Six Years of In-House Service Design: A Retrospective

I came to Service Design in 2010 and it was like a breath of fresh air. I started working in local government back in 2003 and spent a few years pinballing around various departments in data and performance roles. I worked on some interesting projects, but I didn’t always feel that what I was doing was having a real impact. Then, in 2011 I was one of a small group of officers brought together from across the council to be part of a new team — The Service Design Team. Over the next six and half years we went on a journey, innovating from the inside out, and back in again. As a team, we worked closely with a designer in residence who was brought in to mentor us for the first year, won some funding from the Design Council and Innovate UK, and got the freedom to pretty much get on with things. It was fantastic, and I was hooked from the start. I learned the fundamentals of human centred design thinking in that first year, but I became a designer in the years that followed. I haven’t stopped learning since. I’m eternally grateful to the leaders who gave us the space to immerse ourselves in a new way of working and the opportunity to test out some radical new approaches to ‘doing’ change in the public sector.

“I came to Service Design in 2010 and it was like a breath of fresh air”.

I really enjoyed that first year or two, working on the fringes, but it wasn’t long before we were receiving some positive recognition from both inside and outside of local government, and we slowly started to get pulled into the centre of the organisation. This was great, but it came with it’s own set of challenges, not least working out how to innovate whilst at the same time getting involved in larger corporate transformation projects. At the Nesta Labworks Global Lab Gathering in 2015 it was heartening to hear from other teams working inside central government, regional government, local government and partner organisations around the world who were feeling the same tensions. It really brought it home to me that what we were doing at the council was at the forefront of a growing movement; we were part of the movement, and we were contributing to the development of service design in the public sector. That felt exciting, but by this point I’d already seen a need to rekindle some of the energy that we had during the first couple of years. I had grown to believe that within the context of a local government, designing discreet, bespoke, innovative services that only serve a lucky few, wasn’t in itself going to offer a sustainable future. To have a real impact we needed to find a way to take service design from haute couture to high street. But haute couture services do have their place; as disruption and provocation they are invaluable. I also realised that they were the source of much of the team’s learning and energy, so I founded the iLab to provide a new space for the team to work on design challenges that allowed us to exploit the trends and opportunities which we spotted through the course of our work, or through the networks we had started to build. The idea was to provide a controlled environment in which to nurture, develop and test side projects and turn them into an evidence base that we could proactively present to leaders. Over the past two years or so the iLab has developed into much more and is now used as a platform from which the team can run inspiration sessions and design thinking training sessions, as well as host global service jams and social design drinks events. I’m proud of what my colleagues and I achieved, but by early 2017 I was ready for a new challenge.

“To have a real impact we needed to find a way to take service design from haute couture to high street”.

On 8th May I started an exciting new role as a service designer at Bromford Lab. The process of moving into new role gave me the chance to take stock of my service design career to date. I found it a really useful exercise and my reflections feel like they are now driving my transition from Service Designer 1.0 to Service Designer 2.0. Looking at the past six and half years retrospectively I can identify 12 key takeaways, which other designers working in-house across a range of sectors might recognise.

  1. It’s not about starting with a solution — In the early days this was my biggest revelation. I’ve spent most of my service design career to date helping clients understand that service design doesn’t start with a solution to a perceived problem, but first requires a step back to assess the situation and identify the real issue which needs to be addressed — often moving clients from viewing a problem through a provider lens to viewing a slightly different problem through a customer lens. Projects which I have worked on that started with solutions or savings targets have almost always failed to have real customer impact. However, what I have learned is that if you keep the customer at the heart of everything you do, the savings and the systemic benefits for the organisation will almost always follow. In the early days I felt so empowered by being able to get out and spend time with customers, it seemed like customers should play a major part in the design process from scoping through to delivery. But as the years have passed I have come to realise that you don’t necessarily have to involve the customer at every stage of the design process. In some instances it is often better to use existing insights in order to exploit what we already know — at least to a point where we have a firm idea of what it is we need to explore. As organisations become truly data driven it will open up a range of opportunities to gain good user centred insight from big data which extends further than the purely quantitative. As I developed as a designer I learned more about how to engage customers in the most appropriate way, at the most appropriate time. I also learned to trust my hunches at the scoping stage and use available insights to gather a body of evidence that is strong enough to build a business case for design based intervention. Design resources are scarce within in-house teams, so we need to be able to use them wisely.
  2. It’s not about technology — Organisations often see new technology as the reason to transform the way they do things. Often transformation projects are driven by IT departments who don’t always fully understand the challenges of those working on the front-line, or the needs and expectations of customers. This often leads to new products or services being imposed on staff and customers who then fail to engage with them. I’m a huge fan of technology, but it has to be used as an enabler. Staff won’t use technology if it doesn’t work for them, and likewise customers won’t engage with technology that is clunky or disabling. During work with health colleagues in Liverpool I learned that delivering a piece of health technology to a patient who isn’t currently managing a life limiting health condition won’t suddenly make them responsible. A key part of design is understanding the wider lives of the people who we expect to use the equipment, before we can create a service which they want to engage with. Technology is a tool, not a solution in itself.
  3. Create design thinking organisations — Experience has taught me that design has the power to change the way an organisation works. But trying to turn everyone into designers isn’t the way to create design thinking organisations. We love design because we live design, but everyone else has their own job to get on with. They don’t always get excited about a wall of post-it notes like designers might do. Part of the role of an in-house designer has to be to help colleagues spot opportunities, but we also need to help them understand the best way to exploit them. Not every improvement needs to be run as a formal design project, but enabling colleagues to understand the key principles of design thinking will help ensure that any changes they make are customer focused and considered as part of a wider ecosystem; promoting the evolution of the organisation rather than its mutation.
  4. Don’t fear big data — Part of the reason I had become disillusioned with performance data was that I often didn’t feel that the KPIs informed the organisation of the right things, so they didn’t drive the right change. When I learned how to use light ethnography and contextual interviewing I didn’t want to consider gathering customer insight in any other way. But in hindsight this was a little short sighted. Over the years I have learned that working closely with colleagues who hold the data is essential to both informing the design of new services and measuring the success (or failure) of the prototypes. Qualitative and quantitative research aren’t mutually exclusive; neither can have real impact if used in isolation. I’ve spent a lot of my design career challenging assumptions that in depth interviews with 20 customers aren’t useful because they don’t provide a representative sample. But, perhaps I may have found it easier in the early days if I had also been better at drawing insights from wider research too, rather than dismissing it. There is a challenge for the service design community as a whole to help clients to move away from the idea that a questionnaire completed by 1000+ people will give better results than in-depth interviews with 20 people. Questionnaires might provide the figures, but they don’t often go far enough to explain why people act or feel the way they do. Only by working in partnership with colleagues who hold the data can we ensure that the insights we derive from qualitative research are rigorous and stand up to scrutiny.
  5. Be resilient — Disruption, by its nature isn’t easy. Be resilient against the barriers you face. As designers we live and breath this type of work, but colleagues who come to our design workshops can often find the activities challenging or intimidating. Creating design thinking organisations can take time. I’ve learned that forming relationships with colleagues and showing them outcomes is far more powerful when it comes to getting them on-board than waxing lyrical about design. We talk about empathising with our customers, but we need to have empathy with the staff we work with too.
  6. Choose your projects — Back in the early days I was so switched on to service design that I wanted to design everything. But in reality, that just isn’t possible. The danger is that if we try to do so, we just end up spreading ourselves so thinly that we aren’t able to make any real impact — which doesn’t help persuade those who doubt the value design can bring. I’ve come to understand that organisations don’t have to be innovative in everything they do. As in-house designers we need to find the projects that can really benefit from design input and then do them well. But I have also learned not to expect to run every design project through each stage of the double diamond. Even if this should be the case, practically it just isn’t always possible within the bureaucratic project frameworks of large organisations. It is true that there is indeed a balance to be found between taking a pragmatic, flexible approach to design and watering down the impact design can have. However, we need to ensure that the approaches we take reflect what people around the table can bring, because after all, as Lee Sankey challenged the service design community at the 2013 Service Design Global Conference — “be more in love with the outcomes than the process you use to get there”.
  7. Be proactive — Feeling underutilised can be demoralising. It’s hard if people in the organisation don’t always understand what you do; being known as ‘the team who go out and talk to customers’ can be frustrating. It can sometimes be hard to find ways to flex your creative muscles when working on large corporate change projects, but regardless of how closely in-house teams get drawn into the centre of organisations, we still need to ensure that we give ourselves space to be proactive and take ideas to the business. Organisations that are serious about embracing design understand the importance of giving creative teams the space to innovate. Hacks and jams should be an integral part of strategy, allowing teams to work up hunches and explore new ways to solve business critical challenges. I’ve also found that they are great communication tools too, and a great way of selling design to people who might not fully appreciate its potential.
  8. Use design to influence policy — One of the best parts of working in the service design team in the early days was the way we worked ‘under the radar’. It was liberating to challenge some corporate thinking by simply going ahead and getting on with things like setting up a team twitter account and blog. It got things done a whole lot faster. But in retrospect, in the long run it’s better to work closely with teams who might appear to put blockers in your way, than trying to circumvent them. I’ve found that the best results come from building relationships with colleagues who work in teams such as organisational governance or communications and marketing — working with them, rather than in opposition to them. After all, if they aren’t on board with what you are trying to achieve, nothing will ever scale. To get the best results we need to infiltrate the heart of our organisations, rather than try to avoid them. In-house creative teams must have a place on transformation boards and business development boards, because without a seat at the table we have little to no influence. You may be a great team of designers, but you’ll never get any traction if the people who make the policy don’t understand what it is you are trying to do.
  9. Vive la révolution — In the early days I struggled to get buy-in for the new services I was creating. I would get an idea so far, but there would be no way of landing or scaling it. One of our iLab inspiration sessions highlighted a blog by Sara Robinson entitled ‘six people you need to start a revolution’ that struck a beautifully insightful chord. It brought it home to me that we should approach every design project as if we were orchestrating a revolution. We need to ensure that we have the right people on-board. Landing innovation, especially from the bottom up has been difficult at times. In the early days I adopted the approach of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, but whilst a great romantic notion, and certainly one that fits the model of disruption, without the permission from the right people I kept hitting brick walls when it came to implementation. I still agree with those sentiments, but I would always advise giving some thought to who we need to help us achieve impact. Taking inspiration from Sara’s blog, first we need to find some activists — rabble rousers who will get the ball rolling. This is a role that a proactive creative team can play quite well. But people expect us to be avant garde. To gain credibility we need the help of ‘intellectuals’ — respected peers within the organisation who will provide clear objectives and compelling arguments that demand game-changing policy changes. The data guys will help out here. Next we need the ‘artist’s’ — excellent communicators who can translate all of the noise into coherent stories. A friend in communications and marketing can be a useful comrade here. But there will be no revolution if we don’t also have some ‘insiders’ — people in the right position to pull exactly the right levers the minute they see an opportunity. Some well selected leaders would be ideal candidates for this role. Next we need the ‘elites’ — if the other groups are building the fuse, it’s the politicians and board members who carry the matches. They bring enough cultural and financial gravity to leverage a local uprising into a major revolution. Finally, but by no means least, we need ‘the masses’. If just 15% of the organisation is bought into what we are doing, that is about enough for everyone to know someone who’s on-board. After all, as Derek Sivers and the dancing guy illustrate, you only need one person to stick their head above the parapet, another to follow, and you’ve got the start of a movement.
  10. Nurture creativity — Inspiration sessions are essential for creative teams. Organisations that are serious about design understand the need to provide creative spaces, inspirational spaces and different ways of working. Creativity isn’t like a tap that can be turned on and off. You can’t just be creative when someone asks you to be. I’ve found that I work best when I’m able to be flexible in the places and the way in which I work and I’m lucky that I’ve been supported to work in that way. Creative space isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. After all, how can people think outside of the box if they are locked up inside it?
  11. Measure and communicate success — In-house creative teams are a precious resource and we need to prove that we add value. Often when working on preventive services, it’s hard to prove that an intervention you designed will achieve a better outcome without access to DeLorean fitted with a flux capacitor. We need to work with the people in the organisation that have the right skills to help us work through the data, but also challenge the organisation to look at different types of metrics, and work with them in order to design them, rather than against them. Work closely with the communications and marketing team in order to tell our story in imaginative ways. Get published in all of the right journals and take every opportunity to promote the great work you do. Shout about what you do, because if you don’t no one else will.
  12. Networks, networks, networks — My mission for some time has been to ‘build networks for social change’. I recently read an evaluation of the Northern Ireland Innovation Lab by PDR which recommended that labs should get better at sharing their knowledge and collaborating on projects. The problems we are seeking to address, certainly in the public and social sectors are wicked by nature, and because wicked problems transcend organisations and sectors, no single organisation can solve a given problem on their own. The solution lies in creating effective networks that work together to transcend silos. Labs should link up with each other in order to share, learn and exploit opportunities to improve social outcomes for all our populations.
“My mission for some time has been to build networks for social change”.

I’m proud of what my colleagues and I have achieved over the past 6 and half years and I’m certainly going to miss working with them. But as I move into my new role I’m really excited about the work that lies ahead and the opportunity I have to work with a new set of colleagues in order to continue to explore ways to mainstream service design in big organisations. Moving between labs is a great way to ensure that teams stay fresh, and it’s also a great way of expanding networks and finding new opportunities for collaboration — and that can only be a good thing for service design in the public and social sectors.

Originally published at on May 14, 2017.