Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Embedding service design

Last week's seminar on Embedding Design at the Royal Society of Arts, London, offered a snapshot of current issues in service design and management and raised some questions about what kinds of thing need to be known to bring this approach into large organizations. Organized by Emily Campbell, director of design at the RSA, and the National Policing Improvement Agency as part of their own enquiry into the strategic use of design, the workshop brought together designers, policymakers, anthropologists and managers from organisations seeking improvement and innovation.

Speakers were:

- Lynne Maher, NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, who set up the project in which designers ThinkPublic brought an (experience-based) design-led approach to the design of cancer services in the NHS, written up in Bate and Robert's excellent book "Bringing user experience to healthcare improvement" (2007). Lynne described how this work has moved forward through the creation of the "Productive Ward" presented to managers as more efficient, and to nurses as giving them more time to spend with patients, and how she and her team have to translate the language of designers to the languages of the different constituencies they work with.

- Tony Coultas of Skills Development Scotland, a national agency that is now putting customer experience at the centre of their service designing activities, including an in-house team of designers. Tony described how he saw design as an important link between policy and delivery, building a space to create better services and be a catalyst for change by focussing on the customer experience.

- Ben Reason of leading (and indeed the first?) service innovation and design consultancy live|work, described three different ways his firm has worked with clients Streetcar, Haringey Council's housing services, and Skills Development Scotland. Demonstrating a rare modesty among design professionals, he said "Design isn't good at everything" adding that his firm have found they have had to get more and more collaborative. Ben suggested that design is characterised by change, outside-in perspectives, provocation and a horizontal view, where as business is more concerned with consistency, an inside-out perspective, reassurance and being vertical.

- anthropologist Simon Roberts of Intel, sharing his experience of the issues raised by trying to embed anthropology within large organizations. His experience is that the "value" of anthropology is not easy to identify, often connected to a shift in thinking rather than to specific benefits to particular technologies or bits of IP. Given the complexity of modern organizations, he suggested that part of the value was that anthropology "gives the organization an opposable thumb" - invoking a phrase that Roger Martin has also used in his writing.

I gave an overview of design and service theory, lite, summarised in a 2x2 matrix (download PDF here) which captures two tensions in the literature: the "how" of design ranging from an idea of design as determinate and procedural (eg Simon 1969) in which the desired state of affairs is known at the outset, to an idea of design as exploration (eg Cross 2006; Schon 1983; Rittel and Webber 1973); and the "what" is being designed ranging from a conceptualisation that sees products and services as quite different kinds of thing, to a more generalisable idea of service (in the singular) following Vargo and Lusch's (2004) description of a shift to a service-dominant logic in which everything is service. For me, the kinds of practices that emerge from the art-school tradition of exploratory design, which reframe encounters with things and people and structures as opportunities for service, is the space that I understand as designing for service.

The ensuing discussion raised familiar questions. What is design? What is service design? Is it really different from other kinds of design? How can organizations bring in some of its concepts, tools and practices? How can this kind of design be managed and what resources are required? Does it "work" - in terms of helping cut costs or save money (compared to say Lean Manufacturing), or make improvements or innovate? How are Lynne's team trying to scale these practices in the NHS? What works and what doesn't? What might all this mean for the National Policing Improvement Agency, who are at an earlier stage in the process? Is now the perfect opportunity for designing for service to move forward, as the UK faces budget cuts affecting nearly all public services?

As I have found in my research, it is hard to separate these questions out because of the nature of service-based organizations and because (good) designers are attentive to, and able to work with, questions of value rather than just making pretty things and from the end user's point of view the pretty (or ugly, or unusable..) things constitute the service. However any discussion that fails to make the links between emerging practices such as "service design" in the art-school tradition and existing knowledge about services in (often dull) management literatures and the social sciences, will hamper efforts to build the knowledge base organizations need to move forward.