The service design story at Reach

The Reach Team in a service design workshop
Janet Thorne
Chief Executive at Reach Volunteering

Janet shares Reach's experience of service design and what we have learnt so far.

Reach is using service design so that we can keep improving our service and responding to change. We think it’s a really powerful approach that any charity delivering a service could benefit from, so we are sharing our experience in the hope that it will be helpful to others, especially colleagues working in small charities.

Small charities are a great place to do service design. Although we face obvious constraints like lack of time and money, there are some useful advantages of being small: we are less likely to be working in silos and it is easier to get buy-in from all decision makers, we are often closer to our users, and we can be more agile.

We are no experts in service design, more like enthusiastic amateurs, learning as we go, but very few small charities seem to use this approach, so we hope that our experience might be useful to others. 

What is service design? 

Service design combines a range of processes and tools to create and redesign services so that they work really well for the people who use them. It focuses on users’ needs and considers these needs holistically, from before people arrive at your service to after they’ve left it, across every channel or context that they engage with you and from ‘front to back’ (all the different systems and processes that it takes to deliver a service). It uses a range of process and tools to achieve this including user research, early prototyping, testing and iterating.

Why we adopted service design

In 2012 we committed to taking our service online and making it self-service. We understood the importance of grounding the design in the needs of the people who would use it so we conducted over 30 in-depth interviews and a number of surveys and focus groups. With some pro bono help from IBM we distilled these into a very clear set of user needs which were really invaluable in keeping us focused on the right things, through the procurement process and the subsequent build (which didn’t always go so smoothly, but that’s another story!). 

Once the service had launched, we were left wondering how well we were satisfying people’s needs. We could measure some things, like application rates, through the quantative data that we collected, but we couldn’t tell what was working and what wasn’t. Our service is about harnessing discretionary activity (no one has to volunteer) and relies on self service, so it has to be really nice and easy to use. It also has to work for a large array of people with very different expectations of the service, of volunteering and of each other: charities of all kinds and sizes, and volunteers from a large span of ages and sectors, and with different perspectives. 

We were collecting feedback and were keen to respond to it, but the information was often contradictory. It was also fragmentary and incomplete. We knew that the issues most visible to us were only part of the picture, and we wanted to avoid the trap of oiling only the squeakiest wheels. We also found that making a change in one area would impact on another part of the service. It began to feel a bit like a game of whac-a-mole. We didn’t have the tools to consider the service as a whole, to explore how effectively it was working, or to improve it systematically. The team didn’t even have a shared framework or language to talk about it. 

Without a service design approach it began to feel like whac-a-mole.

How we got started

We didn’t want to hire consultants to ‘fix’ our service for us. Even if we’d had the budget (which we didn’t), we knew that this would be an ongoing process, our core activity and not a side project. So we were keen to embed the skills within our team. 

We hired service design agency Snook to teach us the basics of service design. We chose Snook because of their commitment to upskilling the organisations they worked with.

Snook led us through a whole design cycle over a 6 month programme of workshops and ‘homework’.

At the end of this we had:
•    a framework for looking at our service holistically
•    a shared understanding of the service, and a language for talking about it
•    a set of themes (eg how to make better matches? How to inform, educate and inspire people to use our service effectively?) to address through future design cycles 
•    experience of the whole cycle and some practice in using some of the tools appropriate for each stage.

However, the most valuable outcome was a new mindset. The process helped create a team that is keen to seek out user feedback, both systematically and opportunistically (for example, whilst dealing with phone enquiries); that thinks of service in terms of constant iteration and improvement; and that believes in testing assumptions and hypotheses, and not jumping to solutions (OK, we do still struggle with that last one!).  

Embedding service design

We are now on our second design cycle, focused on how to generate better matches for service users. We have just completed a new round of user research, interviewing users in the places that they access our services, be that at home, in a café or their office. We have drawn our insights into themes and distilled them into user needs. We are now exploring different ways of meeting those needs. 

To do the work, we have built a service design team, led by our digital services manager, and including our two service staff, and me (the CEO). We sometimes involve our marketing and communications manager, if her work load permits. We are still very much amateurs, so we need Snook’s mentoring at key points. 

It is really important that our board understands service design too because this way of working has implications for how we prioritise service developments, determine key performance indicators and make decisions about investing in the team. Having a digital trustee who is familiar with this way of working is a big help, and he has led a board discussion using CAST’s Digital Design Principles which helped generate wider trustee understanding and board buy-in.  

What we’re learning

Anticipate a rollercoaster

It’s an emotional experience. Doing user research can be an uncomfortable experience, learning unwelcome truths about our service or about a favourite idea. It sometimes requires us to step out of our comfort zones. Interviewing people can feel awkward at first (one team member was horrified at the idea of interviewing people in their homes!). Certain stages, like lining up research participants, can seem arduous and thankless. Other stages, like analysing the research, can feel messy and overwhelming. Conversely, new interesting insights, dawning clarity, or moments of creativity can be really exciting. 

This stuff is important because it can be a very real barrier, especially since if it’s not your day job and you are juggling lots of other commitments, many of which might be more urgent and probably all of which will feel more comfortable and familiar. It can be tempting to keep deferring it, especially if resources are stretched and your targets are tied to other things. 

It is tricky to step back from your service

We need to create a sense of distance from our service to do service design effectively, and this can be difficult when our day job is delivering the same service. It is so familiar that sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees. We have accumulated knowledge about how the service works and tend to make assumptions about what users can and should be doing that can blind us to their actual experience. When acting as interviewers, the service team had to fight their urge to intervene and help when research participants got stuck, or made ‘mistakes’. 

You can only learn by doing 

Service design feels as much a craft as it does an approach. Theory will only take you so far: you learn through practice. We are getting better at the techniques each time we use them, but we still have a way to go, and having a mentor makes a really big difference. She helps build our confidence in the process, brings experience to our approach and contributes clarity and an external perspective. 

Some of the things we are still pondering

How do we combine quantative data with service design? To borrow from Public Digital, we “Trust data over intuition. But trust insights from user research over both.” We have a rich range of data, but we are still trying to wrestle it into a manageable shape for analysis, and find a good way to work it into our design process.

How do we keep social impact centre stage? User needs, even when considered in their wider context, do not always equate with social impact, and sometimes they even clash. 

It really does make your service better

The main benefit of adopting service design is, quite simply, better services. It helps us focus on the right things because it gives us the discipline to prioritise the things that are most important to our users and most likely to have impact, rather than be tempted by funding opportunities or pet projects. Testing things with users at every stage, means that improvements really work for them, as they engage with our service in the context of the wider world. 

Developing without this approach leads to much poorer services. We see the world from our own perspective, and as service providers our perspective is different to that of people using our services. This is hard to see this unless you do rigorous and systematic user research, to build that empathy. Our natural instinct is jump straight to solutions, which are based on assumptions and intuitions. Service design slows things down in the short run, but gets you to good results much quicker. 

Because service design is iterative, it means that we continue to evolve the service in line with the changing needs of charities and volunteers, and changes in the wider digital environment. Given the rapid pace of change in tech, staying still is not an option. For example, we needed to be ready and able to adapt to Google For Jobs, launched this July. 

Rewards for the team

Combining staff from different teams into one service design team brings together different perspectives in useful and interesting ways. It gives the team a sense of ownership over the service, and the opportunity to problem solve and create solutions, which is empowering. Team members benefit from engaging in the process in different ways. For the digital service manager, it is energising to step out of day to day activity to look at long term solutions. As the CEO, first-hand knowledge of the experience of the people using our service is invaluable to me for grounding strategic thinking. All of us find it really rewarding to hear about the positive impact our service has on the lives of volunteers and charities. It makes the connection between our daily work and social impact very tangible. 

And building a better service is, of course, motivating in its own right. 

We hope this is useful to others who are thinking about how to improve their services. Service design is great for improving services and putting the people who use your service at the heart of its design. It can also increase your charity’s agility and resilience, and create a more flexible, learning culture. We’re keen advocates, so so we’d love to hear from others who are working in this way.  

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