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A state of service design (view from the top of the world)

31 May, 2012

This top of the world!

It’s been a busy month of many dialogues, conversations, presentations, seminal decisions, great client work, painful service design moments, great service design moments. That means this post has gone through some incarnations:

  1. From love letter
  2. To surprised yet slightly reserved observation
  3. To rant (strewn with swears galore…galore I tells ya!)
  4. To laid-back reflection.

The ‘Love Letter’ Part

We Heart Service Design in the Public Sector

On May 4 the second Australian-based Service Design Conference was held in beautiful Melbourne. First off, let me just say that I have always dreamed of speaking at a service design conference. The chance to encapsulate my thinking, my experience, my style in a visual and verbal form was something I thought I’d maybe get to do one day, but didn’t actually expect until the opportunity unexpectedly presented itself in April via Steve Baty. (It shows the value of putting your voice out there, having a network, and being authentic – at least that’s my take on how me and my colleague Justin Barrie were invited to participate.)

The topic we chose was service design in the public sector. A topic I’m drawn to (see this for why I say that). The chance to speak was great. The chance to solidify thinking was even better and set me up for the coming month (and this post).

You can see the presentation and hear the audio on our DMA blog.

I’m very proud of our presentation – I like what we said, I like how we said it, I like how it looks, I liked the response, and I really do love service design in the public sector!

The ‘interested-yet-slightly-detached-observation’ bit, including edited elements of the ‘rant’ but mostly a ‘laid-back reflection’

Straight after the conference I went for a trip back home to NZ and, given most of my friends are designers, I caught up with a good number of them. It was inevitable that the topic of design, service design, and design in the public sector came up over an extraordinary amount of delicious food and beverage. I also caught up with some old managers I’ve worked with who are in charge of service design groups in a couple of public sector organisations – one with a well-established capability, one whose capability is being established (at a grand pace thanks to leveraging off the former well-established capability ; )

Because I don’t want to call out specific agencies or designers (this is my opinion piece after all and there’s a mess of commercial-in-confidence sensitivities) what follows are my observations on the state of service design practice and leadership as reflections:

  • The challenge for any in-house design capability will always be to make the case for service design – why the organisation should spend time, resource and money on research and understanding, why the organisation should involve customers and users early, why the organisation should think differently about concepts and options, why a designer’s voice is as valid as a BA or an Architect or a Project Manager (but also why the designer voice should not dominate, except to bring together all the voices in the conversation).
  • Focus on outcomes not outputs. The tangible deliverables like maps and blueprints and diagrams may help make the case for the value of service design but don’t spend a week on a draft map of the customer experience if it’s going to take your time away from actually ‘designing’ the solution – which means time spent working with the other change disciplines and people in the organisation (assuming it’s a given you’ve engaged constantly with actual customer/users). Craft the beautiful elegant artifact towards the end, but don’t think it’s good design because it looks good on the page and executives say they love it even though the design isn’t actually finished.
  • Measure, measure, measure – If you can’t tie a line of sight between what you design and recommend, what is built and delivered/implemented and what difference the designed service makes to customer and business then it’s hard to make the ongoing case for the value of service design.
  • Warning: rant portion begins: You wanna know something? Service design is hard. Fucking hard. You’re not only trying to change the way an organisation does things, you’re trying to humanise their strategy, you’re dealing with all level of customer, user and stakeholder, you’re educating your client – on how their business works, on how their business should work, and you’re doing that by doing the design work with them. If you get it right you create new thinking that results in those you work with changing the way they think. To reiterate – it’s fucking hard – but a great hard when you get it right, and you get your expectations right (see this to see my view on that).
  • If you want a service design to stick: capability building is an integral part of design practice, organisational change is an integral part of design practice. If you aren’t as focused on these parts of the service design activity than I think I’d call what you’re doing UX (see this for my views on that). That is why service design is exquisitely fucking hard at times. Rant portion ends.
  • Being seen to be ‘innovative’ and undertaking ‘transformation’ isn’t as important as you think. They may seem so at the time, but real innovation/transformation isn’t measured purely as savings or internal change; if you say you’re customer-centric the measure is by the experience of the customer (that said, the two aren’t mutually exclusive). Hearing about ‘transformation’ programmes that started in 2000 and are still ‘describing what they’re about’ is not transformation. ‘Innovating’ business process improvements to save on widget production with no real impact on the stress a citizen experiences isn’t innovating (see this or this to see what I think of innovation and transformation).
  • There seem to be three emerging takes on service design practice. This has certainly been observed in NZ, somewhat observed in Australia, and conversationally validated in a recent conversation with both New York and Melbourne-based academics:
    • UX-led (see this post on my views on this)
    • Marketing agency/advertising agency-led (see this on my view on that)
    • Institutionalised by large organisations. Think d.school-led (and probably see this for my view on that).
  • Governments desire centralisation of design (at the moment). At risk of never being invited to work with certain departments (and both NZ and Australia are looking at this model) I just don’t think I believe in a cross-departmental centralised-design capability centre-of-excellence type model. I’m just going to put that out there. I think the battle over having the ‘right’ approach will homogenise what is fundamentally a creative business discipline. Like when a great British show is re-made by an American network. It just loses somethin’.  I reserve the right to change my mind on this one.

So what’s the State of Service Design from all that and who am I to comment? As just a gal, who loves the complex complicated world of service design, who has practiced and practices in both NZ and Australia – with a focus on the public sector, who cares not to generalise about ‘designers’ and what they do or don’t do, should or shouldn’t do, but observe what works and what doesn’t from a do-something-to-get-something-done perspective, I think service design’s state seems about right – growing, making a difference, creating new meaning and perspectives for complex organisations but also subject to some ego, some claim-staking and some ‘I have the right way’ posturing. So not really any different to any other discipline that’s concerned with making change happen in today’s crazy complex world.

While I didn’t want to name people directly above I do want to credit these great designers, thinkers, and conversationalists for my great May immersion: Justin Barrie, Meena Kadri, Matt Ellingson and Emma Saunders (from Empathy), Ramari Slattery (and the gang at HousingNZ), Yoko Akama, Anne-Laure Fayard, most of the speakers and people I spoke with at Service Design Melbourne.

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