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What do service designers do?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Service design

As we establish new roles in public service, such as 'service designers', it raises some good questions and debate. We already have multidisciplinary teams designing and building services, so where does the service designer fit in, exactly? What do service designers actually do in government?

We’re all designing and building services, or at least somehow having an impact on them and the value for money they deliver. Some of us are more directly involved, such as service managers, policy makers, policy writers, customer service teams and front-line staff. While others are less directly involved, such as commercial professionals, lawyers, subject matter experts, portfolio managers and ministers. But we all play a part.

It’s the responsibility of those in senior leadership roles within departments – and importantly, the service managers – to make sure we’re all working on the right kinds of things, that we’re doing it in the right kind of way, and that we’re thinking about the entire end-to-end service and wider context, not just a small part of it.

Redesigning an entire service, as Sanjay Poyzer says, means ‘redesigning all the websites and letters, talking to everyone involved, reviewing casework processes, system maintenance and code, while understanding the wider context of someone’s real user journey – everything that person does between realising their need and resolving it’. This is what a service designer does and what specialists working together – plus a lot of hard work and negotiation - can achieve.

It also means looking at how technical architecture needs to work to support a better service, how data will be collected, used and protected, and how we move from a legacy system environment to one that supports better services and makes them easier to change.

Barriers to creating good services

There are many things that can get in the way of teams trying to make good services, particularly in a large government department. Some of these are:

  • contracts expiring leaving little time to explore what a better approach to achieving policy intent looks like
  • important discussions happening which have a huge impact on design, without the benefit of multiple perspectives or without the evidence base of actual user behaviour and metrics
  • the way funding works when it pushes you towards stating exactly what you will build and by when, which can then set expectations difficult to challenge if you find out that it’s the wrong thing
  • that we don’t have lots of great service managers available yet – and those we do have may not be working at the right level to see the bigger picture, or have specific targets that don’t take in to account the whole service

The work that needs to be done

Tackling the root causes of these barriers should have a greater impact on a wider number of services than just adding more service designers to individual service teams, even if it takes a little longer to see the change.

This takes a top down approach to create more of the right conditions and opportunities for teams to make good services - and the constituent parts of them.

It also takes a bottom up approach, showing good practice by redesigning and building a few of the trickier, larger services and doing it really well.

No single voice or role could do this alone at this scale and we work with many others with shared common goals:

  • visualising and communicating problems in a way that helps others (policy, senior stakeholders, operational staff, technical leads) to understand, engage and identify solutions more effectively
  • sketching and prototyping so people, internal and external, can actually get a feel for how something could work differently
  • always starting with actual user needs and behaviour, and making design decisions based on evidence, rather than mere speculation

What service designers do

There are two main things service designers are focused on at the Home Office.

Firstly, we’re re-designing a small number of specific services, end-to-end, that need to work better across government organisations. This is particularly hard, and require collaboration to sensibly work through some of the barriers presented by funding, legacy systems, organisational structures, legislative change and governance.

For example, we'll look at redesigning things like 'becoming a British citizen' and 'getting a British passport'. These are currently separate activities supported by separate teams, but have commonalities and duplication. They both involve physical ceremonies and interviews, require caseworker time and effort to process, and include online applications.

Another example is how people get access to government services when they’ve had a baby and how they register a birth. This service currently involves the Home Office, local registry services and the NHS. A service designer will look at the entire process, not just one aspect in isolation.

Secondly we’re helping other teams design and build good services – and the building blocks of those services.

We’ve embedded service designers in the main operational areas within the Home Office. Our aim is to help everyone to think about solutions and whole services in new ways, and to support those people that already are so they can make even better decisions.

We’re advocating faster progression from speculation to hypothesis, learning by testing out multiple solutions and building an evidence base, using discovery, alpha, beta. We’re creating standards, sharing good examples, making good work more visible and creating service patterns to help scale support.

And by doing all of this we hope to kick off more of the right kind of work in the first place, while at the same time getting on and building better services.

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  1. Comment by James posted on

    I've heard of service deaign but the post leaves many questions

    Sounds like a business analyst who does user experience design, or a user researcher merged with a solutions architect, or a 'fallen' product owner who doesn't want to make decisions

    Is it a visionary role or a practical role?

    Is it important that it is one person does this role, or is it important that service design good practice is adopted.

    Is it a method or mantra, or is it a technical skill set?

    Would be interesting to read a day in the life of a service designer

    • Replies to James>

      Comment by Kate Tarling posted on

      Thanks for reading - and for your thoughtful questions. This was more of a 'what are service designers involved with at the Home Office'. Here are a few other blog posts that describe what it's like to be a service designer in government in more detail.

      They are designers - they think about problems, outcomes, constraints and then make stuff (prototypes) to help test what will work best. They think about the big picture as well as small details so have a strategic approach, but have to be practically minded to actually make parts of services - it's not just making diagrams. Many parts of what someone actually does to use a service sit outside of what is being delivered digitally (managed by a product manager). They pair up with policy makers, user researchers, data specialists, depending on how large the service is. They are strategic and they can also prototype in code. We also hire people who are particularly good at communicating and helping others to communicate - so they can facilitate lots of people usefully feeding in to the design.

      You ask a good question - 'Is it important that it is one person does this role, or is it important that service design good practice is adopted' - and my answer is 'yes'. Ideally we'd have lots of service designers, but we don't. One way to scale more good services being designed and built, is to help everyone in a team to make good or better design decisions. Another way is to involve service designers on larger, trickier services. You still need specialist designers to actually design and build the parts that users need to interact with - who have a design degree, are familiar with design patterns, can code, and who start with user needs.

      We'd love to share a day in the life - will work on this.


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