Service Design, Co-Design, Better Design (Idea #5*)

Mar 1, 2012


Design is a discipline from workforce professionals could hugely benefit, if only the word "design" didn't make us so uneasy. Among American public policy and program stakeholders, "design" is often perceived as having to do with aesthetics alone—as not central to the serious business of work, learning and economic opportunity.

A quick (and unscientific) scan of panels and presentations at key workforce conferences and events (NAWB, SETA, CWA, NAWDP and NASWA) provides some context. The word "design" is used infrequently—words like "(re)tooling," "(re)engineering," and "(re)building" are used much more often. When "design" does appear, it tends to be used in the following contexts:

  • Workforce professionals "design programs" to meet legal, financial, or organizational requirements (but apply design methodologies to solving customer problems or meeting community needs less often);
  • Workforce professionals "improve" or "expand" "program designs". In these cases, it's not clear whether the designs themselves are examined for fit or integrity. The priority overall seems to be "scaling" existing "designs."
  • Workforce professionals "design" reporting documents, databases, and ways of measuring activity. In fact, the balance of "design" work seems to be focused on reporting rather than actually doing. 

What is design?
I'm with Jeffrey Veen on this one. It's only worth talking about (and doing) good design, and "Good design is problem solving." For those who want more depth, listen to this fantastic talk by Bill Moggridge, author of Designing Interactions (an amazing—if voluminous—resource) and Director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. The talk is called, "What is Design?"

How Can Design Benefit Workforce Programs and Policies?
Our WEadership project revealed many opportunities, but our focus here is on the potential of three key (and overlapping) design-industry trends.

  1. Design for the 90%. In the past decade, designers themselves have led a movement intended to make design more accessible. One of these efforts (and one that has captured the imaginations of social entrepreneurs, innovators, and changemakers all over the world) is "Design for the other 90%" (also referred to as Bottom-of-the-Pyramind or BOP Design). This effort, which began as an exhibit, has morphed into a book and a movement of sorts, catalyzing related initiatives like "Design with the other 90%: Cities" and, of course, a network—called The Other 90%. This entire effort is focused on solving fundamental human problems in areas like health, employment, and education. We could all learn something from this movement that could inform the design of our workforce, education, and economic development efforts.

  3. Service Design (sometimes called experience design) is also increasingly characterized as a movement. The aim is to improve the interaction between service providers and customers by making intentional choices about the service environment, sequence, and nature of provision that lead to better outcomes for all. Service design is an interdisciplinary approach to process improvement (and sometimes wholesale re-engineering) that takes into account the motivations, preferences, and objectives of those using the service. It focuses on meeting customers needs in a high-quality way on the theory that customers will achieve better outcomes through better service (while also enjoying a more pleasant experience). Skeptics generally point out that workforce centers are not Starbucks shops (they are correct). But the workforce system could learn something from service design that could help improve the experience of career transition—and education and training—so that it's a better experience for people in need of positive experiences and for the service providers themselves.

  5. My favorite of the three trends is Co-Design (sometimes called collaborative design or participatory design or even co-creation). The central idea is that people who use or benefit from programs and services are engaged in designing them—and not in a perfunctory way, in a fundamental way. I use the phrase "programs and services" loosely here, because a typical co-design process begins with a program that is not working very well and concludes with a solution to a problem that may not be a program or service at all . And that's the point —to develop collaborative solutions to shared problems, not just to review or tweak existing programs. Co-design processes have the potential to invest government agencies, non-profit organizations, social innovators, and citizens and community members in each others' success—and to build community innovation capacity, which is why codesign projects are so popular in the social innovation community. Here is a sweet and simple video that explains co-design, brought to you by our friends at ThinkPublic:


So what do you say? Can you think of a wicked workforce problem that serious design methodologies could help us address?


* This is part of a series of entirely subjective posts intended to inspire greatness among applicants to the Workforce Innovation Fund. The opinions and perspectives expressed here are not those of Social Policy Research, the US Department of Labor (USDOL) or anyone other than the author. Please steal the ideas you find most promising.