Rarely, people answer Government services or policy innovation.
I’m originally a product designer who majored in lampshades and bicycle stands. I started my early career in Government 10 years ago designing digital learner journeys for young people to improve their access to build their skills and careers and researching the link between public service delivery and policy. This was a very unusual career move for someone from a creative industries background, at the time there was little discourse on design as a serious proposition for public sector innovation.
In the last ten years this has dramatically changed.
Before the public sector had considered design, the private industries had cottoned onto the process as an innovation driver and a competitive advantage for their business. At the close of 20th century, Claudia Kotcha of Proctor and Gamble brought designers into the innovation process and opened up her innovation teams to the concept of ‘design thinking’.
Together, they worked in the field to understand consumer behaviour and test new product concepts through the creation of low fidelity prototypes at an early stage. These prototypes were basic and brought form to their ideas using tape and cardboard. This simple but impactful method created a platform for their customers to co-design the new products with them.
“...low resolution rapid prototyping was eye opening. We had never done anything like that. Our idea of prototyping was pretty much sharing a finished product with focus groups. We’d ask, what do you think? But people don’t tell you what they think; it’s not effective at really understanding the consumer or your idea.”
- Claudia Kotcha
This messy and creative process lacked the rigour of P+G’s ‘way’ however, placed at the front end of their innovation pipeline it transformed their understanding of their consumers and their needs. Traditionally, they’d used quantitative data to make product decisions. Now they were using qualitative data to understand customer needs and respond with a design that met them. This transformed the business, leading P+G to outperform their competitors across their international portfolios.
This method of applying design thinking to innovation appears to be the key to competitive advantage. Over the last 10 years design-led companies have maintained significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 228% according to the Design Management Institute.
And now it’s happening across the public sector. The Government Digital Service, part of the UK Government’s Cabinet Office has been one of the most prolific and tangible developments of design being picked up at scale and embedded across Government. Over the past 6 years, GDS has embedded 800 designers across Government and heads of design across the major ministerial bodies. They have made huge savings to the public purse and improved the user experience and transaction rates across services.
The process of design in Government has focused on a series of basic principles to develop public services. Start with user needs then Iterate, and iterate again. There are some of the key concepts aligned with design thinking. They have become well publicised and trained across Government, and I’ve witnessed them being used both across public and private sector industries I’ve had the pleasure to support. This is all really about getting back to basics on the purpose that ‘Form follows function’ which the modernist architect, Louis Sullivan coined in the early 20th century. And what better a way to think about making Government work for people but design? When design is finally understood as a creative process of inquiry into how things work over the common outdated understanding that it’s about ‘making things look nice' we know we’re making progress.
At Snook , in our award-winning design studio based in Glasgow and London, we use a mix of agile methods and expertise as designers to support our clients to design a world that works better for people. We’re in the interesting space where we focus on life experiences which involve a cross section of public and private sector services that citizens use. From working with Tesco to national Governments and policy units, we start with asking, ‘What is the user need?’ we are designing for and how will the overall user experience work?
This is done through a period called discovery. Spending time in people’s homes, in the context of the situation we are designing for, researching and building up insights about the scenario we’re focusing on. Often, the problem is reframed at this point and we gain a deeper understanding on the people we are designing for.
We then move into an alpha phase where we build early stage prototypes to test our solutions quickly. At Snook, we have a focus on service design, meaning we map end-to-end experiences and test how users interact with different channels and touchpoints of a service across the whole service lifecycle. This can be prototyped too! In our past experience we have prototyped accident and emergency services with the NHS to new retail experiences by opening up entire stores. What’s important is by putting half formed ideas into the hands of users we can see how they interact with these to establish what works and what needs improved. This rapid process of iteration fast tracks the innovation process whilst de-risking bad ideas before scaling them.
Beta is about scaling the design to really consider how it might be delivered and prepare your prototype to move into what we call a ‘public beta’. This period is about working with data and analysing the use of your design to respond with improvements.
What we’re doing across this whole process is ensuring that the solution is not in the initial brief or question set. In the context of Government, this means working with policy makers to ensure that the policy is open and malleable enough to form the solution when it meets the design stage, rather than articulate a pre-defined and untested solutions.
Most recently, Snook have been working with the UK Cabinet Office’s Policy Lab. Set up in 2014, Policy Lab brings people-centred design approaches to policy-making. They were approached by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to explore ways to improve experiences of people in the Private Rented Sector (PRS).
Housing sits at the top of the government’s agenda. In February, DCLG published its whitepaper on fixing the broken housing market. The intention set out is to increase housing supply by making more land available, speeding up the building process and diversifying the market. DCLG wanted Policy Lab to explore what could be done in the short-term to improve landlords' and tenants’ experiences.
To set the context, more people than before live in the PRS with many renters only just able to cover their costs. In the 10 years from 2005/6 to 2015/6 there are around 945,000 more households in the sector with children.
We started with a discovery phase where insight was gathered through in-depth interviews with landlords and renters, with additional inputs from subject matter experts like the national advice charity, Citizens Advice. On closing a discovery stage, we spend time as an internal team to synthesise the information we have heard into themes, issues and opportunities.
We take themes from the research into ‘co-design’ workshops to provide direction. Co-design workshops are where we bring together a cross diagonal slice of users, service staff, subject experts and policy makers to work collaboratively together through curated content to develop ideas.
During this process we used user journeys as the starting point to map key issues and challenges and consider how these might be transformed into opportunities for future improvement. Based on this activity, participants created a set of “challenge questions” which were later refined, clustered and categorised into themes.
The participants chose four themes to focus on in more detail: how tenants prove stability; landlord responsibilities and repairs; families in the PRS, and tenant support. During these sessions low fidelity prototypes are created that we then work up outside of the session.
During alpha, these are then taken out into the field with policy makers responsible for these policies to see first hand how users interact with these. This part of the process is of immense value, having the people responsible for the policy seeing how their work would be interpreted and used on the ground by users. This is a critical part of where design is useful as the glue between policy and delivery.
This is the job of Policy Lab and our work with them. It is using design as a creative problem solving tool to show the reality of how something might work and then translate it back into policy and land the project with the right departments. The concept of open policy making comes into play here, with the aim that policy will be written to provide a platform for design to flourish in when it is released.
Away from policy, if you’re seeking a more transformative change, the other option is to consider a ‘Skunks work’ approach. We have experience of running innovative projects outside of Government and launching them to highlight new ways of thinking about how services can run in a completely transformed delivery model. In 2009, we built MyPolice, the UK’s first online feedback platform for the police to create new dialogues around service improvement, a world first for the criminal justice sector. We launched the new service in 2011, piloting with a police force Scotland. Through its use, we achieved service changes to local legislation due to feedback from citizens that wouldn’t have been captured through traditional means. Featured in the BBC, this product had an impact on how the police communicate with the public online, influencing the National Policing Improvement Agency’s social media policy and touring UK police forces to share the platform.
We advocate this as an approach to showcase social innovation or major transformation to a delivery model. However, it has its limitations in being fully adopted by the system, but it shows a different way in which business as usual can be challenged.
Public sector innovation can be a hot topic when it comes to measuring it. Too often, we reach for the next big digital solution or technological promise to say ‘hey, we’re innovative’. The truth is, innovation happens when you meet people’s need both big or small.
I believe design is a critical part of the answer to innovation. It’s collaborative using multiple viewpoints in the development of a product, it supports you to find the simplest solution whilst dealing with complexity, it drives relentlessly towards meeting user needs and it de-risks innovation by creating a safe space to fail quickly and early.
So if you’re wondering how your service or department can be more innovative, take a note out of the design camp, spend time with the people you serve and test your ideas early as prototypes.
Sarah is a designer, CEO and serial idea generator. She co-founded Snook, MyPolice, CycleHack, Dearest Scotland, Alloa Pride and The Matter. For this work she was awarded a Google Fellowship for her work in technology and democratic innovation and named as Good magazine’s 100 extraordinary individuals tackling global issues in creative ways.
Daily, Sarah is the CEO of Snook, an award winning global design consultancy based in London and Glasgow. Snook are on a mission to design a new public realm that works better for people.
In her time as CEO, Sarah has built an impressive client roster who have worked with her to redesign and innovate their services. Snook hold global firms like Tesco and Sodexo on their books to public sector organisations like the Scottish Government, the Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service.
Sarah has helped organisations redesign a wide array of user experiences. From health services to educational programmes, retail experiences to constitutional and democratic processes, Sarah has pitched and provided creative direction across all of Snooks 300+ project portfolio.
She speaks on global stages around the world from Japan to Oman, and America to Australia. She has taught at leading educational institutions from RMIT to the Glasgow School of art, coaching the next generation of designers and makers. She writes about design, technology and services and her work has been featured in global media outlets and books in the design industry.
Sarah is a fellow of the RSA and board member of Settle, a charity dedicated to tackling the causes of youth homelessness.
 The designation "skunk works" or "skunkworks" is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, with the task of working on advanced or secret projects.