Service design briefs with upstream challenges

Recently I was at a Service Design event in London where the hottest young digital agency presented their service design solution for a retailer. They were brought in (with an admirable amount of trust on both sides) with the request – ‘find problems, and design solutions'. Seemingly this is most designer’s dream, a genuinely open and trusting client relationship with a mandate to start from a ‘problem’ perspective over a pre-defined brief (often written by the marketing department).

However herein lies the problem, ultimately the brief was decided when the retail company hired the digital agency. In their discovery phase, the agency uncovered a number of large issues that sat under different themes, and then by process of elimination with criteria related to A. digital outcome B. short time frame C. budget; created digital solutions that may address these issues.

From a business perspective the digital agency did everything required of them (to varying levels of success) in the pursuit of a revenue generating project and their scope of skills in delivering on a promise to the client. But were they retrofitting a solution that suited their skills to the challenges uncovered? One can’t help but wonder if you removed this down-stream ‘assumption’ that the answer lies in a new digital service out of the process how would the strategic discovery and design phase have unfolded? Would they have been able to frame these business issues as challenges that were not service related, but rather identify these issues further up as organisational ones that required a new approach to how they perceive their challenges, the behaviours of people involved or how the business functions?

Some argue that these are ultimately one in the same, that every challenge is indeed a service opportunity. Sure, I'll bite. However, often there is an oddly technical skew of what constitutes service design skills and issues uncovered often require a far greater depth of knowledge that the average service designer alone possesses. Whilst services can and do realign organisational focus (and thus their people), they can be singular offerings in a much larger landscape and don’t allow scope for transformation across all aspects of the organisation or indeed address systemic industry challenges they face.

So how do we deal with briefs such as these? Or better still how do we identify the user’s needs (and therefore their solution requirements) irrelevant to the skills of those present in the room. It’s muddy water and I believe designers need to recognise and educate others at the different levels at which people (and indeed many) define design thinking. Openness, trust and a good dose of humility by designers goes a long way, client relationships are exactly that, not a single portfolio moment on the way to the next brief.

It’s perfectly acceptable to take the service design brief that won’t change the world or all of the organisation's known and broad challenges. Certainly, we can’t all become hybrid ‘design-led’ sense-making organisations with a swag of people, change and business experts. But as Design continues to traverse and address these open, networked and complex challenges, we can collaboratively involve other experts in our process. We need to make explicit the limitations of these types of briefs and engage in open co-discovery phases that act as a catalyst within organisations, so that these are more than dressed up reverse briefing sessions.

Challenging a client's tactical brief is always difficult, but our job is to use all knowledge available (or potentially available to us via further research) in the sense-making process so that we answer the right questions. An app is not an outcome, purely a vehicle for delivering the 'why' in your golden circle quest. 'Whys' change lives, and connect to human needs and values. Indeed if the agency hired can’t develop or facilitate others in the multi-faceted solution development that complex issues demand, then they need to help their client identify and inspire genuine and fully participatory champions in the end-to-end process so that they can ultimately drive change deep within their organisations.

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Upstream and downstream confusion?

Here's a little excerpt from GK Patter on the matter.

What is Design Thinking? To keep it simple and clear:


Design Thinking (also known as Meta Design Thinking, Strategic Design Thinking) starts upstream from briefs with no challenge or outcome assumptions and results in diverse outcomes.


Product Design Thinking starts downstream with product creation assumptions and results in product outcomes.

Service Design Thinking starts downstream with service creation assumptions and results in service outcomes.

Experience Design Thinking starts downstream with experience creation assumptions and results in experience outcomes.

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MELANIE RAYMENT I  +44 (0)7494 936 787