Snapshot from a recent service design experiential learning bootcamp.

The ODS Service Design Playbook (and scaling service design)

tl;dr: We’ve recently launched a new Service Design Playbook, and we’re experimenting with new ways of teaching service design through experiential learning. We’d love your feedback and thoughts on both of these approaches.


Times are good in the service design community.

Those of us who preach the importance of talking to users, focusing on the problem over the solution, and testing — always testing — have emerged from the shadows.

It wasn’t long ago that this way of working was seen as radical, or the domain of “post-it note dependent disruptors.’ Now, times have changed and the teachings of proper user-centred design and research are getting their day in the sun.

Service design has started to transition into mainstream workplace practice, and with that comes a whole host of new challenges for those of us in the community to tackle.

The challenge is really one of scale: how do we equip an organization of roughly 65,000 people with the knowledge and skills to do this type of work independently and continuously?

Snapshot from a recent service design experiential learning bootcamp.

The trouble with traditional teaching

If you screamed “training!”, let me dig into that a bit deeper. While traditional classroom based training might be a viable method of teaching some things, service design is definitely not one of them.

By its very nature, service design is an experiential field of practice. It’s one thing to learn about the concepts of journey mapping, personas, and user interview techniques, and another thing entirely to actually apply them with confidence in the field.

Traditional classroom-based training can’t always help you decide which technique is best applied to solve new or unusual problems. Traditional methods also struggle to prepare you for the nuances of human behaviour that come with interactive field research. In textbooks, the problems and solutions are always so straightforward — the reality is anything but.

Ideally, apprenticeship or mentor-based models have the best track record for success. A proven way to learn is to find someone who knows their stuff, work with them directly on a few projects, and become a human sponge to soak up all their knowledge and field experience.

This isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Quality mentors can be hard to find, and skilled practitioners are often in high demand. Still, we are trying some interesting new ways.

Snapshot from a recent service design experiential learning bootcamp.

Letting people play and experiment

One of the first ways we’re helping public servants explore service design in their work is by giving them the opportunity and tools to play and experiment. A few weeks ago, we launched a Service Design Playbook that acts as a crash course on service design for public servants in Ontario. (It’s also available in French.)

We’ve made the playbook accessible, open, easy-to-understand, and most importantly: easy to implement inside Ontario. It gives government employees the context and tools they need to experiment with service design on their teams, and to assess the impact of the new approach in their projects.

The playbook isn’t prescriptive — it presents possibilities and provides guidelines that can be adapted for each project, and lets every team play with the approach to see what works best for them. We’re excited to see how people use it, and to learn and iterate to make it even better.

Of course, we know that the playbook isn’t always enough: sometimes, we all need more hands-on instruction. How can we make that instruction experiential and relevant?

Snapshot from a recent service design experiential learning bootcamp.

Making it real

Some time ago, I was introduced to someone who runs a service design agency called Studio Wé. Service design capacity-building is one of their primary areas of focus and they had a very unique take on how to achieve that outcome.

The studio run a really interesting two-week intensive ‘short course’ to teach the fundamentals of service design with a focus on hands-on experience. The course gives you the theory, but the emphasis is placed on how you apply that theory in the murky, unpredictable place we call ‘the real world.’

We knew that any kind of service-design training we did in the OPS had to echo that same approach: the application of the theory through hands-on experience. We’ve started by creating workshops and bootcamps modeled on that approach, and so far, the results have been promising.

Experiential bootcamps

In our bootcamps, participants are encouraged to bring real problems and projects from their professional life and get the opportunity to practice the service design process on issues that are relevant to them.

The people who participate in these bootcamps aren’t just sitting in a classroom listening to lectures, they’re out on the street conducting guerilla research; they’re developing rapid paper prototypes, and they’re testing their ideas with real people. They’re working through all of the practical applications of the service design process under the helpful guidance of experienced service design pros who are there to steer them in the right direction, provide meaningful feedback, and troubleshoot tricky design situations.

In a lot of ways, it’s the best of both worlds. Participants get the theory they need to understand the fundamentals, but they also get the experience that’s required to help make that theory tangible and meaningful to their context.

Snapshot from a recent service design experiential learning bootcamp.

Active public service pilots

There are a number of innovative groups within the Ontario Government who are piloting this approach already. Debra Churchill (Digital by Design at the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development) Asim Hussain (Digital Services Transformation at ServiceOntario) and Jay Porter (Strategy and Innovation at Cabinet Office) are all leading their teams through experiential bootcamps.

All have said that making learning directly applicable to their work, and experiencing the process rather than just learning about it, has had a fundamental impact.

We’re still working through all of the kinks, but experiential learning, coupled with a playbook that encourages teams to experiment and explore, has the potential to make service design accessible to everyone in the public service.

If you’ve tried other approaches or have feedback to share, please get in touch. We’re running a bunch of experiments to see how we might scale service design. Your input and ideas are most welcome.

Snapshot from a recent service design experiential learning bootcamp.

Dana Patton is a service design advocate in the Ontario Digital Service. He has a passion for creating simple, user focused online services that make life easier for Ontarians.