A charity guide to seven different types of design. All design disciplines are similar.

“In my work with charities I see confusion over the differences between different types of ‘design’. Sometimes this grappling with terminology leads to unnecessary angst. It would be super helpful to be able to signpost them to something.” - Ellie Hale, Digital Teams Lead at Catalyst

That’s how this article came about.

It’s a mini-guide to design types. Like a taxonomy in a blog post. It will explain, in brief simple words: service design, user centred design, co-design, participatory design and human centred design. We’ll also explain co-production as a comparison. 

We need these design words 

When talking about designing services we try to limit how often we use technical words. But sometimes you need to learn new words to embrace new practices. So we need them. They help us:

  • Understand that we are talking about a different way of creating services to how we used to do it
  • Learn new practices that fit together within a ‘design methodology’
  • Talk to each other in more informed and intentional ways - because we understand the methodology
  • Adopt new ways of thinking - because every type of design asks us to think in a more critical and informed way

But there are still quite a lot of words to learn the meaning of. I guess it would help here if I explained that they are all pretty much talking about the same thing….

All design disciplines are similar

Breathe easy. Design comes in different clothing but it’s the same body underneath. There’s different definitions but in the end they overlap with one another and share similar processes and core principles. 

So if you take nothing else away from this blog post, take away that they all:

  • Expect you to involve your users, and show you how to do this
  • Advocate starting with research and questioning what you believe you know 
  • Recommend creating in small steps rather than making big jumps to a big new service or thing
  • Believe a service or product is never ‘finished’ and that you should keep on measuring and testing it after launch

Each discipline uses similar methods. They differ less from one another than from what most charities have been doing for years: creating services without a design methodology at all. 

We believe that to change this situation charities need to learn design skills and they need to learn them by doing. Just like learning to play the piano. 

We also believe that you don’t need to train to be a designer. You need to learn some chords and arpeggios, but you definitely don’t need to be a concert pianist. 

The differences

But there are still differences. So let’s dive into the nitty gritty of different design disciplines and methods and try to define some. 

*We’re not going to be purist about definitions. We’re writing for charities, not design professionals. Clear, universally agreed definitions don’t exist for any of these words. Definitions vary by region and by profession. Anyone can disagree. 

1. Service design

“More than just about involving users. A whole way of designing better services to make using them easier for everyone” - Tori Ellaway, CAST

A full-blown design discipline. A way of thinking about and working intentionally to improve the experience of those who interact with your organisation. So you can solve their problems better, either digitally or in person. 

Service design views everything you provide for people as a service. Whether it's online, face-to-face, or even a full blown software product like an app. 

It follows the same principles as user-centred design. It thinks about:

  • All stakeholders, not just beneficiaries
  • How people hear about, connect with, use and leave your service
  • The various things (e.g. forms, leaflets, apps) they interact with
  • The 'back office' processes needed to support the service
  • Efficiency and consistency in all service processes

Service design provides tools, methods and a structured framework that help you align all these elements in a way that improves the experience of people using your service. It’s good to use the whole framework but we don’t think you need to adopt it all at once. You can use many of its methods and tools independently of one another and they will still be really useful to you. 

2. User centred design

A design methodology in which those creating services focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process. It’s the same as human centred design, but gets mainly applied to digital services and product interfaces.

User-centred design likes to test the points (apps, websites, moments) where people interact with a service by directly observing people’s experiences of using them. 

“I’ve not heard charities use the term much. All design should be user centred otherwise you are just creating something. For example I could just make a video, or I could make a video after researching how it needs to be for you.“ - Ab Brightman, Catalyst

We are all users

Some people find the word ‘user’ to be overly clinical. 

Some find it too blunt.

Others worry that it stigmatises people as ‘service users’. 

But it simply means ‘people trying to use a service to perform a task’. So we are all users. 

For example, if you:

  • Use GOV.UK’s online tax return service
  • Call Citizens Advice for help on a consumer rights issues
  • Attend a mental health counselling session online
  • Access support for your charity from a membership organisation

You’re using them to perform a particular task. So you’re a user of those services. 

We could use the word ‘beneficiary’ or even just ‘people’. But the word ‘user’ invites us to think about what the user is trying to do. And good design designs for what people are trying to do.

“When teaching people we talk about ‘the people that use your service’ as a gateway to talking about them as your ‘users’. It reminds everyone who the service is for.” - Maddie Stark, SCVO

Read more about user centred design.

3. Human centred design

A design methodology. Very similar to user-centred design, but the term is also used to talk about the design of everyday things. Its methodology is more likely to be informed by the general characteristics of human psychology and perception rather than the needs of specific users. Can include design of human-centred hardware and other products e.g. furniture. 

Some people use the word ‘person’ instead of ‘human’.

Read more about human centred design.

4. Co-design

AKA ‘participatory design’ or ‘co-creation’.

A term used to describe ways of designing that involve others. Not a recognised discipline, nor a specific methodology. Often used to describe workshops and processes being run with users e.g. ‘we are running a co-design session’, or ‘this was co-designed with people’.

Also used to assert a moral standpoint, a moral view on how services should be designed. All design disciplines involve elements of co-design. 

People argue about what level of user involvement constitutes co-design. Some people say co-design should involve other stakeholders, not only users.

Read more about co-design.

5. Co-production

A philosophy, approach and movement focused on involving beneficiaries at every level of how your organisation or service runs. Not a design methodology, but still a valid approach. More resource intensive.

Some people use the term co-production interchangeably with co-design. But co-production is usually more than just designing a service or bringing people together for a workshop. 

Charities are often trying to become more of a co-produced organisation. Co-production can also be used to assert a moral standpoint. 

Commonly used in health and social care service settings.

Read more about co-production.

6. Consultation

Seeking views and opinions from beneficiaries and other stakeholders. Often in relation to new service ideas.

Not a way of designing services. Nor an effective way of involving people.

Not a good way to do user research. It doesn't help you learn how people behave and what they need. 

7. Donald Duck design

When you’ve ‘ducked out' of using any design methodology at all. Instead you’re probably going on guesswork and opinions instead. Sorry, Donald but you come last. 

The wrap

Was this article helpful? What could be made clearer? Email me any leftover questions or suggestions. 

Or use Digital Candle to get support with any design-related issue or challenge.

Or sign up for a Design Hop (a low-jargon way to learn service design while getting support to tackle a real problem faced by your services).

Photo credit to JD Hancock on Flickr.

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