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Reducing harm through service design - how we can positively shape our future

December 3, 2020

Creating a better world means both improving the way in which we deliver services now, while also improving the outcomes that result from our services in the future. Taking an ethical look at our service delivery, how can we continue to improve the ways in which we influence individuals, communities, and the systems that support life on our planet?

We are living in a changing world. The way we lived yesterday will not be the way we live tomorrow. Whether it's climate change, overpopulation, disease or technology - the number of variables having an effect on the way we exist on this planet seems to be constantly growing.

With dark clouds looming on the horizon, and increasing unrest in the present, who will shoulder the responsibility for the challenges we face? And how will the way we design services contribute to the way our future looks?

Society may not yet have a collective vision of how our future should, or could look. However, the values and ethics that guide our service design efforts will no doubt affect the world around us, and hopefully in a positive way.

In this article, we will focus on some of the benefits service design could have for our quality of life in the present, while also looking at the role and responsibility it has for shaping positive outcomes in the future. (Be warned this article will leave a lot of question marks unanswered)

Our actions now will determine the world we live in tomorrow

As service designers, business leaders, and service providers, we make daily service delivery decisions which have flow on effects for people's lives, the communities they live in, and the environments we all rely on to survive.

We have increasingly refined tools that, when applied in our service design efforts, allow us to understand behavior, support people when they most need help, and create effortless and enjoyable methods of delivery. If you need a service design refresh, take a look at our article about service design basics to delve deeper into service design methodology.

And it cannot be argued, this is truly a wonderful time for services. We have platforms that allow people to access personal transport at the push of a button, portals that let them dive into worlds of digital entertainment and tools that allow them to communicate with friends and family, whenever, wherever. (ok, maybe this last one isn't always a blessing...)

Never before have we wielded such a sophisticated understanding of our customers, or had the power to support them so accurately in their everyday struggles. Everywhere you look, there seems to be a team of people working enthusiastically to improve a different aspect of our lives.

In our success, however, there is, perhaps, the temptation to narrow our focus and isolate ourselves from the bigger picture. By burying our heads in the sand, we avoid having to acknowledge the less desirable outcomes that result, directly or indirectly, from our services.  

By failing to consider the broader context, we risk unintended and potentially harmful consequences, rather than an intentional future that is healthy and just for all.

An ecosystem of outcomes

Adopting an ethical approach to our service design efforts means broadening our perspective to include the quality of our customers' experiences of our services, whilst also being conscious of the wider consequences.

What is our vision? And what ethical considerations must we address to create a future that we all want to live in?

Just because we can, should we?
Alexandra Almond

I have borrowed this question from Alexandra Almond (read her insightful article here). It provides a clear perspective from which to analyze our services and question the moral implications of our choices as service providers.

Should we be doing this? Are we doing what we know to be right? Are we willingly doing what we know to be wrong? Or are we simply unaware of how our actions affect the world around us?

Such questions can be uncomfortable, and rightly so, because they risk highlighting areas of our services that we wish to remain hidden, and could potentially require us to change.

As service designers and providers, this means taking a hard look at the outcomes of our services and asking: Are we building not just better experiences, but better communities and situations in the world at large?

As our levels of connectivity within the world continue to grow, we can no longer be forgiven the naivety of believing that our actions and services exist in isolation.

When particles of micro-plastics fall in Arctic snowflakes, where does the responsibility lie? The consumers of plastic? The producers of plastic? The vendors of soft drink bottles? The greater the number of people to point fingers at, the less accountable each individual actor feels.

It is not only the environment suffering the unintended consequences of unethical service design. All domains in which services are delivered have an impact on some scale, and all are subject to ethical consideration.

Brilliant service delivery, poor outcomes for people

As many will have realized after watching documentaries such as The Social Dilemma (2020), services designed with the best of intentions can have unintended consequences.

The 'like' button on social media, originally intended to spread joy and approval, has morphed slowly into a gauge of popularity and social status. 'Likes' have become a measure of the approval we seek from others and their absence can amplify a lack of social approval and have a negative effect on people's self-esteem.

The same critical eye that we must apply to the effects of social media must also be applied to industries such as food, entertainment, transport, or any other domain that provides services.

Soft drink manufacturers might facilitate valued social experiences in people's lives and, with the aid of food scientists, have crafted increasingly appealing beverages. In the process they have also capitalized on experiences that people desperately crave, and which they can easily develop a dependency for.

So how do the poor health outcomes from excess sugar consumption compare to the short-term buzz of a dopamine high?

In the automobile industry - car manufacturers are crafting driving experiences in vehicles that are intuitive to drive and produce less emissions. However, what is the cost to the environment of extracting and using the metals from which they are made?

And what provisions are put in place for the safety and health of drivers and passengers?

Should a self-driving car run over two pedestrians or sacrifice two passengers? Once an interesting hypothetical trolley problem has become a real-life dilemma.

There are many real-life ethical questions such as this that we are being required to answer and often leave us with more uncertainty than when we first asked. However, if we are providing the service - we have a responsibility to embark on this journey towards understanding and take ownership for at least part of the end result.

The question of responsibility is large and, in a world that demands freedom, it can sometimes be difficult to define its limits. Is it on the consumer, the target of powerful advertising campaigns; or the service provider who sells a vision, and then provides a service that realizes it, no matter the unintended side effects?

Regardless of whose shoulders we believe that responsibility falls upon, by taking it on ourselves as providers, we demonstrate leadership and a proactively ethical attitude toward defining our future.

As service providers, we are particularly well-positioned to do this, as our products and services already have such a direct influence on people's lives.

Building a better world with services

The term 'better world' will likely always be controversial and subjective. What constitutes 'better' will vary depending on whom you talk to and what their values are.

Right now, however, defining 'better' is less important than discussing what it could be, and how our services might contribute towards its realization.

  • Is health better than illness?
  • Is convenience better than effort?
  • How could our services offer healthier outcomes for our customers?
  • How could our services offer better outcomes for our natural and social environments?
  • How could our services create better outcomes, while remaining successful and desirable?
  • How might we innovate in ways that shift people's perceptions of what is possible and provide novel, cost-effective, less harmful approaches to service delivery?

At this point, these are important discussions that organizations across the globe need to be having. We need to take a deep breath and see where our short-term activities could be taking us, and the people we are serving, in the long-term.

And this is where service design offers so much potential!

We can analyze our customers in detail. We can deconstruct their lives and determine their precise needs. We have the tools to understand people's drivers and the sources of their pleasure and pain.

This provides us with an enormous amount of power and we can use this to design for good, rather than for exploitative purposes.

We can take our viable, desirable, affordable model and push it one step further to include an ethical element. How would it affect our service delivery to consider it from this perspective?

This visualization of a service delivery model shows the 4 aspects a service has to fulfill: it has to be viable, desirable, affordable and ethical.
A better future paradigm - causing less harm


Rather than wading through the complexity of what a 'better future' would look like, perhaps we can focus on causing less harm with our services. Less harm to individuals, less harm to communities, and less harm to the natural environment.

We can begin our journey with questions:

  • How does our service cause harm to individuals?
  • How does our service cause harm to communities?
  • How does our service cause harm to the environment?

When we consider the answers to these questions, we can also contemplate each within different time frames, we can look at the present as well as varying distances into the future.  

What may not be causing harm now, may perhaps cause great harm in the future.

We need not look any further than the depletion of groundwater supplies in California and other parts of the world to illustrate this concept. With unrestrained usage - we are now becoming increasingly aware of the harmful impact our past actions have had, or are yet to have, on all three of the categories above.

If we are dedicated to creating a better world, each harmful area of our service delivery that we can identify becomes a potential area for service innovation. It all begins with questions;

  • How do we build our applications so they cause less harm through behaviors such as addiction?
  • How do we deliver our services in ways that are less harmful to peoples’ physical or mental health?
  • How do we maintain the success of our services while dramatically reducing the negative impact they have on the environment?

These are undeniably difficult questions, with answers likely to pose creative and financial challenges for any organization.

Saying that, if we have displayed anything as a species, it is that we are simply incredible when it comes to innovation in the face of obstacles, challenges, and constraints.

The real question is; how good are we at embracing these challenges early and designing for prevention, rather than waiting to do damage control?

Taking the pathway to a ''better future'' is currently optional for many organizations. However, as we continue down the path we are currently taking, there will be increasing pressure from our stressed environment, population growth, and volatile financial conditions.

The escalating number of problems will define the creative challenges we must address. And, whether we like it or not, we must address them eventually.

What will our next step be?

So, this moment in time is both an opportunity and a challenge to take responsibility as service designers and service providers; designing intentionally for a better, more ethically-driven future.

It is in our nature to delay doing something difficult until it is sufficiently uncomfortable for us on a personal level.

Perhaps the problems of the future seem so distant that we refuse to worry, we delegate responsibility to a higher power, or are resolute that we are only accountable for the effects of our actions in the present.

As our societies continue to progress, these intentional blind spots will increasingly impact our individual quality of life as well as the broader context in which we all live. As a consequence the demand to innovate and change the way we are working is becoming mandatory, rather than a choice.

As a viable starting point our first steps can simply be more conversations about the kind of world we want to live in, and the values, morals, and principles we want to live by.

This could then progress into the development of an ethical framework for service design by building strong systems, agreeing on viewpoints, and establishing regulations that outline ethical practices in the context of service delivery.

This is our opportunity, as designers and changemakers, to embrace a new perspective and broaden our responsibility for positive change in the world around us.

Will we take this opportunity? That is up to us.

Further reading

It's exciting to see a growing community of people who are engaged and actively participating in these discussions already. If you are interested to go further here are some great resources.

Good Services - by Lou Downe

Ruined by Design - by Mike Monteiro

Designers, we need to talk about Desirable, Viable, Feasable - by Alexandra Almond