View from Service Design in Government 2020

View of Arthur's Seat from the conference venue

Last week I attended the Service Design in Government conference, held here in Edinburgh. It was a hugely thought-provoking event. Almost every session I attended was excellent, sparking new ideas and thoughts that I am still getting to grips with almost a week on.

I’m currently working on a separate post where I’ll explore those ideas and thoughts, as a (hopefully constructively) critical friend. I hope to have that ready later this week. Subscribe for updates.

In the meantime, I wanted to share my thoughts on each of the individual sessions.

Over on my work blog, I’ve featured three highlights that made me reflect on our practice at the University of Edinburgh. If you haven’t seen that yet, have a read, then come back here.

Here are my notes on the other sessions.

How to prototype your operating model — Emily Bazalgette

Slide from Emily Bazalgette's talk: "No time in day for actual work. Addicted to planning but operate in crisis mode. Meetings to prepare for meetings. Adapted from Aaron Dignan's Brave New Work."

Emily Bazalgette had her sights set on target operating model diagrams: Neat and dry process charts are a fiction designed to soothe uncertainty. If you look beyond the artefact, it’s there because someone senior is scared, she said.

She also argued for designers to avoid being a content or subject matter expert. Instead, our activities should be about holding a facilitation space.

Don’t solve a problem, she said. Instead, evolve the pattern. Nudge, tweak, sense and respond. Familiar ideas to those of us trying to encourage small experiments and Lean UX approaches.

From service design to systems change: lessons from practice — Adam Groves and Nerys Anthony

Another common thread linked this talk with the previous one — mention of Aaron Dignan’s writing about how we work — something I hadn’t come across before, but I’ll have to look into now.

Adam Groves and Nerys Anthony drew a distinction between the complex and the complicated. To understand the difference, consider a watch. It is complicated, but an expert can understand it and fix it if it breaks. Meanwhile, traffic flow is complex.

They talked about how people feel safer in a junction controlled by traffic lights, despite the fact that roundabouts are actually safer. That put me in mind of Hans Monderman’s squareabout, a shared space junction that removed road markings. The squareabout makes individuals feel less satisfied, but it improves safety for all users. So the individual frustrations are a price worth paying for the greater good.

The idea that we need to design for systems, rather than individuals, would become another common thread through many of the SDinGov sessions.

They also talked about the decentralisation of the designer. Coming in, doing some discovery work, declaring the answer and going away again, doesn’t work. Designers are also part of the system, and possibly part of the problem.

Pass on the spark: spreading the story of your project — Sam Villis, Rahma Mohamed, Hattie Kennedy and Katy Armstrong

Slide: "Often your best examples of awesome behaviour are where things went wrong..."

This talk looked at the narrative arc, and demonstrated how it can be applied to make show and tells more engaging, and job interviews more successful.

The main revelation was seeing how the star (situation, task, action, result) structure to job interviews maps to a standard narrative arc. Katy Armstrong said that the star framework makes people focus on the situation and task too much, when the action is the most interesting part of the story.

View the slides here.

What role are you taking in change? — Cassie Robinson

In asking designers about the role we play in change, Cassie Robinson shared this question from Kevin Slavin: “When designers centre around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go?”

She encouraged delegates to participate in an exercise she called social dreaming, where we first imagined a utopian 2030, and then sketched it.

Many people seemed to be inspired and moved by this activity. I have to confess I struggled to suspend my disbelief, and I failed to imagine that much would be different in 10 years’ time. I drew a vision of Princes Street that is pretty much as it is today, but with electric buses.

However, she drew an important distinction between designing for the individual and designing for the collective. This was becoming another emerging theme of the conference.

She also appealed for us to find the balance between being challenging and being kind: “Too much kindness and not enough challenge is naive. Too much challenge and not enough kindness is harsh.”

Redesigning cervical screening: Collaborating across health governing bodies to deliver a whole service — Rochelle Gold, Shirley Sarker and Emma Holmes

I was drawn to this session because it described the challenges in designing a service that cuts across a complex network of organisations. Like Carrie Bishop’s day one keynote talk, this sounds a bit like the University of Edinburgh.

The NHS is made up of 20,000–30,000 organisations. Then there are arms-length bodies like the Department of Health and Social Care. There are 11 different screening services — and no-one owns the whole of screening.

In this case, the software was so outdated and unfit for purpose (having been developed in the 1970s), they had to tackle the technology first before redesigning the service.

And despite journey maps having come in for a bit of stick in some other sessions, here it was described as a crucial step in understanding the interconnectedness of the problem.

Defining a theory for discovery — Nabeeha Ahmed

Nabeeha Ahmed drew on her experience working with the Ministry of Justice, where she worked on 18 discoveries over a two year period.

This session contained lots of takeaways that can be summed up in snappy bullet points:

  • Teams often don’t have a common understanding of what discovery is — so make sure you share and agree a definition up-front.
  • Don’t fixate on job titles — the key is having the right skills and the right mindset.
  • A discovery should have a core team of two to three people adopting the right ways of working.
  • If you have already decided to build a product (or a service?), why are you undertaking a discovery?

And, relatedly:

  • Deciding to stop is success.

This got me thinking: If you’re calling yourself a (product/service) designer, should you be undertaking discovery research? Would you be willing to stop if you discover that designing something would be the wrong thing to do?

Read Nabeeha Ahmed’s blog post version of this talk.

Building better worlds — Cennydd Bowles

I saw Cennydd Bowles talk at UX Scotland a couple of years ago, and I really appreciated his “critical friend” take on user experience. So I had high expectations for a challenging and enlightening talk. I wasn’t disappointed.

He talked about two major blindspots in user-centred design.

The first is a focus on prioritising the present over the future. (It’s worth noting that this is a well-known feature of human nature, not just design.)

The second is a focus on individuals over society. He argues that we should consider consequences beyond even society — to non-humans and the planet.

Slide from Cennydd Bowles's talk - A chart showing time on the x-axis (now, months, years, decades); actors on the y-axis (users, other people, society, non-humans, the planet), with UCD occupying a small square in the bottom-right (now, users)

Expressed in this way, you can see how user-centred design is a narrow view of the situation. User-centred design is literally boxed into a tiny corner, when there is much more to be considered around how we can improve things for society decades or centuries into the future.

He also talked about how we can most helpfully think about the future. Dystopian thinking traps us in the grief phase, he said. But utopias are often focused on a purity of ideology, requiring control over people. Utopian thinking is often deployed by authoritarian regimes. One person’s utopia is someone else’s dystopia.

Instead, we need “realistic, flawed, compelling future visions”.

He noted that there is a live debate in systems thinking around whether you can really change a system, or if you need to focus on changing the behaviour of individuals.

View slides from Cennydd Bowles’s talk.

What lies beneath — Future problems of truth and power in design — Alastair Somerville

Staying on big themes that challenge the status quo of design, Alastair Somerville talked about how many of the tools of design are biased — and even dirty.

He noted that anthropology is heavily associated with colonialism. Methods of research into people were first developed to understand how to take them over. He noted that co-design fits the same pattern as colonialism: “Go in, take their knowledge, then leave. That’s colonialism. That’s exploitation.”

Psychology, he went on, is worse. It’s heavily connected to eugenics. Behavioural design has problems, because it’s meant to adjust people’s behaviour. What nudge affects the powerful? Behavioural design comes from the idea that some people need to be controlled, because they are not good enough.

His point was not that we should stop using principles of anthropology or psychology. But we should be aware of their associations, and make sure we clean our tools before we use them.

For me, this session more than any other underlined the big task we have ahead of us as designers — to make sure we include the right people in the right way for the right reasons. I feel like we’re still a long way off.

View Alastair Somerville’s slides.

The designer’s ego and how it will prevent us saving the world — Audree Fletcher

Still on a similar theme, Audree Fletcher talked about the problems caused by designers’ egos, from the perspective of three types of designer.

Designers as artists should avoid viewing design as a solo action.

Designers as scientists can sometimes do it badly, which is harmful. They look to validate, and often don’t look to invalidate their hypotheses. She described someone who once created an “uncertainty burndown chart” — this doesn’t work!

Designers as saviours set themselves up as problem solvers, but often frame it as a deficit problem. In other words, they are describing people as needing saving. We impose our designs on these people. But we should recognise that they have opportunities as well. We are there to learn from them. Long after the designers are gone, they will still be there.

We centre ourselves in our research and design. This is human nature — we can’t help but project our experience onto other people’s stories.

I just want to be believed — Sam Groves

This case study looked at how to design services to meet the needs of vulnerable victims of sexual violence and abuse. The challenge is how to research the needs of users of this service, without making them recount their experience over and over again, piling anxiety on top of the anxiety they have already faced.

Sam Groves explained that victims of sexual violence will already have had to share their experience with the police, a case worker, medical staff, lawyers, counsellors and more, just to access the services they need. It would be unethical to ask them to share it again just for the purpose of research.

The solution was to build a “proxy panel” who could represent these people and understand their needs. This proxy panel consisted of staff from organisations like Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid.

This was yet another talk that highlighted the great challenges we face in enabling vulnerable people to inform our designs. Sam Groves’s approach shows why at times we need to be pragmatic, and accept that our research will not always be perfect, in order to get things done.

Reflections on, at least, three Ps — Shanti Mathew

In a fantastic closing keynote, Shanti Mathew successfully rounded up the entire conference by noting how the service designers have changed their thinking in four years:

Products → Services → Systems → Society

Shanti Mathew's slide: "Products > Services > Systems > Society"

Shanti Mathew believes that it has taken just four years for service designers to go from mainly talking about designing products, to thinking about how we shape society.

This year, some people were even talking about things beyond society — non-humans and the planet.

And then, a discussion about this phrase: “Design is a political act.”

Concluding thoughts — The politics of design

Service Design in Government 2020 has showcased a variety of different views and approaches.

Start small, pick your battles, watch your ego, forget your process map, be wary of utopias and do the unsexy work of fixing the plumbing?

Or demand respect, reshape society, imagine utopian futures, and focus on solving climate change?

Lots of talk, too, about the balance and tension between designing for individuals versus designing for society. Now that is a political debate that goes way beyond design, and back thousands of years.

More on that in my next post, where I’ll tug on some strands of spaghetti and try to make sense of it all.

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Overall, I was really impressed at the generally exceptionally high standard of the sessions at Service Design in Government. As you may be able to tell, I’m still forming my own thoughts on it all, but it has given me a lot to think about. I’ll be working through the consequent reading list for weeks.

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4 responses to “View from Service Design in Government 2020”

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