Navigating complexity through service design


Written by Lorri Smyth, Senior Service Designer, Sopra Steria

Service designers act as a bridge between people using services and the organisation delivering the service. We support the creation of services that deliver great results for everyone. We do this by being human centred within the bigger picture, where we seek to balance user needs and organisational goals within complex social and technical systems. We bring different people together to make sure the layers of product, technology, operations and policy work together to create experiences that work for people.

As service designers working in the public sector, we are often asked to provide support to services that display some of the highest complexity of need and lived experience among their service users in areas such as healthcare, employment support, criminal justice and education. In these environments there are no simple answers.


Service design for digital transformation

Most services today have a digital element to them, whether that is a self-service website, or a case management system that runs in the background. The design of services in the context of digital transformation is much more than just doing more of the same, but digitally.

Many of these services have grown, changed and adapted over time, yet change can often be bound by the limits of existing infrastructure or the nature of the organisation itself. Service design plays a crucial role in ensuring that service transformation projects deliver more effective, equitable and accessible experiences for everyone by supporting people to the navigate complexity of the world around us.


Navigating complexity

People’s experience of delivering and using services is shaped by a complex web of factors that we can try to understand more holistically, can seek to influence, but can never truly control.

Navigating complexity can feel overwhelming. Our ability to comprehend the world around us is limited by our own beliefs, knowledge and experience, and we certainly aren’t always logical or rational.

Services are run for and by humans, not robots. Organisations are webs of human relationships that don’t neatly reflect the hierarchy of organisational charts that we are all familiar with.

We understand how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by complexity. With the following tips, we hope that you can avoid falling into the trap of oversimplification and resist the temptation to break your problems into ever more smaller and siloed pieces.


Four ways that service designers navigate complexity:

1. We explore problems from multiple perspectives

We all have bias and blind spots. Our brains trick us into thinking we understand things that we don’t. By exploring problems from multiple perspectives, we actively challenge our assumptions and seek out seldom heard voices. No two people experience a service the same way but, together, we can identify common challenges and opportunities for change that we could not see as individuals.

Through diversifying the perspectives, we have a better chance of noticing and understanding patterns and identifying places we can intervene for the greatest positive impact, while mitigating negative impacts.

People who are marginalised and excluded by existing systems and services often have the most complex needs. They often experience services very differently from the rest of the population, encountering barriers that wouldn’t cross most people’s minds.

We work closely with User Researchers to explicitly articulate the perspectives, biases and assumptions of the existing system to explore to what extent these ring true across the experiences of users. We aim to amplify the voices least heard or understood by decision makers.

Build relationships with people who are seldom heard

It’s important to talk to people in the system who have the least power and whose voices are often not heard or listened to. You can work with third sector organisations, specialist recruiters, social media, local networks and employee forums to find and engage with the right people.

Find the right people to involve

Work directly with people who have lived experiences of using and delivering the services we seek to transform, and challenges we seek to help overcome through the services. Aim to understand different cultures, behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, resources and power structures.

Help people share their story

Removing obstacles to people’s involvement will ensure those diverse experiences can be amplified. People often don’t trust their own ideas, and experiences will be represented accurately, so service designers can work to craft their narrative with them. A change in power dynamic is often required so make something together that can help you play back what you have heard from them. Create the opportunity to build on or correct what you have understood, this can be via video, audio, a diagram or a storyboard.


2. We work across project boundaries

Service designers always work as part of a multi-disciplinary team. Our role is often to create bridges of understanding between different people who have deep, specialist knowledge. Each person sees the world through a different lens that determines how they perceive problems, and what they deem to be most important. Our professional lenses are shaped by our different work cultures, training, approaches to problem solving, and expert knowledge, among other things.

In complex scenarios, we need all the different lenses if we are to have the best chance of getting to grips with the most challenging of issues. But collaboration is difficult, and the fog of uncertainty can make it even harder. It can often seem faster and simpler for people who think in similar ways to come to a decision on behalf of others. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this will be the best decision for service users. Diversity of thought and respect for others is key to unlocking new ideas and better decision making. You can do this by:

Learning the lingo

Working with different disciplines can feel a bit like being in a new place, with no grasp of the local dialect. We all have our own jargon, terminology and acronyms that act as useful shorthand among our peers but that can also make collaboration a bit more difficult. Be curious about the language of others and seek to understand the dialects of different professionals.

Understand a little about a lot of people’s work

You don’t need to be an expert in every different discipline, but it does help to understand the methods and mindsets of others. This will help you build respectful partnerships.

What’s most important to a civil servant, a user researcher and a technical architect will all be different and shaped by their professional cultures and purpose. Getting to know people as individuals will help you understand what make them tick and what motivates them to do a good job as a specialist.

Remix and reuse

Sometimes you don’t need to create everything yourself. You can take the original work of others, and remix it into something new and different. For example, you can create user centred maps and stories by taking the business focused and detailed work of a business analyst and blending it with the knowledge gained from working with user researchers.

Bridging the siloes

Work on the assumption that there are others doing something similar elsewhere. You probably won’t be able to lift their work directly into your scenario, but you will very likely be able to learn something and save yourself from going over old ground. People will rarely turn you down if you show an interest in their work. Explore how you can work together to break down barriers to knowledge sharing and collaboration.


3. We make things visible

Service designers focus on making things visible so that we can help create a shared understanding between different people. We do this through models, maps, diagrams, charts, storyboards, and even LEGO.

Not everyone works well through words alone.

It’s estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently. As a team you can:

Explore different mediums

We often work in teams that are geographically spread. You may never meet a collaborator face to face. Digital whiteboarding tools such as Miro, Mural and Jamboard are invaluable tools to enable remote collaboration. If you are face-to-face, all you need are some pens, sticky notes and some big sheets of paper. There are lots of methods that can help get you collaborate more creatively.

Share your thinking

Whether it’s a doodle on the back of a napkin or an intricate map, the purpose of it is to share it with others. Share your thinking early and often by asking for input and feedback from others. Your model is a helpful record to look back on and snapshot of how you understand it to be right now. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your maps are a neat portrayal of how things really are. Complex situations never stay static for long.


4. We work in cycles

Service designers work as part of teams, working through cycles of learning and doing. There is a time for planning, exploring, reflection and making.

We often see organisations who are stuck, unable to take the next step forward in trying something new. That might be due to a fear of doing the wrong thing, or a lack of resources to do everything that they think needs to be done.

Trust the process

There is discomfort in uncertainty. The Agile design process makes that feel more manageable. The beginning is always a bit scary; the middle can often feel like you can’t see the wood for the trees. Finally, you start to make sense of things and feel the satisfaction of that new idea beginning to emerge.

The Agile approach is mandated in the Government Service Manual, and there are whole communities out there to help you to learn to work in this way.

Build in feedback loops

Once a service goes live, you need to be able to adapt to the changing, complex world you are in. The needs of your existing users will change, a different group of people you have never helped before might suddenly need your services, or a pandemic might happen and change everything we take for granted.

But you can work through this uncertainty with continual collaboration between delivery teams and your service users. Set up processes to ensure that you continue to question the effectiveness of your service and create space and time to work together and understand how things are working and changing.


Navigating complexity through service design

Service design is a powerful compass when navigating complexity and guiding organisations and individuals towards meaningful and impactful solutions. And designers themselves navigate complexity through many different ways. By placing the user at the heart of the process, service designers can unravel complexities, uncover hidden pain points, and design experiences that truly resonate with the end user.

Originally posted here

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