Monday, November 19, 2012

Design and design thinking in public services

Design Commission Inquiry into Redesigning Public Services
Evidence from Lucy Kimbell
Session 11.10.2012

This is an edited version of the comments I made giving evidence to the Design Commission Inquiry into Redesigning Public Services taking place over the past few months, led by Policy Connect and its Associate Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group. This has involved many people from a wide range of backgrounds giving evidence about the role of design and design thinking in public services to the expert steering group. The Social Design Talks series I co-organise with Jocelyn Bailey of Policy Connect and Guy Julier of the Victoria and Albert Museum/University of Brighton is also feeding in to this process.

Lucy Kimbell: This is quite academic so I apologise but I do think it’s useful… I’ve made some notes to organise my thoughts and they’re in three broad categories. The first: what is design? What is that word doing? And for who? Secondly, is design thinking changing that in some way – in terms of how, operationally, you can embed design in organisations… and then thirdly design as a professional field and its weak institutional base and why, even though design people think we know how to sort these things out, we somehow don’t have the institutional power to be in there straight away – we have to make the case constantly.

One of the first things to address is that even if you’re in design, it’s incredibly hard to define what design is. Do we mean design in the mode of engineering, do we mean architecture, do we mean communications design, do we mean digital interactions? And even if you look at the academic literature on design, there are two major distinctions, which then come out – is design about giving shape and form to things? And that thing could be a physical product or it could be a digital interaction. Or is it about making change happen? 

The important definition here is from Herbert Simon, from 1969: everyone who devises courses of action, to change existing situations into preferred ones, is doing design. Anybody who is trying to change anything into a preferred situation is basically doing design. And that is not about giving shape and form, making stuff. That is a massive tension that comes up again and again in these discussions.

Then that stuff around changing behaviours and interactions and services and systems is much more palatable when you look through that second lens. But that tension is incredibly strong – this is not trivial, that design is really hard to define.

Let’s turn to a third definition, which takes that Herbert Simon idea, and pushes it a little bit further…
In Herbert Simon’s book, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 – he won the Nobel prize for economics – he did a lot of work in computer software and artificial intelligence, and he came out thinking the thing that we’re all doing is actually design. That quote I just gave is the most famous quote from it. But it’s part of a much longer chunk which then goes on to say, in essence management, medicine and engineering are all design professions. And if you say that to a doctor they think ‘well I diagnose and then I’m trying to change the state of the patient – which has a physical effect – so yes’. But then you have this problem which some designers go into of saying actually ‘design is everything’. If you push it that far you are saying design is everything, and therefore designers can tackle anything. Which is not necessarily the case. So that definition on the one hand seems right, but it also alludes to this question about design and management – are they really different? Management is about supporting people to do whatever they want to do better – which might be citizens, or might be customers buying an airline ticket…

Armand Hatchuel is a professor from the Ecole des Mines in Paris – which is an engineering school, but he basically writes in management theory – and he is the most interesting and profound person writing in design theory in the last 10-20 years. He revisits Herbert Simon and says ‘Simon was absolutely right, design is critical for organisations and mostly ignored.’ He then presents two situations. You’ve got a group of people who want to go out on Saturday night. They decide they want to go to the cinema – they’re going to ‘design’ their Saturday night. Going to the cinema is basically choice selection. You’ve got a these films on in these cinemas, how do we choose? But we know what the end result is. We don’t know how good the film will be, but it’s a defined problem. That is choice. Making choices.

Actually, what design is: the example he gives is designing a party. It’s the same group of friends, on a Saturday night – not going to the cinema, they’re going to design a party. What’s a party? It could be any number of things. It could be ten people, or a hundred people, it could be with dancing, it could be with food. It’s an unknown – the outcome isn’t yet defined. And that (although he has a much more theoretical version of it, actually quite readable) that is what design is: it’s about expanding the set of options. Not about selecting between options.

Herbert Simon, although he is saying design is important, actually means selecting between options. Whereas design is about the creation of new options. So it is about creativity and generativity.
A limited number of people actually read Armand Hatchuel – even if you’re in management – but design theory people mostly don’t read him. So while this is theoretical stuff, it points to these problems that most of us on the ground have in conversation with a client, which is about ‘what actually are you doing?’ Are you designing a physical thingy, or are you helping us change how we engage with citizens? Which is a change process, which is then a different thing, and necessarily involves ‘the organisation’, which most designers are terrible at doing. They don’t know how to do that: it’s not their training. Some of them might have ended up being good at that, at working with people and facilitation, but they don’t have the analytical skills for doing stuff inside organisations. And unlike for products, when organisations are designing services, the consumption and production is happening at the same time. The organisation is the entity that is the service: it is just a load of interactions with digital and physical things, and with people.

This raises a lot more questions which, quite frankly, for me, are not answered right now. But it comes back to this definition: what is design about? And in reality you’ve got both of those things – you do want the webpage to be well designed, and the leaflet, and the interaction with your Citizens Advice advisors – the person-to-person face time stuff. Those all do require designing. But does it mean that designers are necessarily good at that? That’s one of the reasons why this is so hard: and it is really hard. It is not as though academics – those of us who read and write about this stuff – are in agreement about what is the core of design.

A simpler version of this is – if you look at the dictionary definition, there is the verb and the noun. When you’re talking about the ‘design of a service’, there’s the noun: the actual finished arrangement of the service. And then there are blueprints and artefacts along the way, which are designs towards the final design. Then there’s the process of ‘doing designing’, and then there’s the field as a profession. So that’s four different potential meanings for the word design. And if we’re talking with a local authority manager who is buying design: what are they buying? Which of those four things? And again, what does a person who calls themselves a designer, who maybe went to CSM and did web design and is now peddling service design: what is it that they are offering? Are they good at all those things? I’ll come to this again later – how we know what to go on.

So, another thing then from within the management perspective…  I have read a lot of the management literature, I teach design on an MBA, where I am confronted with making a space for this design stuff, but  there is a sense that all my other colleagues are asking ‘well what are you adding? We already teach that.’ ‘What do you mean by design?’ always comes out. Hence I’ve bothered to read all this literature and get clearer for myself. But for them, it’s two things. Really it’s a phase in new product development. Design is not the same as new product development. It is a phase in new product and service development. There’s your first ‘research and discovery’ – what you’re trying to do, your aims and objectives. Then your engagement with the detail of the users etc, the analysis of what they want, and segmentation. And then there’s design, and then there is prototyping and roll-out. So design is a phase. If you look at management literature design is a phase. But for example, what the Design Council are saying is, as designers we own product development. We can do that whole arc. And maybe some do, really well, but actually in most organisations that I’ve come across, ‘a manager’ does that whole arc. A product manager, with a management training, or a project manager, is responsible for that whole arc – and the design bit is a bit in the middle. But designers want to take over the whole thing. And some do incredibly well at that.

But there is a tension there again about what that word ‘design’ is doing.

Thomas Kohut: So would a design manager say ‘well I can do that whole thing?’

Lucy: No it’s worse than that, some designers think they can do the whole thing. They can elicit what the users want or should have or could have, analyse that, interpret that, engage with stakeholders, articulate the requirements, visualise, prototype, idea generate, blah blah blah – through to then someone delivering it. So a designer will try and do that. My observation about organisations I’ve worked with, which range from Deutsche Bank to Vodafone – there are few people called ‘design managers’. They exist in the Design Council’s universe. They barely exist in most organisations unless they’re very product centric.

Julian Grice: Well they’re certainly not service innovation people… And of course (and I agree with everything you’re talking about), as a designer you always stray to the very front of the argument – because actually it’s all about the user. And sometimes there will be some insight that modifies ‘this plan for that particular service’.

Lucy: But the designer doesn’t own it. They own it. And this is one of the things I’ve learned from teaching MBAs. I used to teach at the Royal College – I used to teach designers who were utterly brilliant, but at the end of the day when I started teaching MBAs I thought ‘oh this is so much more fun’. Because these are the people who own the project. They hire a designer to help them with this whole arc. And the venture and the opportunity and all of that. They scope that, and then they write the brief, which a good designer will probably then turn into a different brief, and do that front end work. But the management people own the design. Not the designer.

Carol Moonlight: What we’ve seen – and maybe a parallel shift is needed. What we’ve seen in the online world, is the IT people, the techie people own it, which is invariably a bad idea. They should be called on as consultants, and give their expertise as appropriate, but they shouldn’t own the end to end process.

Lucy: So that’s why this is actually about management, not about design. It’s about who owns that thing. And that comes back to the Herbert Simon definition – it’s about change. It’s about the shift online, or the changing relationship with users, or saving money by getting citizens to cut costs by doing whatever it is. Those set of aims at the beginning of a project – which generally designers are not involved in – are formulated around policy and organisational goals. So the design of public services is actually a management question, not a design question. But there are then opportunities for designers, design thinking, to play into that, because those managers rarely come from that background.

Jocelyn Bailey: You might be about to come on to this, but how is it then that the design profession has ended up positioning itself entirely outside of that process?

Lucy: Exactly! So if most managers think that they are designing a service – and I work with people who are designing a service – I’m currently working with the Metropolitan Services Trust, a housing provider and particularly offering services for older people… They are designing the service. I’m not designing it. They just hired in The Young Foundation, and my team to do a little tiny bit of work – they are definitely designing it. We’re just helping them with a few gaps where I’ve said ‘I can help you here… and I think you should do this…’ and they said ok. But they are designing it.
So the design response to the fact that actually managers own all of this, whatever they are technically called in an organisation, is to say either: ‘we can do the whole arc for you… give us everything and we can do that. We’ve got this thing called “design thinking” that you can’t do. You think you know your users – well we can know them better. We’ve got some special methods, we’ve got some special participatory ways of eliciting more deeply what they want. You’ll sit them in a room in a focus group and ask them, we’ll go study them. So we’ve got methods ’. Which I am going to come to shortly.

And the other design response – like from the Design Council’s work – is about trying to quantify ‘our impact is “this”. If you hire us you’ll get a better design’ – which is incredibly hard to measure. And I would say, having read a lot of the literature, most of those attempts to define the value of design, aren’t very good. Yet. And as you know the Design Council and the AHRC are commissioning some work on that. It’s not easy to measure… to get clear comparative studies. And most design consultants want them. They want to be able to say ‘I did this, if we hadn’t involved ourselves… the impact of us on your project was this, this and this.’ But it’s very hard to get that… And we’re in this culture where you have to have statistics, and maybe some qualitative evidence… So that’s one of the responses as well, is to say ‘let’s get some really good data to prove that we’re really great’.

One response is to say ‘we’ve got this magical design thinking’, the other is to say ‘we’ll get you better data’. And then the third, which I think is more tricky but more interesting is to reconstitute the problem itself – to say ‘this isn’t even the right question’. And just to do stuff, in a completely different context, which then reframes what the question should be. An example for me would be My Society – they’re not necessarily designers, although they’ve got some designers in there – where they just say ‘we’re just going to go and do it over here’. Which then changes the nature of the debate. They don’t ask the DWP to hire them as consultants, they just go and do it because something should exist, and they believe that’s the way it should be done.

Returning to the Herbert Simon definition of ‘making change’… they’re making an artefact. A different artefact, over here, that is great – and then it forces other people to realise they can’t do it themselves. ’We would never have asked for that, we would never have written the brief, but oh look it does all this other stuff and it changes how the conversation happens.’

Carol: Just returning to outcomes… Evidencing that is expensive – longitudinal studies are expensive. Very rarely do we get the money to do it.

Lucy: There are potential ways around that though. If we’re in a culture where we need to have better research about outcomes… universities for example are really good at research. They would be the potential organisations you could work with…

Julian: Whilst designers always complain about the brief never being right – it’s the collaboration in that arc that is important. And designers will always bleat on about the fact that they do have voice, amongst a number of other voices that is worth listening to, before you present them with their phase. Consumer brands are better at that than public services, broadly.

Lucy: You’re also battling against professional culture. But to get on to the design profession… the third thing I wanted to say is then, is the design profession – meaning the people who went to design school of some kind, call themselves a designer (not a manager), think about this stuff a lot – what is it that that profession is doing right now.

And one of the important things is that, unlike engineers and unlike architects, those other kinds of designers are not a chartered profession. They are not strong institutionally. They weren’t founded in the 1880s, they don’t have a Royal Charter, they don’t have a guiding professional body. They don’t have strong rules about who is in and who is out, and what happens if you fail. You can’t get sued in the same way – you’re probably not going to kill anybody from your bad design (whereas you might if you are an engineer and your building falls down). So then the boundary work – that managing of who is in and who is out is done by those institutions. In the sort of design worlds that we’re in – anyone is in. Anyone could call themselves a designer tomorrow – print a card saying user interaction designer – and then everyone would say, ‘oh, really?’ It’s a culture, it’s not institutionally strong…

And that matters because it’s about the ability to speak to power, and make claims about your authority and your professional expertise. So I would say design, meaning not engineering or architecture, which of course are diverse design fields anyway and design is a multitude of fields, obviously… But it’s institutionally weak. It’s got a poor academic knowledge base. It’s got utterly brilliant practitioners, but they are mostly working in very small firms, with good interpersonal links and so on, but there is not a strong knowledge network, and ways of recognising what is good knowledge, and what isn’t. And maybe that was fine for product design or graphic design or communications, maybe that was fine… But it’s really not ok for this context. For talking to government.

So there are some people who are trying to now create a stronger charter for design – but they’re about 150 years too late in creating that institution.

Jocelyn: Who is doing that?

Lucy: I think James Moultrie is involved. And a design lecturer at Nottingham Trent. Anyway so there is a bunch of people on the back of the same analysis saying ‘right we’re going to try and make that thing’ – whether that works in the current environment, where professions don’t have the same value as in the 1850s… It’s a different thing. Though we are all professionals flogging our skills and knowledge to other providers.

Julian: There is a huge irony in all of that designers are schizophrenic on their own topic: they desperately want credibility and authority and voice… but on the other hand they love fragmentation, divergence – and they can’t possibly agree.

Thomas: And they are in business and making money without it. You can see they would question the need for a professional body.

Julian: Well they all say that they do. But the reality is convincing them they are all part of the same thing has been challenging. What you need, is a crisis. A crisis in the design sector which creates a complete lack of credibility…

Lucy: Yes. Some really terrible things happening from bad design. If buildings falling down did that over some decades for architecture… death and destruction is one kind of crisis. So what is the same thing for design…? I’m not sure it’s going to play out in that way. And the other interesting parallel is that management consultants don’t have that, and they do just fine. They peddle recipes and methods, they peddle professional knowledge – they don’t have authorising bodies either, so maybe it’s not required. But they have numbers. They have different modes of operating as well.

So those are some questions for the field – for the multitude of professions. For me it’s not surprising that this is incredibly complex  stuff and difficult for government departments to buy, because they don’t know what design is – because no-one else does – they don’t see professional authority, and competence that is validated in ways they understand…

And then we come to design thinking – one of the other things that’s being peddled. I think that’s been an interesting development. And when I think about what characterises a designerly approach (so this refers to people from the culture of design, who studied design, work in design consultancies, care about user experience and what things look like – as one symptom of their behaviour) I think there are three or four different characteristics. These vaguely map onto design thinking, but I have a particular take on that which we could later get into…

So one is the focus on – not human-centredness, I don’t think that’s the right term – but human scale. Focussing on experiences and capacities of users, which is very much the case in the citizen space, in a social and material world. One of the problems when that language of ‘human-centred’ gets adopted by these manager-types – they are just adopting marketing speak. They say they know they need their services to be citizen centred. I’ve already read lots of documents that say ‘our services will be citizen centred’. But they don’t know what it means. They can’t operationally do it. They are not of the culture which really profoundly attends to human experiences at human scale  and pays attention to the artefacts. Designers do pay attention to the artefacts within the social world. Most managers think the artefacts are something you do later once you’ve worked out the strategy. The artefacts come later (unless they’re within some aspects of operations management). So that is something that does distinguish the designerly approach: it’s at the human scale. It’s not the macro picture, it’s actually this quite small ‘what are we doing in this room right now, what are the objects, what are the human interactions?’

And I’m not saying that other people don’t do it. This is one of my problems with design thinking – when you look closely at these things – although you could say designers in this culture do do those things, it doesn’t mean others don’t. For example: the army really cares about ‘stuff’. Because if that goes wrong, in the middle of an invasion, then you’re f*****. And the same with Citizens Advice – if you get the forms and the bits of paper wrong then it doesn’t work. So there are other professions that do care about the interactions of the people and the stuff and the teams. But certainly designers do do that. And the probably care more about the crafting of those things, as a starting point.

Secondly: I would say designers are analytical – to do any design work, somebody has to do some analytical work (the segmenting of the users, etc – and working out which of the things they’ve moaned about are the ones that matter). But actually I think more profound from a designerly training/ background/ profession/ skill is the ability to synthesise by giving shape and form. So it’s ‘I’ve listened to everything you’ve said, now here is my sketch for that webpage and how it should be.’ The very rapid synthesis, not ‘let’s write a list of how it could be changed, and then write another list, and then have another five meetings’, but ‘here it is right now, on a piece of paper’. Which is not the same as making it visual. For me the emphasis is on the synthesising. The ability to say ‘I’ve heard what you’ve said and those interviews from those five users and now I’ve synthesised it’. That very fast, very quick work. And that is in the production of artefacts. In which the visual plays an important part. And a lot of designers will say it’s because they are visual – and that is part of it but more important for me is the synthesising ability.

A third thing is: coming back to Hatchuel – the generative and the creating. The creating of the new. And I think for cultural, psychological, cognitive, motivational – all sorts of complex reasons – some people are really good at generating ideas and some people are not. So I think those designers generally are good at having lots of ideas. And some of those managers sitting in DWP are not. They might have one idea, and then they really stick to it. Typically the studies of designers show they have a gazillion ideas, and they just keep having more and more. And there’s for them a sort of pleasure in having lots of ideas. And other people are not like that. So there is definitely something about generative creativity, which is celebrated and practiced in design culture. And rewarded.

And the fourth thing is an exploratory inquiry approach, which includes prototyping. It’s not that you have the right answer… You may get solution fixation, but you may also just keep throwing away your ideas from one day to the next. So it’s not just the generation – it’s the co-evolution of the problem and the solution (Nigel Cross in design theory writes about this). So it’s not a linear model, where you understand the problem, and you work towards a solution, which is the model in books. It’s more like a real life model – you have an understanding of the problem, you suggest a solution, and the insight that gives you makes you keep going back to re-evaluate the problem and find better solutions – you keep evolving the problem and solutions. This often gets translated as ‘iterative’. The fact that is it iterative is not the important thing, it’s the fact that you keep refining your understanding of what the issue is that you’re working with. Most organisations are not geared up to do that. They want to define a problem, sort out a solution, put some resources to it, and then make it go away. Again, it’s not only designers – entrepreneurs do this as well – but research shows it is certainly true of designers.

One other thing that is part of that exploratory approach is the assumption by designers that they don’t know best – they usefully don’t know. Their lack of expertise is generative for a project. The whole design approach is actually about continuous learning for the organisation. Now of course there are management things that are about continuous process improvement – which aren’t a million miles away. But they’re less fun/ messy – much more outcome-y – there is something culturally distinct about them, although there are overlaps.

If you look at design thinking and the people who write about it, you can see echoes of these things. This is just my formulation of some of the key distinguishing things. And so it comes back to the question of who has authority to do it. Other people may well recognise in their work, that they already do these things – so then it’s really hard for designers to claim that as their professional territory. Because if other people are already practicing these things – what is it that designers are contributing?
The only thing I can suggest is what I have observed from people who are not designers coming on my MBA course. And they choose it not really knowing what it is, and by the end of it they are better able to see the service world they’re in.

Through all of that stuff I’ve just given you the condensed version of, the students think about their world of work differently – they see themselves as being in a learning process, they pay more attention to the artefacts at human scale – they see that the touchpoints and the artefacts matter more than they thought. They are aware of what good design is, in a different way to before. That is achieved by a learning journey that is partly reading some theory, but also doing designing. And you could equally well do that with some senior civil servants. It has potential amazing effects. It’s not about a designer standing there telling them about a great web page.