As a service designer, I’ve been involved in building the way a significant number of programs, products and tools hang together. And, as someone who works relatively often with government, where many agencies, policies, regulation and in the end, people, need to come together to make something happen, I’m usually called upon to deal with complex issues. It often the case that the people I’m dealing when designing services, particularly, just don’t know where to start. It all looks too hard.

Over time, I’ve developed a set of questions I use to help me understand what’s happening (versus why it’s happening) as I go through a discovery process when doing service design work. These questions are focussed on activities rather than values, motivation or what someone wants to achieve (the why questions). Those value-based questions are a whole other part (though not separate from this part) of the design process. I’ll post about those in my next piece.

These questions continue to apply in prototyping, building and all the way to delivery of new services and on into business as usual. I’ve used these same questions in co-design sessions, putting them directly in the hands of participants as they work on being a part of their own products and services.

While I don’t for a moment assume I’m the only person with a set of questions like these, nor are they exhaustive. But I figured they’d be handy to share. So, I’ve listed them below. You can ask them at any point in the design process, ask them in any order, pick and choose for usefulness at the time, you can ask them multiple times, and you can recontextualise each of them to address information, physical objects, or people. In fact, making sure you do ask these questions in multiple contexts (and often) is critical for getting a good outcome.

So, here they are. “Actor” in the question means, for a given context, a piece of information, a physical object, or a person.

  • Who or what are the actors in this service? – you probably need to ask this one first (and repeatedly). Understanding what and who are in play is critical.
  • What actor(s) needs to move through the service? – as people, information and things pass through a service, they inevitably trigger things to happen.
  • When does that actor need to move through the service? – too early or too late? Is there a hindrance or delay if the actor isn’t present?
  • Where does the actor enter the service? – it’s rare everything is present in a service at the beginning, so where are the entry point?
  • Where does the actor come from? – the source of the information, the location of a person or thing, can be critical. What if they’re in the wrong place, or difficult to get to or obtain?
  • Why is that actor needed at this point? – is the thing, information or person actually necessary at this point? Could you reduce friction by removing them or doing something different?
  • Who needs to interact with the actor? – in this case “who” is as multifaceted as actor. It could easily be two physical things acting together, or a person doing a task with a piece of information.
  • Who controls, originates, cares for or owns the actor? – these are the sources of things, and sometimes they can be blockers, or they can grease the wheels.
  • How does the actor get used or interact at each step? – the reason the actor is present at a step or in a process can (re)define how it gets there, when, how and why.
  • How does the actor move around? – for information this can expose systems issues, for humans and things, transport and distance can be pain points. You need to understand them.
  • Where does the actor go when they’re done? – are they done, or do they just drop out of the service, and why? Is there an issue with storage or retention of something important?

Of course, these questions begin in the abstract as you’re conducting broad discovery and move to more specific as you learn more and want to prototype or build. You can’t ask someone with a job as a filing clerk, postman, scientist (or whatever) a question about “actors”, you replace that with the actual thing or problem they’re dealing with.

I’m keen to understand whether others use similar questions and how? Do I have gaps?