Improving Service Design with Systems Thinking and Theatre

This blog post outlines reflections gained from a recent consulting project with thoughts about the relevance of my creative past. I start by outlining what service design is, after that I discuss how systems thinking and action research could be applied to improve on the status quo. In the final section I reflect on my street theatre background and how it is relevant to service design.

Many of the ideas outlined in this blog emerged whilst I was working with a digital consulting company, helping them refine and communicate their methodologies and marketing. They found themselves lacking the time to really focus on their own development and how they communicate their message as they are busy delivering value to clients. I gave an outside eye and researched how they work, what opportunities might exist and facilitated future scoping sessions.

Much of the work of the company is focused on user research and service design. Both of these are in demand and their partners are busy. Through this project we identified some of the strengths and limitations of both Agile and Service Design. This is not to say these approaches are fundamentally flawed, simply that there is room for improvement from how these are typically used.

Service design is a user / customer focused approach to improving existing services or designing new ones. It is frequently used in many sectors including healthcare and other parts of the public sector. Service design is often, although not always, about redesigning services to harness value from digital technologies. Service design is complex as it involves how organisations get things done. In service design, the concept of touchpoints is often used. These are the points at which customers come into contact with an organisations services. Service design appeals to me because it is about improving how organisations and systems work, something that has always been interesting to me. For more information about service design, see this article here,

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on

A limitation with service design is that it is often conducted by designers who do not have a full understanding of the bigger picture, of strategic, policy and social challenges. As service design has become increasingly focused on complex challenges, the problems that it is used to address are frequently multidisciplinary. Improving healthcare services for example, requires an understanding of: healthcare, business, strategy, policy, technology, information management, sociology, psychology and community dynamics as well as design. It is of course impossible for any single person to have in depth knowledge and understanding of all of these. Two ideas that have emerged from this project are: 1 service designers need the ability to look at the bigger picture, in relation to policy and strategy, as well as have skills in design. 2 service design should become a team approach. We need to bring together people with a wide range of expertise as well as the ideas of potential service users.

Systems thinking has emerged as a solution to help address big picture complexities. Combining systems thinking with design, however, is nothing new. Buchanan famously combined design thinking with systems thinking to address wicked problems in his 1992 article, I include a link here. Wicked problems are complex, they cannot be solved entirely, only improved. Proposed solutions to wicked problems risk making things worse, if sufficient focus is not first put into understanding the problem, to get to the real root problem. Due to its holistic nature, systems thinking is often advocated as an appropriate approach for addressing complex, wicked problems, one example is given here.

The need to ensure that the user voice is maintained was emphasised in my consulting project. Capturing user insights is important as service users have a different perspective to designers and developers. It was suggested that in some projects user research can remain at the level of consultation. Whilst here the user voice may inform design it can be tokenistic and fail to fully integrate user voices into designs. The idea of co-design is typically thought of as better because it involves users during the design process. A more in-depth approach however is co-production where users are given the status of co-researchers. This transition relates directly to ideas expressed in Arnstein’s ladder of participation. One reason why such sustained involvement has value is because the factors that get in the way of good service provision can be systemic and cultural. Ongoing involvement is sometimes needed to develop the trust and relationships required for external partners to feel confident enough to challenge current systems and cultures.

(Arnstein 1969)

Greater involvement of users and other stakeholders throughout the process takes the idea of service design closer to action research. Given this link, it is not surprising that action research has been advocated as one way of creating more innovation within service design (see link). Action research is also connected to systems thinking. Critical systems thinking specifically, has been linked to action research because of its interest in improving situations and issues rather than just observing them. The renowned systems thinker Robert Flood outlines the connection between action research and systems thinking in this paper.

Another link with action research could be, what happens at the end of the service design process. Once a new service design or service improvement has been agreed and put into practice, there could be value in evaluating the impact of the proposed changes or the effectiveness of the proposed new service. The stakeholder focussed nature of action research could make it an appropriate evaluation methodology. If stakeholder relationships have already been solidified through the user research and service design process, a solid foundation for action research would already be in place. Conducting evaluation in this way could add significant value. Evaluation can form the basis for ongoing learning and improvement. It could help refine services, to improve efficiency, impact and user experience. Involving stakeholders from user research through service design and then through evaluation also moves engagement up Arnstein’s ladder of participation. Due to the systems thinking links with action research and wicked problems, such a process could also apply systems thinking throughout the process. Due to the wicked nature of complex problems I am suggesting that this would be a good idea.

During this project I reflected on my own skill set and its relevance for this emerging systemic form of service design. The research and the systems thinking expertise that I gained during my PhD and subsequent research projects both seem relevant. My expertise in conducting evaluations is particularly relevant to the evaluation part of the process. The breadth of my academic background seems relevant to the multidimensional nature of service deign, when it is applied to addressing complex problems. Including my PhD I have acquired five different postgraduate qualifications, in subjects cutting across: business, computing, education, healthcare, sociology, social policy and research methods. My undergraduate BA in urban design also gives me relevant academic skills and understanding.

In 2010 Ideo’s CEO Tim Brown argued that T shaped people make the best designers (outlined here). T shaped people, he argued have a disposition towards collaboration across disciplines as well as having a depth of knowledge. I argue that my breadth of knowledge demonstrates that I am a T shaped person. He argues that this combination helps make T shaped people creative and argues that creativity is essential for good design.

I frequently reflect on how to bring the skills and understanding gained from my creative background into my work. I am aware that many designers also have a creative background. Most commonly, however service designers are from a visual art or design background and mine is in the performing arts. After digging a little, however, I have discovered that there are in fact a lot of connections between service design and the performing arts. Most directly theatrical techniques, in particular improvisation, are advocated as possible service design approaches. Some ideas are outlined here. The improvisational nature of my physical theatre / street theatre background seems very appropriate for the application of theatre described here. The connection with theatre, however. goes much deeper.

Touchpoint, the Service Design journal argues that services and the performing arts have many things in common. They are both made up of processes and depend on people to fulfil tasks to make up a bigger picture and both are planned with tools such as storyboards, scenario’s and customer journey. These are all very much my comfort zone. I have training and experience in facilitating improvisation, and in directing and devising theatre. I have a lot of experience in designing performances and I am starting to see how this is design expertise that is relevant to service design.

Theatre metaphors are fundamental to the principles of service design. The front stage is what customers see. Just like in theatre, backstage is what happens behind the scenes to enable the frontstage to happen. Backstage includes the policies, procedures and systems required to provide a good customer experience. The relationship between back stage and front stage is why service designers need to being able to understand the bigger picture and to think about systems, as discussed earlier. My understanding of theatre and systems thinking, both seem to be relevant here.

Another valuable skill I gained during my performance career was the art of facilitation. These skills were honed as a street performer. I learned the art of capturing and holding the attention of passers-by and capturing them sufficiently so that at the end of my show, they would pay me for the privilege. In this digital age of distraction the value of this skill has only increased in value. I know from both my consulting practice and education delivery, that participants will only give you valuable work if you can keep them engaged. I outline below a selection of images from my shows below and a video link here

From my experience of teaching digital business online over the last few months I have some ideas about how apply theatrical techniques to service design remotely. During this time of Covid19 being able to apply digital technologies is essential. Some of my thinking is informed by a research project I collaborated on back in 2016. It was about how to apply theatrical techniques to HE teaching. After exploring how improvisational techniques could be applied in lecture and seminar contexts, I moved my attention to exploring how digital technology can help apply the improvisational theatre metaphor beyond the boundaries of time and space, as I outline towards the end of this conference presentation video.

Through my engagement with service design I have been reflecting on how I might develop my service design expertise, about what else I need to learn, as well as how my existing skills and expertise is relevant. I believe that I could add value as a service designer by including systems thinking, research evaluation and theatrical techniques in my toolkit. I would like to find service designers that I can collaborate with and opportunities where I can apply my creativity and research skills whilst learning more about the fundamentals of service design.

I would love to hear from you if you might like to discuss opportunities for collaboration or employment. I am interested in getting involved in consulting, evaluation or service design projects. Where projects are beyond my own individual skill set I have a good working relationship with other consultants who I would be able to bring in as required. Feel free to also get in touch to offer advice on developing my expertise as a services designer or to discuss any of the other ideas I outline in this blog.

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