4 May 2017
Marieken Kerkhoven & et al.
Marieken Kerkhoven & et al.

Service Design in Government

A trip report

From 8 till 10 of March, we both dived deep into the Service Design in Government (@SDinGov) conference. A full 3-days program in the heart of London with workshops, case studies and tutorials. With lots of committed designers and others who are passionate about and take on the challenge to design better services for people in government and other areas.

The conference kicked off with Louise Downe (Head of Design, Government Digital Service) who stated that besides problem solving the designers focus is problem caring. Digital transformation is never done. We must skip the phase where we tell how important design is, but we just have to deliver and scale up. She also emphasized that we have to be very critical of what should be done with technology, not only what could be done.

Data which tells the human story

Kit Colingwood Richardson (Deputy Director, Department for Work and Pensions) spoke passionately about data. She wants to move from protected data to data liberation. It is important to make data understandable for everyone by showing interpretation and hypotheses. Designers have an important role to visualize and communicate data throughout the organization. Publish, don’t send! The world runs on Excel, but behind every line of Excel, query or dashboard, there is a human being. Tell the inconvenient truths and describe data findings in terms of human outcomes. An example to make data speak is “The completion rate is 80%” versus “1 in 5 of our users struggle to use our service”. It is the same data, but with a human vision on storytelling, it can be perceived very different.

To really cater on user needs, Colingwood stipulates to automate simple or repeatable questions. We can ask the smallest question to improve services by creating Minimal Viable Insights. And we must talk about data leadership. We have to take responsibility. Not only for the power we get by having access to all the data, but as well for putting data at the heart of government. She points out the importance of data teams in organizations. These teams must consist of data analysts, designers, engineers, operational staff and policymakers. We must be very clear in what we want to do with data. We must make it accessible, tailor it to user needs, and make it easy to use and share.

Solving the actual problem

Some of the challenges we face designing solutions are that teams and budgets are focused on their own problems. There is no overview of the work that is delivered. In this workshop, Kate Tarling and Ayesha Moarif provided tips for finding the true problem. After having asked the right questions, such as “What are users really trying to do?” and “Why now, or else? Why this, how else?” you can focus on rewriting the brief and framing the problem. Build a shared understanding of the problem, see where you do and don’t agree. “Build a portal” is just deciding on the solution, but will it be the right solution for your users? Describe the outcomes you want to have that the solution solves. Framing the problem is also choosing your words properly. If you use them wrong, you might as well be focusing on the wrong problem. So for example, instead of “managing” use “find out how”.

Kate Tarlin and Ayesha Moarif also talked about mapping test results and initiatives and related ideas to user research. We must remember that user stories are assumptions we are making. When you move away from research insights and real experiences towards user stories, you immediately increase the likelihood of building the wrong thing. Make a risk dashboard where you keep track of assumptions that are tested and/or validated.

Design for the full range of human capabilities

Alistair Duggin (Head of Accessibility, UK Government) gave a presentation about “What’s stopping us all from making accessible services?”. His main point was that no one should be excluded because of your bad design decisions. Design for the full range of human capabilities, which is a very nice way to put it and to approach the subject another way. Especially since Dutch government services have to be accessible by law in 2018!
The step the Gov.uk accessibility team made to realize such a goal was in the first place to make the guidelines accessible themselves. They created a service manual that is included in their style guide to guarantee that accessibility is covered and consistently implemented. Make sure you incorporate it from the beginning and don’t firefight. They raised a community within the UK Government to create awareness that research has to be done. An example Alistair mentioned was accessibility experience mapping to make it clearer what has to be done and that is not “a box ticking exercise”. People tend to get overwhelmed because they don’t know where and how to start. The solution he provided for this problem is a summation of the points mentioned above, such a creating a culture for accessibility through guidelines, training, guidance and testing.

Failure framework

In a very personal and open workshop Marc Hébert (Design anthropologist, San Francisco Human Services) talked about the importance of sharing and anticipating on failure. Projects are not all success stories. We are all, at some point, muddling, especially in places where the digital transformation has just taking off.

To practice to share and think about failure we start with an exercise. This is about how to apply design thinking to your own life (from: Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans). You can see failure as a screw-up, a weakness or a growth opportunity. You will get insights from this, learn from it and iterate every time. A great way to anticipated failure in a project is to have a pre-mortem workshop. This is a thought experiment set in the future about the past. You use the past tense to talk in a group looking back on a project, what has gone wrong, Epic Failures or what has gone right, Amazing Successes. This technique can help you and your team to identify potential failures before they occur.

This workshop was all about the emotional side of failure. Sharing stories about failures can build trust within a team. Seeing failure is a learning opportunity, personally as well as in project settings, can help us to learn from mistakes.


Service Design in Government was a very interesting congress. We took a lot of knowledge and insights home with us. To get to speak with design employees within Gov.uk and to learn how they deal with similar challenges was the most valuable. We still have a long way to go, but these meetings are encouraging us to provide the best services we can. After all, “the best service is the one where no one has to do anything”.

About the authors

Marieken Kerkhoven (/mariekenkerkhoven) is interaction designer. She is passionate about the search for the best combination of design, information and technical possibilities in complex areas where expectations and needs of users and clients have to be balanced.

Dominique Lankheet (/dominique-lankheet) is interaction designer with a background in communication and multimedia design and is working in technical teams. She gets her energy out of ensuring that user needs are top priority in these quickly evolving environments and is an enthusiastic and dedicated designer.

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