A couple of conversations recently made me realise I should write this down.
Jane tweeted: “Public Sector Digital peeps, what is now the best definition of a ‘Service’ for people not used to working in our world? The end-to-end journey which enables a user to ‘do a thing’ – am sure many have put it far more eloquently than that?”
In a private Slack conversation Trilly asked the reasonable question: “So, if ‘service design is the design of services’ – what’s the definition of a service?”
To both I had two answers, a short one and a long one.
The slightly longer, and definitely more jargoney version: “Service is the application of competences (knowledge and skills) for the benefit of a party.”
The second version comes from Steve Vargo and Robert Lusch’s marketing concept of Service Dominant Logic. I prefer this one for certain important nuances…
People need service, not services
Discussions about services plural are really about boundaries. What constitutes a “whole” service? How do I know when the service is finished? These are important questions for people designing and delivering service, but less so, I think, for users. To users, service is an uncountable noun. I work for the National Health Service, which has served the nation, from cradle to grave, for 70 years and counting. In reality, the NHS is lots of separate organisations, systems and plans. Our job as service designers is to make them work coherently so that patients never need to care about our structures.
We’re all knowledge workers now
Vargo and Lusch’s use of “competences” gets to the heart of the first “something” in “something that helps someone do something”. It doesn’t prescribe a particular sequence of steps in a customer journey. It doesn’t presuppose a digital or non-digital solution. It could be a human or non-human competence. Knowledge and skills can be encapsulated in human minds, in paper processes, and, increasingly, as software. (See also “Alexa skill”). What if the building blocks of service were not steps at all, but skills? We’re all knowledge workers now, and every service organisation is a learning organisation.
Value only in use
For service value to be created, knowledge and skills must be applied. In the world of goods, if a company makes a widget and stores it in a warehouse, the unsold widget appears at once as an asset on the company’s balance sheet. In the world of service, if we make an appointment and the patient doesn’t turn up, or we write a web page but nobody accesses it, there is no value creation. The beneficiary is always a participant in co-creating value.
The benefit of a party
In public sector discourse, service is often transactional by default, delivered by a paid provider to a passive recipient. It’s true, many services are configured like that, but other more creative configurations of the parties are also possible. Picture, for example, a diabetes education course where a group of newly diagnosed patients support each other. In that case, who is the “provider” and who is the “recipient”? So I like the vagueness of “the benefit of a party” or “beneficiary” as a more inclusive term than “recipient” or “user”.
“Service is the application of competences for the benefit of a party.”
That’s what I mean when I talk about service.
Update, 14 April 2019
Caroline challenged me to say that again using simpler words. My best attempt:
“Service is doing what you can to make stuff better for someone.”
“In Elizabethan amphitheatres, like the 1599 Globe Theatre, performances took place in ‘shared light’. Under such conditions, actors and audiences would be able to see each other… This attention to a key original playing condition of Shakespeare’s theatre enables the actors to play ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘at’ audiences. Actors therefore develop their ability to give and take focus using voice, gesture and movement.” — Emma Rice to Step Down From London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, Playbill, Oct 25, 2016
Early, too early, one morning I blunder into a railway station Starbucks for a coffee and croissant to take onto the train. I’m the only customer. I place my order and shuffle along to the end of the counter where the barista will hand down my drink.
What happens next in the customer experience is critically important. We know that Starbucks knows this too, because of a leaked 2007 memo from chairman Howard Schultz, in which he bemoaned the commoditisation of his brand:
“For example, when we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista.”
As I said, it was early, much too early for an intimate experience with a barista. And in any case, the barista was still learning the ropes. I guess first thing on a shift, when there’s one customer and no queue, is a great time for some coaching from the supervisor. This is what I heard him say:
“You have 23 seconds for the milk… Oh, and relax. You can’t concentrate when you’re stressed.”
23 seconds! That’s what removed the romance from my coffee.
“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanise them.” — John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic
Some things in this carefully commodified service experience were never meant to be seen by the customer. When they do burst into view, it feels wrong, uncanny.
In this post I want to explore the reasons for that uncanniness, and how we might play with it to develop new service opportunities. Is it really so obvious what should and should not be visible to the user? What’s the impact on users when a component slips out of sight? And how might we make service better by keeping more things, more visible for longer?
The line of visibility
The line of visibility is a well-known concept in the fields of customer experience management and service design. To use, like Howard Schultz, a theatrical metaphor, it divides the service blueprint into front-stage activities seen by the customer, and back-stage ones unseen by the customer but nonetheless essential to the delivery of the service.
In the coffee shop:
Front-stage: the theatre and romance of taking the order, writing the customer’s name on a cup, grinding the beans, making the coffee, presenting the coffee to the customer
Back-stage: the operational efficiency of managing rosters, training staff, timing operations, replenishing stock, and so on.
At first glance, the allocation of activities to front or back-stage appears uncontroversial. In reality, it is much murkier, and deserves more critical attention:
A restaurant might make a show of fresh food preparation with an open kitchen on full view to the diners, but still have a room behind the scenes for the freezers and dishwashers.
Recently, after returning a hire car, I was given a lift by a new member of staff. The conversation we had about the rental company’s graduate scheme made me warm to the company and more likely to return.
I’ve been thinking about visibility in the context of whole value chain maps. In his mapping technique, Simon Wardley arranges components from the most visible user needs at the top to the unseen at the bottom:
In this interpretation, visibility is said to recede as we traverse the network – the more “hops” away from the customer, the less it needs to concern them. But is that really true?
Invisible things can have very visible effects. Amazon’s recommendation engine is deeply buried in the company’s infrastructure, yet customers experience its insights and biases every time they use the site.
Visible things may get up to all sorts of unseen activities. What if that camera or video recorder in the corner is participating in a distributed denial of service attack right now?
Invisibility and commodification
Why is it that some things naturally seem to merit visibility while others have to hide themselves from view?
I think it has to do with commodification. To turn something into a commodity is to take it out of its context, to make it fungible so that it can be substituted, traded and transferred. In an example by the philosopher Andrew Feenberg:
a tree is cut down and stripped of its branches and bark to be cut into lumber. All its connections to other elements of nature except those relevant to its place in construction are eliminated.
This is what people are doing when they commit metaphorical sleights of hand such as “data is the new oil“. They take something that has deep meaning to an individual and, by aggregation, transform it into something that can be traded without further challenge or debate.
The logic of commodification prohibits the end user from interest in, or influence over, anything but the surface-level components. Before we know it, any breach of the line of visibility feels illegitimate. From Fairtrade foodstuffs to the employment rights of Uber drivers, demands to deepen visibility into the supply chain come to be seen as “political” incursions in the supposedly rational domains of technological production and economics.
Unregulated, the behemoths of the attention economy would place all their tracking of users below the line of visibility. “Users don’t need to know about that stuff,” they’d say. “It’s technical detail. Nothing to worry about. Move along now.” The Jobsterbedunners might even hold up web users’ continued browsing of sites in such compromised circumstances as some kind of “revealed preference” for covert tracking.
But people who care about privacy have a different opinion on where the line should be drawn. Their only option is a “political” intervention to drag the publicity-shy cookie blinking over the line of visibility. Now Europe’s internautes can take back control, every time they visit a website. Say what you like about the implementation, but we Brits will miss those privacy protections when they’re gone.
What if there was another way to realise value? One that didn’t depend on enclosing the value chain by making it opaque to end users?
To Feenberg, decontextualisation is “primary instrumentalisation” the first part of a two-step process:
The primary instrumentalisation initiates the process of world making by de-worlding its objects in order to reveal affordances. It tears them out of their original contexts and exposes them to analysis and manipulation while positioning the technical subject for distanced control…
But the story doesn’t end there. There’s a crucial, secondary step where visibility has to be re-established:
At the secondary level, technical objects are integrated with each other as the basis of a way of life. The primary level simplifies objects for incorporation into a device, while the secondary level integrates the simplified objects to a social environment.
Through this secondary instrumentalisation, this resource integration, users tell us what they want technology to be. Think, for example, of the camera-phone as a concept worn smooth by countless buying and use decision over the course of a decade. This part of the value creation process cannot happen in strategy and planning; it can only happen in use.
Premature commodification would close down such possibilities just when we ought to be keeping our options open. Co-creation, on the other hand, places the service user, the service designer, and the service provider on the same side – and all of us play in all those positions at one time or another.
We maximise value when the interests of all the actors are aligned, when asymmetries of knowledge between them are reduced. To borrow another controversial theatrical analogy, co-creation flourishes in “shared light” when actors and audiences can see each other equally.
Not only do we see the coffee being made, we see the staff being trained.
We are no longer passive recipients of the recommendation algorithm, we can understand why and how it behaves.
Some service design patterns
Here are just some of the patterns that play with the line of visibility. By making things visible, they make things better.
Seeing over the next hill: We meet much of the most valuable service when facing a change or challenge for the first time. But unless we know what to expect, it’s hard for us to make decisions in our best interests, or to trust others seeking to support us. Deliver service so that people can always see over the next hill, so they know what to expect, what good looks like, and who they can trust to help them along the journey.
Provenance: People can take reflective pride in where their things come from – and be repulsed by a supply chain’s dirty secrets. Design like they’re watching. Document the journey and make it part of the service. My Fairphone may have been a little pricier than an equivalent smartphone, but it comes with a story of fair materials, good working conditions, reuse and recycling.
Individualisation: Service is intrinsically full of variation. When we treat its delivery like factory mass production, we make it inflexible, unresponsive, and ultimately destructive of value. Anticipate variation, embrace it and celebrate it. This will likely means fewer targets and processes, more self-organising, empowered teams. Be like homecare organisation Buurtzorg, which prioritises “humanity over bureaucracy” and “maximises patients’ independence through training in self-care and creation of networks of neighbourhood resources.”
A last word from actor-network theorist Michel Callon in his afterword to Feenberg’s ‘Between Reason and Experience’:
“Keeping the future open by refraining from making irrevocable decisions that one could eventually regret, requires vigilance, reflection, and sagacity at all times. Politics, as the art of preserving the possibility of choices and debate on those choices, is therefore at the heart of technological dynamics.”
Some of the organisations I work with are just starting out on this digital transformation thing. More and more of them, however, have been at it for quite some time. After 2, 3, even 4 years, a delivery process of discovery, alpha and beta is well embedded, in parts of the organisation at least.
Now I’m seeing more of the next struggle. I think it feels hard because, while alpha and beta can be treated as phases of service development, being live affects the whole organisation. This post is a first go at answering an existential challenge for digital specialists: what does it mean to go live?
1. It’s… alive!
No metaphor is wholly adequate. But it’s fair to say that accounts of organisational life have shifted over the last decades from the mechanical analogies of Taylorism to natural and biological ones. There’s less talk of levers and gears, more of evolution and growth.
What these analogies capture, and the machine-age ones miss, is the sense of aliveness. “Going live”, like Frankenstein’s monster, means crossing a threshold from being a well-assembled collection of parts to a sensing, thinking, adapting being in its environment.
There’s a quiet focus that comes from seeing serious numbers of people accessing your service right now. Digital teams make user activity visible. They fight hard to stay together for their service after crossing into live.
As Kit Collingwood-Richardson puts it, going live is like having a baby, with a whole future of parenting stretching ahead. “Go live is the start”.
In big organisations, agile development teams and service operations teams can sometimes feel like they’re on different planets. But I reckon they have something important in common: a healthy focus on the here-and-now. As Mat Wall says, agile is basically: “What do you want by Friday? And how can we make it better than last week?” Both those questions would be familiar in any high-performing front line service team. In a live organisation this common focus for development and operations becomes a powerful unity of purpose.
Agile development and operations both occupy what the sociologist Anthony Giddens describes as the temporal existence of “durée” – performing routinely, but with the possibility of change in every repetition. To Giddens, this is only the first of three sorts of time:
durée of day-to-day experience
life span of the individual
longue durée of institutions
The middle layer – the life span of the individual – is “irreversible time”. Its arrow goes in only one direction, and I have the grey hairs to prove it. This is where we find dedicated change management, the top-left to bottom-right sweep of the Gantt chart.
In contrast, the day-to-dayand institutional time – a commitment stretching out indefinitely – are “reversible”. They always have the possibility to do over, to do differently, to do better.
To go live is to adopt a different attitude to time. We’re no longer burning down towards a deadline. We have embraced changefulness as a daily habit, supported by a long-term structure. We are committed to be here every day, as long as it takes, as long as there are people to be served. Any service that lacks this habit and structure isn’t live, it’s dead already.
3. Discovery is a culture, not a phase
Despite the recycling symbols, the service lifecycle drawn left-to-right can look a bit, well, waterfall-y. Discovery leads to alpha, as alpha leads to beta, and beta leads to live in resolutely irreversible time.
In particular, the distance between discovery and live seems to me wholly misleading. After all, live, running service affords all sorts of discovery possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
I know I’m not the only one who has tried redrawing this picture. I’ve tried drawing it as a stacked bar chart, as a circle, as a Möbius strip, and I’ve ended up with this…
In a sufficiently advanced organisation, discovery is a culture, not a phase. Intertwined live service and discovery continually fulfil and refine the purpose of the organisation.
Curious about something that’s showing up in the web analytics? Go and do some user research!
Hearing something new from customers in research? Go and see for yourself what is happening on the front line!
The odd ones out in this picture are alphas and beta – the phases where early-stage digital transformation organisations probably spend most of their time and attention.
Don’t think of (capital “D”) Discovery as something we do to prepare for the (definite article) Alpha Phase, think of an alpha version as one potential response to a new discovery. Alphas and betas are just tactical things we can make to bridge discoveries back into live service.
4. The strategy is (continuous) delivery
The discovery|live duality respects no boundaries between strategy, “change” and operations. Instead of clumsily executing planned but discontinuous change, the live organisation is always sensing and responding, making work visible, and reflecting frequently on how to do better.
Going live demands, in the words of David Marquet, that we move the authority to where the information is:
Policy advisors, strategists and designers can accomplish their work more effectively and at greater pace because they have very frequent contact with the realities of everyday service delivery
Everyone who delivers service has the power to make better decisions, multiple times per day; they must be trusted to take decisions that are aligned to the organisation’s purpose and priorities
Process changes are no longer pushed to workers on the front line; instead they frequently pull in change based on the demands they experience in contact with customers
Going live is often seen as only affecting the people inside an organisation. After all, users shouldn’t have to care what labels we use internally. Nevertheless, it should feel different to be a user of a live organisation.
Sure, your digital team may be highly user-centric already. You frequently engage users in defined, intentional activities – research visits, usability studies, private beta versions and so on. But to the majority of users, big organisations still appear unfeeling, inert and unresponsive.
When service is genuinely live, every interaction with users is an opportunity for new learning. Because the organisation is alive, it can sense people’s needs and adapt itself to meet them. Users become everyday co-creators of service. They learn to be more demanding, and to expect frequent change.
That’s when the fun really starts: when users realise that service can adapt to fit them. They begin to bring more than just their needs. They bring their unique capabilities to be combined with emergent competencies of the organisation. The “so that” line in the user story template comes into its own. We lift our sights from a deficit-based view of user needs to an asset-based vision of human potential. In live service, customer relationships are an endless source of ideas and innovation.
6. The new high score
Arbitrary double standards between capital and operational spending can easily bend organisational priorities out of shape. Agile abhors upfront spending divorced in time from actual customer value. Yet this is precisely what common accounting conventions reward. We need to change the high score.
Ironically the knowledge organisation’s most valuable assets are often its least visible. The conscious competence learning model presents “unconscious competence” as the apex of a pyramid of skill. Having begun in blissful ignorance, learners first become conscious of their own incompetence. They must go through a stage of consciously improving their competence until it comes so naturally that they can do it without noticing. But if we don’t notice the stuff we’re best at, there’s a risk we’ll undervalue it.
So the live organisation needs a new kind of balance sheet, one that deprecates unnecessary inventory and investments. Instead it recognises its most valuable asset: the growing skills, knowledge, networks and confidence of customers, workers and suppliers alike.
Live is when real digital transformation begins. It marks a radically different way of managing everyday work, and a new culture of continuous discovery. It will flatten decision-making structures, and transform passive users into active co-creators. The ways we measure and account for success will be different. But the potential payoffs are huge.
Over the past month I’ve been fortunate to work with some very capable senior leaders in organisations facing the amorphous challenge of “digital transformation”. At first I struggled to nail this jelly to the wall. I had to account for why, if the change is driven by computers and the internet, the solutions so often involve people and Post It notes. The story below has emerged through the telling as I’ve attempted to herd those human and non-human actors together…
1. The water in which we all swim
Walk down any street in the land and see how quickly you can spot the following:
A person walking while using a smartphone (give yourself 2 points)
Free public wifi (3 points)
A digital display screen (5 points)
A telco’s fibre broadband street cabinet (8 points)
A hashtag on a poster (10 points)
A decade ago these thing hardly existed. Now they are so unremarkable that we hardly notice their ubiquity.
With this ubiquity come new user needs and increased expectations: to be able to do everyday things digitally with ease – always on, in the context I choose, wherever I happen to be at the time. The “Martini proposition” has come to pass more completely than the cheesy futurists of the mid-Noughties ever imagined.
How quickly has our wonder at being able to get online without wires given way to indignation that there are still places where this is not possible! Once wifi hotspots were a “value added service”. Today “notspots” are a public policy issue.
But there’s more: a whole new way of relating to the world.
Less forward planning:“Text me when you get there” not “Meet at noon under the station clock”
More ambient awareness:“I liked your status update” not “Thank you for your letter”
The levelling effect of information abundance:“If you liked this video, subscribe to my Youtube channel” not “Coming next on BBC1”
To older generations the new blitheness may seem misplaced, gauche, disrespectful even. The history graduate in me prefers a longer view. These changes mark a natural reversion to human norms, a long overdue riposte to the machine-age tyrannies of clocking in and clerical work and one-size-fits-all mass media.
Old or new, this culture shapes our expectations of all organisations, whether they be businesses, charities, governments, political parties, whatever. As users, we expect digital service to respond with productive informality – spontaneous, personal, collaborating as our equal – just like our real Facebook friends do.
Where am I going with all this? Believe me, it has big implications for organisations’ IT strategies.
2. Sharks Must Swim Constantly or They Die!
With this rising tide of expectations and changing social norms, people demand that organisations of all kinds be always-on and spontaneous, personal and collaborative. In service design and delivery we need to put users at the centre – often diverse, complex, contradictory users. No two days will be the same because the mix of users and their specific needs is constantly changing.
I’m no accelerationist. The direction of social change matters more to me than the perceived advance of technology. But we’ll never be responsive enough if every change has to be made manually or mediated by the cumbersome apparatus of 20th century programme offices and project management.
It is said that if a great white shark stops swimming it’ll die from lack of oxygen. Big organisations that can’t respond at their customers’ pace deserve to meet an analogous fate.
So it’s just as well that the pesky computers and networks that caused this headache in the first place can also help us to cure it.
The cloud is just a commercial model, a more flexible way of buying access to computing power and storage: “Give me 5 minutes, I’ll spin up a new production environment” not “We’ve raised a purchase order for the new servers to be installed in the data centre next month”
Continuous integration is a fancy way of saying we run services with rapidly evolving software:“All the automated tests are passing this afternoon” not “we’ve booked 2 weeks of testing just ahead of the go-live milestone”
Open source software and open standards make it easier than ever to stand on the shoulders of giants:“I’ve fixed your code and raised a pull request” not “We’ll do an impact assessment if you file a change request”
Together these technology patterns form a powerful, automated and efficient platform for more responsive business. By standing on this platform, we’ll be better placed to meet our customers’ demands in the moment, and to shift with them when they change.
So what’s stopping us? Maybe it’s our tools.
3. The Jean-Wearing Post It Note Wranglers
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” — John Culkin on Marshall McLuhan
In other news, Microsoft Office turned 25 years old last August. Let that sink in for a bit. Big, serious organisations have spent the past quarter century re-creating themselves in the image of PowerPoint, Excel, Project and Outlook. Tragically these tools were forged for a culture that no longer exists – a business world that reached its apogee just a few minutes before the birth of the World Wide Web. No wonder so many workplaces now feel like Life on Mars.
Sitting in an office that's so hideoulsy dated, I'm expecting Gene Hunt to storm in at any moment.
Haters gonna hate, but those “jean-wearing Post It note wranglers” have it right. They feel the urgency to harness change for their customers’ advantage. They understand that change means lots of small pieces loosely joined, scribbled, sorted, peeled off and repositioned every minute of the working day.
There’s more to it of course:
laptops that boot in seconds not minutes
wall-to-wall wifi for lag-free online collaboration
big screens to make performance visible in real time
Often we find that sticky notes, whiteboard walls and Sharpie markers are the perfectly adapted tools for this way of working.
They are also an essential common currency within multidisciplinary teams. Business people may struggle to understand a technology architecture diagram; developers’ eyes may glaze over at a P&L statement. But they can all gather round and have a face-to-face conversation about a simple thought captured in felt tip pen on an index card.
The new culture is a work in progress, and it is far from perfect. The original Agile Manifesto authors were notoriously male and white. We need many more balanced teams in which diverse voices are welcome.
This matters because members of high-performing teams bring more of themselves to their work. Suits must mix with t-shirts, uniforms of all kinds considered harmful.
The broader its collective perspectives, the more empathy a team can build with all its users. What if users were in the room with us? Would they feel at home? Would they understand the words we use? Would they feel valued and respected?
Because workers are users too. And if the way we live our lives is changing, then so must the way we do our work. We can’t truly deliver one without the other.
This is the water in which we all swim.
The customer expectations
The automation and efficiency
The new (old) tools
The working culture of productive informality
If our organisations are to succeed, we can’t pick just one or two of them. Like Pokémon, we’ve gotta catch ‘em all.
Flickr Photo credits: Gareth Williams and Elen Nivrae. Thank you!
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
There’s never been a more exciting time to be designing services in the public sector. But it can still be a lonely existence – in any organisation, a small number of advocates may find themselves trying to shift a large mass with plenty of inertia. The Service Design in Government conference that I attended last week has an important role to play. It’s a place where people can share their triumphs and frustrations, and form a common view of what we should be aiming for in the design and redesign of public service.
Thanks again to all the speakers, the other participants, and the organisers at Software Acumen. I was delighted to be part of the programme committee. These are my notes and reflections…
Everyone’s a designer.
Jess McMullinandAlex MacLennan have been building service design practice in the government of British Columbia since 2010. Along the way they’ve developed an awe-inspiring array of interventions across the government’s many services, intensively training cross-disciplinary, cross-department teams and moving up the design maturity ladder – from no conscious design, through a focus on style, function and form, up to using design to solve already-identified problems and frame new ones. Recognising that their own team is small (“we are not the official designers for the BC government”) they focus on getting other people to think like designers. Now they have a UX library that all ministries can use.
Anna Whicher and Adrian O’Donoghue carried on the “public servant as designer” theme with the story of the trans-national SPIDER project, and its application in Ireland’s Northern and Western Regional Assembly. An ambitious peer learning platform between local governments across North-western Europe, it covered public service co-ordination, youth unemployment, ageing populations and culture change within authorities. The scale of the capacity building is impressive: 1478 people attending local workshops, working on issues where people will benefit. Stand-out quotes: “Co-production works. It scares the public sector” and “Hero designer is not suitable in this way of working.”
Several other talks picked up the same themes:
Housing manager Amanda Pujol worked with designer Kathryn Woolf under the Design Council’s leadership programme to prevent life-threatening trips and falls among older people in Teignbridge (and together they bubble wrapped a whole GP’s reception to dramatise the issue!)
Transport for London, with Ben Reason‘s Live|Work, seconded 20 station staff to facilitate workshops, bringing an honesty and credibility that could only come from frontline workers
Jean Mutton, an “inside-out service designer” at Derby University, brings students into her team on 12-month paid internships because “we get a much richer picture from students talking to students”
The Satori Lab‘s Jo Carter and Esko Reinikainen got housing association staff across Wales into conversation with the world cafe method
For sexual health community interest company SH:24, Glyn Parry and Unboxed Consulting‘s Martyn Evans had to create a core team including clinicians, public health professionals, agile project managers, designers and developers.
It’s 90% archaeology.
@LouiseDowne "Service design in government is 90% archaeology". Finding out what we're doing and why #SDinGov
Louise Downe, service design lead at the Government Digital Service, outlined how service failure is still one of the biggest costs in government. Time is taken up with unnecessary processing – roughly 40% of people declaring medical conditions to DVLA have a condition they didn’t need to report – user contact, casework, and manual handling of exceptions in policy. Change needs to happen “in hearts and minds of everyone who works in government. It’s not sitting in a room and ideating, it’s finding out why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
On the SPIDER project, this became a kind of “double ethnography on the end users and the system to understand how you can make an impact”.
Gavin detailed his own learning curve at MoJ – all that paper, printing and cabling! “It’s not done until you follow the transaction all way through the court process… It’s not done until the user has finished paying their fine… Understand the context in which you’re operating, understand how to get all the way to the end.”
Jean told us the story of the bicycle books, dutifully filled out and filed for decades even though their purpose in administering wartime rationing was long since redundant.
Jess and Alex “unearthing the decisions of the people that came before us”, connecting with the experience and legislation cultures, norms, values and power structures: “There is no more powerful tool than the road trip.”
Glyn and Martyn working with NHS trust information governance boards to devise a better way of keeping personal information by anonymising it instead of sending it around the system in the mail.
For TfL, it was about how to improve the customer journey (literally!) in creaking, crowded stations on a 152-year-old network that last saw a full day of good service on all lines in April 2010. (and in heritage buildings to boot – Earl’s Court Station, “beautiful escalator!”)
Change is hard.
TfL used the inspiration of the 2012 Olympics to prove that things were possible. But to put this into practice, they used a design approach to engage staff, build readiness for further change and reduce potential conflict (avert just half a day of Tube strike and the initiative would pay for itself.) Covent Garden station supervisor Pele Bapere told a powerful story about his own role in the “reachback” communications to colleagues at the station: “I’ve worked for the Underground 16 years and I’ve seen many things brought in… This was the first time they’ve gone out in a systematic way and engaged staff.” Sure enough, staff repayed that investment by highlighting priorities and changes that could be put into action quickly, such as modernising the approach to lost property.
And there were loads of other great change tips from presenters:
“Make sure you have ‘Do-ers’, not strategists” – Amanda Pujol
“Design language to some is really not helpful” – Andrea Siodmok, Cabinet Office Policy Lab
“The Gov Whisperer: not a change manager, more empathetic and focused on the needs of government” – Jess and Alex
“Intelligent challenge: Can you help us understand?” – Gavin
“Epic failure: Using empathy tools with psychopathic organisations” – Jo and Esko
The work of people-centred change frequently starts by helping those who do only a small part of the process to see the whole picture from the end-user’s point of view. Shockingly this often doesn’t happen until designers get involved. That’s what Jean Mutton did at Derby when she issued Flip cameras to new first year students – she helped the university to move from a component process review to the holistic student experience. Her team found departments tripping over each other to send letters, each of which “wanted to be the first” to welcome the student. And they developed a 40-point action plan that covered everything from signage to staff awareness.
Perhaps the most compelling story of joined up service – not just between organisations but across sectors – was the story Pele told from Covent Garden Station. With the opening of Britain’s largest Apple Store just across the road, there was an increase in the number of blind and partially sighted people coming through the station. So tube workers made an arrangement to call Apple, who now send a staff-member to meet people at ground level and escort them through the crowds.
Now shift from actual, physical underground railway platforms to the digital metaphor of the moment, “government as a platform”. Imagine, as Louise is starting to, how we could work when it is easier and quicker to make better, more user-focused public services: “When services are easier to make we’ll probably have more of them, not less.” But they’ll be “made of the internet”, “small pieces loosely joined”. Rather than having one monolithic piece of the benefit system, we can create a customised user journey that meets people’s individual needs. The potential is massive, but we’ll have to up our game. We’ll need a new clarity of thinking, not just “if we can’t fix it with a form, we create a portal.”
Needs are diverse, complex and quirky.
TfL’s Pele: “This is not Singapore, this is not New York, this in London, we’re quirky.”
Here’s a “best of discovering user needs” compilation I jotted down at the conference:
A GP decided to go through the front door of his surgery as if a customer – and re-worked his reception area based on what he learned – Amanda
Some prisoners have complex love lives – the prison visit booking system can end up being the forum where their rivalries play out – Gavin
If the admissions department puts its address on letters, that’s where students will show up on their first day – not the campus 20 miles away – Jean
There’s a new digital divide – between people online with basic skills and the “next gen” users for whom internet is interwoven with life – Liz Stevenson of Cambridgeshire County Council
Look for the verbs: “Bad services are nouns, good service are verbs.” – Louise
Everyone has tools, but prototyping is where it’s at.
I lost count of the number of toolkits, frameworks, canvases, cards, and variations on a process that showed up during the conference. (Top marks to Satori Labs for their “double diamond with knobs on”.) And there seemed to be general agreement that toolkits have their place.
But meeting up on the Thursday evening with a fifth column of Global Service Jam and Global GovJam hosts from around the world, I was reminded that for all the analysis we need to keep public service design real.
So it was great to hear references to prototyping – including one reportedly by Home Secretary Theresa May. Andrea: “If in a year people are talking about prototyping and they weren’t before, we’ve made an impact.”
In British Columbia, Alex runs a Public Services Dragon’s Den with a budget for creating prototypes and pilots
In Teignbridge, the bubble-wrapped reception was one of three alternatives tested for real in GP’s waiting rooms before settling on a single direction to raise older people’s awareness of trip and fall risks
Smeared and splattered iPhone screens made it bleeding obvious to the SH:24 team that video wasn’t the best way of showing people how to give a blood sample.
For context, Joel writes about “working for a big high street bank. The brief is to redesign the ‘end to end mortgage experience’. The timescale is to reach a business case, with a roadmap of delivery waves to achieve minimum viable product, within 6 weeks. ”
He floats the idea of a Target Customer Experience as counterpoint to that change management staple, the Target Operating Model.
I’ve had recent experience with a “TOM”, attempting to intercept with an agile, digital project. It left me puzzled, and I’m grateful to Joel’s post for helping me clarify my unease.
In case you haven’t come across one before, the TOM is a Thing in the world of “change management,” defined on Wikipedia as:
a description of the desired state of the operations of a business. Typically a TOM also includes the roadmap over time that specifies what the company needs to do to move from the “as is” to the “to be”.
As an aside on his nascent agile project, Joel writes about the toll it takes on participants:
someone needs to write a Marxist evaluation of agile. Yes the outcome is better and it’s all very sexy and new and ‘oh so right’, but I suspect the cost on the worker is high as essentially it speeds production and works the asset of production (you and me) harder.
… which immediately set me thinking that if people are using “agile” to mean doing the same process only faster, even at the risk of burning out their people, then they’re Doing It Wrong.
Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
And that’s when I realised the real challenge to peddlers of TOMs and the like: agile transformation isn’t a one-off thing that you do to get from A to B – it’s a continuous culture of iterative improvement.
Agile organisations succeed through sensing, not planning.
They are in touch with their actual customer experience (not just some brand fantasy). This is the dirty secret of much Target Operating Model work. A warts-and-all “as is” picture is far more valuable than any amount of “to be” prognostication – but even if that’s what executives secretly wish for, no consultant can afford to say out loud “I’ll tell you the time if you show me your watch”. Sadly the picture TOM processes do generate is often missing empathy, the key ingredient that spurs the organisation’s people on to make things better for their customers.
They truly understand their operating model (clue: it won’t look like a flow chart). Organisations are nothing more than systems made of, and by, people. They’re complex social constructs that operate on emotional as well as financial planes. This is what agile understands when it says “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. To map an organisation by decomposition is to follow in the footsteps of the early Cartesians, dissecting a dog to prove it has no soul.
They have the capacity to make very frequent adaptations in response to their ever-growing understanding of customer needs. Being able to respond quickly to what you learn beats any amount of predicting and planning. Embracing diversity means pushing decision-making to the frontline. This in turn reduces the waste inherent in standardised processes. Let’s cultivate this as a core competency of every organisation. If we never get stuck in a rut, we’ll never require a “change programme” to jolt us out again – and that should come as a relief to all concerned.
All of this poses problems to an organisation addicted to discontinuous change. We’ll have to break down the Berlin Wall between the bits of an organisation that create “strategy” and the bits that do “operations”. Likely, product development can no longer be capitalised, so the balance sheet might appear worse before it gets better.
But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the only sane way to run an organisation.
Learning by doing: it’s the Last Target Operating Model You’ll Ever Need™