How to Stop Waterfall Breaking Service Design

Dr John Knight
4 min readOct 22, 2018

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Agile is not just a new addition to the Service Design’s domains burgeoning ‘Sticky-note’ design toolkit. Rather the nexus of lean and agility (AKA Sprint)is arguably, as big a break in modes of production as the factory method of manufacture. In this case, long in-depth ‘up-front’ research and design was condensed into short sprints where research, design and development worked in parallel. For service design, the implications of agile/lean on the service experience are more profound than changing how the work done. This is because of the unique properties of digital materials used in the production of products and services and the underlying philosophy of lean that takes a socio-technical approach to continuous improvement.

Digital products and services are endlessly mutable. Sprint exploits this affordance through iterative releases of increasing quality and personalisation. This mutability challenges the fundamentals of service design orthodoxy where blueprinting new services (Green Field Design) wins out against fixing existing ones. Similarly, wholesale design oriented to an (unspecified but distant) time (Design Futurism) in prioritised over the here and now. The case was entirely different. Instead, the need to increase access, enhance the consultation experience, contribute to improving healthcare provision and cost of service through the pragmatic use of technology in the shortest time took precedence.

Speed of deployment and rapid, incremental enhancements make sprint service design approach relevant to any domain. Lean’s focus on value, flow and frugality also make it particularly important to public service, where cost to value ratios are highest. This has repercussions for the service experience and modes of design, production and operation. In the first case, this could mean running short releases of incremental change that focus on unlocking value with minimal impact on resources at all points within the service ecosystem. In the latter case, it means industrialising the process and focusing on reuse.

Service design ought to frugally tweak services toward optimal flow rather than focusing on big ticket projects that disrupt and cause unforeseen adoption issues. That is not just a pragmatic approach to framing any specific context for design, but it is also the embodiment of the ethical design tradition. Use the minimum of resources to extract the maximum of value. The focus on value has two implications. Firstly, frugality ought to inform all our plans, methods, deliverables and interventions. Secondly, a focus on value should not just be the cornerstone of services in general (Vargo and Lusch, 2004) but the experience too. While value could be realised through a thoughtfully envisaged future service it could also be more prosaic, increasing throughput (Service Flow). Not only is design work a service production cost but cost to value ought to be a factor in practice. Without this boundary, design becomes not only utopian but disconnected from its real-world context in the here and now. To do this, any agile/lean service operations project should deliver high Sprint Value to low Sprint Cost. Similarly, the impact of a release should be to provide increase Service Utilisation and lower Operational Cost. These rather dull factors should be both a spur for designers’ creativity and critical be areas to tackle through design thinking. This also means that all design work should be continuously estimated, and outcomes measured in order to maximise value and to steer further sprints. As happens in lean/agile.

This frugal attitude is in many ways at odds with much of the literature. Here the holistic nature of services rationalises expansive research where everything needs to be known before anything can be done. This knowledge is then abstracted into design deliverables. Not only should we focus on minimalistic and lean descriptions, but we should rigorously question how deliverables aid service production. That could mean defining the most expedient deliverables (reused or custom cut-downs) for the case at hand using the Shaping Game, for example. This workshop activity involves team members regularly checking back on project fundamentals through a collaborative question-based game that asks members to reflect on:

A structured framework for delivering agile service design, would help sensitise service design for the full range of service production roll out phases. This typically begins with founding projects on the basis of a Minimum Viable Service (MVS). An MVS is focuses on enabling access to a simplified, stripped down version of the service. Such a proposition is by nature basic and supports a few use cases, but is built to ensure it enables core functions and proves the viability of the service. An MVS is, however, more than a conceptual proof of concept. Its adoption and use enables early data collection that can help develop richer features, but more importantly enables mapping service supply and demand data. In this sense, a simple digitalised flow becomes the first manifestation of a Living Service, where data is used to enrich the experience and start to build a critical mass of users. Having established a strong and sustainable user community, the next phase of Minimum Living Service (MLS). This is focused on delivering an optimised experience that can drive broad adoption. Finally, a Minimum Sustainable Service focuses on facilitating value co-creation and operational excellence.

© John Knight, 2018

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Dr John Knight

Entirely personal views on #DesignScience #Ergonomie #NewWaveUX Making sketchy futurstic stuff with paper, pencils, humans and binary since 1964 PhD @aaltoARTS