Most of government is mostly service design most of the time. Discuss.

Without exception, everyone I meet in the public sector wants to help make their service better. Most of them are in some way frustrated. The domain is massive and the activities disjointed. People engaged in any given service – from users and frontline workers down to managers and policymakers – can go for months on end without coming into contact with each other. On the rare occasions they do meet, they generally do so with mutual incomprehension.

This is not exclusively a government problem. I know from my time as a product manager in the private sector that a similar malaise affects all big organisations. But when it happens in government the impact of poor service is graver. This is service delivered with the authority of the state. As users we cannot take our government custom elsewhere. Neither can public service providers cherry pick their customers like the private sector does.

Whether we realise or not, most of government is mostly service design most of the time. If we fail to acknowledge this, we’re doomed to short change our citizens and fall short of our policy goals. But when we wake up to the potential, we find proven tools and techniques for designing service. Applying them can and should be everyone’s business.

We only have to look at definitions of “government” and “service design” to find a naturally good fit.

Exhibit A: The Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor summarises the business of government under the following headings:

  • the resources available to government (ministers, money, civil servants)
  • how government manages them (through arm’s-length bodies or contracting), what it does with them (passing legislation, answering requests for information) and how it measures what it does (major projects, permanent secretary objectives), and
  • what impact all of that has in the real world and how the public and international studies rate government effectiveness.

… which is nice because, Exhibit B, the Service Design Network defines its members’ practice thus:

“Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.”

We may call it many things, but service design happens all the time at every level of the government stack. The problem is that when done unconsciously it’s just not very good. All of the following contain random acts of design by default…

  • Users work their way around complex government processes, even if it means hiring costly experts like lawyers or accountants to do it for them.
  • Frontline staff hack the process just so they can serve their customers better. Visit any contact centre to see tattered papers, sticky notes by screens, Dymo-labelled folders and trays put in place to expedite information from one part of the process to another.
  • Good managers manage with ingenuity to sort out shift patterns, holiday rotas and flexible working so that their people can do their best work – in spite of policies and processes that treat workers more as resources than as human beings.
  • Entire, organisations-within-organisations accrete with baroque titles such as “change management” to drive through discontinuous re-structures that fracture working relationships and frustrate any long-term organisational learning.
  • “Policy” is a Platonic conception perceived to exist on a higher plane where users are always rational, processes run smoothly and every day is a sunny one. By the time we descend to the grubby depths of “implementation” it’s already too late.
  • Our democracy itself still runs on rails laid in Victorian times, as if the population were barely literate onlookers and the parties the houses of a minor public school on a bad-tempered match day.

Everywhere there are gaps. With their 1985 Gaps Model of Service Quality, Parasuraman et al. posited 5 types of them.

gaps model

All 5 gaps are endemic in public service. Design shouldn’t just be used to paper over them: it can eliminate them altogether. As Tom Loosemore said in his Code for America talk last year describing the Government Digital Service’s approach:

“We don’t talk about policy and implementation or policy and then delivery. We don’t think of them as two separate things. Even thinking how you fix the gap is a category error. What we are doing here collectively, with policy people in the room, is digital service design.”

(Disclosure: It’s my privilege to work as a contractor for GDS, though like everything on this blog I write this in a personal capacity.)

Let’s look at those gaps again.

  1. Gap between what customers expect and what managers think they expect. We seek and expose user insights, not just at the start or end of the process, but throughout. There’s good evidence that everyone on the team should spend at least 2 hours every 6 weeks observing primary, qualitative research. How about we make that a prerequisite for Permanent Secretaries, council CEOs, and everyone else not in direct day-to-day contact with service users?
  2. Gap between management perception and service specification. Even when we understand what users need, we have to get better at translating that insight into a vision of the service. We can use powerful formats such as user stories to tie requirements back to users and their goals. The best specifications of all can be real working prototypes. Making prototypes is easier than ever.
  3. Gap between specification and delivery. Alpha and beta versions are what we use to close this gap. They help us understand the ins and outs of delivery even as we refine our designs.
  4. Gap between promise to customers and what’s actually delivered. Ever been sold a Tesla only to find it’s a Sinclair C5? In the words of this tweet, “how could we get Britain voting on prototypes rather than promises?”
  5. Gap between what customers expect of service and how they actually perceive it. This yawning chasm is the cumulative effect of gaps 1 to 4. It is also the main driver of disappointment and distrust in public services. One bad experience loops back round and poisons our expectations of future interactions with government – a downward spiral that we need to disrupt.

How can we make government better? By accepting that first and foremost everyone’s a designer, and that we all need to develop a design thinking sensibility.

Besides relentless people-centricity – intellectually and empathetically understanding users, tasks and environments – service design practice has some distinctive characteristics:

  • Service design is visual. This doesn’t mean you have to be great at drawing – but it does demand working with more than words. When we draw pictures and diagrams we engage a different part of our brains and spot things we would miss through written specification alone. Making those assets visible can feel scary at first. That’s worth it though, because they change the conversation into something much more constructive than any amount of finessing verbal positions and semantics.
  • Service design is multidisciplinary. ISO 9241-210, the international standard for human-centred design acknowledges that no one discipline has a monopoly on design. Rather, “the design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.” This is a challenge to a silo-ed way of working, but small “two-pizza” teams in startups and internet giants like Amazon and Google prove it can be done.
  • Service design is holistic and integrative. Good designers of any stripe look at the big picture – what is the user need? what is the policy intent? – but they don’t stop there. They also dive down into the details and forge novel combinations of components. They hold multiple, potentially contradictory, strands in tension, zooming in and out between the reasons for doing something and the details of delivery that will make it succeed.
  • Service design is iterative. Whenever I read an account of Apple’s development process I am struck by the number of versions and iterations their products and services go through. They create and test many ideas before narrowing down on a handful to develop further. Just at the point when lesser companies would settle and launch they throw all the cards in the air and create yet more new combinations.
  • Finally, service design treats time as a material. There’s a place for thinking and working fast, and one for being slow and considered. A food bank user needs assistance before the next mealtime while a retiree of 60 needs to think what money they might need aged 100. Big service providers get stuck too easily in the middle of Stewart Brand’s pace layers. Service design helps them to be more supple.

Pace Layering

Don’t believe me? Try this stuff out for yourself. In June I’m taking part in the Global GovJam. It’s not a ‘designers’ event, just people designing together. For 48 hours we break down silos between local and national government, the NHS and social care, public, private and third sectors. We challenge people to communicate their ideas through doing, not talking. They make prototypes and take them out to potential users when they still feel incomplete. And the buzz as people realise how much they can achieve in so little time is amazing. Come and join us in Leeds or in dozens of other cities around the world.

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Which part of “the customer is always a co-producer” don’t these people understand?

For the third time in the past few months I’m assailed by a survey so shockingly poor that I wonder why the service provider in question has bothered at all.

First it was East Coast trains with a lengthy paper questionnaire about my journey, conducted entirely in mind-boggling forced-choice price/quality trade-offs.

Then came a letter from an Ofsted inspector slipped into my child’s book bag at primary school. “Your views about the school are important to us,” said the letter. The less-than-24-hours’ notice to go online and complete a survey suggested otherwise.

This time, as I log out of my online account, my bank butts in with an entreaty to help them develop new features. Like this one…

Imagine you could search and sort through transactions...

Let’s leave aside the dubious value of any question in user research starting “imagine if…” We’ll also charitably disregard the fact that all the bright ideas my bank is asking about have been standard features of their competitors since the days when the Internet sounded like a fax machine.

What really winds me up about this – and the examples before it – is the complete absence of a space to explain or qualify my choices in free text.

The East Coast one went on for 14 A4 pages without so much as a simple text box for me to have my say.

And when Ofsted states

By sharing your views, you’ll be helping your child’s school to improve. You will also be able to see what other parents have said about your child’s school.

… they don’t actually mean said the way you or I, or a child in Key Stage 1, would understand the word. What they mean is clicked. Only strengths of agreement/disagreement and yes/no answers are permitted.

I’m not suggesting that large-scale, structured surveys are bad in themselves. But I do believe that asking any question without listening properly to the rich, human voice of the respondent does a disservice to surveyor and surveyed alike.

At the organisational level, asking only closed questions runs risks in two directions – gaining false reassurance or prematurely discounting profitable opportunities. In the bank example above, I do indeed value searching and sorting through my transactions, but much prefer to do so in an Excel spreadsheet or separate online personal finance service rather than on my bank’s own website. How am I meant to convey this subtlety in the survey? And how are the bank’s service managers to know this is what I want?

Maybe you think I’m only seeing half of the picture. Perhaps these three organisations also have sophisticated qualitative programmes wide open to unstructured feedback. Statistically speaking, I’m much more likely to be tapped up for ten minutes doing a quick online survey than for participation in an in-depth interview or ethnographic study.

Actually this make things worse, not better.

Consider the disempowering message sent to the thousands of travellers, parents and bank account holders on the blunt end of closed choice questionnaires. In signing off those questions, managers have assumed the sole right to structure the terms of conversation with the customers who are surveyed. “We want to know what you think,” they say, “but only so long as it fits within the narrow confines of our pre-existing plans and prejudices.” It’s as if they’ve rolled out the welcome mat to invite you into the conversation, only to snatch it away from under your feet.

Service dominant logic demands a dialogue, a collaborative learning effort between customers and service providers. In their essay ‘Co-creating the voice of the customer’, Bernie Jaworski and Ajay K. Kohli list the following features of a co-creating dialogue:

  • Is the conversation end point clear or unclear?
  • Do the comments build on those that came before them?
  • Is there a willingness to explore assumptions that underlie the dialogue?
  • Is the conversation exploratory: no topic is “off-limits?”
  • Is there an eagerness for new ideas?
  • Do the firm and the customer each shape the structure and content of the conversation?

It’s hard to do any of these things in a smash-and-grab raid to snatch a few data points on a five-point scale.

In 2014, organisations have no excuse for behaving so oafishly.

  • If you really need to ask closed choice questions, add an optional space where people can explain or clarify their answers. It shows you might be genuinely listening, not just engaged in a box-ticking exercise.
  • Worried you’ll be overwhelmed with more answers than you can read? What a great problem to have. Throw all the answers into a tool like Wordle so you can at least see common terms that crop up time and again.
  • Instead of a big survey upfront, try to gather user input a little and often. Ask for micro-feedback at relevant points in the user journey. That way you can adapt your questioning to context and find precisely the users who are grappling with the issues you want to know more about.
  • Spread the conversation out through your service design process. Think of every survey as a chance to recruit and screen users for deeper collaboration at the next stage. You may be surprised how many are prepared to give contact details for follow-up discussion on interesting findings.
  • Above all, keep an open mind – which is much easier to do when you ask an open question.

Update, February 2015: Inch by inch, the things I complained about a year ago are getting better:

  • My bank now does give survey respondents the chance to explain their answers to its closed choice questions. I intend to use this soon to give them my views on their recent “upgrade”, which seems to extend only to deploying a new and less legible webfont.
  • Ofsted reports (on page 29 of a PDF, sorry): “We are updating ParentView in response to feedback. Following a trial in the autumn term 2014, we will introduce a free text box, from September 2015, that will give parents the space to raise any specific issues.” Welcome news – though if a school that took that long to change, it would surely be in special measures by now.
  • My train company is approaching the end of the line, having been replaced by a private-sector bidder. Here’s hoping Virgin and Stagecoach are better at listening when they take over the trainsets next month.

In praise of the good enough

… what the designers and engineers see as “pain points” aren’t necessarily that painful for people. The term satisficing, coined by Herbert Simon in 1956 (combining satisfy and suffice), refers to people’s tolerance — if not overall embracing — of “good enough” solutions…

Frankly, I discover satisficing in every research project: the unfiled MP3s sitting on the desktop, ill-fitting food container lids, and tangled, too-short cables connecting products are all “good enough” examples of satisficing. In other words, people find the pain of the problem to be less annoying than the effort to solve it.

I’m about a third of the way into Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users but this bit rings especially true.

So much of the buzz around “smart cities” seems to focus on subtle optimisations and efficiencies – catching a bus a couple of minutes sooner, or turning the thermostat down a degree or two. Big data focused on small problems.

But wouldn’t the world be boring if everything was uniformly perfect? Maybe the capacity to work around life’s little frustrations is in itself a form of empowerment.

What if – for a while – we left alone all the stuff that’s good enough, and focused on delivering services that support people in making big decisions and enduring differences?

If the dust doesn’t settle: Gin, Jetplanes and Transitive Surplus

More than 150 years ago John Ruskin imagined the experience of flight. Now, thanks to Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, we can begin to imagine the possibilities without it.

Robert Paterson provocatively suggests in Volcano & Air Travel – A Black Swan? What might happen:

At the moment we are all treating this event as a temporary inconvenience. But what if this is not temporary? The last time this volcano erupted in 1821 the eruptions lasted for months… So imagine European airspace being closed until September – possible? What then?

Robert has a list of sensible ideas about the impact on airlines, on shipping and other industries. Disruption for some of them could be serious and long-lasting.

But beyond the purely economic effects what could a sustained bar on air travel mean for our working and cultural lives? It might not all be doom and gloom. To see why, let’s revisit a concept proposed by Clay Shirky, most notably in his 2008 essay “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus“.

Continue reading If the dust doesn’t settle: Gin, Jetplanes and Transitive Surplus

Ten years on, can we stop worrying now?

Ten years ago this month the Sunday Times published an article by Douglas Adams called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet”. You can read it here.

Some starting observations:

  1. It’s a tragedy that Adams died, aged 49, in 2001, depriving us of more great literature in the vein of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, of genuinely innovative new media projects such as H2G2, and of the witty, insightful commentary we find in the Sunday Times column.
  2. Adams’ insights have stood the test of time.  Everything he wrote at the end of the Nineties stands true as we near the start of the Tens.
  3. We still haven’t stopped worrying.

Adams from 1999:

… there’s the peculiar way in which certain BBC presenters and journalists (yes, Humphrys Snr., I’m looking at you) pronounce internet addresses. It goes ‘wwwDOT … bbc DOT… co DOT… uk SLASH… today SLASH…’ etc., and carries the implication that they have no idea what any of this new-fangled stuff is about, but that you lot out there will probably know what it means.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on…

2009: John Humphrys is still huffing and puffing [Update 3/9/09 – further proof provided!], and…

you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

The moral panic continues, now transferred to social networking and camera phones.

And Douglas Adams hit the nail of the head in his taking to task of the term “interactive”:

the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport – the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

The same fallacy persists, now transferred from the term “interactive” to “social“.

Ten years ago, Douglas Adams identifed a few problems.

  • “Only a minute proportion of the world’s population is so far connected” – this one’s well on the way to being fixed, as much by the spread of internet-capable mobile devices as by desktop or laptop PCs.
  • It was still “technology,” defined as “‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs.” – has the internet in 2009 reached the same level of  everyday acceptance as chairs? Almost, I think, though the legs still fall off with disappointing regularity.

The biggest problem, wrote Adams, is that “we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don’t really get it”. Invoking Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct (read this too, if you haven’t already), he argued that it would take the next generation of children born into the world of the web to become really fluent. And for me that’s been the most amazing part. Reflecting the other day on Tom Armitage’s augmented reality post to the Schulze and Webb blog, I realised that I see that development in my own children’s engagement with technology.

  • At birth a child may assume that anything is possible: a handheld projector holds no special amazement for my three-year-old.
  • Through childhood we are trained, with toys among other things, to limit our expectations about how objects should behave. My six-year-old, who has been trained by the Wii, waves other remote controls about in a vain attempt to use gestures.
  • My nine-year-old, more worldliwise, mocks him for it.

We arrive in the world Internet-enabled and AR-ready, it’s just that present-day technology beats it out of us. I work for the day when this is no longer the case.

Last words to Douglas Adams, as true today as in 1999:

Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.

Update 3/9/09: Debate about Twitter on the Today programme, and Kevin Anderson takes up the theme.

Help, our industrial heritage is falling down!

Temple Works is a one-off. Its construction as a flax mill in 1840 must have made a powerful statement about Leeds’ status as global pioneer of industry. At the time it was said to be the “largest single room in the world,” with innovative air conditioning under the floor and sheep grazing on a grass-covered roof above.

In the 1950s Yorkshire’s textile manufacture began to shrink, but the mill found a new use as the northern warehouse for mail order company Kays, a kind of Amazon.com of Britain’s post-war consumer culture.

Just imagine what this building has seen over half a dozen generations: the rhythms of working life for thousands of people, materials brought in and out, linking with the world’s most exotic and mundane places. I reckon Temple Works should qualify for preservation on the strength of this rich social history alone.

But in reality this sprawling single storey stone shed in an unprepossessing edge-of-city-centre location must owe its Grade I listed status to the fact that it’s the spitting image of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, Egypt. Those 19th Century industrialists knew how to make an impact! I work in a nearby building, another former mill converted to offices, and am both inspired and humbled by the scale of our predecessors’ ambitions.

Sadly the 21st Century has not been kind to Temple Works. Vacant since 2004, the building is subject to plans to convert it to a “cultural and retail facility“, but in the mean time its condition is becoming more perilous.

This week, thankfully in the early hours when the street outside was deserted, one of the works’ massive stone pillars crumbled, bringing down a section of the roof. Marshall Street, the road on which it stands, has been closed in case of further collapse. This picture shows the damage…

Temple Works damage

It is particularly cruel that Temple Works was allowed to decline at a time when Leeds was going through another building boom, with new offices, hotels and flats being thrown up at a startling pace. Yet the wake-up call of the column collapse comes just when that boom is crashing to a halt.

It’s too early to say what caused the collapse or what happens next to Temple Works. (The Yorkshire Evening Post story is here.)  But I really hope it can be the stimulus to a happier chapter in the life of a remarkable piece of our industrial heritage.

Sort it out, Leeds, or else – the Falcon God is watching.

So this is ubiquitous computing

The payphone has bluescreened…

Payphone, London King's Cross

… the departure board has 404ed…

Departure board at Edgware Road Tube Station

… the giant TV screen is somebody’s Windows desktop…

Big screen, Millennium Square, Leeds

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!