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Designing Good Services with Lou Downe

When I recently attended the Designing Good Services masterclass, hosted by Lou Downe, author of Good Services, I learned loads about what we’re doing right with accessibility – and where we can improve.

I went into this workshop hoping to learn more about service design, in particular about how we can make accessibility a robust part of the University Design System.

Book: Good Services, by Lou Downe

What’s a Design System?

A Design System brings together most of the key ingredients that creators need to make a website, design a campaign, and find guidance for University standards. It contains components, a pattern library, brand, design principles, and writing guidelines.

The reason I decided to look at accessibility is because it’s one of our most important design principles. How could we approach making a Design System that conveyed the practicalities of accessible design?

We should strive to disable as few people as possible

By accessibility, I mean not only standards and guidance that help people to understand their obligations of legal compliance, but also the notion that we should care about one another and create content that is human-centred and actively strives to disable as few people as possible.

What is service design?

Service design is a bit of a trendy term for what is essentially an ancient practice, which is finding out what your users need and making it so that they can get what they need quickly, and with dignity. It has wide applications, from small problems to huge structural issues on a global scale. Because my focus was accessibility, I was keen to engage with a day of what promised to be a thorough examination of our service as it is, so that I could think about what it could potentially be when included within the Design System.

Journey mapping and the big red circle

The idea of spending a day gloomily poking holes in our offerings was not a prospect that offered much joy. However, the tools that were shared with us to help us map our user’s journey and count their steps towards their goal allowed us to see exactly where in the journey our problem areas were. There was something very satisfying about being able to draw a big red circle around a culprit and cry, ‘There it is, the rapscallion! Seize it!’

Techniques we used included:

  • Good Services scale – for assessing and scoring your service overall
  • Service map – what a user has to do and what doesn’t work well at stages of their journey
  • Service name – what your users think you do, versus what you think your service offers
  • Number of steps – what do your users need and how many steps to they need to take to get there?
  • How inclusive is our service – is your service safe, perceivable, understandable, operable, robust and equal?

Services affect people’s lives

As we completed each mapping task, we were brought together to discuss the issues that were being uncovered. This was the most valuable element, because I got to see an incredibly diverse array of experiences across sectors I knew little about. Our services, I saw, touched people in a tangible way that affected their lives. A service that went wrong for someone relying on social care was something that could seriously alter a person’s wellbeing, health, and safety.

Is my service inclusive?

The part of the day that made me most thoughtful was when we looked at how inclusive our service was. Lou described the disconnect that can occur when companies change their policy to be more inclusive without truly understanding who they are including, or communicating this to their employees. Lou described their experience of discovering that Tesco’s delivery service had added to its drop-down menu to include the gender-neutral title, Mx. But when Lou selected it, it led to confusion and their delivery was mislaid. Nobody in Tesco had educated their employees about what Mx meant, and who it was meant to include. If you are going to make your service more inclusive, you have to educate everyone in your organisation so that you don’t inadvertently end up at best inconveniencing and at worst, oppressing, the very user you are trying to enable.

What compromises are we happy to make?

This brought my thoughts back to the problem I was trying to examine with our Design System’s communication of accessibility guidance. What does the University’s community of makers, doers and communicators understand about how to make our materials inclusive? What are our processes? What compromises are we perfectly happy to make, so long as it only disables a small number of people, people many of us barely think about?

Is my University an inclusive place?

Furthermore: are we an inclusive organisation? I mean, beyond our undoubtedly good things, like having an excellent accessibility team, a legal framework and a community that thinks about accessibility, what about our organisation’s hierarchy? Who has the power to make decisions and are those decision-makers diverse? If, when we look around us, we see the same cis-gendered white men in charge, what does that say about our larger structural problems, and – this is the biggie – how do we get to a place of meaningful change, where the barriers to accessibility for our users are truly understood?

My conclusions

Lou, in their masterclass, demonstrated that understanding what your user needs is more than just a tick-box exercise late in the development of a piece. It’s absolutely vital to helping people reach their goal quickly without disabling them further. This is a drum I will continue to bang.

Design Systems are built and evolved with the help of the community, and the major element of our work won’t just be pulling it together, but doing the work of communication and education together. For accessibility in the University, this can only be good news.

Structural problems are best helped by ‘fixing the plumbing,’ as my very wise colleague Duncan Stephen has pointed out. The work of making things better for users is humble, though rarely simple work, and by doing it, we make the world a better place.

Blog: Service Design and the Mario Complex, by Duncan Stephen

At the end of this workshop I was left with a detailed worksheet covered in problems, but with a renewed purpose for what a University Design System can do, if we acknowledge that the real work is about communication and empowering the community to share best practice.

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