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    5 Crucial Service Design Lessons from the Social Services Sector

    These are the 5 most crucial lesson you can be use to innovate in the social services sector.

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      Vaughan Broderick

      Vaughan Broderick

      This article reflects the crucial service design lessons that I learned consulting to organisations in the social services sector.

      As a service designer crafting a skill-set, having the opportunity to provide value and experience the challenges of a vital sector amid fundamental transformation has been a blessing for personal and professional growth and development.

      If you want to cut your teeth in one of the most dynamic, complex and heart-filled environments, then read on to learn five crucial service design lessons.

      Understand the Environment

      Understanding the environment, you are playing in is especially important in a sensitive and complex arena.

      As my time unfolded, I understood the space that support organisations operate in deeply, what constraints there are, what advantages they have, the customer and consumer points of view, and the eco-system as a whole.

      Of course, this perspective takes time to develop; however, in hindsight, during a long-term consultancy (where you become an in-house service designer), I would take a period to ‘onboard’ myself to the sector.

      In my view, approaching the initial engagement as research, perhaps incorporating greater desktop research, stakeholder interviews, and shadowing would have provided a stronger foundation to kick-start the consultancy.

      I didn’t take this approach because I relied on my insight from my MBA consulting project, thinking that there was sufficient understanding to carry me through.

      However, the longer I remained in the sector, the deeper the insights emerged.

      In practical terms, I would likely have reduced the rework (I don’t mean natural iteration) and saved time leading to greater clarity earlier by doing more groundwork upfront.

      Immerse in the Culture

      Closely related to the environment is the unique culture of any organisation.

      Learning the rituals, ways of working, influencers, team dynamics, and structures go a long way to enriching understanding and acceptance as ‘part of’ the team.

      As an outside consultant (depending on the length of the contract), recognising and becoming part of the culture goes a long way to breaking down barriers.

      What that meant in my situation was attending and presenting at team meetings, being part of Karakia’s (Māori food blessing), and a Pōwhiri (Māori welcome), learning the working language and culturally essential words.

      At the same time, it is also vital to retain a degree of separation to retain your ‘beginners mind’, critical thinking and identity as an independent voice.

      Start Small to Win Big

      Gaining momentum is essential to successful outcomes. And, more to the point, evidencing expertise and ‘success’ early on can only aid in a Service Design consultancy.

      My approach was to work on a minor part of the service to learn, experiment and prototype a new service experience before taking the insights and design across the service.

      In practice, this meant:

      • Making the starting project small enough to make mistakes yet substantial enough to matter
      • Taking small steps and iterating the changes with multiple affected stakeholders
      • Building a record of the successful impact of the changes and the process that was used
      • Communicating and displaying the success within the organisation and online collaboration tools

      I experienced a growing belief and excitement from a core group of senior staff in the new approaches that service design brought to the table.

      Following the success, we were able to start influencing other services faster with a committed group of service leaders.

      Right-sized Stretch

      Hand in hand with Start Small to Win Big is the concept of Right-sized Stretch.

      When I started the consultancy, I believed that we would make significantly faster changes and improvements. But, unfortunately, that was before I understood the first three points.

      Change can be challenging for everyone. So, a powerful lesson was finding the sweet spot of stretching the change and new approaches far enough to make a difference yet not so far that it is too uncomfortable.

      In one scenario, I needed to back-track and reduce the scale of change that ‘felt more doable’ from the team’s perspective. This critical lesson recognises that change is a journey of many actions over weeks, months and even years.

      And I firmly believe that taking a measured approach gained more supporters and started to embed the habit of change.

      Become a Service Design Storyteller

      It is easy to get lost in the noise in dynamic and complex systems.

      During the consultancy, I communicated regularly through reports, presentations, and artefacts. And they were combined with impromptu discussions and meetings with management.

      However, what I felt was there could have been better cut through the service design effort and success stories across the organisation.

      That’s where storytelling comes into play. People connect with stories more than facts. Stories create a connection and build familiarity and trust. And, let’s face it, stories are a damn site more engaging.


      The privilege of service designing in the sector with the incredibly giving support teams was hugely rewarding, both professionally and personally.

      The five crucial lessons were: learning to understand the environment, immerse myself in the culture, starting small and scaling change accordingly have been important lessons I’ll take with me.

      And, a commitment to become a better storyteller. If you’re interested in better storytelling , try this article as a starting point.