Lou standing on a stage and speaking to an audience. Dark background.

Designers as the voice of the most excluded people: an interview with Lou Downe

September 5, 2023

Professionals working in the experience innovation field represent an array of skills and knowledge: Designers and managers, researchers and engineers, data-driven and creative folks, CX, UX, EX… the profession has many faces. We are thrilled to have a renowned CX expert share some of their background, their learnings, and a few insights into their work: please meet Lou Downe!

My current job / my role / how I call myself

Founder and Director of the School of Good Services

A portrait of Lou Downe, happily smiling into the camera.

My professional background 

I’m Ex-Director of Design and Service Standards for the UK government, chief bean-wrangler at Bród vegan meats, chef, artist and general professional nomad.

How I got into CX / service design

I was a producer working at the Tate gallery making video content for visitors to access on their mobile phones while looking at the artworks in the gallery. One day I went to test some content I’d made and found someone putting up a sign in the gallery saying ‘please don't use mobile phones’.

I had a lightbulb moment, ‘why don't we design physical spaces and digital interactions at the same time?!’ 

I was only 24 so obviously I thought I’d invented service design (!!) but a couple of google searches later and I’d found a new career that would occupy me for the next decade of my life (and beyond).

Tools and methods that I use the most

Communication. As a trainer and coach, how successful my work is is 100% down to how well I communicate an idea but good communication relies on knowing and understanding who you’re communicating with.

As a design leader in government and beyond I always used to joke that my job was PowerPoint – but it wasn’t a joke. 

If you can't explain what you want to do and why it’s a good idea, your idea could be the best in the world, but it still won't happen. 

Communication is one of the biggest skills we need but the one we think comes with confidence, it doesn’t – it comes with preparation, understanding who you’re talking to and what they need to hear and preparing something that’s going to work. 

I’m dyslexic so I happen to be quite good at storytelling, and reducing complex things down to simple ideas (if you’re interested in this more definitely read The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock Eide and Fernette Eide) but it’s a skill we can all learn.

It’s not a something we’re used to practicing in design though, which is why Sarah Drummond and I put together a course around this called Leading Stakeholders (which you can find on good.services).

A topic I am very passionate about 

Inclusion. As designers our primary job is to make the world a better place. Just as in medicine, our job as designers is to first, do no harm, next, make things better. That job means we’re often the voice of people who are most excluded from services. Remembering this in the face of all of the other pressures and demands on our work from stakeholders isn’t easy, but is vital. 

I always try to be an idealistic pragmatist; idealistic about what I want to achieve, but pragmatic about how I get there.

My other private geeky passion is vernacular design - ie. design that evolves naturally to fit the place or culture that it has developed from. You see it most starkly in architecture, where you might have high pitched roofs in areas with large amounts of snow for example, but you also see it in food, where hard cheeses are created in rural places with good pasture to preserve the cheese for longer transport (Gruyère is a delicious example of this).

There is vernacular design in services too, where our natural patterns of interaction and bureaucracy dictate whether a service is hugely personal and conversation based or much more structured and formal.

I’m always on the lookout for new vernacular patterns, and patterns that are universal that teach us something new about how services are designed. 

Learning resources, books, blogs and podcasts that I enjoy

Obviously I’d say Good Services and the courses, tools and blog posts on www.good.services! Whether you’re looking to explain what a service is to your stakeholders, understand quickly if your service is working well or write a business case for change, there is a ton of resources there to help.

Personally, I will read anything by social theorist Richard Sennnet. His book on the Uses of Disorder is a fantastic study of how lack of structure can create more inclusive services. I love Hidden Brain - a podcast about how and why we behave in the way we do, 99% invisible (don't we all?!) 

My tip for newbies who want to start working on CX projects

I guess the first advice I'd give is that a ‘project’ doesn’t really have an end in reality. Ideas are created, you’ll pass them over to a client, they implement them, or maybe they don't. But even if your idea doesn’t get implemented they’ll learn from it and take that idea elsewhere. 

Sometimes that can feel really intangible, but that is the work!

If you want to make real, tangible change, you have to work in house. But you have to get used to the pace of your work getting slower. 10% of service design is design, the rest of the 90% is about creating the conditions for service design to happen.

My extremely wise brother-in-law Simon Willison once gave me some career advice that I've never forgotten – with jobs, you’re either learning or you're earning. If you’re not earning a lot of money but you’re learning lots that’s fine, but if you’re not learning much, you need to be compensated financially for that lack of learning. And if you’re not doing either, it’s time to leave! I thought about that a lot at the start of my career and it really helped me to prioritize where I want to be and what I want to do. Not everyone has the privilege to say no to work, but that little piece of advice has always been in the back of my mind (thanks Simon!).

You can connect with me on these channels (social media, blogs, website, …)

  • On Twitter: @loudowne @theschoolofgood
  • On the web: www.good.services
  • Via email: lou@good.services

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