My top 7 take aways from SDinGov 2017

23 March 2017
Ben Logan

Ben Logan


Passionate about improving services and experiences for the people that use them.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to join a 3 day Service Design in Government conference.

I wanted to find out more about the projects people in Government were working on and their approach to Service Design. It was an interesting few days of tutorials, case studies and my favourite: workshops! We had a brilliant opening keynote from Louise Downe, Head of Design for the Government Digital Service (GDS), and an incredibly thorough and thoughtful closing keynote from Sarah Drummond, Co-founder and MD of Snook.

The conference provided plenty of choice throughout, which made it difficult to know what to choose, so my summary is going to be skewed to what I found personally interesting. Neverless, here are my top 7 take aways from the SDinGov 2017 conference…

1. What gets measured gets done


Kit Collingwood from the Department of Work and Pensions gave us an insightful keynote into the potential to use data with design. She discussed the risks associated with bad use of data, highlighting that it is easy to ‘dehumanise’ the results. You can see an example of this in the photo above: “The completion rate is 80%” – This sounds great compared to “1 in 5 of our users struggles to use our service.” Well, when you put it that way, maybe we should do something about it?!

“We don’t want to know about spreadsheets. We want to know about humans.” – Kit Collingwood

I personally don’t think we use data enough in projects. We tend to be so focused on establishing the stories based on qualitative research (which is also a great approach), but Kit made a valid point that it is down to us, Service Designers, to tell the stories that come from data. To do this however, we need to avoid ‘data greed’ and choose what information we collect, avoiding the temptation to measure everything and just the stuff that matters to the project. Designers need to start using data as a tool to validate and communicate to a wider audience, after all, what gets measured, gets done.

2. User experience is everyone’s business



A common trend observed across a few of the sessions I joined were the importance of making the user experience or service design everyone’s business. This was a particular nod towards breaking down silos – something that the design industry have been talking about for at least the last 5 years if not longer. It seems we still haven’t cracked it, but with service design branching out across a variety of job roles, touchpoints and products, it’s highlighting even more how important it is to get this working together thing right. There were 3 areas identified to make this work:

  1. Service delivery – ensuring those that engage on a day to day basis, or those using the products and services are involved and engaged (see point 7)
  2. Transformation and organisational change – how teams are structured and how their performance is measured can all be barriers to change
  3. Internal training – the belief that everyone can be a designer, and that it’s our job as Service Designers to make this happen

“Invest in silent designers” – Vasia Christoulaki

3. Design it forward

As one might expect from a conference full of well meaning people designing for the common good, there was a strong sense that the majority of what we design or produce should be open for other people to build upon. The Government Digital Service (GDS) already do this by making their design guidelines and design patterns open to the public. The sentiment behind this approach was to help us be better designers, learning from others and opening up the conversation for best practice.

It’s hard work but we need to work together. Less show the work, more show the learnings.” – Sarah Drummond

4. It’s OK to fail

Defining the problem

A few sessions touched on the idea of embedding a culture where failure is ok, as long as we learn from our mistakes. I joined an interactive session with Marc K. Hébert from the San Francisco Human Services Agency on “Sharing and Anticipating failure”. A similar theme also emerged from the workshop on “The actual problems to be solved” run by Kate Tarling and Ayesha Moarif from the Home Office.

Both of these sessions looked into how we makes decisions and how we can critically evaluate how we structure design briefs through to how we approach and carry out our role as Service Designers. It was quite liberating to hear participants share their frustrations and failures from past projects, with helpful discussion around how they might do this differently next time. Clearly, we’d prefer not to fail at all, but it was nice to hear it’s not the end of the world 😉

5. Moving past methods to results

I sensed some frustration during the conference around the fact that as designers, we are still talking about tools and methods, and not enough about the impact and transformation of design. Whereas a few years ago we might have been inspired trying out a new tool or technique, a general sentiment floated around that we wanted to hear stories of positive change and how that came about so that we could take this knowledge back to our own projects. Some believed that Service Design is mature enough that we don’t need to talk about how we do something, we don’t need to focus on the tools we use, but more on the difference we produce as designers.

Whilst in general I believe this is true, similar to ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, I still question if there is a place to highlight our methods, particularly when working with new teams of varying experience. I think it’s down to the experience of the designer to select the right tools for the job, and to make it clear to others why it has value (before using it and proving it!)

6. Design is never done (well we knew that already…)

“Transformation will never be done.” – Louise Downe

I think most of us in the design industry have acknowledged at some point that by the time you think you have ‘finished’ a design, it’s already opened up a whole range of opportunities for you to continue to explore. However, several of the speakers brought this to light as being even more important for service design as we strive to adapt services to the changing needs of people over time.

“If you’re not looking full end to end, then you are missing most of the story.” – Duncan Chevis

As our projects become larger and further reaching into the furthest depths of organisations, it highlighted even more the importance of working collaboratively with departments, teams, specialists and the end users themselves to embed a culture of problem caring… which neatly leads me to my next point.

7. Empowering teams

sarah drummon quote

My final theme relates to a few of the earlier points. For Service Design to be effective, we need to do more with organisations to a) Make the data actionable, b) Develop collaborative ways of working and c) Build the skills needed to empower the teams to effect change.

It would be easy to put this solely on the shoulders of Service Designers to make this happen, but I feel it needs to come from both directions. The external teams we work with need to be interested in taking on design too, and it’s part of our role to make that aim relevant and practical as part of their day to day responsibilities. We can do this by sharing data, telling stories and working harder to encourage teams to become designers in their own right.

I think I’ll finish this article with my favourite statement of the conference…

Smiles and post its

Thanks to all the great speakers and contributors to the event!
Ben Logan - Director

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