Geek Chic: The future of service and system design

Fusing a science-based approached to service design and system reform with an inclusive approach that involves the people who use and deliver services

Public services designed to support people to live healthy, fulfilling or productive lives can do amazing things, often in challenging circumstances. Yet at some point or other they often fail to live up to expectations.

Most readers will recognise these failures in their interactions with services at some point in their lives, ranging from physical and mental health care provision, family support or education, to housing support or adult social care.

Why so? I think it is due to a fundamental flaw in the design process (or absence thereof) and the complex and fragmented nature of our public systems.

Most systems – such as education, child protection, physical and mental health, adult social care, etc. – have evolved, largely independently, over centuries. They tend to operate in silos, on short-term commissioning cycles that are subject to the vagaries of the incumbent political leadership, changing public opinion as well as major social, economic and demographic changes.

Most services and public systems are adaptions of ones that came before: a slow evolution with little design intent or respect for evidence about what has or has not worked before. They are often developed by well-intentioned professionals but without insights from potential users: this means that services are often not sufficiently responsive to the needs or circumstances of those they are designed for. What we end up with are services and systems that are rehashed versions of things that had only a limited impact in another time or place, and that lack the creativity or innovation to address the needs and circumstances of the intended users.

Harsh? Maybe.

True? Probably.

So how do we inject some careful thought and creativity into the service and system design process? Broadly speaking, people tend to approach this in one of two ways: the nerdy or the trendy way. I argue that either alone is a waste of time, but that the future of service and system design lies in blending these two approaches (geek chic, if you will).

The nerdy approach is a science-based method, grounded in research, data and professional expertise. This is not a particularly common approach. The first stop is the evidence-base. Designers – in this case often practitioners with research training or academics – scour (or cherry-pick) the published scientific literature to identify best practice that has in the past been tested and found to be effective. If you happened to work in the NHS, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) does this for you. The next step is to refine and wrap these practices up in a structured package of delivery (occasionally underpinned by an empirically-grounded logic model, implementation handbook and training to ensure consistent delivery). Thereafter follows the incremental development of a service-specific evidence base. The service will often be pilot tested, spread a little further and tested some more, and then if you are lucky it will undergo a robust larger-scale evaluation to see if it is effective.

The advantage of such a science-based approach is that it helps build a solid evidential foundation: we learn what works to improve outcomes of users – and what does not. It builds upon best practice, and adds to our understanding of that.

Yet the downsides are obvious. The speed is typically glacial. It can take years, or decades, to develop practice. And what often ends up getting produced – evidence-based programmes or structured treatment packages – are slow to adapt to the evolving needs of users and the contexts or systems in which those services are delivered. They rarely involve users of those services or systems in their design. They also tend to be over-engineered, hampering their potential for cost-effective delivery at scale, and they result in products or services in which IP is owned and protected (rather than shared widely and freely).

The trendy and in-vogue approach is that of user-centred design or ‘design thinking’. Borne largely out of product and tech design, these approaches place the potential users of services or systems in the driving seat of design. In their purest form, services are designed for users, by users, with little ‘expert’ input. More often approaches are closer to ‘co-production’, in which users and experts work together in an effort to balance user perspectives with some of the practical constraints that services may operate within. If done really badly they amount to little more than user consultation that is subsequently ignored.

The broad process of ‘design thinking’ is: (i) wide exploration of a problem or challenge; (ii) a narrower re-framing of that problem; (iii) wide ideation to explore different potential solutions; (iv) before embarking on a cyclical process of rapidly building and testing prototypes, ‘failing fast and often’ before narrowing down and refining the service design.

The advantages of a user-centred design approach are: it heavily involves users in the design process, helping increase the chance that a service will address meaningful challenges; it fosters space for innovation and creativity; and increases the likelihood that services are created that people will actually want to use and that those services are potentially more adaptable and scalable. If done well, prototyping and experimentation will be underpinned by good data (but often this bit is somewhat lacking).

The downside of the trendy approach is that it pays little heed to existing evidence about what has and – importantly – what has not worked elsewhere. It risks reinventing the wheel and may miss important insights that challenge conventional thinking. Existing research may provide a strong evidential foundation from which to innovate: ignore at your peril.

So crudely speaking, science-based approaches create services or systems that probably stand a greater chance of improving outcomes – if only they were something that people would actually use and could be sufficiently adaptive to scale in different and rapidly changing contexts. User-centred design approaches create services or systems that people probably want to use – if only they made a jot of difference to people’s lives.

So back to Geek-Chic. I believe the future of service and system design lies in effectively blending science-based (Geek) and user-centred (Chic) design approaches. I think that by blending them we can build services and systems that are not only grounded in science and evidence but in which users are also integral to the design process. This will, I believe, help craft services and systems that people not only want to engage with but are also effective, scaleable and adaptive. In a ‘post-truth’, anti-expert world, it will also ensure that data, science and evidence still have a place in service design and policy-making, yet in a more nimble, relevant and expeditious form.

It is for this reason that I am establishing the Dartington Service Design Lab – the next iteration of the longstanding Dartington Social Research Unit. Over the coming years this new Lab will continue to work with progressive leaders of public systems, service delivery organisations, scientists, funders and commissioners to tackle challenges faced by children, families and vulnerable people in society. We will develop and test approaches to blend science-based and user-centred design approaches. We will work with partners to test these ideas out in practice. We will create open-source tools and share our learning, failures and insights, so that others may benefit.

Tim Hobbs, PhD

Dartington Service Design Lab

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