Expert Insight

The soft stuff is the hard stuff

Published 1.9.14

Blog by Lynne Wardle of Taylor Haig

The application of design to public services is not new.   A quick Google search will reveal numerous case studies and agencies offering to redesign services, starting from the ‘users’ experience’. However, when talking with colleagues from various design agencies, their frustration is often the same; how can we raise design from good looking graphics, novel toolkits and one-off service improvements, to a more sustainable and strategic response to organisational challenges?

In Better by Design, the organisations that applied to take part were not looking for a one-off fix.   Rather than seeking to redesign a single service, the majority wanted to apply design methods to redesign their business model, introduce new, more user-focused ways of working and get off the ‘hamster-wheel’ of short-term, output-driven funding.  The focus of the design effort was not so much on a service as on the organisation itself.

Taking a strategic design approach means moving from looking at the pieces, the individual services, to looking at the whole – the organisation itself, its system, culture and processes.  While there are numerous examples of service redesign, there are fewer examples of the design-leadership necessary to embed design at a strategic level and use it to continually and sustainably increase impact.  In Better by Design, the chief executives of the participating organisations have stepped forward as pioneers to develop their design leadership and create the conditions within their organisations to enable sustainable change.

In the early stages of Better by Design, many of those taking part said they were unsure of the language and fuzzy nature of the iterative design process.  We are conditioned to drive for solutions but design encourages us to spend more time exploring problems.  At first this can feel frustrating and uncomfortable but with practice we find that fresh perspectives can help to reframe problems and identify new opportunities.  The leadership challenge is to create the space for this exploration, to encourage questioning without fear of blame and to remain open to insights that might challenge the operation at a fundamental level.

In seeking to understand the potential of design approaches in public services renewal, the Design Commission invited Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of Lewisham Council, and Baroness Kingsmill to lead an inquiry, seeking evidence from a wide range of people, at home and abroad, involved in redesigning services.  Their report, Restarting Britain, sets out their findings and recommendations and concludes that,

 “The really hard work is in making the space for change to happen, which is often about paying attention to the internal dynamics of the organisation, sometimes about getting public buy-in, but always about thinking about the behaviours and contexts of everyone interacting with the system.”

 We have spent quite some time in Better by Design looking at relationships with people using services, with stakeholders, funders and one with another.  We’ve identified patterns within organisations that help or hinder change.  We’ve engaged in new and different conversations and identified opportunities for improvement.   This is the work of human-centred design.  The soft stuff – creating the conditions for change – is the hard stuff.

As we move forward through the next stages of Better by Design, we hear people ready and hungry for action, to design and implement concrete changes that have a positive impact on the people who benefit from your services.   As culture changes in conversation, outcomes change in action.  These next few months will see a lot of action as we work together on prototyping, testing and implementing change.  But Better by Design is just the beginning.  The leadership within each organisation, at all levels, will remain, the conversations will continue and new networks, relationships and ideas will continue to develop.  The test of Better by Design is not the new services you will deliver but the way in which the approach is embedded within each organisation as your own.


What is a design approach?

 Published 3.3.14

There is much talk of ‘design’, a ‘design-led approach’ and ‘service-design’, in public and third sector innovation. But what exactly do we mean by ‘design’?

In this short piece, for Better by Design Hazel White, Senior Designer with Taylor Haig and Director of Design for Services at the University of Dundee, outlines why thinking like a designer is useful when we are planning change.

photo copy

Design is most often talked about in terms of fashion, styling and the production of new ‘must have’ consumer products. However, over the last twenty or so years, significant numbers of people from other fields, beginning with business[1], and growing to include healthcare, education and the voluntary sector have begun to look at howdesigners think and the methods designers use as effective ways of changing systems. ‘Constructive discontent’[2] is a way of describing how designers think:  a realisation that things could be better, coupled with a curiosity to understand situation and work with the people involved to improve things. A design-led approach: 

  • is responsive rather than reactive
  • uses the knowledge  and skills of all those involved (co-design)
  • involves trying things out and accepts that ideas need to be tested and refined in the field

Design is often described as a ‘problem solving’ activity – however, the step before that: ‘problem finding’ is often the most revealing. Traditionally a client approached a designer with a ‘design brief’, perhaps to design a new webpage to promote an existing product or service, or to make an existing product ‘look better’. However, by working with clients and their customers and looking at a whole service or system, we often find that there are underlying issues that a new webpage or a new service will simply gloss over. A design-led approach offers frameworks and tools to look at the overall picture in organisations, how things relate, make connections, see the ‘pain points’ in a non-judgemental way. This enables all those involved to think creatively about solutions and test them out in a fast and efficient way.  There is no secret or magic to this, and you don’t need to be a designer.

Geoff Mulgan, a leading thinker on the reform of services describes[3] the value of a design-led approach to innovation as  “a very useful complement to traditional bureaucratic, top down policy methods”. A key principle of a design led approach to the re-design of services is co-design, a ‘bottom –up’ approach to change which is grounded in the understanding of the experiences, ideas and skills of the people, who use, need and run services[4] and where citizens and service providers work together to understand what the main issues are for the people using services and develop better ways of improving outcomes.

The methods used by a design-led approach are not exclusive to the design world: desk research, ethnography, user-input, prototyping are used elsewhere as ways of understanding how things are at present, where change would be beneficial, discovering what people’s experiences are and trying new ideas out.  However introducing a creative, often visual approach to this is one of the key strengths of design and Mulgan argues, enables different insights than we get from texts and numbers.

Quantitative information like statistics and questionnaires tell us how many people use a service and how many times they attended and what their average income is – but they will only give us the answers to the questions that we ask and the data we can measure in numbers.  Eight out of 10 cats like certain types of cat food, but it doesn’t tell us if they would prefer mice if they were allowed out to hunt.  Reports communicate to the audience for whom they were written, and are often written in the language of a narrow audience.

A design approach uncovers rich information often not captured in statistics and questionnaire results. This qualitative information gives a fuller picture and complements and enriches quantitative research gathered in traditional ways.  By visualising and mapping – using simple representations of people, organisations, relationships and time – we can begin to see where relationships are working, where they need to be connected and where things are happening in the wrong place or at the wrong time.

For example: journey mapping[5] a service with users in terms of how they became aware of it, how they accessed it, used and left it, will help show where things are difficult for a service user (or provider) and enable them to give detail about the things that helped them, for example: being able to bring a friend, knowing which bus to catch or being made to feel part of a community, and the things that were difficult – not being able to find up to date information, not being able to talk to someone at a convenient time, missing a session and being too embarrassed to come back.

The ‘data’ that this kind of mapping produces is often not charts and graphs, but stories of people’s goals and behaviours. These stories and maps can be used to:

  • put ourselves in the service users shoes
  • understand where the ‘pain points’ are that make a service difficult to access or use
  • create ‘personas’[6] to help re-design aspects of a service
  • reveal opportunities for removing or adding new features to a service
  • prototype[7] new ideas


The ‘design process’ is described as having different phases, and is described differently by different organisations: insight, inspiration, innovation and implementation or discover, define, develop, deliver (anything that alliterates), but basically it means:

  • looking at how things are at the moment
  • finding the problems
  • thinking creatively about what would improve things and prototyping it
  • putting it in place

A design approach acknowledges that the ‘final’ solution needs to be something that can be changed, tweaked and built upon by the people that use it, as people’s needs, the resources we have and the world we live in is constantly changing.

To conclude:

A design approach offers simple frameworks, tools and methods to find problems and map them out in ways that are sharable, reveals patterns, connections and opportunities for change. It encourages the trying, testing and improvement of new ideas in the field. Most importantly it puts the people who use and deliver services at the heart of the process of creating new ways of delivering services, because they are the experts.

[1] Tim Brown, “Design Thinking”, Harvard Business Review, June 2008.

[2] Nigel Cross, Professor of Design Studies, Open University  Neeraj Sonalkar, 2008.

[3] The radical’s dilemma: an overview of the practice and prospects of Social and Public Labs – Version 1. Geoff Mulgan, February 2014

[4] Szebeko, D &Tan, L. (2010) Co-designing for Society. AMJ 2010;3(9):580-590.

[5] User-journey maps are a simple way of visually charting out the steps a person takes, over time when accessing, using and leaving a service.

[6] Personas are a design tool, which distill the archetypal goals and behaviours of a range of service users and providers to help understand their needs. They help avoid stereotyping and a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

[7] Creating a version of something that can be tried out to get feedback – this can vary from role playing how someone behaves in a new situation to making a mock-up of a new information pack, to changing the layout of a room

 Research – What is it good for?

Published 14.1.14

Blog by Victoria Boelman

cropped-research2-e1385544763782.jpgResearch: such an innocuous little word but one which conjures up a huge range of ideas.  What springs to mind for you?  Being hassled in the street by a person with a clipboard? Sitting round a table with strangers discussing how a product or service could be improved while eating stale sandwiches? Drowning in data collection to measure performance against KPIs?

Sometimes, it is sad to say, research may mean all of those things.  But really, good research should give you the evidence and insight you need to underpin your work and demonstrate the impact you have.

Research is a tool that we can use strategically to help inform important decisions and the strategic direction of your organisation. Think about the following questions: 

  • Who are you trying to reach?  Why?  Are you successfully reaching those you want to? …
  • Are you offering the right services, in the right way?
  • What is your ‘competition’? Or are there unmet needs?
  • What do your service users and clients think of your organisation?
  • How will people react to your next ad campaign/ product/ service proposition?  Why?
  • What are the best ways to engage your different stakeholder groups?
  • What impact do we have?

If the answer to any or many of these is “hmmm, not sure” or “well I think …” or “no idea!” then that is where research comes in to play (and in response to a whole long list of other questions too).

Of course, research is not an off-the-shelf solution or necessarily simple.  In our recent  Introduction to Research webinar we highlighted that the best place to start is to take time to work out exactly what it is you need to know, why, and what you will do with the answers.  Only with this clarity can you sit down and figure out the right way to get to the answers.  In short though, you have a wide range of options to suit your needs:  Desk research is great for finding out what else is out there, useful data and case studies of best practice, for example.  Surveys can give you the basic facts you need but bear in mind that they are best used when you need to know what a large number of people think and the data you are capturing is factual and not too complex – how many? How often? Where? And when?

If what you want to understand however are the ‘whys’ or to get a really rich understanding of something you don’t yet know much about, qualitative research is probably what you need. This can range from the infamous focus group to individual or ‘paired’ interviews, workshops, diary keeping, photo essays and much more besides.  It also incorporates ethnographic research, the most ‘open’ and unstructured of approaches which combines participant observation with immersion in the lives of the people you wish to understand.

You might also want to consider working with ‘peer researchers’, drawn from your service users or volunteers, to help design, execute and deliver the research.  This approach is not without its challenges but can be hugely insightful and empowering for those who take part.

Ultimately, though, this short blog cannot make you a researcher … and research can be a tricky beast so if in doubt, call on the skills of a professional for some advice.

Research done well can be transformative; research done badly can end up with “New Coke”.

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