Design as a Universal Language

Illustration of how clients think about our services versus how we think about them.

Because technology changes so rapidly, we should use a common design language instead of referring to the technology used to solve the problem.

Dana Chisnell delivered a presentation entitled “The Next Generation of Civic Designers" at the Code For America Summit earlier this year. She shared some powerful lessons for designers and non-designers that apply to any environment where designers are working to improve service delivery.

Clients often come to us with a solution in mind (e.g., we need a new website), rather than with a problem they want to solve. We need to be cautious about selling our clients the tools we use and focus on the steps that we will take to solve their problem. As Chisnell noted, “Government doesn’t know that what they need is design” because “design is solving problems.” Using this definition of designer as problem solver, she posited that designers surround us every day. “Unofficial” designers can be our co-workers, our clients, and/or the end users of the products we make or improve.

Chisnell pointed to the example of Marnie, a Program Manager in San Mateo county government for 20 years. She takes calls from homeowners, who ask for a review of their assessments because their home values are lower. Initially, the attorney’s office wrote the letters sent to homeowners. They consisted of two double-sided, two-column pages of tightly spaced text. The language reflected a negative tone in passive voice and seemed rather threatening. Marnie read articles on plain language and received coaching from a local expert on how to make the letters more user friendly. Using her research and the Consultant's help, Marnie simplified these letters. She also started a new program to review assessments.

Because technology changes so rapidly, we should use a common design language instead of referring to the technology used to solve the problem. We are not focusing on the common language that binds us to our co-workers and end-users or the desire to solve a problem. It's the language of strategy and problem solving that is timeless. Marnie addressed the ineffective communication with property owners, focusing on user needs (clearly worded letters that provided answers and actionable information), did her research (educated herself on plain language), consulted with experts, and used her research to create a solution.  If we limited the definition of designer to someone who produces a certain type of deliverable or uses certain tools, we are discounting the creative thinking that people do every day to improve service delivery.

Framing our work as the design of a service can increase inclusivity and cohesion both in our work with project teams and clients. Design doesn’t start with the creation of a wireframe or Photoshop mock-up. Design starts when a client contacts us because they need our services. Chisnell says, “Government is nothing if not one massive continuous service design project.” She goes on to say that, “Everyone who touches any part (of a product or service) designs it.”

Design starts on the day we have a new business meeting, in which we find out what problem the client is trying to solve by engaging us. Defining the problem is just as critical as any other step in the process; it requires us to listen to the client’s stated need(s), address the problems they are trying to solve, and match our services to the need (while keeping budget in mind). The design of the service that we offer links to how much we can help the client improve their website or application.

Instead of thinking about our services and deliverables as an a-la-carte menu, we need to present our services and deliverables as part of a journey that engages clients at various depths. If we map the journey through our services, we see ourselves as parts of a whole, rather than individual silos. If we view our services as part of an ecosystem, we will see that the services in the journey can be interdependent.

Communicating the journey through our services will give us a shared language to discuss our process internally as well as with clients. Conversations can then shift from budget, tools, and hours to efficiently address client needs, assisting them in providing the best service possible.