Service design: How not to get stuck in a never ending discovery

Mike Tattersall works as Product Manager on various public sector and government service design projects for Hippo Digital. Prior to his time with us he worked directly for Department for Work and Pensions.

Michael Tattersall
Jul 19, 2018 · 4 min read
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First a thought from Mike about delivering services for the public sector in a culture of awareness, the constraint of budgets and the desire to make a difference with the delivery of service design projects.

“It matters that we try to fix problems and not who’s to blame in the first place. The problem that I see in government services is they don’t want to fail fast. At Hippo we believe we should be failing fast and moving on to the next iteration or moving onto something completely new. With the right mentality government can save money by failing fast in discovery. How can we make sure government doesn’t get it wrong?”

People need help and support from Government via accessible services and Government must meet that need. There is a massive pressure on these services to solve problems, in my experience, the government has to first understand the problem. This is typically done through a Discovery and these can be very powerful as explained in Rose’s blog. They are essential to get early engagement from decision makers and make sure the whole team understands why we’re going to build or change to move forward with a service design.

This is at odds with the private sector where there’s a big rush to release a new product or feature to see if it works. Some of the time if the company had done a couple of weeks of discovery they would have found out they were trying to solve the wrong problem which would have saved unnecessary time and development work.

Government organisations do discoveries to fully understand the problem it’s trying to solve before committing development resource or time to it. However, I’ve witnessed and heard about a growing number of service design teams who are spending a long time in Discovery and effectively getting stuck.

If we stay in discovery through fear of not delivering the right thing, we’ll never meet any needs, deliver any new services to streamline the public sector and won’t make things better for people using those services. This benefits no one and needs to be avoided.

Here are some of the reasons service design teams are getting stuck in the Discovery phase and what they should do to rectify it.

What’s the problem: Senior people already believe they know how to solve the problem.
What should we do about it: Accept that you’re not going to win the argument by arguing without plenty of evidence. In Discovery build a small test around the idea and test it. At Hippo, we encourage our teams to create hypothesis or assumptions, agree these are valid with senior people and test them in the Discovery. Once presented with your research it will be more difficult for senior people to disagree.

What’s the problem: Being scared of failure.
What should we do about it: We must adapt to the mentality of failing fast and learning from it to stop the fear of needing to get it all right at the start.

What’s the problem: Problem is too complex.
What should we do about it: We should be looking at an end to end service design. That doesn’t mean we need to attempt to solve all the problem with our first iteration. We need to make services better quickly and that sometimes means solving 50% of the problem to start with and then working on the rest.

What’s the problem: Discoveries that last forever.
What should we do about it: Timebox, it’s simple as that. We can’t have discoveries that last years, be brave, be bold and admit when you can’t solve a problem or the problem isn’t as bad as was first thought. Timeboxing helps focus the team on an outcome.

What’s the problem: Needing to know everything.
What should we do about it: Make discovery continuous. We should always be in discovery, looking to learn and understand problems. If we’re in Alpha, Beta or Live we should be continuously discovering, learning and adapting.

Discovery is not a stage.

It’s who we are, what we do and something we should live and breath. It’s not about knowing everything upfront and trundling forward to delivery. It’s an ongoing passion that all user centred teams should have. Service design is as much about culture and mindset as it is about ideas and aptitude. Build your teams accordingly and you will have the key players in place to bring your ideas to fruition and deliver somethign that will make a difference.

The public will thank you for it, they really will.

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