Move over co-production, service design is now the best way to involve your users in designing services. And it's more fun.

More practical. More involved. Deeper reaching. Service design is co-production with knobs on

Because of how effective it is, service design is growing in use across the charity and public sectors. 

This post explains how it differs from co-production and why it's usually a better method to use when designing a new service or project.

The similarities

First there was user participation and user involvement. Anyone remember Hart’s Ladder of Participation from 1992?

Then there was co-production. While co-production done well is pretty powerful it has also become an easy label to slap on any work that involves beneficiaries.

And now there is service design. Like participation and co-production it aims to improve your charity’s services and make them more focused on your users. And like those methods it also values equality, diversity, accessibility and reciprocity. 

Service design is different

But when it comes to creating and delivering services it's also different. We think it’s a better method than much of what gets labeled co-production, and even a step up on co-production done well. 

1. Service design involves users more often

Participation and co-production tend to frontload user involvement. They involve them, then develop a service, then roll it out, then review.

Service design doesn’t do it this way. It makes you check back in with your users more regularly. It involves them through the whole process. This gives them more opportunities to influence your service’s design. 

Their opportunities for involvement include:

  • User research - helping you identify problems, allowing you to observe or ask them about their service experience
  • Idea generation - joining co-design workshops or examining physical representations of ideas. Allowing you to observe their reactions and ask questions
  • Testing prototypes in private and allowing you to observe or ask questions about their experience
  • Real life testing of more developed prototypes. Allowing you to observe or ask questions about their experience
  • Feeding back on a live service via clear, direct feedback loops that allow you to iterate and improve it

2. Service design challenges biases

We’ve all got biases. You, me, your beneficiaries. We deviate in rational ways from logical thought.

Service design recognises this. None of the other approaches do.

Here’s an example of how we are biased towards what we already know.

David ran a mental health drop-in cafe. It was coming up to Christmas and users were worried about being isolated and unable to cope. So David asked them if they’d like the cafe to open over Christmas. They said yes. So the cafe stayed open. 

But nobody came. 

It’s not that people were wrong in what they thought they needed. At that moment they were right. But they, like the rest of us, weren’t very good at predicting their future behaviour

“If you ask people what they want they will nearly always only tell you things based on what they know. This creates limitations.” - Joyce Borgs, Service Designer, CAST

3. It helps you ask the right questions (in the right context)

When David asked people if they wanted the cafe to stay open he asked the wrong question in the wrong place. His question didn’t help him learn about the underlying problem. And he asked it while those affected were in the cafe, not while they were at home or actually feeling lonely.

Users can tell you what they need, they just need the right questions to do so. Questions that help them overcome biases and express themselves in more concrete and less abstract terms. 

Service design helps you work out these questions. It takes a more intentional approach than any other method. It asks you to think about:

  • How can I ask this question in a way that reduces cognitive bias in the response? (allowing that there will always be some bias)
  • In what situation should I be asking users these questions (probably when they have time to reflect, are at home or a neutral location, and definitely not in a focus group)
  • How can I ask questions in a way that builds empathy for our users? (usually by asking in a way that helps you understand ‘why’ they feel/want/need what they say)
  • How can I ask questions in a way that helps me understand their experience, not just their views, wishes and feelings?
“Surveys don’t give feedback. They don’t give you a way to immediately show them you are listening. You can’t echo their voice back to them.” - Joyce Borgs

4. It’s more practical and less hypothetical

Less surveys. Less focus groups. 

More 1-1 interviews. More co-design activities. More testing. 

More impact.

Service design bypasses focus groups where biases can run amok in favour of 1-1 in-depth conversations with people about their lives.

Service design prefers to create tangible representations of ideas that people can hold, look at and react to. This gives you better feedback than chatting over or voting on ideas.

As an example let’s jump back in time to David’s cafe. Let’s imagine that instead of opening the cafe for Christmas we are thinking about creating a buddying system. We could produce something on a piece of paper to show how it might work. We could show this to people then observe people’s reactions and have a conversation about it. 

Or we could test a take-home card with a list of services on it that people might need over Christmas. This might also help reduce their worry. 

“More practical usually equals more real, which then leads to more reliable user insight and feedback.” - Joyce Borgs

5. It’s more fun and inclusive

Because service design is more practical it’s also more fun. Charities sometimes crease their brows trying to make sense of it but once they understand it they start to enjoy the process. 

Synthesizing user research becomes a series of lightbulb moments leading to a new, more confident understanding of the problem. 

Producing a simple prototype becomes a moment of celebration and excitement - without the nervous wait until launch day.

Also, the process is fast and dynamic and easy for anyone to input into. Like with good co-production no one is the expert. All stakeholders can contribute, not just users. So everyone’s strengths and insight gets brought to bear on the problem. 

Learn more about service design

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