Over the past year or so I have noticed a rising trend in the use of the word ‘design’ and more worryingly ‘re-design’ throughout the public sector. This is in no doubt due in part to the development of Service Design as a discipline and brilliant reports such as the Design Commission’s ‘Restarting Britain’ which advocate the use of design thinking to solve some of societies tricky issues. There is certainly a buzz, and as a Service Designer in the public sector this should make me happy, but I have to say I’m a little concerned about how the term design is being used and interpreted. It has become common place for ministers and social or political commentators to announce that a particular part of our public sector is being ‘re-designed’, but I’m not sure that people are really clear about what that means. My real problem with the overuse of the word design is that people sometimes don’t understand what it means, and my problem with the use of the term ’re-design’ is that it implies that the service was designed in the first place. In my mind just because something exists doesn’t mean to say that its creation followed a design process, and this is important.
I was recently asked to give an introduction to service design. I hope the approach I took will go some way to explaining what I feel design is, and highlight why I’m concerned that the misinformed overuse of the word might water down its importance.
I stood in front of a room full of people, took out a square piece of card and rolled it into a cone.
“Do you like my cup?” I asked.
I received a mixed response. As a vessel, the cone might hold liquid for a time, but its creation was far from considered. It had several limitations. I asked the people to call them out.
“It won’t stand up” one shouted. “It’s got a hole in the bottom” called out another “and the card is porous”.
They were right. I had simply created it without really understanding either my challenge or they way in which it might be used. It could be argued that many of our public services have been created in the same way. After all they were created during a post war time of need. There wasn’t much time to think about how the service could be ‘delightful’. Times were desperate, people urgently needed help and many were so desperate that they were grateful for what was provided by the people in Whitehall. Moving on however things are now very different. Resources are scarce and public expectations are high. We have moved away from a society shouting ‘I need’ and have arrived at one shouting ‘I want’. The trouble is that our public services aren’t flexible enough to accommodate them. We are still dealing with the legacy of our post war institutions of need. I decided to move the discussion on.
“OK, so tell me a little about your drinking habits” I asked.
“I love tea” one shouted, “I haven’t got time to drink my first coffee of the day at home; I drink it during the drive to work“ shouted another, “I need a large handle” called someone from the back of the room, “I like to make a smoothy and drink it slowly” shouted another, “Are you buying” called out a comedian, “Mine is a double” laughed his friend.
By asking them I had illustrated that not only did people expect to use the vessel in different ways, but they needed to carry different types of liquid. Some wanted to carry hot liquids, others wanted to carry cold liquids and keep them cold, and some wanted to carry something a little stronger. Asking people direct questions about their drinking habits had therefore turned up some interesting insights, but if you add into the mix some ethnographic research into the way that people live and the things that they value, the insights become truly rich. Turning this rich ‘little data’ into personas allows us to design for a specific group of people, for example ‘The Tea Runners’ or ‘The Cool Sippers’ of this word perhaps.
I asked the group “This type of approach is logical right? We should be doing this surly?”
As a society we owe it to ourselves to put the same amount of effort into creating our public services as we do into our coffee machines, dyson hoovers and other desirable lifestyle objects. After all there is a reason that they fit our lives so well. It is because they have been researched, considered, DESIGNED. When you dig deep I think it is this that a lot of the people using terms such as ‘design’ and ‘re-design’ fail to understand.
I am clear that we need to be using design tools and techniques to develop our public services of the future. Without the application of design thinking there is a danger that our public services will remain / become unfit for purpose during a time where public resources are scarce and public expectations are high. Designing services is about understanding the customer and turning those insights into innovative new approaches to tackling age old social issues; without this we simply create. Building multi disciplinary and multi skilled design teams from within an organisation brings fresh thinking to specific challenges. Only by understanding our customers will we be able to build sustainable services which are flexible and cost effective, and by designing to people’s strengths rather than a perceived need we might even be able to move away from people shouting ‘I need’, or ‘I want’, on through to ‘give me the tools and I can do it myself’.
As the public’s understanding of design as a discipline and not simply a verb increases, I am hopeful that the term ‘re-design’ will disappear and in its place will be a clear understanding of what the term ‘design’ actually means and a shift away from the perception that it is only about the superficial. After all, how public services are designed is central to their purpose, their function, their character. Design is about the application of hard disciplines, not soft furnishings [Design Commission – Restarting Britain 2: Design & Public Services]
Why don’t you make it your mission to #EmbedDesignThinking into your organisation?