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Three themes from Service Design in Government 2022

A three-day conference bringing together practitioners, supporters and advocates, Service Design in Government (SD in Gov) is an annual opportunity to learn about the design, delivery and management of services in the public sector. With sessions from individuals from a variety of backgrounds and organisations it offers the chance to learn about service design strategy as well as practice.

I was lucky enough to attend SD in Gov 2021 which was held online. At the time, I knew little of service design and the conference served as a great introduction and a source of inspiration for my UX work as part of the Web Publishing Platform and Design System project teams.

Read my blog about SD in Gov 2021

This year’s SD in Gov was held in-person, in Edinburgh. As the Web Publishing Platform and Design System approach transition from project to service, I was keen attend, firstly to learn more about the potential to apply service design at both policy and practice levels, and secondly to meet and share ideas with others practising and experimenting with service design techniques and approaches.

Over the three days I attended three discussions, two workshops, four case studies and four talks. Three themes stood out for me: design as a mechanism for change,  adapting design tools for contexts and the skills that support service design.

Theme 1: Design as a mechanism for change

As a design practitioner, I am familiar with the application of design principles and techniques to achieve user-centred changes in products and services. I trust in the process as I have first-hand experience of the results and benefits it can bring. I find it challenging, however, to achieve buy-in and support for the design process outside my realm, in groups of people who aren’t familiar with design and what it can achieve. Two sessions encouraged me to think of the power and potential of design as a facilitator for change, and prompted me to think about how I communicate about service design, its value and what it can achieve.

Public policy design: making design core business for government

In this session, Lucy Kimbell (University of the Arts London) and Andrew Knight (UK Civil Service) had a conversation about the place of design in the making and development of public policy – prompted by the recent sponsorship of design-championing networks by the UK government and universities.

Andrew and Lucy began by sharing their interpretations of design. On the one hand, design is about creating ‘the thing’.

Design is the practice of making things – Andrew Knight

Zooming out for a wider perspective, ‘the thing’ can be a plan.

Design involves creating the plan for something to be made – Lucy Kimbell

Lucy and Andrew shared benefits design can have in the public policy domain which included these five:

  1. Increase public value – instead of building a service based on a policy idea, taking it through the design process (including research and testing as well as the build) means there is a greater probability of producing something of value
  2. Help people make sense of the world – policymakers need tools to reduce uncertainty and manage turmoil – design can help bridge the gap between the operational and cultural disconnect
  3. Enable collaboration – adopting a universal design language could help facilitate shared working on problems
  4. Improve productivity – design can provide assurance and allows focus on delivery and outcomes
  5. Build trust – design has the potential to instil a sense of personal agency as citizens decide what to trust.

Acknowledging potential barriers to adoption of design for public policy, they cited three – and encouraged action to counter them:

  1. The value proposition of design is not clear – there is a need for a transdisciplinary understanding – as design maturity is not advanced.
  2. Infrastructure – often, there is a small window to make a change, and bureaucratic processes like procurement don’t respond well to an agile design process.
  3. Education – there’s a need for everyone to have a basic level of design training – to understand what it means to design.

Read more about the networks championing design in ‘Next generation public policy design’ (Public Policy Design blog by Andrew Knight and Lucy Kimbell)

Read more about levels of design maturity in a blog by Dennis Hambeukers (Service Design Notebook)

What is a service designer? Comparing ideas

This simple-yet-effective workshop, delivered by Caroline Jarrett was a late addition to the programme, and was an opportunity to take an outside-looking-in approach – to view service design through different lenses. Caroline challenged us to write three statements summing up the role of a service designer – the first intended as a general definition, the second intended for a hiring manager, and the third intended for someone new to service design. Reviewing the wall of post-its capturing ideas, two statements stood out which emphasised different ways the value of service design can be perceived. The first was one aimed at someone new to the field:

A service designer works out what a service does and how it works and tries to improve it for all involved – Definition of a service designer (aimed at someone new to the field)

This definition highlighted the universality of service design. A different definition picked out the tangible value it can have:

A service designer improves effectiveness and efficiency of services so they do as they promise with the resources available – Definition of a service designer (aimed at a hiring manager)

Theme 2: Adapting design tools for contexts

There is no shortage of tools in service design, and I love to learn about new tools and seek opportunities to try them out. Often, however, I find myself sticking to favourite tools and adapting them to the situations and circumstances in question. This can, at times, feel unsatisfactory – as if I’m doing it wrong and not keeping up with the latest techniques. Two sessions convinced me of the value of adapting tools to fit design needs.

Is impact mapping a service designer’s secret weapon?

I was intrigued by this session as maps are one of my go-to tools – they are helpful to show stages of a user flow, and I have also used them to give an overview of a whole process or service ecosystem. I hadn’t, however, heard of impact mapping before. Nicola Pritchard and Hannah Whiteley from cpxpartners introduced the concept of impact mapping and ran a workshop where we worked in groups to build an impact map in response to a given outcome (or impact statement).

I learned the components of a typical impact map, and how they complement each other to achieve the impact. The main components include the following:

  1. Activities – e.g. delivery of a continuing professional development programme for young people
  2. Engagement – e.g. young people enrol on the programme and begin learning
  3. Outcomes – incremental changes – e.g. young people have improved knowledge and skills, and feel more confident
  4. Impact – the holistic change to the circumstances – e.g increased opportunities for young people.

In the exercise, we worked backwards – beginning at the impact statement and working out the outcomes, engagement and activities to achieve the required impact, noting enablers, evidence, feedback loops and assumptions also at play. This process was messy, with conflicting understanding of what was meant by outcomes vs activities, however, I could see the value of using the mapping process to achieve alignment on a desired impact and to critically assess the stages and actions to get there, with the resulting map serving as an artefact to document and chart the plan.

Read more about impact mapping in the session slide deck from cpxpartners – shared on the SD in Gov 2022 schedule (5.8MB – PDF)

Mindsets versus personas

This case study, presented by Jo Snart and Marc O’Conner from HMRC resonated with me as earlier this year we developed a set of behaviour modes (evolved from earlier personas) to help us keep in tune with the needs of our web publishing community.

Read Duncan Stephen’s blog – From personas to behaviour modes

In the talk, Jo and Marc explained the value of visualising their target audience (sole traders needing to complete tax returns) using mindsets which they could use to understand how these people ‘think, feel and do’. Mindsets were found to be more ‘multipurpose’ than personas and enabled user researchers, designers and stakeholders to all better understand sole traders from their own perspectives. In other words, stakeholders could use the mindsets to get a broad understanding of each user group, user researchers could identify different user groups to define recruitment criteria while designers could use the mindsets to understand opportunities specific to different groups.

Read more about the mindsets vs personas work in the session slide deck from HMRC – shared on the SD in Gov 2022 schedule (6.9MB – PDF)

View the mindset explainer video from HMRC (YouTube)

Theme 3: The skills that support service design

Design processes can be messy and unpredictable, balancing conflicting needs and perspectives. Two sessions picked out techniques, skills and approaches to adopt and develop to help conduct service design successfully.

A service designer’s guide to Mindful conflict navigation

In this short session Sylvie Abookire, a Civic Design Researcher from the Lab @DC encouraged applying techniques used to align stakeholders within project teams to help alleviate areas of conflict which may stand in the way of the team’s success.  Drawing from the book ‘The Anatomy of Peace’ she presented connections between what we as individuals do and see and how our teammates perceive us and act in response, and suggested working through the following steps when facing conflict:

  • Connect and reflect – build awareness of yourself in the moment
  • Identify collusion – recognise negative patterns reinforcing conflict
  • Question assumptions – challenge narrative to break a difficult cycle
  • Seek to understand – use curiosity and humility to achieve trust and compassion.

How much collaboration is too much collaboration? – lessons from a re-structure

Caroline Kavanagh and Anne Bienia from Cancer Research UK shared reflections on the actions taken to achieve staff engagement during a restructure of the technical function of the organisation. The restructure – a move to a product-centric model – had been motivated by difficulties navigating the previous technical function and CRUK were keen to ensure staff had the opportunity to share their views and were supported throughout the process.

Some of the elements they referred to were:

  • ‘Hopes and fears’ sessions – with an open set-up for anyone to contribute
  • Synthesising outputs from these sessions into themes – which were explored in more detail in follow-up workshops
  • Workshops to design experiments to test out new proposed methods of working with the technical function
  • Nomination of ‘Guides’ – volunteers to aid transitions, to share responsibility and work with teams in a counterpart or facilitator capacity.

They noted high levels of staff engagement to begin with – especially in the ‘hopes and fears’ sessions, however, as they moved through the programme of more workshops, they saw a drop in overall engagement. The ‘Guides’ worked well to keep momentum going but it was difficult to encourage people to commit to owning some of issues raised and to work collaboratively to improve them.

To address these issues they had taken steps including:

  • Re-aligning expectations – cultural change would be out of scope for a transition period
  • Ensuring points of contact for themes arising from ‘hopes and fears’ so they could be acted upon
  • Being clear about the areas of responsibilities for teams to take ownership of

With two new products currently being built in Website and Communications – the Web Publishing Platform and Design System – it was interesting to hear about the transition to a product-centric model, to bear in mind the pitfalls and gains – in the event that this sort of transition is considered for the future.

The consolations of complexity – or How I learned to stop worrying and love the chaos

In an entertaining talk, Tom Morgan from MadeTech acknowledged the often unsettled nature of service design work and made the case for becoming comfortable with the uncertainty surrounding the problem solving aspect of the profession.

Problems are perennial, ever changing and need constant attention – Tom Morgan – Lead Designer, MadeTech

He shared a useful structure – the Cynefin Framework – which could be used to diagnose situations into one of four categories – clear, complicated, complex or chaotic – and then choose an appropriate course of action.

Read more about the Cynefin Framework on the website

Another key takeaway for me from Tom’s talk echoed what I had learned from other sessions – that the individual tools and constructs of service design (user needs, personas, prototypes, maps, metaphors) are not always right, but they can be useful – the trick is to keep paying attention to usefulness and value in the holistic sense of the work we do.

Read more about navigating complexity in Tom Morgan’s slide deck – shared on the SD in Gov 2022 schedule (View Tom Morgan’s slides (7.1MB -PDF)

Concluding thoughts

SD in Gov 2022 did not disappoint – offering a diverse range of sessions I was interested in for different reasons. The in-person conference gave the chance to have conversations and reflect on the sessions with other attendees to embed concepts and spark new ideas. I’ve come away inspired not only to keep evolving my design capability through experimentation and skills-building,  but also to keep communicating about the process and its value and benefits, to ultimately strive for a more holistic approach to human-centred design at the University.

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