Story 1: Focussing on customer experience

Delivering the 2021 Census


Public expectations of government services are changing rapidly. The public expects interactions to be simple, clear, fast and available 24 hours a day.

The approach to the 2016 Census was transformative and despite the 40 hour outage of the online form, delivered a sustainable digital-first model for future Censuses. Filling in the online form was an easy way for most respondents to participate in the Census and reduced the overall time needed to do so. However, in a number of ways, it did not fully meet all user expectations.

For the 2021 Census, the ABS took a user-centred design approach to building a digital service, not just a website. As part of this, we followed the Digital Transformation Agency Digital Service Standard. This user focus was central to the success of the Census and the delivery of an easy, simple and secure modern experience to the Australian public.

Understanding respondent needs

The ABS undertook research with Meld Studios to get an insight into the motivators and barriers to Census completion. This research included looking back on the 2016 experience and mapping the user journey to understand the ideal end-to-end experience for the public.

Image of the Census user journey based on research completed by MELD Studios
This image shows a folded brochure showing the Census user journey. It includes different phases of the Census journey like engaging and preparing, getting started, confirmation and understanding value, setting up. Small stick figure icons show the path and options the user can take based on their motivators and barriers.

Barriers to completion were also explored. Previously, these barriers often meant people needed to engage with our call centre or wait for our visiting field staff or, in the worst case for us, did not respond to the Census. The barriers we looked at included when people:

  • did not receive or lost their Census number or form
  • had a disability that made it more difficult to complete a form
  • had poor English literacy
  • had poor digital literacy or digital coverage
  • lacked understanding of the Census
  • perceived they were not included or not required to participate (for example, international students and travellers)
  • were not at home, on holidays or in hospital.

The journey mapping identified the principles for designing the 2021 experience so that it delivered a service that met user needs and expectations:

  • Focus on value – Identify, translate and celebrate the value the Census brings to individuals and Australia.
  • Set up for trust and deliver on that promise – Inspire and reinforce public confidence in the Census.
  • Design for motivations, capabilities and needs – Build an evolving human-centred understanding of our respondents.
  • Engage through all channels – Proactively connect with our public, when and where they need us.
  • Design a contemporary government experience – Reframe the way we work, focusing on the Census as a government service, rather than as a set of distinct product teams.

When designing a ‘usable service’, it is important to not assume anything and to conduct extensive testing. Some of our usability and accessibility testing to improve the public’s experience of the Census included:

  • cognitive testing – observing participants undertaking tasks within the digital service and then interviewing them after their experience
  • a usability test involving 500 professional testers and 500 volunteers from the ABS
  • accessibility testing by Intopia, experts in digital accessibility
  • two large-scale tests with the public in 40,000 households in 2019 and 100,000 households in 2020.


The 2021 experience

Several innovations were implemented to improve the user experience and support respondents to complete their Census as effortlessly as possible, and through their channel of choice.

The online form
  • Designed for a contemporary experience, the form had simple login features, navigation and help. All aspects of the service were responsive to device type and screen size, from large desktops to mobile phone screens, and smoothly moved between display types. The form had built-in smart features to minimise the time needed to complete it. This included sequencing to only show relevant questions and autofill responses to subsequent related questions based on previous responses. The form also enabled respondents to save their form and complete it later.
A dedicated website

This was launched earlier than previous Censuses, in April 2021. It provided:

  • ‘how to’ information and access to self-service forms
  • information about how to answer each question and why it was asked
  • advertising campaign material
  • information for Census supporters and a map showing where to get help in person
  • translated information, Auslan videos and audio explanations.

The website had 19 million unique visitors and 195 million page views.

Online self-service options

These improved beyond the basic ‘contact us’ forms provided in 2016, and were more tailored to respondents’ needs. They allowed people to easily tell us that their dwelling was unoccupied on Census day, or that they needed a paper form or Census number. The self-service options also included a chatbot called Claire with 1,800 questions and answers to help respondents find the information they needed and keep them in their preferred online channel. More than 250,000 respondents used the self-service forms and more than 376,000 conversations were completed through Claire.

A ‘no Census number’ pathway

This enabled respondents to complete their online Census if they had not received a login code or they had lost their Census letter. They could request a code after providing their address and mobile phone number. This self-service pathway received a very high uptake, with 1.75 million requests for a code, and reduced the need for respondents to interact with the Contact Centre or a field staff member. The ‘no Census number’ pathway proved invaluable and popular, accounting for 20% of all online responses.

An extended response window

This allowed people to complete their Census early, at a time convenient to them. The 2021 Census communication campaign encouraged this approach. The approach contributed to very high response rates early in the Collection period and a relatively lower peak on the Census Digital Service and Census Contact Centre on Census day.

The Census Contact Centre

Run by Services Australia call centre team on behalf of the ABS, this was open seven days a week, 8am – 8pm, and focused on resolving queries on the first call. A great deal of work was done on scripting so the information given to respondents was clear and anticipated any further questions they might have. On-hold messages were developed so that respondents could hear relevant information such as how they could self-serve online while waiting for their call to be answered. The Contact Centre answered 645,833 calls between 5 July and 1 October, significantly fewer than expected. The Contact Centre did not need to implement any congestion management strategies during the entire period. The 2021 Census night was the first Australian Census that did not see the Contact Centre overwhelmed by high volumes of callers.

An escalations team

This was established to respond more quickly to difficult queries or complaints. Fifty-three staff managed and responded to 40,000 escalations and 6,000 contact us forms. They also managed correspondence that came in via:

  • the ABS website
  • the ABS privacy team
  • the Census Data Capture Centre
  • other channels.

This team made 30,000 calls to respondents, including 650 assistance calls where they completed the respondents’ Census form with them over the phone. Part of the escalation team looked after the Parliamentary Hotline, which responded to more than 400 phone and email enquiries made by Members of Parliament to support their constituents.

A 24-hour phone automated Paper Form Request Service

This was established for respondents who had their Census number and wished to order a paper Census form. In 2021, for the first time, this service could also be used to order large print or braille forms. This service processed 400,000 requests for paper forms.

Social media to answer respondent enquiries

The 2021 Census social media team responded to 85,000 social media comments from the public.


Success measures

The increased focus on user-centred design was highly successful in removing barriers respondents faced in completing the form or informing us of their circumstances. The statistics below displays some of the evidence of respondents' improved experience:

  • There was an increase in online uptake – from 63% in 2016 to almost 80% in 2021.
  • 34% of respondents completed their form before Census day, compared to 14% in 2016.
  • 63% of respondents completed their form on or before Census day, compared to 45% in 2016.
  • Calls to the Contact Centre requesting Census numbers dropped from 500,000 calls in 2016 to 56,000 in 2021.
  • There were fewer general contact us online requests, from 402,000 in 2016 to 31,500.
  • 1.5 million online forms were completed through the no Census number pathway, 97% of which were done through the digital self-service.
  • The how to fill in a Census form videos were played more than 13,000 times and the videos were produced in 35 different languages.

There was also a reduction in total calls to the Contact Centre. In 2016, there were 3 million calls, only 1.3 million of which were answered. In 2021, there were 645,000 calls and we answered 88% of these within 300 seconds. This exceeded the service level agreement we had with Services Australia.

All online form respondents were asked for feedback after submitting their form. 69% of those that responded said their experience was “good”, 27% were “neutral” and only 4% thought it was “bad”.

Most feedback reflected positive sentiments similar to these:

  • "The interface was really good and easy to navigate. It was really easy to complete. Well done. It didn’t take as long as I thought."
  • "Form was very easy to navigate, even from a phone."

We also engaged Meld Studios to conduct a respondent experience evaluation after the Collection phase of the 2021 Census. Meld interviewed people who recently completed their 2021 Census online or by paper form to understand their overall experience. Participants described a positive experience that was straightforward and quicker than expected. They particularly appreciated the time-saving features of the digital service and being able to complete the form before Census day.

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Photo of Australian Access Awards 2021 event

2021 Census website wins 'Government Website of the Year' at the Australian Access Awards

The 2021 Census was the most accessible Australian Census ever. Our work in this area was recognised at the 2021 Australian Access Awards, where the ABS and the 2021 Census won ‘Government Website of the Year’ and was a finalist in the ‘Accessibility Initiative of the Year’ category. The Census Digital Service was heralded as ‘world class’ for its support of accessibility for people with disabilities through its thorough application of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA.

Stewart Hay, Intopia co-founder and managing director, said, "The 2021 Census is a good example of a government putting citizens first and making sure as many people as possible are included in an important service. Nothing is necessarily always perfect, but the ABS definitely prioritised accessibility".

The website was designed and tested to work across desktop and mobile platforms, with a variety of common assistive technologies such as screen readers, keyboard navigation, screen magnification and voice recognition.

A range of information and support was available, including for people in the deaf or hard of hearing and blind or low vision communities:

  • 33 downloadable audio files and 66 Auslan videos providing information on every Census question, including why we ask it and frequently asked questions
  • closed captioning and transcripts for all video content on the Census website
  • braille forms type 1 and 2, and large print forms available to order through multiple channels.
  • the Census Contact Centre was available through the National Relay Service for support and assistance 
  • a simple English (Easy Read) guide to the Census.

"The 2021 Census was an overall fantastic experience. It had 66 Australian Sign Language (Auslan) videos accompanying the online form, including one for each question. As a deaf person, English is my second language and having the online videos on the Census was a huge help enabling me to answer the questions appropriately." – Olivia Beasley, Community Engagement Manager, Expression Australia.

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