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Good services that work

Interview with Lou Downe : leer la entrevista en español.

Lou Downe is Director of Housing and Land transformation for the UK Government, based at Homes England, and author of Good Services — a book about how to design services that work. The book proposes a set of principles that good services should have, and it reflects on the fundamental question for service design: what is a good service?

Good services are good for the user of that service, good for the organisation providing, good for society as a whole.

- You have dedicated a lot of thinking to this questions so I have to start with it: what is a service? and what makes a good one?

Well, obviously the best answer you’ll find is in the book itself! ;) but to summarise, a service is something that helps someone to do something. That thing can be very big — like getting access to care when you’re critically ill, or very small like buying a chocolate bar. It’s all of the steps you need to complete in order to reach that goal, whatever your goal is.

Good services are good for the user of that service (ie. It does what they need it to do, in a way that works for them) Good for the organisation providing (ie.It’s profitable/financially sustainable and easy to run) Good for society as a whole (ie.It does not destroy the world we live in, or negatively affect the society as a whole)

People tend to think that what makes a good service is completely unique, there are things that we all need from nearly every service we interact with, regardless of what it helps us to do. Things like being able to find that service and use it unaided, regardless of your knowledge or abilities. Or being able to do the thing you set out to do, without having to navigate the bureaucracies created by multiple organisations, or the strange effects of bad staff incentivisation. From luxury hotel check-ins to cancer treatment, from dog grooming to house selling, we need services that work. Services that are findable, usable and benefit our lives and the lives of everyone else around us.

- What was the need to write this book? Why did you write it?

I wrote the book because I was frustrated that no one else had written it before!

As designers or people who try to improve services, we spend a lot of time justifying why good design is important but we often struggle to articulate what we actually mean by ‘good’.

I think this book needs to exist so that we can all answer the question — ‘what does it look like when you’ve done a good job?’ without that, I think we’ll continue to spend a lot of time justifying why services don’t work or need to change.

- Why do service design professionals need these standards? I mean, why now, it seems that the industry has been doing pretty well in the last two decades …

I think we’re now at the point of maturity in the service design industry that where we need a clear explanation of what good looks like.

Ask a graphic designer to tell you what makes ‘good’ graphic design and you will get a different answer each time, but at least they’ll give you an answer. That answer will crucially be based on well-known industry-held ideas of best practice that are taught.

Unlike many other forms of design, though, what makes a good service isn’t a matter of personal taste. A service either works or it doesn’t.

Until now, we haven’t had an answer to this question in service design. Instead, most of our books are about how to design services, not what a good service actually is and our answer to the question ‘what does good look like?’ is ‘it depends’.

As anyone who’s ever written a business case to improve service will know though, or ‘it depends’ or ‘to make it better’ isn’t a good enough answer to ‘why do we need to spend money to do this?’ so as more and mode designers move in-house and are actively involved in the design and delivery of real services we need this answer now more than ever.

- Good Services is a very different publication — in terms of approach and contents — from other books more informed by service design practices in agencies and the private sector. You have a long experience working in the public sector with the GDS. Do you think this experience has played a role in the book?

In the rush to create new and innovative experiences, I think a lot services today have overlooked the one crucial thing we need from them: to be able to do what we set out to do with as little friction as possible.

Designing services in the public sector make you realise very quickly that that good service design means getting out of the way and letting people get to the thing they need as efficiently as possible. ie. getting the basics right — and that’s what this book is about

By establishing the UK government’s design community, I learned just how important it is to be able to explain in really clear language why you there and why you work is important to people who don’t necessarily know (or care) what service design is though.

That’s why this book is called Good Services, not ‘good service design’ and you won’t hear the word design mentioned very often at all.

This is a book for designers and non-designers equally, and for everyone who has an effect on the service in an organisation (which will be most people!)

- How does this book help the teams and organisations that work with service designers?

The book clearly explains what good looks like in a language that isn’t exclusive to designers, so a lot of designers have actively bought it for their bosses or their co-workers to explain what it is they do. This shared language also puts designers on a level playing field with non-designers, meaning that they can have better conversations about what’s working and what isn’t in their organisation.

I think the book also makes it clear that good service design isn’t a matter of subjective taste — but an indisputable fact, meaning that it’s easier to justify difficult decisions as a designer.

- You announced your plan to write this book a year ago with a call for contributions. How was the process of collecting all the cases and references included in the book?

I had a huge amount of contributions to the principles as they were being written. After sharing a Google doc last year with the principles in, I that received over 2000 comments which really helped to shape the principles themselves.

I also received a huge amount of stories from people in agencies, public organisations and private businesses about services that they worked on, or experiences they have had.

Most of the stories have been in anonymised out of respect for the privacy of those people who shared their stories as they often didn’t feel comfortable speaking out about a service they worked on or an experience they’d had but these stories have been absolutely invaluable in helping to explain and validate the principles.

- One year ago you published the 15 principles on what makes a good service and you wrote “I hope that it’s a start to many more competing views.” The book distribution started in December 2019, what has been its impact so far?

The impact has been incredible so far!

Whilst no one has suggested any changes to the principles (yet!) people have started to use the principles in really practical interesting ways to improve their services.

They’ve been translated into three languages and have been personalised to fit the education and health sector in the UK.

Several public-sector organisations and businesses in the UK now including the principles of their training material, and I’ve seen them written into job descriptions KPI frameworks too.

The uses for them are almost endless, and I’m really excited by what we can do with them as a community.




The PublicTech Lab is a place for collaboration, experimentation and design of new solutions to the great challenges faced by the public sector. A new initiative from IE School of Global and Public Affairs.

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