Sometimes it can be hard to articulate an unease you’re feeling with something ethereal. I’ve worked alongside service designers for years and sometimes have felt what a few people have articulated recently on the internet:
- the idea of a dominant paradigm of understanding services and government (as developers did in 2012–16ish)
- discoveritis (so much research, so little building)
- Annoying habits (which I think is a version of nerds-in-converse-and-hoodies syndrome)
I think the problem with service design isn’t about the methodology though — I think people’s unease might be coming from a different problem that runs through both Service Design and service design.
Put simply: methodology is not, in itself, a theory. And I mean theory in quite a social science way: a framework for understanding peoples’ behaviours and actions. When I see service design in the line of work, it is probably best described as a spectrum of research methodologies or meta-methodologies (as in, it can eat up more focused methodologies and reconstitute them as being part of a whole: ethnography and wireframing can sit in the same box, and become “service design” by dint of the order of deployment and the use of the outputs).
However, if I said that I understand government through the lens of surveys, or that I believe that the only way to have a deep understanding of a service is through participant observation, then I would have a problem. Each is a valid tool, but the addition of the method and situation leaves something out.
What’s missing and why?
Service design, as Lou Downe famously put it, is the design of services. Reading more into it is unhelpful and not very useful. I’m not trying to make it do something it doesn’t need to. I’m suggesting that it naturally sits with a political theory framing that is either implicit or explicit.
When reading an ethnography, I am reading both the evidence that an anthropologist has found and their framing and interpretation of that. That could be Marxist, Foucauldian, structuralist, post structuralist, postmodern, post theory (etc etc). If we follow this analogy through, and we agree that a piece of service design work in the public sector could be “read” in the same way, then we have to ask ourselves: how does service design account for power in a systemic way? Do service designers talk about theory enough and is that model allowed for when working in government?
I’ve written before about the strange verbal lacuna we have when talking about power in government services, but it is perhaps something we need to think about in terms of a useful (and constructive) critique of service design methodology. It annoys me that it builds services that channel and flow state power without talking about the power of the state. But I also think that when other people talk about the issues with the methodology, it might be worth asking yourself if the critique would be helped by adding to how service design is used as a methodology and which loaded questions it is needed to answer.