Think Service Design: Think Impact

Back to Insights
Think Service Design: Think Impact

Written by Kevin Robbie | 29th March 2023

When thinking about service design it is important to think about impact. Whether you are designing a new service or improving an existing one, the impact on the end beneficiaries needs to be top of mind.

No matter what sector you work in – be it employment, health, early childhood development, homelessness, etc. – there are a set of tensions to work through to create or redesign a service. These tensions can include the motivations of the founders of your organisation, the evidence (which is sometimes scant) of ‘what works’, the views of stakeholders around what they need, policy drivers versus the practical circumstances and the (often limited) funding pot available.

These tensions are exacerbated when thinking about replicating an effective service from one location to another or when seeking to scale a service. The context for the new service needs to be examined and when replicating, experience has taught me that it is often necessary to determine if there is a hidden ‘special sauce’ behind the success of what is planned.

Also, we know that many of the most successful initiatives creating positive social impact are based on collaborations between different organisations who have ‘mutually reinforcing’ activities. Collaborative impact is seen as particularly successful in shifting the dial for more complex social issues, such as communities experiencing entrenched disadvantage or in areas such as long-term unemployment or homelessness. But there is emerging evidence of different levels of collective impact or collaboration that can be applied depending on intensity of service required, budget available, existing networks and openness of the system to be influenced.

Thinking impact

With the various challenges and tensions, being able to ‘think impact’ will drive better service design. Developing a ‘theory of change’ is a necessary starting point to identify and understand (and then measure) the intended impact or change you are trying to achieve, and the people you want to experience that change. It is like a roadmap identifying all the things that need to happen to bring about long-term impact. The figure below showcases Think Impact’s Theory of Change approach.

Think Impact theory of change approach
Figure 1. Think Impact theory of change approach

A theory of change should always be based on evidence and reflect the perspectives of your stakeholders and how they believe your service or program will change their lives. It outlines the critical things that must be in place (enabling factors) for your change to occur, as well as the way you go about implementing your activities to achieve your desired change.

To fully explain theory of change is a two-day course, but here are some key points when thinking about service redesign!

Understand the situation

Knowing the circumstances and context the service is being developed for is crucial. It means understanding the views of service users, providers and other stakeholders. Alongside this it is critical to look at the evidence of what works to tackle the issue you are seeking to address.

Key questions to ask include:

  • What is your understanding of the issue?
  • What is the context in which you are seeking to develop the service?
  • What are the structural, systemic or institutional considerations?
  • What are stakeholders’ perspectives on why and how the issue should be tackled?
  • In seeking to tackle the problem, what existing strengths or assets can be utilised?
  • What evidence is there locally, nationally and internationally around how to tackle this issue? What has worked in tackling this issue before?

Be clear on the intended impact

Being clear on the intended impact is the anchor for service design or redesign and drives all decision making.

Key questions to ask include:

  • What change will happen for stakeholders?
  • What domains of change are you seeking to influence?
  • What type of change are you aiming to bring about (local, step change or systems change)?

Be clear on the approach

Once you understand the situation and are clear on the intended impact, you need to get clear on the approach to take. Think about what works for whom, in which circumstances and why. Resources also need to be considered.

Key questions to ask include:

  • What conditions or factors do you need to be in place for your intended impact to happen?
  • What does the evidence tell you about how the activity should be run and the number of times?
  • How much funding is required to achieve your intended impact through the activities you are planning?
  • What other resources might be required to achieve your intended impact?

A story on the importance of approach

I wish I was more aware of ‘approach’ when I was working in frontline service delivery at a drug detox centre 25 years ago. We were struggling to stabilise people prior to detox. Our ‘therapeutic’ interventions weren’t as effective as we had hoped. We had looked at the existing evidence around what worked in counselling and started to focus our sessions less on the ‘model of intervention’ and more on the rapport between counsellor and client, but the shift was only minor.
Now on reflection I am aware many of the people coming into the detox were sent there as an alternative to custody and hence did not have the motivation required for detoxing – a key enabling factor wasn’t in place. The drug detox program was something they had to suffer for the duration of their time with us. If we had understood this, we would have developed a more flexible range of approaches to cater for the people across the drug detox system. Our service would have been designed with impact in mind from the perspective of what the stakeholder needed.

The moral of the story – when you think service design, think impact!

Contact Kevin Robbie: