Last week we (Rahma and Joy from the Service Design Team) attended the yearly SDinGov Conference in Edinburgh. The three day event is made up of leaders and experts in the industry who deliver keynotes, talks and workshops that cover various topics across the Service Design discipline. This year’s topics focused on designing beyond user needs and with the environment in mind, the role of power and privilege in design, methods/tools for delivering better services to the importance of storytelling in design (delivered by Rahma with friends from MHCLG) 

Our overall impression was that this conference was an excellent opportunity to explore new developments in the industry, learn/share tried and tested techniques that will enable us to design better services for our residents and staff, as well as meet our mission around being curious and promote Hackney values by openly speaking about the work we do.  

Needless to say, there were many brilliant sessions that we wish we could have attended, but below are summaries of some of the ones we made it to. 

(This blog was co-written by Rahma Mohamed & Joy Suthigoseeya) 


Bringing unsexy back: fixing the plumbing of government

Carrie Bishop, City and County of San Francisco

Carrie is ex-Futuregov director who moved to San Francisco to work in local government there. She works in a federated environment and talked about the unsexiness of working with local gov and how there is a lot of boring but necessary work to do to implement change. Since there are 55+ departments in her organisation all doing their own thing with no strategy to align them, she believes that there is a need for a new playbook to work in that environment. It comes with many challenges and is incredibly hard. It is slow grindy and hacky and requires a lot of resilience. 

Key takeaways:

  • Take care of the basics – before you can get started with things that seem like big knotty problems you need to take care of the basics like fixing a website
  • No one cares about your double diamond – talking to stakeholders about the value of design and the process is often pointless. Let go of artifacts; nobody looks at them.    
  • Need to let go of the sprint mentality and adopt a marathon mentality – in a centralised environment where governance is top down, it’s easy to operate with a sprint mentality but in a federated environment you need to approach it like a marathon because change will be incremental 
  • Make friends with influential allies – not necessarily senior leaders but people who have a lot of influence over their own networks and relationships. They are your biggest assets. 
  • Don’t be precious about the software tools people use, adapt to how others work so you can stay collaborative
  • Conserve your energy for bigger battles. Take a zen approach to the ones you take on. You won’t be able to fix everything so let go of the anxiety. 
  • Believes that the approach she’s taken is sustainable even though it seems like nothing is moving
  • She compares the work she does to crochet, something very unsexy, but all the parts knit together to form the whole.  

What role are you taking in change 

Cassie Robinson, Head of Digital Grant Making, The National Lottery Community Fund and Co-founder of the Point People

Drawing from her varied career across multiple industries such as textile design, central government to charities and organisations for social change, Cassie’s talk explored the roles that people and organisations can play in large complex challenges. That transitioning to a better future needs an active social imagination, less user centred design and more collective design. 

Key takeaways on what that might involve: 

  • Doing stabilising work: The need for people who maintain things we need 
  • Transitioning into a different future: Challenge is not to just optimise current system, but to help people transition from dominant to emerging system 
  • Pioneers: People who hold the space for pioneers to do their work, such as starting something new, building new alternatives, values and methods
  • The hospice worker: Things have to die to allow new things to grow, having care and compassion for things that are in the process of becoming redundant 

Building better worlds

Cennydd Bowles, Designer and futurist

Cennydd spoke about designing for a better future and that our responsibilities as designers go beyond thinking of just user needs. We are experiencing some unprecedented trends with democracy on the decline and climate change happening now. 

UCD has two blind spots and that has to do with designing to promote consumerism. We have to design beyond the user with “radical inclusion”. Designing with other people and systems, and shifting our focus to be planet-centred. We should mitigate as much unintended consequences as we can. To design for the future, not just things for the future. We can do this through speculative design. Using design fiction to help facilitate conversations and help people experience the future before it happens is a way to work through unintended consequences. But we can’t just design for a dystopian future because that’s fear driven, nor can we design for a utopian future because in less stable environments it’s fertile ground for totalitarianism. We need to design for a realistic, flawed, compelling future-what he referred to as “Protopia”. These positive visions will get us past mourning to hope

The way we can affect systems change is by starting with individual change to influence collective change which will enable us to do systems change. We can adopt social principles to help collective change happen

Design has always been an ethical act. There is no place for neutrality. Design is central to our shared futures


How to prototype your operating model 

Emily Bazalgette, Organisation designer

In order to prototype your organisation’s operating model you need to understand the level of complexity for which you are prototyping. The session covered principles and approaches for designing operating models. 

She used a pasta analogy to identify the approach you might take to prototyping. 

  • Neat uncooked package of spaghetti – mapping your organisational model from an observer point of view is not realistic. It assumes that everything is neat and orderly and is used as an artefact by organisations to soothe uncertainty. Rather than have an artefact it’s much more useful to have conversations. You can’t understand how an organisation works without interacting with it 
  • Strand of spaghetti – Not everything can be prototyped. Sometimes you have to start with a narrow focus and scale it from there 
  • Bowl of spaghetti – these are the complex knotty problems that interlink with everything else in an organisation. In this space, it’s recommended that you “hold the space” to understand it. There’s less structure. Forget about the double diamond it’s all about relationship building, exploring the space through conversation, and building trust 

From service design to systems change: Lessons from practice

Adam Groves and Nerys Anthony,The Children’s Society

In this talk, they discussed the things you need to consider when designing for systems change. If you take a look at complicated systems vs. complex systems; complicated systems are causal, linear, and even though it may have a lot of moving parts, you can find an expert to fix it. In a complex system, it’s more about the sum of its parts and the fact that it is ever-changing, ever-evolving. It changes over time and can surprise you. It is not easily fixable. 

Considering these differences, you have to adopt a unique approach to system change. Just doing discovery won’t solve the problem. You have to be immersed in the system to be able to understand it. If you adopt the mindset of being part of the system you can help enable the change from within the system. The level of complexity is exponential when you factor in people. So when it comes to change, much of the work involves changing the social infrastructure 

Pass on the spark: spreading the story of your project 

Sam Villis, Collaboration Lead, MHCLG,Rahma Mohamed, Service Designer, London Borough of Hackney, Hattie Kennedy, Digital Delivery Lead, MHCLG, Katy Armstrong, Head of Digital Delivery, MHCLG

This session explored the power of effective storytelling throughout the agile process, show and tells, assessments and recruitment. 

Sharing examples of their work, failures and successes, the speakers shared tips on how storytelling can help grow knowledge across organisations, bring people along and help people communicate the work they do effectively. 

Key takeaways from the session:  

  • When we use the narrative arc to tell our stories we make them compelling and memorable
  • Engage the your audience by giving your Show & Tell a narrative arc, but also explore with different ways stories can be told, visual, auditory, physical/kinesthetic
  • When telling stories, focus on the how, not just the what
  • By showing people something tangible (prototypes, concepts, future visions,step-by-step of your process) and gathering feedback, you enable your work and practice to become a shared experience
  • In interviews, storytelling helps you; talk about the interesting part, focus on yourself as the hero and accept the things went wrong 

Starting small to build big

Simon Walder, Scott Logic 

Having worked in IT and software for 20 years, Simon shared his experience of the complexities around delivering digital services. Including legacy technology, dependencies and unknowns unknowns that make delivering services hard. 

Looking at a case study of a project with DWP, this session explored the benefits of starting small to build big.  

Key takeaways from the session:  

  • Don’t think about the destination, but the journey 
  • Establish what the value is, – demonstrate that quickly and continuously   
  • Stop discussing and start delivering a working software
  • Done is better than perfect 
  • Encourage learning

Exploring the future of open justice: speculative design in service design 

Rachel Bruce and Nina Cutler, Policy Lab

Speculative design can be a useful tool in service design. When it comes to getting people to think about the future and how a service or policy might play out, it’s useful to come up with a fictional story to facilitate conversation. When thinking about possible futures we need to ensure that whatever we come up with reduces bias, helps us innovate, and makes policy decisions more effective. 

Designing policy can evoke strong emotions. Using speculative design can create a safe space for conversation. Sharing what they learned, they had five findings that came out of “The future of open justice” case study: 

  1. It’s useful at an early stage where you need to test and challenge your assumptions
  2. Through storytelling and worldbuilding, speculative design can be used to engage people who have no prior experience of, or particular interest in your policy. 
  3. It can be used to immerse people in possibilities and keep politics out. It’s a way to make the abstract more tangible
  4. It can be used to provoke ideas without leading
  5. To do speculative design, it requires capturing, analysing and translating insights from research into thematic analyses to come up with a clear set of principles and findings 

Participants gained insight into how Policy Lab experimented with these approaches from central government, and how they hope to use them to improve the policy profession more broadly. They also shared some of their tools and exercises they use to facilitate these conversations.  

Designing an Environmental Service Standard

Ness Wright and Zoë Prosser, Snook

This was about a need to create environmental service standards to add to the current service standards that GDS has championed. We should be designing with the environment as a stakeholder in mind. Climate change is a massive risk to all the services we deliver, because it can disrupt basic human needs such as access to food, water, fuel and shelter. To meet user needs in the future we need to address climate change. 

In their discovery they found that there is a lack of support across all levels of organisations to help people adopt environmental standards into their work. So the work they are doing now is to facilitate those conversations around developing environmental service standards. There are already frameworks in place such as guidance to making ICTs greener but there’s more to be done. Since service standards take time to approve they are starting with principles to prototype. Below are the principles: 

  1. Evidence to motivate action
    1. Use evidence to understand the situation and determine where you can make the most impact 
  2. Position climate as a priority
    1. You need to win the support of senior decision makers and embed climate in strategy, governance, KPIs and objectives
  3. Balance short and long term actions
    1. Balance long term objectives with immediate actions that raise awareness and create mindset change in the short-term
  4. Be pragmatic and opportunistic
    1. Do what you can with the resources available and keep an eye out for timely opportunities – don’t wait for the perfect baseline to start. 
  5. Your responsibility 
    1. Don’t hold back because you don’t think you are enough of an expert. Start with research or find someone who can help. 
  6. Benefits beyond emissions
    1. We need to tie the benefits to the financial and social benefits because it will increase their likelihood of making it happen 
  7. Being supported by a community
    1. Get a group of people who are passionate about climate and build a community for support, knowledge sharing, and reflective practice
  8. Work towards radical
    1. Work to increase the ambition of actions in order to reach radical, fundamental change to limit global warming to 1.5º C

The work is still in progress and at the moment they are looking for feedback on how these principles work out in the wild. 

The designer’s ego and how it will prevent us saving the world

Audree Fletcher, Strategist, Researcher and Designer  

This session reflected on the role of designers, how a designers skills and imagination can make change happen, but also the self-limiting behaviours that stand in them achieving higher impact. 

Here is a brief summary of what might stand in the way of designers and what’s needed to overcome it:

  • The artist: Here the designer focuses on getting things pixel perfect, when they should design for outcomes and learning 
  • The scientist: Designers should not test to validate, but they should also test to invalidate their assumptions
  • The saviour: These designers should recognize that service users are experts in their experience and not people we need saving. The focus should be on collaboration rather than doing something to people 
  • The self-centred designer: Designer who put themselves in the center of power, should consider the users/audience rather than themselves when inviting people to workshops and when choosing the types of workshops to run
  • The self-protecting designer:  Designers with selective attention should be open to see what they don’t want to see. For higher impact, it’s important that they share their learnings and ensure that their work is reviewed by others 


Power and privilege in design: a training course

Clara Greo, Government Digital Service, Sonia Turcotte, Citizens Advice Bureau

Explores the ideas behind power and privilege and how it can be systemic and baked into policy or services. How do we design to reshift the balance in power and how should we be aware of the biases that influence the decisions we make? This was a 1.5h workshop to explore those very notions.

We started by building a shared understanding of the glossary that is used in regards to power and privilege. They shared a few examples of where biases can create inadvertent consequences. We then did an exercise where we considered various privileges or lack there of and how different points of views can affect the users who experience our services. If we are aware of where power resides and the privileges we have, we can design services that are inclusive of the underprivileged 

Inwards and outwards research:choosing your research methods according to the Service lifecycle 

Caroline Jarrett, Effortmark Ltd, Clara Greo, Government Digital Service 

This working session explored ways to get the most value out of user research throughout a project’s lifecycle. 

Key takeaways from the session:  

By breaking down research questions into those that look inwards and those that look outwards, we can start mapping them into the right methods. 

  • Outward research: is about understanding and establishing who

your users are, their context, and the scope of work. Here you might want to chose research methods that enables you to generate information such as, contextual inquiry, diary studies and market research

  • Inwards research: is about having a thing that you’re evaluating or testing, such as concepts or prototypes. Here you might choose evaluative research methods such as, usability testing, card sorting and A/B testing 
+ posts

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