How can data and futures techniques tackle systems challenges?

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Photo by David Cruz on Unsplash

I have been a service designer for over 7 years and I still struggle to succinctly explain my job to strangers. When asked what I do at parties, I tend to reply “I’m a problem solver” and give an example of a project I’ve worked on.

But over the years I have seen a change in the types of problems clients have been asking us to solve. Service designers are no longer being brought in just to resolve isolated service issues such as “how can we increase the number of people buying our product?”, we are now being asked to address much more complex questions such as “how can we reduce childhood obesity rates?” — tricky, wicked problems that need us to have an understanding of the whole landscape surrounding the issue. Questions that require us to take a systems approach to ensure that we can have an impactful, long lasting change.

This shift has led myself and the Uscreates team re-think the tools and methods we are using to address our client’s problems. Service design is great at doing exactly what it was designed for — creating or improving services. But we believe our skills need to evolve to address the growing complexity of the challenges we are being asked to address.

However, there is one key factor to consider when we are dealing with issues on this scale — the cost. Much of the work I’ve done at Uscreates has been for the public sector or charities, where there isn’t the budget for us to use our service design techniques on such a grand scale. The workshops, interviews and ethnographic research which are needed to understand user needs are often the costliest part of a project to set up and run. Recruitment, logistics, analysis and synthesis of the data for these gets more resource intensive and costly the larger the sample size. And when you are trying to understand the needs of residents in the whole of a London borough, as was the case with our Guys and St Thomas’ Charity work, how can 10 ethnographic interviews be enough?

With these types of projects, we have started to use one or more of the below approaches to ensure our work addresses the systems element, while keeping costs down:

1) Digital tools and data to get a broader understanding of user needs at a large scale

2) Futures techniques to make systems change tangible and get stakeholders and the public on board with the change

So how can this be applied?


Data and digital

By combining digital tools and data to get a wider understanding of user needs, with the more resource intensive, focused qualitative research we are able to provide traceability and rigor to our small qualitative research. This approach of a) research for breadth using data combined with b) research for depth such as ethnographic interviews, is what we used to understand the cumulative impacts that living in an urban, diverse and deprived environment have on health for Guys and St Thomas’ Charity, which you can read more about here.

Futures techniques

Tackling systems challenges can be a daunting task. It is often hard to shift current mindsets or even envision what a system should look and feel like. This was the case when we tasked ourselves with re-imagining the future of social care. Much of the conversation around social care was stuck behind the current system barriers and unable to move forwards. Using creative research methods such as creating a series of better futures for social care we looked at how we could spark debate and encourage more radical thinking in the way we develop a sustainable social care system.

By using these approaches we are able to get a wider understanding of the system, while still using service design techniques to understand the problem and where it sits within the surrounding landscape.

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Using research for breadth and depth to understand how we can address problems within a system

These methods are by no means perfect. The more projects I’ve worked on, the more I’ve been building my understanding on how to tackle this. In the true service design way, myself and the staff at Uscreates are prototyping and iterating as we go to develop new ways of addressing these issues.

Combining data and futures techniques to address systems challenges is a passion of mine — if you’re working in the same or a similar field and would like to compare notes, get in touch. I’m always interested to hear about other work.

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