Service design is for everyone

There’s a lot about service design that’s good and powerful and exciting for the public sector, but as interest starts to grow there’s perhaps also a risk of some unintended consequences – particularly for smaller or less well funded organisations.

What’s in a name?

To begin with there’s a lot packed into the term service design, so it’s potentially open to misinterpretation or even abuse.

My personal take is that there are three main things going on. I’m not suggesting that this is the definitive way to view it (far from it!) I’m just breaking it down in the hope that it helps to make more of the good stuff happen. I’ve also hugely simplified things in the interest of brevity.

1. Culture

Firstly – there’s a mindset that can be applied to improving services and which involves understanding things from a user’s perspective, end to end (from trigger to goal), in a pleasingly holistic way (internal, public facing, partners etc).  Let’s call this first thing ‘service design mentality’. It’s about culture and attitude.  Even starting to achieve this in a deeply siloed, process or policy driven organisation can be hard work.  

(As an aside… ideally this mindset shouldn’t even be limited to services, but should instead start by looking at an area of need or a desired outcome and asking how those needs or that outcome can best be met. So success might actually involve designing the service out of existence altogether.)

2. Tools

Secondly – there are tools, activities and techniques that can help people with a service design mentality to make improvements to services and outcomes. Many of these are highly visual and collaborative, and draw on various kinds of research. Some of them have been around for a while (like empathy maps and user journey maps) but they’re starting to be brought together in more joined up and powerful way.  There are a lot of tools and toolkits out there – some of them are more helpful than others. None of them will be very helpful if you haven’t already got a service design mentality.

3. People

Thirdly – there is a relatively new (to government) professional design discipline called Service Design (I’m going to capitalise it from now on). The Royal College of Art now offers a MA in it. There are an increasing number of people out there who describe themselves as Service Designers and places like GDS and FutureGov have been hiring them.  In very simple terms a Service Designer could be described as a professional designer who is employed to have a service design mentality and use service design tools to improve services/outcomes.

However, I strongly believe that you don’t have to be a Service Designer or hire Service Designers in order for you and your users to benefit from service design.

As Matt Edgar very eloquently noted last year – most of government is mostly service design most of the time.  And, as he also says, it ‘can and should be everyone’s business’.

Don’t make it too exclusive

In an ideal world everyone who works in public service should have a service design mentality, and should be able to access, understand and confidently use service design tools.

I don’t think this should be a specialism, I think it should be a defining characteristic of the public sector.

That’s not to say that the Service Designers don’t have an important role to play, particularly in these early days. We need them to lead the charge, show us how it’s done, and develop even better tools.  But we also need to guard against the perception that service design belongs to them alone, particularly as there are large swathes of the public sector that probably won’t be able to find or afford them.

Here are a couple of other things that I think we need to watch out for:

Don’t make it too Kool

There’s a fine line between creating a buzz and creating a cult.

We need to guard against a cult of Service Design just as we still need to guard against the cult (or tyranny) of Agile. (I’m a big fan of both, but not of the dogma that can sometimes come with them.)

As summed up nicely by Lindsey Keighley on behalf of GDS the important thing is to ‘be agile, not do Agile’. Similarly, let’s get on with delivering successful services and outcomes using the best means possible, rather than on ‘doing Service Design’.

It’s useful to create a buzz about something new and powerful, and to have a hashtag and a conference or two, but let’s do it in a way that’s accessible to everyone who might want to give it a go. More common sense than dark art.

Don’t forget about delivery!

In her post on what GDS mean by service design Louise Downe is very clear that

‘For us, service design isn’t about mental models or double diamonds. It’s about working with users and delivering services.’

A sentiment very much brought to life by Harry Trimble, one of the Service Designers in her team.  

This is definitely reassuring, and I don’t doubt that where GDS are involved the services that are designed will also be deliverable and delivered.

However, amongst the less determined I think there’s always a risk that design activities might become dislocated from delivery.  The world is already full enough of dysfunctional teams where designers (or policy makers!)  hand over beautiful but unrealistic designs to baffled developers or front line staff. One of the major benefits of the agile ways of working championed by GDS and others is that a multidisciplinary team work together on delivering working solutions, one iteration at a time. I know it’s not intended that Service Design should become an up front idealised design activity – but in the wrong hands it could.

This toolkit poster, for example, seems to imply that service design stops after feasibility, but if that’s the case you’re walking away before anything has actually changed for the end user. Service design isn’t just a phase of work – it actually needs to deliver outcomes! 

What next?

So how do we make sure that everyone who works on or uses public services can benefit from good service design?

Some teams will be privileged enough to work with professional Service Designers – but not all.  How do we enthuse and support the rest? (Including, of course, people in local government.)

Teams that have already had experience and success sharing honest and quantifiable stories is a good start – which is where the blogs, hashtags and conferences come in handy. But this does need to reach the people who commission and run services – not just the people who follow the latest design or digital trends.

Sharing tools and techniques will also be useful – although in context rather than in a vacuum. The right tools applied with the wrong mentality can be definitely lead to unintended consequences, and can also start to really muddy the waters (I’ve seen that a lot with the use of agile).

And how to you foster a potential ‘community of practice‘ for service design if that community could potentially involve… everyone?! Particularly if the people who need the info and support don’t see themselves as service designers.

This post is already long enough… and I don’t have tidy answers.  But I do believe that service design in its broadest sense has the potential to unlock so many benefits for the public sector that it needs to be owned and embraced by everyone.