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?