What is successful service design?
I love this question! Simply put, successful service design delivers outcomes that matter to all the users and stakeholders of a service.
However, this is not so simply done.
There tends to be three key tensions to balance:
- framing the problem space as a service, in a useful fashion
- engaging users and stakeholders in decisions
- building capability and mindsets to support outcomes
Understanding and framing the problem space is your most powerful lever in any project. Successful service design begins with bringing different perspectives of a service together to frame the situation in ways that are useful.
These perspectives include:
- users of the service (what’s desirable, or expected)
- people involved in delivering and running the service (what’s feasible to deliver)
- people responsible for the outcomes the service is designed to support (what’s viable to support)
Involving all the humans in the understanding process is table stakes for any service design. Doing this up front helps bake in any change processes, mitigate the risk of white elephants in the room, and support the next two tensions.
Involving all the humans in decisions can be challenging! Particularly in the authorising environment of government. Service design often needs to help stakeholders get just far enough outside their comfort zone to enable new voices to be heard, and new ideas to emerge.
Sometimes this can mean testing a range of low fidelity versions of ideas with users before deciding on an approach. Sometimes it can mean involving users and stakeholders in concept generation sessions together. Being able to make compassionate compromises informed by the perspectives of the people involved is a hallmark of great service design. This contrasts with tech-led or business/organisation-led approaches that may seem more feasible in the short term.
Regardless of the format taken, getting everyone’s fingerprints on the solutions is an important part of any successful service design.
Which leads us to the last tension: building capability and mindsets to support outcomes.
We often call this the project around the project.
Outcomes take time, and service design projects are often scoped to only design a service. Many of the people involved in driving the design process can be long gone when it comes time to deliver and subsequently evaluate that service against outcomes. Involving stakeholders and people delivering the service in the design process can have real benefits when it comes time to implement and — inevitably — to iterate. This typically comes down to two factors:
- Capability, or the ability to undertake different designerly methods like qualitative research, or prototyping and testing.
- Mindset, or the ability to adjust how you’re looking at a situation so that you can see them differently.
If service design can deliver on framing the situation well, engaging all the humans along the way, and leaving a legacy of capability and mindset then it has a great chance of delivering on outcomes successfully.
Note about this article. Back in 2018 Apolitical asked us to respond to this question from one of their members. During a recent content audit we noticed the original article wasn’t around anymore, so we wanted to bring it back because it still describes how we think about good service design.