Update: Happily, Marie joined the Domain7 team as Strategic Designer in September of 2020.
Marie Cheung and Stanley Lai on Service Design
Once upon a time, Stanley Lai and Marie Cheung were aspiring UX designers and classmates in design school.
Today Stan is a Director of Design at Domain7, with a healthy track record of leadership and sophisticated UX expertise. And Marie is a skilled service designer and speaker, with seasoned experience at the Department of Work and Pensions for the UK government, among other projects.
We reunited the two to hear what each had to say about the emerging field of service design—a style of design methods and partnership that our team has found helpful in solving complex problems for community-focused organizations. Turns out, they had quite a few insightful things to say.
From designing pixels to designing services
Stan: When we were in school, service design was this really fluffy thing that everyone was still really skeptical about in a lot of ways. I know I was very skeptical of it in the beginning. I was like, “What is service?” Like, that’s so fluffy. Let’s get to the pixels and interaction design, right?
Why did you decide to make that leap to service design back then, and ultimately move around the world to pursue it?
Marie: Well, we’ve already designed the chair so many times. Why do you need to design the chair again? I felt similarly about digital things. We had an abundance of apps. I thought, “Well, instead of just making new things, we should think about how do we improve and fix the old things and services that we use every day. What does it mean to do end-to-end service design and not just look at specific touchpoints?”
Stan: Was that a hard transition, coming right out of school where we focus on interactions and those specific touchpoints, to thinking about that spectrum of experiences?
Marie: I think it was definitely a learning curve, trying to work with people and companies in a way that’s not just focused on the product. I think at the program at Simon Fraser University, the skills that we did learn really helped help us in the way to apply multidisciplinary design.
Stan: Yeah. It’s one thing I did appreciate coming out of SFU was there was a lot of focus on the theory of what designing is about.
Marie: Definitely. How to use design to solve problems. No matter what your preferred medium is, you can apply your design philosophy and skills to solve problems. We didn’t call it interaction design, we didn’t call it user experience design. It’s just design. This is what it is.
What I was interested in was literally designing services. I wanted to apply design in making services better for people who use them and also for people who deliver them.
On in-house versus agency work
Marie facilitating a government service jam in the UK.
Stan: Going back to your experience moving to Europe, you did an internship at an agency called Snook, and then you stayed on. What made you decide to stay there?
Marie: Working in an agency, there’s always some limitations in terms of what your impact level can be. I was able to try a lot of things, learn a lot about different industries. But at some point, unless that organization and the client that you work with have that in-house capability to carry on the work and to carry the impact forward, your idea, your project is just conceptual.
I really wanted to try working in-house to see how much design could have an impact by bringing design change from the inside—kind of being an intrapreneur, if you will.
So I went to one of the biggest organizations in the UK— the Department for Work and Pensions. It’s a 84,000 employee organization that helps with the social welfare, benefits and pensions of UK citizens. It really provides services for everyone who lives and works in the UK.
Stan: Yeah, that’s something we experience a lot in our work as well and I completely agree with you. There are a lot of limitations to what someone can do from the outside looking in. One of the key things that we started doing was looking for sponsors in-house at the organizations we work with, and cultivate partnerships with them. We want internal team members to recognize that, “hey, you are actually an innovation leader in your organization.” It’s not on us alone to make it happen. It takes an internal champion as well.
I’ve had some experience working in-house doing change and innovation, so I’m curious about how the transition was for you. For me, it was from in-house to agency. You went from an agency to in-house. How was that?
Marie: It was definitely very different. In government, it’s a lot slower. There’s a lot more bureaucracy and it’s so massive. Things don’t just happen. Change happens a lot slower and there’s a lot more pushback in terms of how people see your role as a designer in the organization. One of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever had was working in government as a designer.
But the UK is one of the forerunners in bringing design and change internally into government. During my time there, there were at least 900 designers in the UK across governments in different departments from Scotland to England and Wales. So you have design taking over the world really in the UK. No matter which department you were in as a government designer, we had very similar challenges. You can really support each other.
We also had a design system, a library of patterns that you can draw from. So instead of thinking about the pixels, you're thinking about the problem.
Instead of spending a lot of time thinking how should it look, what colours we should use, it’s standardized. We can spend more of that time thinking about, “what is the problem we’re solving? Is it the right problem?” Then we could quickly build it and design it.
Staying user-focused in complex environments
Marie at a Leeds (UK) government service jam.
Stan: What were some of the challenges you faced in your day-to-day work there?
Marie: When I first started at Snook, I just thought it was about end-to-end design. You’re thinking of the start of the journey all the way to the finish. But going into government, you see the layers of complexity. You get to see, actually there’s policy that’s underpinning some of these decisions. You have to consider operational realities and the many layers, so that front-to-back experience starts to come to the forefront of your work. Who of our staff are having that face-to-face relationship with our citizen? Who’s in the back actually processing and making decisions about some of these things like benefits, and then how do these things all come together to inform the citizens “This is what I’m going to get,” this is the help we’re going to provide, this is what you need to do.
Also, there’s so much data flowing in and out. You have to work with data scientists to understand how things work and how we can capture the information that we need. Even if we created a new digital form and a citizen can apply online, there are cases where, because nothing has changed in the back end, their agent is just printing a PDF. They’re just going to have to manually key that into old system.So nothing’s changed for the back end and so things are just as slow as before.
Stan: How do you keep the human experience front and center in the middle of all that complexity?
Marie: User research is a big part of that. A lot of the big governmental departments will be based in London, but it’s not about London only. You have to serve citizens in very rural areas.
We did do a user research week in Scotland’s rural areas and we even went to some of the islands. You have to understand the circumstances of people: sometimes that means understanding factors like age or even infrastructure. In Scotland, there were these citizens called “postals” who live on the islands. A government employee would never see them in person, everything had to be done through mail. So you have to think about how would the experience you’re designing work with that person who you won’t ever see at the job center? How do we design for them as well?
In government, it’s a mandate. You have to design for everyone. You have to design for as many people as possible and you have to try it in many different situations. It’s the law. You have to do accessibility because we have a Disability Act.
Designing for the extremes, designing for everyone
Stan leading a design thinking training day in Vancouver.
Stan: One of the things that I find really interesting, compelling and fascinating is the age-old design principle of designing for the extremes. The whole idea that if you design for the people who are at the edges of society, or your audience, or the group that you’re working for—when you design for edges, you design for the majority as well.
If you design for people who have the least mobility or the least access, the people in the majority also benefit from the outcomes of those design. I don’t know if the connection has been drawn yet in the wider industry, but that connects with the idea of inclusive design, right?
Designing for inclusion from the very beginning is also the idea of designing for the extremes.
Your example when you were talking about how you design for postals, when you focus on those people, has it impacted the other parts of design, the other groups that you are working for? Has it impacted the output or the solutions that you’ve come up with?
Marie: We started to think about what access needs are. So not just accessibility, but access needs. Most people can actually benefit by having something called “situational impairment” considered. An example would be that you recently had laser eye surgery so you’re temporarily sensitive to light. Or maybe you had an accident, so your arm isn’t functioning because it’s broken. Maybe you’re in a situation where it’s very noisy, so you can’t hear very well. We can apply designing for extremes to help with the changing challenges of everyday life.
Or maybe at some point, you can’t do something online because of your situation. We have to have alternatives.
We can't just say everything's digital. At one point in the UK government, it was digital by default. Now it's changed. They had digital standards, now that's changed to service standards. So you're seeing that the shift is happening.
Stan: I love that so much. I think that’s the same experience that we’ve had. We’ve had a lot of conversations around the whole idea of “digital.” Even in the mainstream, we talk about digital so much. When you stop and think about it, it’s like, are we actually interested in digital? Are our clients actually interested in digital? Not really.
They’re really interested in the service. Digital is just the Trojan Horse for us to look at service standards and service orientation.
From static solutions to strategic journeys
Marie at a workshop.
Marie: I think also digital transformation has been a bit of a buzzword.
Stan: Right there with you.
Marie: A lot of people think, “Well, that’s a destination. We’re going to arrive at digital transformation.” If you think about it, even in service design, we always say that service design never ends. You have to keep iterating, keep moving, keep learning, keep applying the lessons you learn into the service that you’re providing. The world changes, people change, your customer and consumers might change as well.
When I was working in government, it seemed a lot of projects stemmed from cost savings, efficiencies, how do we cut back or replace old legacy technology that’s failing? They didn’t really address what is the problem we’re trying to solve before we even try to tackle any of those problems.
Marie: You get a lot of frustrated designers who might think, “Well, what am I doing this for?” Because government is supposed to help people at times of need when they’re in crisis. It can’t be just about the figures. Obviously you have to balance it because you are taking taxpayers’ money and you have to make it good. If you bring design in earlier, you’re actually going to save money over time, but you have to convince people.
Stan: This is a conversation I have with many designers. It’s that whole shift, right?
For a long time, design has always been about the artifact and the pixels, and then as you move to something more abstract like services and experience, the work of design shifts.
It’s no longer just me and Sketch or Photoshop making something up. Now I’m having to facilitate conversations and be with people. Suddenly a deliverable has changed from something like a wireframe. You’re going to find yourself way more often in Google Docs, spreadsheets and slide decks as part of the work of design. How do you feel about that?
Marie: I do a lot of work in Google Docs and slides. A lot of it for me, is about bridging that gap. I think for service design, we’re trying to visualize and make tangible the intangible.
Stan: I love that.
Marie: You don’t really know what a service looks like, or how people experience it unless you go talk to people, you capture those thoughts and insights. You know where the pain points lie, you map it out. You build this picture and this consensus together.
I think in the future, service design can help with a lot more of that strategic decision-making by advocating for the user and the people. You need the people. It’s the people and the relationships we build together that make the service. The service isn’t anything without people. If you take it all away, we’re just people just trying to help each other.
The way I see it as that there won't be service designers anymore somewhere down the road. Service design won't exist because everyone will be doing service design.
In the meantime, there is a need just to think about the question of how we connect things better. Whether that’s operations or policy or digital, how do we actually bring these things together?
The future of design in Canada
Stan speaking on ethical futures design in Vancouver.
Stan: I’d love to talk a bit about the future of service design, and design for Canada, specifically. For me, coming from Asia, the one thing that struck me about government services or public services in Vancouver is the sensitivity to people. And from my own engagements as well with my clients in government and the public space, that sensitivity shows up so often.
It makes for such fertile ground for advocacy, for new methods and new approaches, for us to think about how services should be delivered and designed. There’s a lot of dedication and commitment to why we need to do user research. There’s no argument. It’s just, “hey, we are actually about people, so that’s great.”
Marie: So I think there are many Canadians—young talent who haven’t stayed in Canada and who, like myself, went out to explore. I think a lot of Canadians just want to think about actually, what does it mean to be Canadian in this world? It’s okay to go out and learn from different people and organizations and bring it back to your country. There’s a lot of good things happening in Canada now, such as the Canadian Digital Service. You’re seeing that there’s more of a wave in terms of the public sector taking on service design and design in general, in seeing how we can better our public services. It’s really interesting and exciting to see. Even myself personally—the opportunity I was seeking to do service design wasn’t available in Canada at the time I graduated from university, and now that I have this experience, I do want to come back and help make Canada a better place to live and to work and to grow.
It’s a great challenge. We're multicultural, we're diverse. You have to think about these different cultures and these different backgrounds, these different situations.
There’s a lot of rural Canada. We have to think about how these things work for everybody in the different provinces, in different territories. We have two languages. We have these different layers that make us who we are as Canadians and as Canada. It is going to be very interesting I think, to see in the next few years what it means for Canada to do design. It will be interesting to see how design can be applied to solving the problems for people here.
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