Designing services

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I’m a bit of a sucker for good design. From beautiful pens that make writing notes on heavy vellum a pleasure to sparkling glassware that balances in the hand and makes the wine taste just that much better.

Design isn’t just about objects. Services are designed, too. And we can all tell the difference between a good service experience and a poor one.  The difference isn’t just about friendliness, or a customer service ethos, it’s about design.

Successful businesses spend a great deal of thought and effort and money following a customer’s journey from impulse to purchase and making sure that the experience produces a profitable outcome.

While users can’t always design services to suit them, there is no good design without user needs being addressed.  And the best way to find out what user needs are is to engage with users. Ask, observe and test

Public services are designed, too. But the design process can be haphazard, incremental and based on moderations of what’s always been done.  In fact, usually people aren’t even aware that services have been designed – as the development was opaque.   Too often dealing with public services leaves users bewildered or a bit flustered at best and at worst distressed and ill-served.  No matter how dedicated public service workers are or how spot-on policies may be, services often fail if practitioners and users alike are battling against a badly designed system.   And although consultation is often undertaken and needs may be reasonably well understood by practitioners, too rarely are users actually involved in re-designing services.

This is why I’m excited that we’re taking part in a conference on Service Design in Government Conference on 19-20 May.  Jonathan Carr-West and I will be looking at how service design can be incorporated into service commissioning.

While users can’t always design services to suit them, there is no good design without user needs being addressed.  And the best way to find out what user needs are is to engage with users. Ask, observe and test.  With commissioned or outsourced services this can often be really difficult.  The nature of service changes when the relationships change. When services are outsourced or commissioned or even spun-off into social enterprises, the relationships between statutory bodies (the council) and the service user changes. Whether this becomes a dysfunctional triangle or a happy melange, depends on the nature of the relationship.

Outcome based commissioning tries to focus on a series of outcome measures – more independent living, etc – but too much of commissioning, for example in social care, ends up being over-specified – slots of fifteen minutes of care as part of someone’s care package in order to have verifiable outputs.  The performance of a contract is important, but more important still is the quality of service – which is personal and so variable it’s hard to measure.

And just as recipients of care may not be part of the design process, providers of care are often cut out, too. They may design the logistics of service, but are constrained in what they can provide by a core focus on cost from the council side and profit from the shareholder side.  Cost and profit are important and cannot be ignored – but so are user needs.  We’re currently exploring a number of these issues and how they impact on the people who actually deliver front line services in the Commission on the Future of the Home Care Workforce.

In our session we’ll be exploring how commissioners, providers, service recipients and ideally deliverers can be involved in the service design process and in particular how commissioning can remain an accountable process but flexible enough to design appropriate packages of service with users and providers.

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