Good services: seven insights from the former design director of UK Gov

Published on
July 28, 2020
How Tos
Joe Roberson
‘Good services’ used to be difficult to define. But digital is changing that. It’s showing us how to create visible and connected-up services that are easy to find and use.
Lou Downe

Since March this year UK charities have been migrating en masse to online service delivery. This process is accelerating their digital and design skills in an unprecedented way.

180 charities have signed up to online Design Hops - our introductory course helping people understand good service design. Another 226 applied to the Tech for Good Explore programme. And this blog has been full of advice on how to lead the transformation and use a design-led approach.

But we’ve not written much about what makes a digital service good. So we talked to Lou Downe, former Design Director of UK Gov and author of Good Services: How to design services that work. They shared seven insights from their fifteen years of designing services that will help you make your services ‘good’.

No one had defined ‘good’ before

“One day I realised I spend a lot of my time talking about what makes a good service, and that many designers do the same. I thought it'd be better if someone wrote this down.” - Lou Downe

Lou Downe was the first person to write down ‘what is good’ for service designers

They wrote the good service principles, a good service book and a good services scale

The principles are simple to understand. And you can use the scale on your own or with a teammate. If you like both then read the book.

Here’s their advice...

1. It’s all services

“A service is something that helps someone to do something. That could be something very simple (e.g. booking an appointment) or it could be very complex (e.g. moving home) but ultimately it's something that helps the user achieve an end goal”.

The charity sector is full of services. They fill the gaps between people’s needs and their goals. Though sometimes they seem invisible, they are real things and can be consciously designed. In fact, the better designed they are the more invisible they seem. 

2. Good services get out of the way as quickly as possible 

Once a user reaches their goal a good service gets out of the way and leaves the user to get on with their life. They may still contact them in the future, but they don’t hang around. For example...

Your online counselling’s booking service is quick and easy and leaves you knowing where to be, what time and what to expect - so you get the help you need without hassle

The digital food voucher is simple to activate and give to the market trader - so you get your food instantly and without any stigmatising complications

The diabetes support service stops as soon as you don’t need it - so that you can get on with life without needing to engage with it

3. Your users are less engaged than you think they are

“Services tend to think about people being totally engaged with a service but in reality what they want to do is get on with achieving a goal and getting back to the rest of their life” - Lou

It’s worth remembering that engaging with your service is just one of many things your users are trying to do today. Even those who are really wanting your help will become less engaged over time. And some would rather not be engaging with you in the first place. 

The more efficiently and invisibly you can deliver a service the better for your users. 

Perhaps stop thinking of anyone as ‘hard to reach’ and instead think of them as ‘excluded by services’. 

4. Good services are easy to find and use for the first time  

This is universal. It makes a service work well for anyone. 

The website helps you quickly find the right service and request access.

Once contact is made you don’t have to wait around to book your first appointment.

You receive well-designed information about what to do and expect the first time you meet your counsellor.

The first session is intentionally designed to put you at ease so you feel safer and more trusting.

5. More user decisions = a slower service

“My experience is the number of decisions and size of those decisions dictates how fast and how many steps it needs” - Lou

Slower services aren’t necessarily worse. It depends what a user needs. Some people need something quickly. But for others a slower process might be more important.

But the more choices a user has to make - such as when registering at the food bank, or when setting up their forum profile, or when deciding what to say at their review - the slower things tend to go. 

It’s okay either way. But it’s good to learn how fast, or slow, your users need to go to reach their goal. 

6. Services are digital and human-powered

People are the common feature in every service. If it isn't useful to a person, it shouldn't exist. But it’s easier to design a connected service when digital is part of the process. Because digital creates a common platform and makes connecting up the parts easier. 

“What’s interesting about digital is that because bits of a service are rendered physically in buttons and forms its visibility is revealed. You can see it as a ‘thing’ that’s been designed. Whereas in a call centre or person-to-person service where there is training and procedures to follow these things become disconnected. People don’t see them as part of the service in the same way.” - Lou

As more charities move to digital we are realising that the disconnected way of working offline doesn't work when applied to the internet. The internet has also changed people’s expectations. They are influenced by common patterns and the ways good software behaves. So we have to redesign services as a connected thing, both for the user and those running it. 

7. Service design skills are necessary for everyone

“Probably the next thing is integrating with operational elements of service delivery. Previously it’s been detached and done to an organisation rather than part of what they are doing.” - Lou

It used to be that charities would seek external service design support. But this is changing. Through Design Hops, funding programmes and working with design agencies conscious, intentional service design is becoming an in-house skill. As a result the expert consultant is becoming less valuable. 


Good services are those that are connected, visible, easy to find and easy to use. They may be slow or fast, digital or human-powered but they all help your users achieve a goal. And then they get out the way. Charities are building the skills to intentionally design services this way.   

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