Why it’s never a good time for service design

Picture the scene: you’ve just joined a new team, they’re doing good work but they’re plugging away at the wrong problem.

You bide your time, thinking of ways to bring them round. Maybe weeks go by as you work on each stakeholder one by one, until one day someone calls it – “look” they say to you, “I hear what you’re saying but it’s just not the right time to do [the very sensible thing you’re suggesting].We just need to do [the wrong thing to fix the wrong problem] and then we can do what you’re talking about

Sound familiar?

This has happened to me 100s of times. I have spent years either chasing trains that have ‘left the station’ or ones with no intention of moving.

The reasons I’ve been given have all sounded perfectly reasonable – we can design the service, but only once we’ve moved off this piece of legacy software / delivered this MVP / have more buy in / don’t have this crazy deadline.

In short, it is never the right time for service design.

But the problem isn’t the urgency of these situations – when people are in difficult situations it’s understandable that the last thing they want to do is take a step back and consider the bigger picture.

The real problem is the inertia that precedes this urgency.

Like someone who’s always late to things because they thought they had ages to get ready, we look after Business as Usual, whistling ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ until something falls over, someone dies or it hits the press.

Suddenly someone senior gets involved and boom, as if from nowhere you’re surrounded by ‘burning platforms’ and have no time to solve the problem because you have to ‘deliver’….something. Anything.

My dad used to have a sign on his desk at work that said ‘poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine’.

I’ve always wished I could say something like this but that won’t cut it with service design, because whatever that thing is that needs to be delivered, it’s going to get delivered whether it’s good or not.

In that situation you can either walk away, or stay and make that thing marginally better in a hope that you might catch the next train before it leaves the station.

Sadly though, that day rarely comes because that next train will be just as fast as the last one.

This has a profound effect not just on the service an organisation is trying to deliver, but on its culture and ability to design in the future.

Designers are like doctors. We can’t just give people what they want, we have to give them what they need. That’s our job.

But the reality is that our ability to help is increasingly limited when things get urgent. Just as it does for a doctor in an emergency room.

All we can do in these situations is stabilise the work and hope for recovery, for ourselves and the project. Cue burnout for designers and subsequent organisational churn that’s off the chart.

The way to tackle this isn’t by fighting back against this urgency – you will never win. Instead we need to tackle the inertia that comes before it, and that is caused by one very simple factor – fear.

We’re more afraid to try and to fail than we are of doing nothing. The trouble is that this ‘doing nothing’ eventually results in failure anyway.

Our services get more expensive because they’re unusable, which means we have less money to spend on improvements. Carry on like this and we’ve got a ticking time-bomb for failure.

In order to break this toxic cycle of inertia-failure-panic, we need to make doing nothing as risky as change. That means acknowledging that the slow failure of providing increasingly unusable services is as bad as the fast failure that follows.

As an industry, we need to start talking about slow failure, and that means holding ourselves accountable to the data that proves it exists.

Only once we have this can we decide when the train leaves and where it’s going.

And most of all, kill business as usual.

How to talk about gender at events


I love what I do, and I love talking about it.

I’m lucky enough to be able to speak about it publically on a reasonably regular basis, but there’s one thing that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable at conferences – and that’s how they talk about gender.

Most studies of tech conferences seem to estimate the average rate of women speaking at tech conferences is around 25%. That’s pretty terrible, however, no one has ever bothered (as far as I can tell) to do a similar study into the numbers of trans and nonbinary people either attending or speaking at conferences.

You might think that’s because there are less of us, but let’s be clear – with around 12% of the US population under 35 defining themselves as trans or nonbinary – this is widespread, institutional ignorance we’re dealing with.

Unfortunately, for all their ‘best efforts’ many event organisers actively encourage cis-gender diversity in a way that excludes trans and non binary speakers and attendees.

This is mostly due to ignorance rather than malice, but almost always has to do with the language that is used to talk about gender diversity.

So, in the absence of anything I can point organisers to on the internet, here are 5 principles to make sure you’re including gender diversity in the thing you’re organising, whatever it might be.

Here are five things to think about


  • Sex and gender are different, don’t confuse the two


A person’s biological sex (what chromosomes and genitals they’re born with) and their gender (the way they feel) are not the same for a lot of people. These people may be born ‘female’ but identify as a man or vice versa.

Biological sex is indicated by the words ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘intersex’, whereas gender is indicated by the words ‘man’ or ‘woman’

Using words that refer to someone’s sex like ‘female’ as synonyms for words that refer to someone’s gender like ‘woman’ makes the presumption that the two are the same, and that in order to be considered a woman you must be biologically female. This excludes transgendered people (people whose gender and sex are different)

Don’t say
This event is to celebrate the female pioneers of technology and to chart how they have acted as role models for other women (and men, and other genders).

Do say
This event is to celebrate the women pioneers of technology and to chart how they have acted as role models for other women (and people of all genders).


  • There are more than two genders


The genders of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ exist on a spectrum.

Some cis-gendered people (people who are born female and feel like women) feel completely like a man or a woman in a very binary way, and so do some trans people.

But, there are a lot of people whose gender fits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. These people are genderqueer or nonbinary and can sometimes refer to themselves as trans-masculine or trans-feminine.

There are also a lot of people whose gender changes depending on how they feel that day, week or month. These people are genderfluid.

Accommodating these people means not using binary definitions ‘men’ and ‘women’ but talking about all (read plural) genders.

It’s important that everything at your conference reinforces this openness, so think about changing the bathroom signage of your venue for the event to create gender neutral bathrooms. Avoiding the use of honorifics (eg. Mr, Mrs, Ms) on badges, and making sure all of your assistants, sound engineers and comperes are respectful of your speaker and attendees genders and use of pronouns will help hugely too.

Don’t say
Welcome ladies and gentlemen!
We want representation from both genders!
We need a 50/50 split of men and women at this event!
We should have at least one woman on the panel!

Do say
Welcome everyone!
We need fair representation from all genders at this awesome event!


  • Do not assume people’s gender


How someone expresses their gender can often look different to their actual gender (or sex).

For example, someone can look traditionally ‘feminine’ but define themselves as genderfluid or non binary.

Gender roles (eg. women wearing skirts and men wearing ties) are a social construct, and some people who are trans or non binary deliberately don’t conform to what is traditionally defined for their gender.

Others might try to assume a traditional gender role but look biologically more masculine or feminine than they feel.

Rather than assume someone’s gender, it’s always best to ask what pronouns someone uses. This is likely to be she/her/hers, he/him/his or they/them/theirs but the person you’re talking to might have something else they use.

Some less confident trans or nonbinary people might be reluctant to do this publicly for fear of being stigmatised so make sure you do this in a way that they feel safe to answer honestly – don’t ask people to pick up a pronoun badge at registration for example.

Likewise for those who are genderfluid, this might change closer to your event so if you’re unsure, the best thing to do is to be as gender neutral as possible.

Don’t say
Thanks for agreeing to speak Lou, it’s awesome to have another woman at this event!

Do say
Thanks for agreeing to speak Lou, it’s awesome to have you at this event! By the way – how would you like to be referred to at the event? she/he/they or something else? You can let us know nearer the time if you like


  • If you’re running a ‘women’s’ event, think long and hard about why you’re excluding other underrepresented genders


Trans and nonbinary genders are often far more underrepresented than cis-women in pretty much any industry you care to think of.

Partly that’s because there are less of us (but not by that much, as I said earlier).

But a lot of this has to do with a significant lack of education or transphobia, sadly. Where a lot of cisgendered men are now more aware of their gender privilege, many cisgendered women aren’t, meaning that events organised by cisgendered women targeted at ‘women’ (often only cisgendered women at that!) exclude trans men and nonbinary people.

Issues to do with equal pay, representation, systematic prejudice and cis-male normative culture apply equally to the trans and nonbinary community as they do to cis-women, so if the reason you’re running your women focussed event is to address these sorts of issues (and not just to celebrate the awesome ladyness of ladies) think seriously about opening your event to celebrate all underrepresented genders.

Don’t let your lack of privilege make you ignore someone else’s further lack of privilege.

Don’t say
This event is to celebrate the women pioneers of technology and to chart how they have acted as role models for other women (and people of all genders).

Do say
This event is to celebrate the gender diversity of technology pioneers and to chart how they have acted as role models for everyone.


  • Do not ask people who are trans or nonbinary to educate you on how you should deal with gender.


This is a tough one. I feel strongly that I need to help people understand some of the issues that trans and nonbinary people face, but it’s personally exhausting and requires confidence, time and ultimately privilege to do so.

Almost every trans or nonbinary person will be glad you asked how they like to be treated, but although they might be comfortable enacting their own gender, it’s another thing entirely to have the confidence to teach people how to behave towards others.

Your education is your own responsibility, so please respect your present and future trans and nonbinary peers by educating yourself on the issues they might face.

If you got to the bottom of this post, well done, that’s a start.

We don’t need another shero


Before I go on I want to be really clear – I support the rights of all people whoever they are. I speak from a position of privilege in many ways, and I also believe that the 100,00s of years of cis-male patriarchy have far more to answer to than what I’m about to describe.

Caveats over, we need to shine a light on a very real and new(ish) problem that seems to be growing in the tech sector – that the vast majority of discussions about gender diversity seem to exclude people who are trans and nonbinary, or to put it another way, our discussion of feminism as a thing exclusively for cis-gendered woman means people who are trans and nonbinary are excluded by omission.

If you don’t know what I mean by ‘cis’-gendered (and hey, Apple autocorrect doesn’t so why should you) I mean people who are born biologically female and also identify as women in gender. Without stating the obvious, this is not all people – there are a lot of people whose biological sex is not the same as the gender they feel and/or express to the world. These people can define as either trans-men, trans-women, non binary or a myriad of other genders.

Either way these people are either biologically ‘female’, struggling to make themselves fit with a cis-male world, biologically ‘male’ trying to do the opposite, or somewhere in between trying to carve out space for being nonbinary in a world of he/she, pink or blue, M/F. The fact that there are multiple genders and that feminism has to do with people who are not female or women cuts to the core of traditional thinking on gender diversity as a binary scale.

Since the likes of Caitlyn Jenner we’ve got used to the issues of trans women being relevant to feminism, but not trans men (they’re just men rite?!) or nonbinary people. We proudly proclaim we have a 50/50 gender split (what even is that when there’s more than two genders?!) and bemoan the fact that there aren’t any women on panels – with no mention of the appalling lack of representation from other genders. At the same time we aggressively gender things that we see representing ‘diversity’- proudly tagging pictures with ‘look at all these amazing women!’.

I am biologically female but fit somewhere between non-binary (Ie. I believe gender is a spectrum) and trans-male (Ie. I feel more on the male rather than female end of the spectrum).

It’s not something I talk about a lot – because it’s maybe the least interesting thing about me, but it’s also something that is immensely difficult to talk about to the majority of people who would prefer that for their own simple definition of gender diversity, I define as a woman.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’m gendered in public for the sake of someone else’s purposes of equality – conferences are the worst, with a seemingly endless request for more ‘female speakers’ aka. Cis-gendered women (even trans women need not apply to that one, let alone anyone else).

The problem is that in most discussions on gender diversity we don’t acknowledge the difference between sex and gender, so female is synonymous with women.

Our discussions of gender diversity therefore still involve a ‘50/50 split’ of ‘male and female’ on a board, conference or interview panel rather than equal representation from all genders. This means trans and nonbinary people are excluded by sheer omission.

This might seem like a marginal issue to gender diversity (it’s certainly treated as such) but about 12% of millennials entering the workforce now define themselves as transgendered in some way. Considering the fact that 30% of these people will attempt suicide before 22, those that make it as far as a board, conference or interview panel are nothing short of survivors.

This is a bit of a rant but I guess what I’m saying is if you care about gender diversity – please don’t become the thing you hate about patriarchy and create an exclusive club or space that excludes others.

Don’t be afraid to talk about multiple genders being represented or afraid to ask what gender someone defines as. Presuming someone’s gender is far more offensive than asking (unless you’re transphobic). And more than anything – don’t let your enthusiasm for gender diversity lead you to gender spaces, activities and people that don’t need to be.

We don’t need another shero.

* Image: Balla Hadid on the Prabal Gurung runway Feb 2017. Copyright Prabal Gurung

What’s more important, the journey or the destination?


Yesterday I waded through a pile of portfolios, and after a deep breath, took to twitter

“I instantly turn down portfolios that include design process diagrams, just FYI. It’s a job not a journey to self-enlightenment.”

It seems to have made a whole bunch of people pretty angry so I thought I’d qualify what I meant and why I still think it, though I was being more being more extreme than I probably should have been, or meant to be.

Hiring designers is hard. Anyone who’s done it will know it’s almost impossible to tell all the qualities you’re looking for by looking through some names and dates on a CV and some pictures in a portfolio.

The reality is, you hire on attitude and potential as much as previous experience and the two big things I look for between all the desaturated pictures and big-client names are someone who always questions what they’re being asked to do, and who measures themselves by the actual outcomes of that questioning.

Most designers do this first one naturally, and if you’re like me and your outcomes become increasingly non-physical or intangible as your career progresses  – will try to think up ways of showing the second.

In the last 5 years though (maybe it’s longer) there seems to be some kind of mass-misunderstanding in design – mostly within service design – that the process by which you actually get to that outcome is somehow as valuable as what you’ve actually achieved.

Don’t get me wrong – what you (and possibly your client or the people around you) learn along the way makes you the person, and designer/s you are. In fact, the best designers I know are almost in a constant state of self-inquisition in order to make sure the decisions they make are unbiased and meet user needs. They’re always learning and crucially, always helping others to learn around them.

But to your users, what you actually make or achieve is the only thing that matters.

And that’s why I hate design process diagrams. They can be double diamonds (they usually are) circles on a line or a weird giant squiggle (I’ve seen a few of these lately) what they scream to is that you care more about yourself, your process, your ‘learnings’ than you do about outcomes you’ve made and the impact you’ve had on users.

If there’s one thing you need when you design things to make people’s lives better ( in the public sector or private) is an unwavering sense of unselfishness and commitment to making things better for users. So when I look through portfolios I look for people who show that’s what they care about too.

Design isn’t the type of labour you can quantify in the number of weeks you spend getting to something. Something worthwhile can take minutes or years, what matters is that you get there.

If you want proper advice on what a good portfolio looks like, rather than my ranty thoughts, Stephen McCarthey and Mark Hurrell have both written excellent guides.

Transformation is only as strong as its weakest link


It’s been a while since I wrote anything here. Mostly because I’ve been fixing stuff, and writing here

But there’s something I want to talk about – what transformation means, how we do it and how to stop getting tired when things get hard.

Firstly a definition –

Big problems often mean big changes, and those big changes in turn often get talked about as a ‘transformation’. This is because the thing we want in the future is radically different from what we have now.

That different future generally involves some kind of massive retrospective modernisation. Keeping up with progress – often technological progress – after it’s already happened.

The annoying thing about progress though is that it never stops, and as Kate Tarling [said](https://hodigital.blog.gov.uk/2016/09/30/what-does-transformation-really-mean/) “transformation will never end, and our work will never be done.”

The problem in the past is that we seem to have thought transformation could be ‘done’ or finished at some point. We’d do the modernisation and then think that the world would just stop changing somehow in respect of the fact that we put a lot of effort into being ahead.

This perspective might have made sense when we had to wait more than 100 years between the invention of the telephone and the first home computer connected to the Internet, but makes literally no sense now. The world is changing every day, and that change is getting faster.

So, problems that are never finished need a different kind of solving.

In the catalog for the 2010 AA symposium on Entropy, Marco Vanicci talked about design in complex situations that take time to fix as “problem caring, rather than problem solving”.

That doesn’t mean not making things better, it means working together, over time, on small incremental changes in response to change and what’s needed.

The bigger the problem, the more of us are involved. It’s not one person’s to fix. Incremental change needs teamwork over time. True, constructive teamwork.

So why is that so hard?

This is where we get into weak-link theory. This is an economic theory popularly applied to sports by David Sally and Chris Anderson in their book The Numbers Game. It explains why football teams are only as good as their weakest players, and why basketball teams are as good as their strongest.

It comes down to how much teamwork is involved in the game, and how much the players rely on each other to reach a common goal – so to speak. In football the chances of scoring are slim, so you need lots of chances made with everyone working together to make them. In basketball the chances of scoring are high, so you make space for the strongest player to do their thing.

In a dream world transformation would be like basketball – easy slam dunk after slam dunk by some kind of superhuman dream team. But it’s not like that.

Large service-providing organisations (government included) are like football. Providing services to users is a team sport – with parts of our service shared and distributed across the network.

Those services are only as good as their weakest part. Which means we are only as good as the person who understands user needs the least, or is the most unequipped or unable to act on them.

This is why transformation is a weak link sport – we need to enable everyone to work towards that goal from the front line, to the top.

Large organisations can transform but it’s not going to happen overnight, and even if it did, we’d need to get up and do it all again tomorrow – together.

It’s long, it’s hard, but important things are rarely easy.

*Russell Davies talking at The Civic Book launch. Sorry about the angle Russell. You’re making people think as always 😉

Government services aren’t done yet, so neither am I

Government_services_aren't_done_so_neither_am_I_2015In the wake of all of this month’s resignations Tom, Ben, Russell, Leisa and Mike it’s tempting to talk about ‘why I’m staying’ at GDS.

To be honest though, I’d rather talk about what we’re doing, because as far as I’m concerned the work has just started.

It’s been a while I’ve written anything here, I’ve been busy.

Last year, Ben hired me to fix services at GDS, in that time I’ve realised just how we need to fix service design too.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

Providing services to individuals and businesses makes up roughly 80% of the cost of government.

Of this 80%, around 60% is spent dealing with calls and casework. Most of it completely unnecessarily.

This money doesn’t go to giving benefits, or printing passports – it’s spent dealing with the fall out of millions of applications, renewals, and revocations made by users those who aren’t eligible, don’t actually need to do a thing, or do so in the wrong way.

Let’s be clear, this is not ‘user error’.

Government has haphazardly created ‘transaction’ after ‘transaction’ – licences, taxes and benefits that are not part of a viable service that a user can use successfully unaided.

We’ve helped government to digitise 25 of the largest of those transactions.

There are literally thousands left.

To fix those, we need to stop ‘digitising’ and do what it’s never done before. Build services as services.

I’ve spent nearly a year working with DVLA in Swansea on what this looks like. They’re now the first department to hire service designers (all the credit needs to go to them for doing that, it was a hard and brave decision).

Over the past three months I’ve also started to build a talented team of GDS service designers that will help other departments to do this.

Our first job will be to take the first step towards going wholesale (as Martha said) by building standardisable services – like licensing, ownership exchange and funding. We’ll will be merging transactions that are the same (there are currently 5 ways to ‘delegate responsibility’) and building new services that start with user needs.

It’ll be hard. There will be lots of noise, but that’s a good thing. If you fancy joining them, let me know.

In the meantime, thank you Tom, Ben, Russell, Leisa, Mike for making all of this possible.

Hole covers

Manhole_master-19.gifI’ve been collecting pictures of manhole covers  for over a year.

Envelopes – specifically the patterns on the inside of them – got me into it.

3 years ago (according to Tumblr) I started a collection of the security patterns printed in envelopes. I was drawn in by the variation of shapes used in the patterns that were designed to disrupt the shape of letters. A pattern to disrupts other patterns.

So I started comparing the shapes used in envelopes to the ones used to disrupt waves in sea defences.

There were some similarities – like a consistent use of squared, sharp edges. Also, most were formed of small, rigidly regular patterns that were in direct opposition to a bigger and more chaotic pattern formed in in the thing they were trying to disrupt – like a wave or a word.

Manhole covers on the other hand, mimic the patterns of the things they are designed to interact with – like the tread on a tyre or the sole of a shoe – as their purpose isn’t to push something away or disrupt it but to mesh two unfitting things together.

They’re also importantly, signposts for the utilities they cover.

Some are adverts for ease of location and use by the right people – like water mains and fire hydrants. Others, made shortly after the introduction of a new technology though – like telephones or broadband – are as much a protection for that technology as an advert for it.

‘C’ shapes are often used over CATV covers in the UK. And some of the late 60’s telephony covers in Italy may just as well have been Pintori posters for telephones.

They remind me of the stories my dad tells about his job designing church fittings in the 70s. Despite trends for big bold colours and abstract shapes, a balance between invisibility and current trend had to be found when making something that would fit with the sediment of histories in a church, meaning that what you often ended up with was something ‘classic’, or timeless. A bit showier than you’d expect somehow but completely impossible to date.

I’d like to track down the people who designed some of the patterns on manholes. I wonder if their stories are the same as my dads. For now I’m trying to isolate the patterns, understand why they are the way that they are and give them some of the credit they’re due.

Anyway, for now, here’s some of the more interesting shapes.