Service design at British Red Cross

Harry Trimble
Oct 25, 2019 · 5 min read

Words I said as part of the Design in the Third Sector Panel discussion at this year’s Service Design Fringe Festival.

Where you find services, you find people running them and deciding how they work. So in this respect the British Red Cross has been designing services for nearly 150 years. Our first service was giving neutral and impartial aid to both armies during the Franco-Prussian War.

While our organisation has been designing services all this time, what is more recent is our adoption of service design approaches. We’ve started this by making and testing prototypes with people and hiring service designers like Vicky and myself.

Today 90% of our services are to support people in the UK. They broadly fall into three categories:

  • Support for refugees
  • Filling gaps in the health and social care system
  • Responding to emergencies

I’m going to briefly talk through two examples of designing services at British Red Cross

Book a wheelchair

In 2018 the Red Cross lent out 76,371 wheelchairs and other mobility aids. We provide wheelchairs to people who cannot get them from the NHS, as they need one for less than 6 months. This service can trace its origins back over a 100 years to helping injured veterans in the First World War.

Stock in a local Red Cross wheelchair distribution centre

Today someone can a book a wheelchair online and collected it from 169 locations round the UK. But until two years ago this service was completely offline, paper-based and worked differently depending where you live. This caused problems like people turning up to borrow a wheelchair only to learn all the ones in their size were out of stock.

Frontline colleague using the new digital system

Over one year a team of designers, delivery managers, software developers and operations managers across our organisation transformed and improved how our borrow a wheelchair service works. They designed the whole system everyone for involved:

  • They designed, tested and iterated an intuitive online booking journey
  • They worked with frontline volunteers who are relied upon to run these local services to design digital interfaces they can use intuitively
  • They integrated the stock management software for tracking and distributing wheelchairs so volunteers could more easily use it

Designing a better user journey for service users and volunteers was pretty straight forward. What took much more time and effort than expected was working on the back office processes and legacy IT systems that made the improved service possible.

This new digitally enabled service is not available in all locations yet. The roll out has to be staggered. This is because it takes time to train volunteers to use the new digital parts of the service and feel confident in doing so.

Next I want to tell you about the work of the team I work in. A small team called Visible in Emergencies. We have a mixture of skills in emergency response, delivery management, stakeholder engagement, user research and design.

Visible in Emergencies

The Red Cross and Red Crescent societies the world over respond to different emergencies, from natural disasters to terror attacks. The Croydon tram crash, Cumbria floods, Manchester bombing and Grenfell. The Red Cross was part of the response to all these emergencies.

From our recent discovery into fires and floods, we learnt that not everyone who experiences an emergency gets the support they need afterwards.

As a result our team is exploring how to identify more people who are affected by emergencies and need support. Along with giving them emotional and financial support, we’ll share information with other organisations who can help support them in other ways.

We’ve tested several ideas to try and tackle this problem. We’ve made prototypes to test these ideas with people who have experienced fires and floods or have responded in these emergencies. Some ideas we threw away. Others showed promise, so we iterated and improved them.

The idea that has emerged through research is a phone line. This essentially would work like the NHS 111 service, but for humanitarian emergencies. A route to access support for people who don’t face an immediate risk to their safety.

Designing and testing a phone call interaction with real people who have experienced flooding

We’ve tested what channels are more likely to make people aware the phone line exists. Proactive text messages. Targeted social media. Community spaces like mosques and youth clubs. Simply pushing leaflets through letter boxes.

After four rounds testing and iterating ideas in Cumbria, Cardiff, Derry-Londonderry and Barking we are writing the business case to start making these ideas a reality for people in need and those who support them.

Making space for service design

Half our team’s time and energy has be spent on actual service design; understanding needs, testing ideas and building them. The other half been spent making space and getting permission within our organisation to do these activities. In reality this part of service design; winning the hearts and minds of the people we work with. It’s taken me several years into my career to accept this is part of the service design process.

The lesson here is service design needs to sit within an agile organisation. Our frontline services are already agile in how they support refugees or respond to people’s needs in an emergencies. We want to embed this approach in our broader organisation and how we design services in the first place. Embedding data, agile decision making and quickly re-prioritising. As well introducing open product roadmaps, new skills, different funding models and governance structures that enable greater agility in how we work.

A big part of the Red Cross’ service design approach is bringing everyone along on the journey. From our thousands of frontline volunteers to our senior management, making sure everyone is involved and no one is left behind. Without doing this we simply cannot design services for people in crisis.

If you interested by the problems the British Red Cross works on and how we approach them, we’re always on the look out for skilled, pragmatic and passionate service designers and delivery managers. Contact me on Twitter or email me on harrytrimble AT

Digital and innovation at British Red Cross

Latest work and opinions by the digital and innovation…