Photo by Tony Stoddard on Unsplash

“I want to understand the world from your point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand?”

- James P. Spradley


Service design and user-centred design draws upon insights derived from real people. Through our work to develop a set of customer personas we are showing colleagues the benefits of understanding our customers in more nuanced ways than ever before, but perhaps our biggest opportunity to better understand our customers is through the coaching approach we are currently rolling out across all of our Bromford localities. Localities is turning the traditional housing management role on its head. Neighbourhood Coaches have smaller patches than traditional Housing Managers and are working much more holistically within their communities. Rather than focusing on customer deficits, Neighbourhood Coaches are fostering new and different types of relationships with customers that focus on their strengths. Neighbourhood Coaches are our gateway to understanding our customers in a level of detail we’ve not been able to before.

We’ve been giving some thought recently to how the Innovation Lab might support our localities teams out in the field. But in reality, we don't want or need to be part of everything that goes on, so perhaps a more interesting consideration should be what we can learn from the Neighbourhood Coaches, rather than the other way around. The key is how we work with the locality teams in order to work out how we can turn what they are observing and experiencing into insights that we can feed into strategy; helping us to see into the future and giving us the opportunity to respond quickly to changing social landscapes.

Earlier this week I met for coffee with Adam Groves from The Children’s Society to find out a little more about how they are using Service Design to help them improve outcomes for young people. It’s always great catching up with others working in either a similar way or on the same challenges. When I was talking to Adam I reflected on similar conversations I have had with designers working in-house at other charities, and it crossed my mind that our structures were in fact very similar and our challenges much the same. Part of the role of an in-house design team should, of course, be to embed an approach to design and innovation across the organisation, so the relationship with colleagues will always be two way, but if we are talking about being less paternalistic as an organisation, focusing on our customer strengths and building asset-based models rather than focusing on deficits and trying to ‘fix them’, we should carry this through into our own relationships with colleagues who work on the front-line in our communities.

I’m looking forward to developing our thinking around how we utilise the expertise of what could be seen as a fleet of mobile ethnographers or local experts, in order to tap into our communities and uncover the real issues; understanding our customers as people, not a homogenous group. Trying to turn all colleagues into designers isn’t the way to go, but equipping colleagues with the skills to pick up on the weakest signals, will help provide us with the key knowledge that could ultimately feed into to our organisational strategy and help us identify priority areas for design and innovation. Because of localities, we are perhaps better placed than most organisations to gather good qualitative insight as a matter of course, but we can’t solve the problems on our own. That’s why it’s great to get out and meet people like Adam. We are all working on the same problems, and if we can do that together, by sharing our insights and design and innovation resources, then why wouldn't we?