I recently attended the Service Design Fringe Festival, and for the first time was a panel member as opposed to a member of the audience. 

John Baldwin

It was a thrilling experience as it marked a shift from my organisation thinking about introducing service design to actually doing it and sharing our experiences.

If you are wondering whether ‘service design’ is even ‘a thing’, let me tell you, it is! Put simply, service design uses thinking borrowed from product design and technology to create or re-design services and establish best practices to make an organisation more accessible and really meet users’ needs. These users, for those of us in housing, are our customers; people looking to buy or rent homes, as well as our existing residents who are already in place.

So why would anyone in property do it, and why are Thames Valley Housing Association doing it? We and other organisations in property are all grappling with a myriad external challenges and sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees. At the same time, when it comes to housing, the mood music has changed with the media and the public. We in property are increasingly seen as being distant from our target markets (in the case of housing associations, this means our residents) and disconnected from our purpose, whether or not this is actually true.

So for us it’s a back-to-basics approach. It’s about staying focused on what matters most to our residents, getting the service right through really listening and designing outcomes which are user-friendly and have empathy. At the festival, when I was asked: “Why has a housing organisation introduced service design?” (there aren’t many of us!), my answer was that it was the best chance we have of finding the right solutions. Without this, it’s just trial and error – and sometimes very costly errors at that.

We should bear in mind that solutions are fragile things. When we have an idea, it’s easy for it to be dismissed or lost in a tide of competing priorities and never see the light of day. That’s partly because we have no real way of evaluating how effective those ideas are.

Alternatively, service design only leads to an idea when a problem has been properly identified from a customer’s perspective. Following this, a range of solutions are examined, with the best ones prototyped, tested and iterated. Only when the idea has been proven is it scaled and ‘shipped’.

For some this may seem long-winded, but for others it’s just common sense. Why not put our effort into finding and testing real solutions to real problems? We can no longer afford just to serve our own needs and not those of our customers. This is because tangibly improving their experience is about delivering good service and more; it’s about building trust and relationships, and hopefully securing our reputation as caring organisations that get it right.

John Baldwin is acting chief executive officer of Thames Valley Housing Association