Service design mistakes I’ve made, and the big lessons learned

As a service designer, I spend a lot of my time selling the value of design thinking alongside practising service design doing. This week, I spoke about how to sell service design at the inaugural International Design in Government Conference.

I choose to use the word sell intentionally. When you’re working in the public sector, where user or ‘human-centred’ design is still a relatively new concept, every conversation counts towards showing the value of thinking and working in this way.

Starting out in the public sector, I made a few mistakes. Here’s what I learned, so you don’t have to.

Mistake 1 — The answer to your prayers

In my first few design roles, I went in all guns blazing. In reality, I wasn’t the service design angel come to bestow wisdom and light. I was kind of a burden.

To many people, service design felt like the latest bandwagon like so many other industry trends that had come and gone in the past. It wasn’t seen as a transformative way of thinking about how we can continuously design and improve public services.

What did I learn? Listen and be empathetic to the culture that you’re working in.

When working with new teams, you are delivering a service of service design. That has to start by listening to and understanding their needs, and taking the time to understand the culture you’re working in. Trust me, I tried to get a room full of senior leaders to work with emojis and let’s just say it did not work out well.

My mistake was in assuming that my culture and ways of working were better. Understanding culture to build relationships is important.

Mistake 2 — A horse in a field of llamas

I am different. At times, I purposefully make myself different to everyone I’m working within an effort to push against a teams norms and culture. It’s great on one hand but can be alienating on the other. It has also meant that in past work people saw me and the change I was bringing as a threat and not as part of the team. I stood out like a sore thumb, or like a horse in a field of llamas.

Horse and llamas

It can often feel like you’re the odd one out and that isn’t a bad thing. But, if people don’t know what you’re doing and more importantly why then you’re losing the battle. Finding the right time to work with teams is crucial. I needed to get my timing right to know when to show them what service design is. If you’re standing up and everyone is sitting down, it can be difficult to effect change.

What did I learn? Build the right relationships and get your timing right.

Don’t focus your energy and time trying to convince people who don’t want to listen, instead look for people who catch on quickly to the possibilities of service design. They are your allies.

You were brought in for a reason and you won’t be the only one who wants to change things. By working, investing and focusing your energy on these key people, you will find that it becomes easier to introduce new ideas and ways of working.

It’s possible to be the voice of change for the people who want it, and together you can create more momentum to convince others in your team or organisation.

Mistake 3 — Bold ambition without context

I’ve often gone into work with teams thinking that everyone had already bought into what I was there to do. They hadn’t. I assumed they were ready and ignored their own journey. I would make big provocative statements to gain enthusiasm that was met with disdain.

Along with that, I didn’t put in the time or effort of showing my workings, or the detail and thinking process behind my ideas. I expected people to “just get it”. These were teams who were delivering digital projects, why wouldn’t they get it?

What did I learn? Show your workings.

This way you can bring people on a journey with you. By going back to basics, I started to understand where people were and could visualise what was needed to get them from point A to point B. Just as I needed to understand the team, they needed to understand me. I needed to show and explain my work, combining big and bold ambitions with small actions.

So what?

Speaking about these challenges at the International Design in Government Conference, it was reassuring to hear that I wasn’t the only one to face similar challenges. People shared stories of language barriers and teams getting lost in design jargon. There were also conversations about how to do it alone and how to keep going.

Public sector organisations can be difficult places to work for a designer. It’s not the complete answer. But, if you start by:

  • listening to people and being empathetic
  • building the right relationships with the right timing
  • showing your work

you will have a better chance of selling service design to teams and senior stakeholders. It might take a while to do, and it’s worth the perseverance.

Follow Vim on Twitter @ThatGirlVim and see her at WalkingWhiskeyWellness where she will be speaking about using service design to build a culture in teams and organisations.

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