Lou Downe’s guide to good service design

The UK government’s former design director has published a book outlining the fundamental principles of good service design. We talk to Downe about defining what makes a good service – and the reason why so many companies fail to deliver one that works

In most design disciplines – whether it’s graphics, architecture, product or interaction design – you’ll find an established set of rules that are widely understood and agreed upon. Anyone who’s studied graphic design will have learned the importance of grid systems, hierarchies, contrast and balance, while Dieter Rams’ ten principles of good design have influenced the design of many products that we interact with on a daily basis. These rules can be bent or broken, but generally speaking, there are some fundamental principles that dictate whether or not a design is effective, and whether it works. And there are plenty of resources to be found offering examples of ‘good’ designs that adhere to these rules. 

The same is true for service design. As Lou Downe points out, there are some basic requirements that are necessary in order for a service to function, “yet unlike almost every other discipline … there’s no basic standards of what good looks like.”

In 2018, Downe drew attention to this with a tweet which asked, “We talk a lot about ‘what good looks like’ in service design … has anyone actually defined it?” The tweet picked up a few shares and likes, but nothing in the way of answers.

Frustrated by this, Downe published a blog post, in which they highlighted the need for a universal set of guidelines for service designers. “With almost 80% of the UK GDP generated from services, and an industry that’s (depending on who you ask) between 15-20 years old, I find it shocking that we can’t answer this question when so many other disciplines of design can,” they wrote.

“In the 15+ years of our existence we haven’t yet developed a language to talk about what we’re trying to achieve when we design a service…. Instead we’ve defined *how* to design a good service, leading to endless books and courses filled with diagrams and methodologies and no answer to the most basic question – ‘what is a good service?’ This question is so fundamental to our industry that we don’t even notice it’s missing, but without it we’re spending vast quantities of our time fighting for legitimacy.”