Design Director for the UK Government, Lou Downe, on making service design more inclusive

Juraj Mihalik

Hi Lou, I am honored to sit with you today. Your work positively impacted millions of people and you’re very influential in my life. I would like to start by asking about your background, have you always been interested in design?

Thank you, it’s very kind of you. You know, I did not actually study design, I studied fine arts and then linguistics and economics. But, I suppose, I grew up around problems with service design. My mom used to work in the BT call-center and she would come home and tell stories about issues that people faced on a daily bases, like not being able to connect a phone or stop billing for a deceased person. These stories motivated me to study art and make the world a better place. But soon I realized that, perhaps, art was not the most efficient way of doing that, because you have to first make an artwork, and then you have to put it in a gallery, and you have to expect people to come into that gallery to see it; so I figured, design is actually a much better way of improving people's lives and solving problems because you can do that quicker and in a more direct way.

Can you think about one particular moment when you came to the realization that you want to dedicate your life to solving problems via design?

My journey started when I was working as a producer at the Tate Modern in London. I was developing interactive audio tours for mobile devices there, which, I believe, were the first fully accessible and easily downloadable tours in a UK gallery at that time. One day, as I was walking through the gallery with my phone, testing one of the tours I noticed a maintenance worker putting up a big sign that read “please, don't use your mobile phone”, which was clearly a total contradiction. It got me thinking, why aren't we designing one experience to be cohesive with the other.

Would you say you naturally notice and act upon such contradictions and problems?

Yeah, I get very angry about unfairness in the world. So to answer your question, I suppose that was the moment I realized I can improve things with service design.

Did you think at that moment that you invented your own field of design?

Just to clarify, I did not invent service design. 🙂 I did some research and found that it was a thing before. But I think a lot of people, particularly in my generation, who moved into service design, had the same epiphany when they discovered the field. That’s when I decided that I should go and work for some agencies that specialize in it, and that’s how I ended up in consulting the government in service design.

That must have been an interesting experience. Governments are usually pretty rigid organizations. How did you manage to convince the government to address issues with service design?

That’s true. It sort of began with a ranting blog post, but it never got published in the end. Instead, I worked with an economist, and together we were able to estimate how much bad services cost the government. We presented our business case to various people, and eventually, a new department responsible for improving services was created.

Instead, I worked with an economist, and together we were able to estimate how much bad services cost the government.

Current Design System of the UK Government (Photo Credit)

You could say it was all about money. Unfortunately, we live in a world where austerity is the norm and governments don't have enough money to be able to afford really basic things like pensions and healthcare. So if you want to make a difference and you want to spend money in government you need to justify why you’re doing it. The same is true in design, a designer should be financially literate to be able to say: look this is how much it's costing us and this is why we should change it.

Not considering the financial aspect, did people in the government seem open-minded to your ideas in general?

I think the purpose of government is to improve the lives of the people within the country, both citizens and non-citizens. What I was doing was reminding people in the government of that purpose and helping them to understand what that purpose meant in the 21st century.

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I don’t believe that civil servants turn up to work with the intention to do a bad job or make someone’s life worse, that’s just not the way they think. But some of these people have been doing their jobs for twenty-thirty years and a lot of the time the technology that they’re encouraged to use is super restrictive. So much so, that most people I met have never had a chance to use things like LinkedIn or YouTube, and so they didn't necessarily know how the internet works.

What was your approach in that situation? Do you have a strategy for pushing big ideas, or do you think is it inevitable that big ideas will die if you don’t have the right people around you?

It’s a hard question. I don't think it’s necessarily about knowing the right people, I think it’s about the right communication strategy and actually recruiting the people who can put that strategy to work. A lot of the success of what we did in the government was due to simple communication of our ideas. We had a large in-house communication team working on making posters, graphics, stickers, memes, films. If you look at what we did compared to a lot of social change movements, a big part of it was about communication and messaging, which ultimately means that a movement can happen. When it comes to pushing great ideas, we should strive to communicate them in the most accessible, repeatable, and as memorable way as possible.

I guess it is harder than it sounds. Can you give any tips to digital designers who are trying to make a positive impact on society with their work?

Yeah, it is. I suppose the main thing is actually going and working for the organization you're trying to change. I have a feeling a lot of designers shy away from working in-house because they think it's going to be restrictive or boring or not paid well. In reality, that's the way that you can really make a change and also just acknowledging and being ok with the fact that it takes a long time.

You need patience, you need to make a choice and stick with it, you need a good mixture of idealism and pragmatism. You should be idealistic about what you want to achieve and pragmatic about how you’re going to do it. Working for the government in my role was the longest job I've ever done. I managed to create a design community and change government’s standards, but it did take five years.

And what about non-designers. Do you think that everyone can benefit from applying design thinking principles to solving problems?

I just want to say that I feel slightly conflicted about the whole debate on whether anyone can be a designer, or it is a specialism. I think a lot of designers these days experience an existential crisis. They think that what they do isn’t a real thing. I do not believe that it’s necessarily true that everyone can be a designer. One can know how to write, draw or pick up a camera, but can they do it in an effective way that actually changes things? That, I think, is a bigger question. But I would love it if more people were able to spot and identify bad service design.

I do not believe that it’s necessarily true that everyone can be a designer.

If you do not mind sharing, have you had to deal with haters and naysayers in your career, some big obstacles?

Career obstacles… I mean I graduated during the recession. There were no jobs. I'm dyslexic. I am not a man. I guess, at least, I am not middle-aged yet. You know, there is this idea that age makes a man wiser, more experienced in his job, but for a woman age just makes her old. I know, not everyone necessarily sees it like that, but, unfortunately, a lot of people do. When people look at me, this dyslexic, non-binary person under thirty, they don’t expect me to do anything awesome. But if you flip it on its head, there is something really freeing about not having the same expectations applied to you, it actually gives me the freedom to do great things.

How do you balance things in life, your passion and the mission that’s bigger than you?

It is going to sound facetious, but about a year ago I almost burned out. I cared so much about my job, I was working from 7:00 in the morning till 12:00 at night seven days a week. It was really tough. Eventually, I realized that actually maybe not caring as much is the thing that I needed to do. I would advise anyone to sometimes make yourself feel like it doesn't matter.

Let’s talk about burnout syndrome and anxiety or depression. These are serious issues. Do you think designers have the power to help people affected by them?

The really sad thing is, designers are the most depressed and anxious people I've ever met. Looking after yourself is extremely important. Of course, designers alone cannot solve these problems, but we should be conscious of them. Practicing what’s called quiet design can be quite helpful, I think. Essentially, it means, for example, designing interfaces that attempt to reduce social anxiety and the amount of noise by disabling certain notifications.

Interesting idea. Are there any more tricks for designers that can bring a positive change to their daily work?

I think it's possible with some things but not with others. If your job is to sell more bottled water, you probably just need to leave your job. On the other hand, if you are working in a service that isn’t inherently motivated toward doing bad things, there is totally room for you to make a positive change. But it starts with souls-searching and actually understanding the impact of your work, and I think a lot of designers maybe don't think that through.

If your job is to sell more bottled water, you probably just need to leave your job.

I will give you an example. Back in 2010, I was recruited by a mobile telephony company in the UK. They wanted to make it easier for people to use things like Facebook, Spotify, YouTube, and other social media platforms. The solution they came up with was to create and subsidize various data packages. You could take that approach and start working on it, or you could say this approach creates this artificial fast lane, ultimately segmenting the internet into large and smaller companies and breaching net neutrality, which is entirely wrong. So I left that company in protest. And I am glad I did. It opened up the way for me to work for the government to improve people’s lives with service design.

Want to stay in touch with Lou? Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or check her website.

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