Thinking Out Loud

"Straight from the horse's mouth"
Billy Watson Senior Front End Developer

UX Crunch - Service Design

Thinking of design as a process, not an output, can help you look at UX holistically and allow it to be much more than just the screen.

On Tuesday 24th September there was a UX Crunch meetup at one of WeWork's spaces in Manchester. It was focused on Service Design, one of Absurd's areas of expertise, so a few of us made the short trip down to Dalton Place after work.

After welcome drinks and mingling, it was time for the speakers. Charles Burdett (@DurableStretch) is a freelance UX Consultant, most recently working with Co-op but with experience at other Manchester companies including the BBC.

Stacey Birkett (staceybirkett) is the Head of Product and Service Design at BrightHR, and did a PhD in The Development of Responsibility in Product Designers before agency and in-house roles around Manchester.

Charles opened by saying that Service Design is simply a label, that gives permission for UX to do more than just the screen - to design what the whole experience is like and allow them to affect the entire service from end to end.. letting you to look at UX holistically.

He went on to tell a story, involving primitive stick men and an even more primitive Yorkshire accent. The story involved a store manager at the Co-op joining the Innovation team and revolutionising their twenty-year-old gap report process by making an app and following an approach called Lean UX.

They mapped out the typical process, made a mockup and tested it in a Co-op store, checked it was technically feasible to build and then made and tested a more detailed prototype to ensure it made sense. Following several more rounds of tweaks, store tests and iterations they had no more problems or questions and knew they could devote time to building the app without issue.

The core principle of the story was think, make and check, and the team went from assumption to live software in eight weeks - launching nationwide and saving 22.7 million sheets of paper along the way. There were three Service Design 'secrets' embedded in the tale:

The first was to trust the process. Small, cross-functional, dedicated, collocated and problem-focused (not deliverable-focused) teams can help with this; as does getting out of the building - they couldn't have achieved what they did without testing on other people. Continuous discovery is invaluable.. you should constantly test your assumptions and remove waste (i.e. unnecessary steps) whilst also reducing the need for documentation through shared understanding.

The second is to know when to use the right tools. Service mapping illustrates exactly what happens in a service, creating a shared understanding which highlights unnecessary process and becomes a communication tool. Assumption collecting - asking questions at the start of the project to garner both business and user assumptions - gets them out in the open and removes potentially costly surprises later on.

Once you have your assumptions you can map (prioritise) them based on how much we know about them and their risk to the business. They can then be researched and validated (or invalidated) before being used in a hypothesis statement. This is basically framing assumptions in an experiment; which allows you to "fail fast" - a core UX principle.

Because we saw …, we believe that …, we'll know this is true when … . Framing problems in this way encourages the team to be experimental, and gives you permission to fail: which is OK - because when you fail, you learn.

The third secret is to create an inclusive and experimental team culture, which should happen naturally as a result of the first two secrets. Language is the most important thing for this.. A lot of the above terminology is dense, and scientific words can exclude and put people off, especially stakeholders. It's better for everyone to just use plain English.

Stacey began by saying Service Design isn't a new concept - having first been coined in 1984 - aligning with the adage that it can take a good thirty years for a term to be adopted by industry. As the Nielsen Group say: UX Design is often attributed to "what", whereas Service Design is the "how". You can't have one without the other, and though they share methodologies and processes they are different.

As people everyday we make decisions, and those decisions make an impact. Designers have responsibility because you're putting things into the world that either add value or don't. It's important to remind yourself that there's somebody at the end of that too.

During her thesis Stacey looked at design as a verb: the action of ideas, judgements, actions and behaviours. Thinking of it as the process of design, not the output - and Service Design mirrors this. She said that there's a definition of design she always gravitates to - "the transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones".

An example she gave was that in businesses silos form, the silos then create gaps and these gaps allow disjointed experiences to manifest. As a result, people panic and they call in the agency to come and fix all the problems. Agencies tend to be more collaborative, but a lot of the time budgets only allow the agency to work with one department - which is beneficial but might not fully transpire through the organisation.

Politics and company culture often aren't addressed. The scale of the problems are often not large enough to cover the entire experience so therefore the solution is limited, and good intentions don't always become reality. In terms of culture, specific individuals can feel threatened and as a result try not to get involved as much, so the problems get solved within isolation.

You need to break down how the silos work. The whole business needs to buy into the process and be open to the change. The leaders need to support it as they're the ones who make the decisions - but that can be tricky as people don't like change and things could have been the same way for 30 years. For example, there was actually an opportunity for Blockbuster to get into digital in its embryonic phase, but stubborn management turned it down.

So, what can we do to change things for the better? Whether you're in-house or in agency, don't just attend work. Make sure you're really there and really engaged in it. Understand the company you're working for, and understand the value you can take to them. Speak to the people making decisions in the business, talk about ways you might be able to improve processes.

We should aspire to be experts. Spend time with people who challenge your ideas and ways of working, find people in your business who don't think that design adds value. Show them the value of doing something, but also, as important, is to also show them the value of not doing it and you'll get the traction from them.

Find your methods. Try different methods. Different stakeholders will respond to different things, and you have to find the ones that get the best out of those people.. so don't be afraid to experiment. The methodologies that are there aren't necessarily the best ones!

Think of design as operational, not just outputs. It's not just a website or an app - it might be, but it's everything that goes along with it and everyone that's touched by it. It's important to think about it as an entire operation, and Service Design allows us to do that whereas sometimes UX can be a bit insular.