Beyond service design – craft, collectivism and being human

Last week I was at Service Design in Government – an annual gathering of publicly minded design & digital folk from across the UK and around the world. I’ve not been for a couple of years (I’ve been busy becoming a parent and renovating a house!) so it was a great opportunity to catch up and to think about what might come next.  

It was a busy three days, and there was much that was thought provoking and inspiring – even in just the sessions I could go to – so I can’t possibly do all of it justice here. I’d definitely urge you to check out the programme and any materials that are available (including via #sdingov on Twitter). I’ll also link to a few things at the end of this post.  

Meanwhile, here are a few overarching themes that stood out for me, based on what I saw and heard. Each of these deserves more space than I can give it here, so I may return to some of them in future posts. I’d also love to hear if these resonate with you – whether you were at the conference or not! 

Designing the future

The scope and scale of ambition on display was really striking. The shift in focus over the last few years –  from improving digital experiences, to services (beyond digital), to an awareness of systems – extended out last week to wider society and even the planet as a whole. There was a sense of longer timescales too, and a growing acknowledgement of the consequences – intended or otherwise – of the interventions we make, and the insight that drives them.

Both Cassie Robinson and Cennydd Bowles each urged us way out of any comfort zone in their Keynotes: things cannot continue as they are, change is inevitable, what role are you going to play? How can we imagine a better future? And design it?  

Even beyond the Keynotes very few of the sessions I went to were simply about services – they were all looking beyond that – at how to influence people and organisations to behave differently, how to collaborate beyond organisations, how to have impact on a wider system. However this definitely wasn’t about abstract ideas – far from it, there was a real focus on practical pragmatic approaches. The desired outcomes might be ambitious, but the methods being used to deliver them were reassuringly familiar: insight led, user-centred, experimental, iterative, open. (Cassie & Cennydd both rightly challenged us to think beyond being user-centred, but for most teams, as a starting point, I think being user-centred is definitely preferable to being policy-centred, or finance-centred or org-centred!)  

It was encouraging to meet so many people who were working across the boundaries that may have limited impact in the past. (I’ve so often come across teams labelled as “digital” or “user experience” or even “service design”, who recognise that the approaches they’re familiar with could solve much wider problems in their organisation or service area, only to be slapped down for straying beyond their brief.)  However, I do realise this was a fairly self-selecting crowd, and I know this isn’t yet the reality for a lot of people working in the public sector.

It’s complex

Complexity came up a lot. Both in terms of the need to understand and influence complex problems and systems… but also in recognising that even getting started and “fixing the plumbing” can be difficult and complicated. There was a refreshing amount of honesty on display about this (kicked off by Carrie Bishop sharing her unsexy experience of trying to crochet together something coherent and sustainable amidst the craziness of the City & County of San Francisco!)

There was a broad consensus that helping organisations (and society) to do things differently and achieve better outcomes can be slow, hard, messy and often frustrating. It’s also nuanced and very context specific. There was very little patience for neat models or polished artifacts. There was a lot about starting small, joining the dots, finding collaborators. About listening, inclusion and empowerment. About testing, learning & sharing. 

Getting crafty

This may have stood out to me because I share my life with a potter and therefore spend a lot of my time with craftspeople and at crafts events! However, there was no denying that the term “craft” was in the air. I think this again reflects the recognition that methods and models will only get you so far when you’re dealing with complexity, and with human needs. I’ve always said that service design (and before it product management) are as much an art as a science.  I now think craft is a better term, because it’s where skill and technique meet experience and intuition. It’s about producing things that are both functional and beautiful. It’s about attention to detail, and quality… and it’s also something that only humans can do. 

Alongside developing our craft, we were also urged to use our imaginations (very movingly, by Cassie) and to tell stories. There was definitely an appeal to creativity in its widest sense – way beyond conventional design skills. 

It’s all about change 

If there was one word that I heard more than any other over the three days, then that word was change.  It felt as if this was really what the whole event was about – how to bring about change, within services, within systems, within society. How to inspire change, and how to help people to think and work in new ways. 

This resonated through all the sessions – from the macro (Cennydd’s powerful message about climate change) through to the micro (Emily Bazalgette on how to create the space for colleagues to trying something new or Service Works supporting public servants as they learn through doing).  

And there was a general recognition that this couldn’t be top down –  that the best way to start to change a system (or a society) is through small experiments, collaboration, imagination & storytelling. Both Cassie and Cennydd spoke about the role of the collective as a way of connecting and amplifying individual effort. The challenges may be huge, and the systems may be complex, but at the end of the day, it’s people – separately and together – who bring about change. I think this is why teams who feel they are stuck in the plumbing can also take hope – the small changes in how you work, and how you behave, in the language you use and the people you involve, these can make a difference. 

On a personal note, I came away feeling  energised and inspired – and also with a sense that I hadn’t just been to a conference, but had in some way found and joined a movement. This may sound emotional, but these are emotional times, and if there was one thing I learned last week, it’s that we’re going to need all of our creativity – and each other – if we want to change things for the better.  

Links & further reading

I’m going to keep adding to this as things become available!

Conference programme 

Conference hashtag


Cassie’s talk is here.

Adam Groves and Nerys Anthony from The Children’s Society shared how they’ve moved from service design to systems change. Here’s a previous post from Adam that covers some of the same ground 

Kirsty Joan Sinclair’s tweet review of Sohila Sawhney‘s session on their 7 year service design experiment at Bernados.


A lot of sessions used or referred to Liberating Structures for encouraging discussion and collaboration 

Several people used versions of the Future Cone 

And there were sessions on / references to Speculative Design 

States of Change on “innovation craft” (not from SDinGov, but on the theme of craft!)


Several people referenced Aaron Dignan’s Brave New Work 

There was a lot of love for Lou Downe’s Good Services 

Cassie mentioned Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope 

Speculative Design came up a few times… as did probability cones.  This book deals with both 


The power of ‘so that?’

‘So’ and ‘that’ are two little words that pack a mighty punch. If you’re trying to bring about change or want to spend your time delivering more useful things then they can be your secret weapon.

Roses in guns - my kind of secret weapon!
Deploying your (peaceful) revolutionary secret weapon. Image by Shepard Fairey.

Over the years I’ve found myself using them in conversations with senior leaders, product managers, tech evangelists, school governors and even friends and family.  Usually this happens just after one of these has told me, with great conviction, about a thing that must be done, or written, or bought – to which I respond simply (and sometimes skeptically) ‘so that?’

I realise this might seem pretty annoying at first, but it’s amazing how it can lead to really useful conversations about what it is they actually want to achieve – the end and not the means.

It all started with a story

If you’re already familiar with using user stories to express needs to be met, then you’re probably already a fan of ‘so that’. I first learnt to express what I wanted to achieve in this format as a product manager working with agile (Scrum) delivery teams – but I’ve since realised it’s powerful in pretty much any context.

If you’re not yet familiar with the user story format, it goes like this:

As a [person]
I need [to achieve this goal]
So that [this outcome/benefit is realised]

So for example

As a home owner
I need to provide accurate readings of my electricity use
So that I only pay for what I’ve used

(This need used to be met by letting someone in to read the metre, then you could do it over the phone, then online, and now via a smart metre. The solution has changed over time, but the underlying need and ‘so that’ hasn’t).

Or even

As a finance director
I need to understand the benefits of your proposal
So that I can approve your budget

Creating more productive places to work

I spend a lot of my time now helping organisations figure out how to make the best of digital opportunities, and that often includes having to change how they approach things like approvals and reporting. It’s amazing how often I’m told “we have to fill in this template and send it to these people” or “we have to produce this report for this board”. These are exactly the sorts of statements that I meet with a simple ‘so that?’

What’s important is understanding the need that lies behind the task, so that you can work out if there’s a better way to meet it (or indeed if it needs meeting at all).

So, for example, if the need behind writing a report is that the senior management team need to see what progress you’ve made, so that they can continue to support your work… why not encourage them to come along to a regular ‘show & tell’ where they can hear direct from the team, rather then you and them having to invest time in a static report that’s out of date by the time it reaches them? Or if they can’t make it in person, why not film the session and share it with them, so they can catch up on your progress at a time that suits them?

Organisations are stuffed full of processes and habits that people follow because that’s just the way it is. These are the things that slow us down, sap our energy, and get in the way of change. They give the illusion of progress, because people are busy and forms are being filled in and meetings are happening… but are the right outcomes actually being achieved?

It’s all about people!

At the end of the day organisations, and their internal workings, are created and shaped by people. If we use user stories to understand the needs and motivations of our external users and customers, so that we can build things that they want to use, why don’t we also apply this same approach to our colleagues? Afterall – they are all people too, with needs and motivations… even finance directors!

The great thing about ‘so that?’ is that it doesn’t seem threatening or revolutionary. It’s just a very simple question that anyone can ask.

So next time you’re faced with someone suggesting or demanding something that doesn’t sound quite right to you, and you think they’ve jumped to a solution without explaining what it is they really want to achieve, I’d recommend deploying the ‘so that?’. You might be surprised by what it can achieve.




It’s good to talk. It’s even better to draw.

The title of this post could actually apply to any situation where grabbing a Sharpie or a board marker provides more insight than just talking.  Which in my experience is pretty much all situations!

However, this is specifically about a game I’ve developed that helps people to share the things that get in the way of doing great work, and to come up with some practical suggestions for how to overcome them. The instructions for the game are included below.

A “Cadavre Exquis” by Tanguy, Miro, Morise &  Man Ray in the MoMA collection

Along the way I’ve accidentally channelled Freud, tapped the Surrealists, and shown rooms full of conference delegates pictures of naked creatures with tennis racquets for feet. (It turns out this is actually quite tame compared to the things produced by the delegates themselves – examples at the bottom of the post!)

I first experimented on the obliging folk at UX Bristol 2016, and then played it again with the rather more international crowd at Service Design in Government 2017.  Both groups really went for it, and people asked me to share the format so they can try it on their unsuspecting colleagues. This is for them, and for you too if you’d like to have a go.


Childish beginnings

The idea originally came from the game of paper consequences I played when I was a child – the one where you take it in turns to draw parts of a body and end up with something cute and innocent like this cat produced by US school children.

Then I discovered it was also something the Surrealists did when they were exploring their subconscious, under the influence of Freud. They called them Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpses)… which is clearly a totally appropriate thing to adapt and try at a conference, right?

I went for it, and this is the version we played.

Setting up

The game is best played by small groups of people sitting at shared tables, 4-6 people per table is good. You can have as many tables as you like, but it’s ideal to have 4 or 8 tables so that everyone has a go at each part of the body.

Each table needs a sheet of flip chart paper, some post-its  and enough pens for one per person, preferably in a range of colours. You may also want some blue-tak to create a  gallery at the end.

What’s stopping you?

You need to agree 4 common blockers to work on. The first time we played we only had 60 mins so I crowd-sourced a few themes on Twitter in advance, stuck them up on the wall, and asked the participants to vote for their top 4.   The second time we had 90 mins, so we sourced the themes from the room.

IMG_0244Each participant takes a few minutes to think about what stops them doing the work they want to be doing (e.g. great service design). They write one blocker per post-it, and add these to a wall where clusters of similar post-its should start to emerge. Once you have some clear themes give them snappy titles and ask everyone to vote for their top 3. You can do this with stickers, or just ask people to mark them with their pen. You can then pick the 4 themes with the most votes.

(If you’re interested, the 4 themes at UKBristol were: 1. People thinking UX just means design 2. The “business” adding things that don’t help the user 3. The opinions/preconceptions of colleagues 4. Not enough time.  At SDinGov they were: 1. The effort of bringing people along with you 2. Organisational silos 3. Confusion around what “service design” means 4. Not enough time.)

Get ready to play!

Before you start each table needs to fold their sheet of paper in half from top to bottom, and in half again, so that they have four equally spaced horizontal strips across the sheet.

These are then the instructions…

  1. Write the first blocker top left of the top strip
  2. Does this sound familiar? What does it feel like? Discuss around the table for 5 mins
  3. Someone who fancies having a go at drawing captures the conversation – using a head. This needs to fill the right hand part of the strip, and you need to leave a bit of neck sticking out over the fold
  4. What might help in this situation? Discuss around the table for 5 mins (this is the really valuable part, so you can taken longer on it if there’s time)
  5. Capture the main suggestions as bullet points, next to the picture
  6. FOLD! Pass it on to the next table…

Repeat the above 3 more times – drawing a body & arms for blocker number 2, legs for blocker 3 and feet for blocker 4. Someone needs to be strict on timings and keep things moving along.

At the end of the last round you can unfold and admire your work!

Where do you go from here?

As produced at SDinGov17

It’s good to stick your creatures up on a wall and have a chat about what you see.

Are there some similarities? (e.g. when we looked at “The effort of  bringing people along” at SDinGov two of the groups had drawn two headed creatures, so we could talk  about why that was).

What suggestions stand out? What are you actually going to take away and do differently?

Regardless of what gets taken back to the day job everyone involved is likely to have benefitted from an opportunity to get things off their chest, to realise they are not alone, and that there are things they can do to unblock their work.

These are in fact rather similar to the benefits of running an agile Retrospective… but with more two-headed creatures and tennis-racquet shoes.

Some of the offerings from UXBristol


On your marks…

If I’m ever in need of inspiration when doing lengths at my local pool (and believe me, I am!) then I can take heart from the fact that it’s run by an award winning Social Enterprise.

Greenwich Leisure Ltd (or GLL for short) has actually being going since 1993, and runs 90 leisure centres in London in partnership with local authorities.  And what makes them a “social enterprise”? Well, in their words:

We are a values-based organisation and we recognise our responsibility towards our customers, employees and the environment, within the communities we serve. Any financial surpluses we generate are reinvested to provide long-term benefits for our customers, employees and the communities where we operate.

And also

We aim to encourage community involvement and to promote healthy living. We work to increase levels of physical activity by delivering sport and health programmes that reach all sectors of the community.

For me there’s a double dose of good here, as they are ploughing all profits back into improving their services (including investing in their staff) and they’re also providing affordable and accessible fitness facilities for the community. (I go there largely because you can pay-as-you-go and aren’t hit with the large monthly fees of most other London gyms.)

However, another reason for sharing my (sporadic) fitness regime with you is becauseSocial Enterprise Mark logo GLL have also been awarded a Social Enterprise Mark, which has led me to find out more about the scheme.  My take on this is that it’s aiming to do something along similar lines to the now instantly recognisable Fair Trade Mark. Their hope is that people will start to look for the mark when choosing and using products and services, and they already have a growing list of enterprises who have qualified.  And who does qualify? These are their criteria:

  • Does it have social and/or environmental aims?
  • Does it have its own constitution and governing body?
  • Are at least 50% of company profits spent on socially beneficial purposes?
  • Does it earn at least 50% of its income from trading?
  • Can it demonstrate that social/environmental aims are being achieved?
  • If the company ceased trading would remaining assets be distributed for social/environmental purposes?

I would be surprised if there are many punters out there who would recognise the mark yet, or (to be honest) be particularly motivated by the values it represents (particularly when laid out in these rather dry terms), but that was also true in the early days of Fair Trade, and we now see Fair Trade products on the shelves of every major supermarket.   If consumers have been motivated to buy Fair Trade (for the benefit of producers in the developing world) and organic (for the benefit of the environment and their own health) might they now be motivated to choose providers who are investing something back into the community closer to home?

Only time will tell, but it does feel as if this may be the moment, and this met (yet) be the Mark.