‘X was the main reason for Y, to what extent do you agree’

If you sat history exams at secondary school in the UK like me, you might be familiar with the question format. Many of the essays I was required to write would be in response to a question about some kind of historical cause and effect.

Apologies for spoilers, but the answer to every single one was ‘X strongly contributed to Y, but there were also other factors that should not be ignored’.

Ok fine, but what’s that got to do with service design?

When I find myself in the messy early stages of service design work, speaking to clients, internal stakeholders, subject matter experts or users you’ll get a lot of perspectives. Each will have their own views on what is causing problems, the reasons decisions were made, and why certain things get prioritised over others.

I often find myself reminding myself of the principle that ‘X probably strongly contributes to Y, but there will be other factors I shouldn’t ignore’. A big part of my job is then to go and find out what those other factors are, surface and communicate them clearly to other people and weigh up what actions can or should be taken bearing them in mind.

Its very tempting even in my own work to oversimplify cause and effect, claim that X is the biggest cause of Y to either further my own aims, or because I know other people involved will agree and support me. Maintaining space for other conflicting and complementary factors to be weighed and acted upon is in my opinion a vital part of designing services.

If writing history essays taught me anything its that in situations involving people there’s rarely a single reason anything is happening. Doing the extra work to dig deeper is the work that I find fascinating.

Clickbait service design

Every day people write blog posts, tweets and articles which offer thoughts, opinions and solutions to complex issues and topics (like those raised in history essays). Either the writer gives a very unnuanced message about a deeply nuanced subject, or the readers who become commentators paint it that way. It's the clickbait approach.

Sometimes they’re entirely opinion based, but often they take one specific piece evidence and it generalise it to extremes (sometimes to the point where it conceals the truth).

Lets use a football analogy (bear with me). If you've ever watched football pundits, you will know that they love their analysis. They slow down, rewind and talk about the play.

To do this, they take small sections of the game, for example the left back moving out of position, draw a bunch of shapes and lines and present this 10 second clip as evidence for their assertion that "The reason Cardiff City keep losing is their left back".

Now, it may be a contributing factor, but I’d wager there are other factors we shouldn’t ignore...

I see this as a risk in service design too. As designers we draw on multiple data sources, user research, usage analytics, cost to serve, channel preferences, competitor analysis. It can be very easy to do clickbait service design in which we zero-in on one specific piece of evidence, over generalise for shock and awe and build from there. It might grab people’s attention, but I don’t think it’s healthy or impactful in the long run.

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