified.

Two members of the Cyber-Duck team working on the strategy for National Highways, standing in front of a board covered with Post-It notes.

Collaborating with other suppliers

The suppliers contracted to deliver the project needed support and guidance in meeting UK government service standards. Therefore, a key aspect was to help educate all stakeholders on the necessary approach.

We outlined the working practises for a user-centred design process (UCD), offering guidance on governance, management approach, resourcing, operations, and day-to-day activities. We also identified skills gaps and made recommendations on filling those gaps with accessibility and service design experts.

This was a complex project, drawing upon our experience in UX, user research, service design, content design, and stakeholder management. It involved assessing the quality of delivery, as well as steering and providing models and toolkits to establish a consistent framework for delivering high quality user research and service design.

We have always remained conscious that there is no “right” way of working on such a complex project, with so many contracted parties and levels of governance. It was necessary to identify interdependencies between various issues, prioritising different areas at the right times.

Various views that drivers see on the road when approaching the Dartford Crossing, with signs to remind them that the crossing is coming up.

Reaching the service standard

The Dart Charge service had been operating since 2014 without meeting the service standard. One of our main goals was to help National Highways to meet these standards for Alpha assessment by informing and guiding them. All our guidance was based on the rules laid out in the Service Manual - the government’s instructions for creating and running public services, covering accessibility, design, technology and more.

On the face of it, the boxes were being ticked: major infrastructure tasks like building a new website, or putting cameras on the side of the road, were being completed, but they needed to be done to GOV.UK service standards, which brings a whole extra level to the challenge. Meeting Alpha assessment involved readjusting the approach to the work, bringing in a user-centred point of view, underpinned by meaningful user research, as well as overseeing the delivery, building the story and narrative of how to present the work successfully at the assessment.

To fulfil service standards, the entire multi-disciplinary team needed to adopt an agile methodology. We helped all key stakeholders to understand what agile meant, then put together a working plan that was truly agile, set against the 14 aspects of the service standard. 

Drilling down further into these 14 standards, we advised on a structured methodology with 100+ practical steps needed to meet them. The suppliers then provided our team with evidence of how they are taking these steps, and we tracked their progress against the required criteria.

Various views that drivers see on the road when approaching the Dartford Crossing, with signs to remind them that the crossing is coming up.

Empathetic, user-centred service design

To help National Highways reach their goal of improving its holistic customer experience and reducing penalty charge notices, a new, empathetic, user-centred approach to service design was needed.   

We knew that to achieve this, it was crucial to understand and empathise with the users. We needed to look at the service through the eyes of the user, identifying potential pain points and challenges, and to find and prioritise opportunities for improvement. 

Our UX team got involved in several aspects of user research, investigating user needs across different personas including casual drivers, commercial frequent crossers, and local residents. The research also involved interviewing traffic officers and maintenance crews about their experiences of the crossing. We recreated the journey taken by drivers over the route, putting ourselves in their shoes to understand the mental load of driving over the crossing and all that it entailed, on top of remembering to pay the charge. Many drivers are neurodiverse or have other accessibility needs, and this was always factored within research and the iterative design. Accessibility and lack of access to digital were big considerations here.

We asked questions such as:

  • What do drivers see and understand as they use the crossing?
  • Do they know how to pay?
  • How can we make them more successful in paying?
  • How does neurodiversity affect their experience?
  • What if they don’t have access to the internet? 

Based on our in-depth research and understanding of user needs, combined with our knowledge and experience of UX best practice, our teams collaboratively created comprehensive ‘as is’ service blueprints, covering the entirety of the existing service end-to-end. This identified clear opportunities to improve, which were then mapped into future state ‘to be’ service blueprints. These highlighted what the optimal service design would be, and detailed the steps needed to achieve this across every part of the operation, encompassing operational, technology, and digital means.

Meeting service standards can often be thought of as a tick box exercise, but we wanted to steer this towards being a brilliant service, not just one that passes bare minimum standards. Our hands-on, empathetic, highly user-centred approach was a key contributor to National Highways’ success in moving through the Alpha service assessment successfully, the first time in 7 years it had done so.

Results and ongoing work

National Highways are now using this project as an internal case study for learning how to deal with future programs involving other crossings. The National Highways team are also using this project as a learning tool on what it means to go through a GOV.UK service assessment process and meet the required standards from CDDO.

To sum up our role in this project, we have helped to integrate and culturally embed user-centred and agile ways of working for National Highways and the wider teams. Our goal is always to champion the users and make sure their voices are heard. Meeting service standards and moving through the Alpha assessment come as a welcome side effect of this user-centred approach.

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