Good design lies in the spaces in between

Zone content designer Turi Henderson-Palmer comes out of SofaConf’s Service Design day with a complete change of perspective…

Like most UX designers these days, I am trained in the philosophical and practical application of Human-Centred Design. But let’s remind ourselves that UX means User Experience, and that is much more than just an elegant workflow or a functional interface. And this, I discovered at SofaConf, is where Service Design steps up.

I’d heard ‘Service Design’ mentioned as a buzzy thing in consulting circles but hadn’t given it much thought, so I went into SofaConf’s Service Design day with an open but slightly sceptical mind. It was much more interesting than I expected. I experienced several ‘a-ha moments,’ over the course of the day, but Dr Sarah Drummond really grabbed my attention during her talk about ‘Full-stack Service Design’ when she said:

“You can have the best design ops, tools, designers and funding in the world but the user experience can still be terrible.”

I mean…yes. Obviously. Designers know this. But when she followed up with: “Make yourself useful by mitigating risks for the organisation,” and “We all have a role in consciously designing better user experiences, not just at the point of the interface,” I felt like she was hitting me right in my personal design ethic — Service Design suddenly became real to me.

Dr Drummond, the CEO of design consultancy Snook, gave an example of a retail client wanting to increase their customers returning unwanted items to the shop, then seeing that uptick happen when they followed the suggestion to change their return policy from 14 to 30 days, rather than initiate a marketing campaign or make spendy changes to their website. It was an elusive, beautiful solution that clearly embodies those three ideas, meeting the needs of the user and the business without a huge amount of design effort or expenditure.

Often it’s not the interface that’s the problem, it’s the system around it. Icebergs may be an overused visual metaphor but the one Dr Drummond shared is glorious and complex, and drives home the idea that designers need to consider not just the user experience and business processes of the solution they’re designing, but also the complexities of a client’s infrastructure, organisation and system, and their intent.

© 2020 Dr. Sara Drummond, Snook

It’s intent, I think, that is most important to understand, and bringing the intent of the business and the intent of the user together needs empathy. In the foreword to Lou Downe’s book Good Services: How to design services that work (which was also the title of their talk earlier in the day), Mike Monteiro says: “You’ve got to care more about the people on the other end of the screen than about what’s on the screen,” and I think this is absolutely true.

Downe is the director of Housing and Land Transformation for the UK government, and a key part of their presentation was the idea that we, as designers, must steer our clients towards making their organisations user-centred, and toward the understanding that they’re actually service providers. Even if what they think they offer is a product (eg hotel rooms), services exist around the product (eg booking a hotel room), and thoughtful design of that integrated experience of service and product is what will make a sale, ease a process, solve a problem and keep a customer.

And, as it happens, simple solutions are usually the best — as Dr Drummond’s return policy example shows, we can make big changes by doing simple things. If we can put ourselves into the shoes of our clients, their users and all of the players around them, then examine the problem strategically, we’ll often find the answer in an unlikely space.

My takeaway from these two talks is pretty simple: good design of any kind has, at its core, Service Design, and we should understand and empathise with both the client and the user to find the spaces between to identify and solve design problems. We need to embrace the strategic role of our designer’s perspective enthusiastically, and apply it regularly.

I went in to SofaConf thinking I’d expand my understanding of the broader discipline of design, but I never expected to walk out with an entirely new mindset and approach to the work that I do.

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