Ben Holliday

What is blocking your organisation from designing good services?

A retrospective from UX London 2017: Leading Service Design workshop with Kate Tarling

UX London: Leading Service Design workshop
Image – Conor Ward

At the end of May, I ran an afternoon workshop with Kate Tarling at UX London 2017.

We called the workshop Leading Service Design (view the workshop slide deck). This was a fantastic opportunity for us to share everything we’ve both learned about making the design of end to end services an influential part of UK government.

As we talked about in the workshop, the challenges we’ve both faced have been finding ways to shape government delivery in departments (not GDS) into something that’s focussed on services. By services we mean designing the full end to end experience that users have when needing to interact with government as well as what goes on behind the scenes. This is a significant challenge when you consider how departments have traditionally been organised around policy lines, strategy, operations, and IT portfolios.

In the workshop we shared how we approach these challenges and some of the things we’ve learned about how to orient work around services. We presented some of the techniques and ways we approach these conversations and workflow to make this happen.

We finished the workshop with a question (and a retrospective): What are the barriers to designing good end to end services in your work and how can you overcome them?

I’ve just written up the feedback which we promised to share with everyone. In some ways it’s encouraging that service design is so hard to get right in most organisations and for so many people (it turns out that we’re all in this together). This highlights some of the very real challenges that we face as a design community.

To summarise the workshop. If we can start to make good service design happen in the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) then moving from a technology, product design or narrower user experience focus should be possible anywhere.

Here’s a summary of the retrospective feedback:

  • We need ways to bridge organisational boundaries
  • We need more supportive organisation structures and culture
  • We need top cover support and buy in for user centred design and end to end services
  • We need owners and accountability for services as end users would recognise them
  • We need a broad focus on services not just a narrow focus on transactions or products
  • We need better business and operating models
  • We need to remember that large scale change is hard
  • You don’t need permission to get started

Here’s the feedback and some of the discussion highlights.

We need ways to bridge organisational boundaries

We heard about a lack of collaboration across individuals, teams or organisations on services.

The strongest feedback we heard at the workshop was about silo mentality. Situations where knowledge sharing and collaboration is being blocked for a number of reasons. This results from a lack of shared priorities, lack of shared and common understanding and communication and leads to major gaps preventing what could be cohesive services.

Silo mentality is also strong in companies that take a segmented approach to products or lines of business.

We heard about segregated teams, platforms and systems, often without any shared vision across products or any sort of wider view of services.

Communication was was an issue for teams, and individual team members, and even between organisations or departments and key stakeholders within organisations. It seems that communication between teams is especially hard or sometimes non-existent in larger and more complex organisations.

This is partly a language problem, or the problem of teams not having a shared language to talk about service design.

Some people felt constrained by organisational boundaries where they work. This is something that we often see happening with policy, design and delivery teams in government. We also heard that people working in silos can be working on the same thing at the same time.

We heard that teams jump around between unrelated projects and how there can be a lack vision and direction beyond ‘business’ goals relating to revenue.

We talked about taking the initiative to encourage collaboration between teams. Not waiting for permission to start doing this. Kate’s taxonomy for services is a great way to start thinking about finding a shared language for service design in your organisation.

It’s also worth remembering that boundaries between teams are natural – that’s what makes them distinct teams. Every organisation structure you can conceive of will result in some kind of boundary between groups so it’s naive to think that boundaries will go away. The work is to figure out ways to make things work across boundaries – we shared a few of these including visible shared outcomes, and using diagrams that help teams see where they fit.

We need more supportive organisation structures and culture

We heard about how organisational structure and governance is making service design difficult. There can be too many decision makers for individual projects and not enough accountability for solving actual problems or for working to achieve service outcomes.

This included everything from ‘weird organisation structure’ to design and UX teams being buried too deep in the hierarchy of the organisation to have enough influence over decision making.

There were practical difficulties like the number of projects or departments and lines of business versus the number of designers, and having to deal with too many different stakeholders.

People told us that they worked with organisations stuck with top down decision making. In these situations there’s often a very short term focus on outputs (being seen to deliver ‘something’ whether it’s the right thing or not), rather than outcomes.

We heard that design or UX can still be seen as belonging to one department or team rather than everyone’s responsibility.

We heard about organisations being stuck working with traditional values or processes. People starting projects for the wrong reasons. There was also the problem of dealing with inertia towards change from long-standing staff.

We talked about finding opportunities to orient things around service design. You can start by writing or rewriting project names and descriptions using simple and clear language, so that everyone understands what is actually happening and where money is currently being spent. Improving the understanding of, communication and clarity of design and investment decisions is a great way to raise the expectations for the impact design can have in an organisations thinking. When leading service design, we consider that one of the goals is to help individuals, teams and organisations to make better decisions about how best to invest time and money.

We need top cover support and buy in for user centred design

We heard that there’s a lack of digital leaders in senior management positions. Those that are in senior management positions often don’t understand digital or services (unless as an IT component), or can be resistant and defend other approaches. We also heard that people don’t feel like they have the senior buy in that they need so that they can go ahead and design services.

Not only is there not buy in for designing end to end services, we heard that many organisations are still not sold on user centred design. We sometimes take it for granted now that people recognise the value of user centred design, or working with a user centred approach.

We heard that senior management are not fully bought into user research and can revert to a plan that’s already in place. Some organisations still feel like talking to users is a waste of time, a nice to have, too expensive, or just something that slows down the development process.

People told us that they suffer from top down programmes and priorities and with getting senior stakeholders to recognise the value of design beyond interface design. There are also issues with design teams reporting to middle management layers who aren’t in the position to make or counter earlier decisions, even if senior leaders are backing good approaches to design.

We heard about being the authority for design without having the authority to affect change. It can be hard to find the right person to speak to make things happen (finding the person with the authority to affect design or product decisions).

We talked about getting top cover support for good service design, making good examples and publicising the work you do internally. It’s also possible to just become the top cover support over time, and sometimes reality distortion is necessary. It’s important to win friends and influence people while building allies and alliances. Kate’s advice is to embed yourself with decision makers and budget holders and then be willing to see change happen over longer periods e.g. 2 – 5 years. We’ve both seen that service design level change in an organisation takes considerable time and investment especially from individuals working to make these changes happen.

We need owners and accountability for services

We heard about problems of having no accountability for service design and also internal politics over ownership of services being an issue.

There’s plenty of IT solution, transaction or product ownership but far less end to end service ownership (of which IT solutions and products may support). This is often a political issue (causing turf war politics) inside organisations.

We talked about changing the mindset of the people you work with from owning solutions to being willing to own the problem and the outcome, or shifting the emphasis towards teams being invested in service outcomes, taking the lead to clearly understand problem spaces and helping teams work towards these. End to end service owners is a great goal and one that we’re seeing very early signs of, in a few places in government.

We need a broad focus on services, not a narrow focus on products or transactions

We heard about organisations having a narrow product focus where no one is thinking more broadly about services.

There’s a common problem of key stakeholders solutionising, with senior leaders getting stuck in solution mode. Any vision for products and services can be constrained by previous solutions and the desire to start with fixed solutions. This is often a short sighted view determined by senior management.

UX teams can labelled as interface design, and this becomes the starting point for work rather than taking a step back to understand the problem.

We talked about taking the initiative to frame the problem at every opportunity (anyone can do this by asking good questions). It’s important to keep a clear link back to user needs, policy (in government) or organisational objectives, making sure teams measure progress when working towards goals.

We need different business and operating models

Many people at the workshop worked in an agency model with clients, or within a large organisation that has a separate organisation for delivery of digital, data and technology projects, acting much like a consultancy.

For agencies we heard that there’s a challenge in winning the trust of clients to pay for service design. It’s essential that we find ways to show the value of service design when working in a client situation. There’s a challenge to redefine what we mean by deliverables when taking a service design approach to delivery and working towards a long term goal or mission – without this becoming associated with delivering artifacts that don’t actually change anything.

We heard about agencies and internal delivery partners both making outputs a higher priority than service outcomes for (understandable) contractual and financial reasons. It’s hard to get a board to sign off investment for identifying problems, working towards outcomes or experimenting with multiple solutions to see which will work best.

Service outcomes are hard to sell as a deliverable and things that could deliver value to end-users become out of scope.

In government this is something we see when making time for good user research to understand what’s the right thing to build, versus having to build something or commit to a delivery plan to secure funding in the first place.

It’s hard to work beyond a project brief to enable service design and many projects become static because of this. Teams also don’t have the downtime to explore new work or to experiment.

We believe that there are good examples of how to partner with organisations (or other parts of organisations) to manage expectations and work on outcomes, rather than just project deliverables.

It would be great to see more agencies and delivery partners having the conversation and sharing good practice for client work that challenges old models and thinking on how we broaden out the focus of delivery towards service design.

We need to remember that large scale change is hard

We heard that managing change is hard and that seeing change happen is a slow process.

People told us that they are trying to affect existing product goals and influence roadmaps, but often with little or no visible progress. Many were struggling to work with waterfall processes for companies wanting project plans and reporting that constrains service design.

In the workshop we shared a number of service design techniques and methods to help facilitate and work with organisations. Think about how you use scenarios, user journeys, pictures of a whole service, choreograph the work of other teams, and take the opportunity to prototype parts of a service or patterns.

We talked about the importance and opportunity of prototyping entire services, and why we lean towards ways to test riskiest assumptions rather than MVPs (faking services to test riskiest assumptions). It’s important to show that you can help people make faster progress towards their organisation goals using a range of good communication and design approaches.

You don’t need permission to get started

We finished the workshop by asking if anyone had any final comments. One comment stuck with me:

“The most important thing that I’ve learned today is I don’t need to wait to for permission to start doing service design.”

This is a perfect summary of many of the things we shared in the workshop. You don’t need permission to start leading service design.

To lead service design you need to be willing to ask good questions, helping people to collaborate better and to think differently about a problem and the way that they’re solving it.

As the retrospective feedback shows, service design is never easy but there’s nothing stopping you from getting started. That’s just what we’ve done.

Thanks to everyone that attended the workshop. I hope you found it as useful as we did putting all the material together.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.