Death by double diamond

How to stay in service

I’ve been lucky enough to work as a service designer both in a consultancy and now in-house with Government Digital Service in the UK. Working in these two very different environments has taught me a lot about the challenges service design faces and what we need to do to actually get well-designed services delivered.

The challenge is in implementation. The service design industry has mastered methodology. We understand what a well-designed service should look like. We know what needs to be done to get there. We can even build prototypes that help us simulate and test the user experience. But something seems to happen before implementation. Service designers are rarely involved in actually implementing a service. This means that when the service actually goes live, it often isn’t the shape you’d so carefully crafted on the page and handed over to the client.

A lot of this is because of the waterfall nature of the commonly-followed double diamond process. What tends to happen after the final ‘deliver’ stage of the double diamond is that the service designer will hand over a set of instructions to the client and leave them to implement it themselves. This can take years. And no matter how good the stakeholder engagement, the service can come out looking very different to how it was originally designed.

It’s pretty demotivating for service designers to work in this way, where their designs get thrown over a wall without any certainty that they will ever get implemented in a way that aligns to the original vision. This is also a massive problem for the service design industry. It means we don’t have much in the real world to point at and say “we designed that”, which makes it hard to sell the value of our work based on the quality of our designs. So instead we sell it on methodology, not real-world examples. And this methodology doesn’t include implementation. When it comes to implementing a service, each challenge is different. It’s hard to create a template for this.

But service design is not a methodology — it’s the design of services. Just like graphic design is about designing graphics, and product design about designing products.

Some service design organisations have been trying to influence implementation by selling training. They see this as a way to help clients keep the thread of service design once they’ve handed over the designs and gone away. An unfortunate side effect of this is that it can be seen as service design consultancies making themselves redundant. And, while it’s obviously great for as many people as possible to understand service design, a week of training isn’t the same as years of study or industry experience.

So rather than teaching organisations to follow the double diamond process and use service design methods, we need to build our own capabilities as services designers to help organisations get services delivered. And we need to stick around during implementation to make that happen.

Waterfall doesn’t work. But what I’ve seen — both in-house and in consultancies — is service design organisations increasingly moving to agile.

There are several ways in which agile can help service designers get closer to implementation. First and foremost, agile helps service designers design for the real world — because they’re working in the real world right from the start. They’re not just creating a proposal and handing it over at the end.

Agile is an iterative process. This means you can flex and change the service design throughout the process — right through to implementation. You can work out how to get to the best-designed service, one that responds to the way things actually work.

And agile is less tied to methods and ‘deliverables’. You can choose and change how to approach each stage of the project based on what the challenge is and what you need to get out of it.

Clearly it’s easier to use agile as an in-house designer where you are, in effect, both designer and client. But consultancies can and are starting to move in this direction too. Before I moved in-house, the consultancy I was working with started to build more account-like relationships with clients. This meant they could move away from the ‘discover-define-develop-deliver’ sales pitch towards more flexible contracts and budgets. This let them plan projects in a more agile way, and work with clients from strategy through to piloting services at a pace that worked for the organisation. We had a service designer on-site with the client almost full time, working with their senior stakeholders, making sure they were ready and willing to deliver the services we had designed.

Service design doesn’t stop at delivery. It shouldn’t even stop at implementation. A service is an ever-evolving, iterating thing. For service designers to influence that, they have to be involved at every stage.

Kate Ivey-Williams is a service designer at Government Digital Service in the UK. Prior to this, she worked as a service designer for Engine Service Design in London.