Design of services or designing for service? The application of design methodology in public service settings

by Kirsty Strokosch and Stephen P. Osborne

The design of public services has traditionally been conducted by managers who aim to improve efficiency. In recent years though, human-centred design has been used increasingly to improve the experience of public service users, citizens and public service staff (Trischler and Scott, 2016). Design also encourages collaboration and creativity to understand problems and develop solutions (Wetter-Edman et al., 2014). This can include user research to understand current experiences and/or testing prototypes through quick repeated cycles of re-design.

To date, there has been little primary research on the application of design approaches in public service settings (Hermus, et al., 2020). Our article just published in Policy & Politics, Design of services or designing for service? The application of design methodology in public service settings, seeks to fill that gap.

It considers two cases in the United Kingdom: Social Security services in Scotland and Local Authority services in England. The research explores the application of design, asking three important questions: what is being designed, how is service design being practised and what are its implications?

To conduct the analysis, two different perspectives of design are applied: ‘design of services’ and ‘designing for service’ (Kimbell, 2011). From the ‘design of services’ perspective, services as outputs are the focus of design. The aim is to fully understand each of the interactions service users and staff have with the service, and to develop solutions for those which are not working effectively. Changes or improvements are made to the service which will help to create value for those using them. By contrast, ‘design for service’ emphasises that value is perceived during service use, experience and contextualisation. This means that while (re)design can change the service output it does not guarantee a particular outcome for each service user. This will be shaped by the actors involved and also their surrounding environment. 

The research presents evidence of the application of design principles and methods in public service settings. However, it also shows that human-centredness and creativity are constrained by various factors, including risk aversion, power imbalance and a reluctance to collaborate throughout the design process. We suggest that this can impact what is designed: services rather than service. We conclude that design has more potential to support transformative change.  To do this, designers and public managers need to better understand end user experiences and seek to design service to support value co-creation during delivery, use and contextualisation.   

The research also offers three important implications for practice:

  1. Service design should be applied pragmatically. A one-size-fits-all design approach is not appropriate for public services. We need to think about the type of service, who is using it and its aims.
  2. Services should be understood in their entirety with a holistic view of both the front-end components and the back-end operational processes.  However, the complex social and institutional factors that shape service experience also need to be considered.
  3. Design needs flexibility to enable creativity. Part of this involves reducing bureaucratic work practices and a commitment from senior managers to make available the time, resources and space for creativity, testing and iteration. There needs to be space to learn and improve.

In providing these insights, this article makes an important and timely contribution to the application of design methodology in public service settings.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:
Strokosch, K., & Osborne, S. P. (2023). Design of services or designing for service? The application of design methodology in public service settings, Policy & Politics51(2), 231-249 from

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:
Bell, E., & Lui, E. (2023). Integrating identity in policy design theory, Policy & Politics51(1), 2-27 from

Crabtree, D., & Wehde, W. (2023). Examining policy feedback effects from COVID-19 on social welfare support: developing an outcome distance dimension, Policy & Politics51(1), 156-179 from

van Duijn, S., Bannink, D., & Nies, H. (2022). Analysing boundaries of health and social care in policy and media reform narratives, Policy & Politics50(4), 568-586 from

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