Ideas for overcoming challenges with doing service design work in a large charity

Innovation Team
Feb 5 · 7 min read

The role of service designers in charities varies. Roles depend on a number of factors including where the service designer sits in the organisation, their seniority and their leader’s expectations of them. However, even with these differences, many service designers in large charities are facing similar challenges. Challenges such as how to involve hard to reach communities, designing with complex systems, and working with limited resources are problem areas we can all relate to, and we should work together and with others to figure out how to solve.

Last week I was part of a cross charity meetup hosted by Service Lab that brought together different charities to run sessions on specific service design work and challenges we face.

Service lab in a nutshell. Photo taken by Service Lab team

We had eight charities hosting sessions including

Claire Bradnam from Mind

Matteo Remodini and Marida Maiorino from Shelter

Holly May Mahoney (stepping in for Rebecca Birch) from Girlguiding

Harry Trimble and Vicky Houghton-Price from British Red Cross

Julian Thompson and Ella Dorfman from Citizens Advice

Polly Cook from Parkinson’s

Lynn Roberts from Action for Children

Jade Richardson, Ellie Bryant and I (Culainn) from Macmillan Cancer Support (Macmillan)

With such a short amount of time to cover so much, my main takeaway was that we need more of this! Specifically, we need more opportunities to bring the messy problems out from within the walls of our individual charities to share with the world outside so we can teach, learn and collaborate.

Our team at Macmillan ran a sessions titled ‘What is the role of service designers in charities in 2020?’ Quite a loaded question.

To give a bit of context, the aim of Macmillan is to support everyone with cancer to live life as fully as they can. Our Innovation team has been given the mission to develop new forms of emotional support that will benefit thousands of people living with cancer. To do this we are running a nationwide design project. We’ve been working with colleagues, health and social care professionals, people who’ve had a cancer diagnosis and their loved ones, and other volunteers. We’re now designing prototypes on a number of concepts including a way to connect with peers who live with cancer, a digital marketplace to support people to benefit from emotional support services, and providing free forms of therapy. Although our mission is moving forward, we know we could be more efficient and effective.

In the session we outlined seven challenges our team faces with doing service design work, and we asked participants to share their questions, comments and ideas about these with us.

Service Lab participants reading through seven challenges with doing service design work at Macmillan

A summary of what we learnt from our session

  1. We need to better understand the processes for how decisions are made at a senior level so that we can focus our efforts on aligning our processes and positively influence these decisions.
  2. We need to constantly update our understanding of how our colleagues do work that affects the services that people living with cancer use. This is so we can tailor how we work with them and provide relevant training on service design tools and techniques.
  3. We need to understand the barriers of communication between teams and create mechanisms for communication that overcome these barriers so that questions, feedback and ideas can be shared with us and other people.
  4. We need to learn more from designers and change makers who’ve been in a similar position to us before so that we don’t have to repeat mistakes.
  5. We need to work with more diverse groups of people with different backgrounds beyond our charity to make a greater impact.

Below are the details of the seven challenges we shared in our session, what we learnt from the participants, and what we should try out.

Challenge #1

Research across the charity happens in silos and is not always shared effectively. We also have different understandings of what good research is.

What we learnt

We need to understand the different approaches our colleagues use to do research and provide relevant training in service design tools and techniques so that we can work more effectively together. By doing this and creating simple ways to collect and share research, we can reduce fragmentation.

What we should try out

  • Create a community of internal research friends
  • Learn how our research friends approach research and provide relevant training
  • Design a clear and easy way to capture and categorise insights that can be used by us and others. (Hopefully we can just adapt what already exists)

Challenge #2

We don’t know what is influencing our senior decision-makers when they make decisions about progressing work.

What we learnt

We need to understand the processes for how decisions are made. By doing this we can understand how to support and influence those decisions.

What we should try out

  • Map out how decisions have been made in the past and the processes for those decisions
  • Adapt our process to make it convenient for decision-makers to make decisions; and get feedback on these adaptations.
  • Get decision-makers involved with work by having them take part in key phases of a project, like prototyping .

Challenge #3

It’s not clear who our stakeholders are because our work cuts across so much of the organisation and there is constant organisational change.

What we learnt

We need to question whether the ways we’re sharing is helping us work closely with colleagues and get buy-in. We also should focus more on involving colleagues who have influence over the direction of the work and whether it can progress.

What we should try out

  • Map the boards that influence decision making and their purpose
  • Understand the carrot and the stick for innovation within Macmillan so that we use these to drive work forward.
  • Visualise stakeholder roles within problems and solutions

Challenge #4

We’re not making full use of the capabilities of our colleagues to design and deliver services.

What we learnt

We need to continuously update our understanding of the capabilities of our colleagues. We also need to understand the barriers of communication between teams that affect design project work.

What we should try out

  • Create a mechanism for colleagues to share what skills they have. This could be as low-fi as a shared Trello board.
  • Create opportunities for colleagues with a range of skills to take part in design work.
  • Map existing barriers between teams that affect design project work.

Challenge #5

Design workshops can take a long time to set up and participant ideas are mostly focused on local service improvements.

What we learnt

We need to learn more about effective ideation approaches from more experienced organisations. This includes workshop activities and ways for people to input their ideas beyond workshops.

What we should try out

  • Take a diagonal cross section of the organisation into ideation activities.
  • Create a space where ideas can be shared beyond a workshop, and use that space to launch challenges.
  • Create service design champions in different teams that have an influence on services.
  • Provide relevant training for colleagues, which can be quite low-fi such as having basic principles for brainstorming, setting key ideation metrics and ways to cluster ideas.
Challenge #5 Ideas for what we should try out

Challenge #6

We have relatively few opportunities to run workshops to test prototypes with users, even though these sessions hold a lot of weight for our design decisions and senior stakeholders decisions to progress with a concept.

What we learnt

We need to set up new ways to design and test prototypes beyond our current workshop structure.

What we should try out

  • Make and test prototypes with users in the same session.
  • Work with colleagues over a number of weeks so we and they can test a number of prototypes without depending on one off workshops.

Challenge #7

We’re not taking into account all the opportunities including those outside our organization to collaborate on designs, and deliver for greater impact.

What we learnt

We need to let go of our internal structures and barriers, and share our understanding of need and design work more broadly internally and externally through accessible channels so that we can create a bigger impact.

What we should try out

  • Explore how we can form new types of partnerships such as cross charity working.
  • Explore new ways to share work with people on the front line as they will know about relevant services in the communities we could be working with.
  • Share more of our work and challenges with other people who care such as the wider design community.

The input from participants during the Service Lab event has helped shape our thinking about what we’re currently doing and what we should be trying out. The most refreshing insight is that we’re not alone in this and many people have been here before and/or are going through the same challenges right now.

By service designers in large charities being more open with work and challenges they’re facing, more opportunities will arise to teach, learn and collaborate with each other and with other people. We’d like to be part of building on the great work already happening in this way.

If you have anything you’d like to follow up with us as a result of this post, or have some guidance for us then we’d love for you to get in contact. Our email is

We hope to see you at an event, or read about what you’ve been up to soon.

Thanks for reading,

Culainn and the Innovation Team

Also thank you Jade Richardson, Peter Mackenny and Ed Wallace from the team for edits.

Innovation Team

Written by

We are the service innovation team within the Policy and Impact directorate at Macmillan Cancer Support.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade