Getting started with Service Design for unions: TUC Digital Lab workshop report

Service Design is a broad and diverse discipline which seeks to optimise an organisation’s services by focusing on aligning the experience people have of using them. It’s a way of working that’s become increasingly common across government, business and voluntary sector alike.

When we’re talking about services in this context, we mean any regular interaction that a union has with members, not “servicing” in the traditional union context. A grassroots-focused organising strategy for example will have a number of common interactions in it that can each be viewed as services to focus on.

Service Design overlaps with and contains many of the tools and techniques we’ve previously discussed in the Digital Lab (user research and prototyping being but two), but this introduction will only scratch the surface. There’s a reading list at the bottom of the post if you want to dig further in this rewarding area.

For the purposes of this post, we’re interested in how unions might approach redesigning and improving existing services, rather than innovating/developing new services from scratch.

It’s a long post, so here’s a contents list:

Why Service Design?

As unions, we should aim to deliver the best possible services to our members and to working people more generally. This challenge is best addressed with a consistent approach, rooted in a repeatable way of understanding and improving the entirety of the interactions we have with members.

A common theme throughout the Digital Lab has been the discussion of how people’s expectations are higher in the digital age. The mainstream now won’t tolerate things that don’t “just work” and they think less of organisations unable to give them that. Well-designed, thoughtful services that take into account the needs of a user and work the way they expect them to are one way we can improve what people think of us as trade unions, making them more likely to join, to stay, and to take part in winning new rights and benefits at work for themselves and their colleagues.

The digital revolution entirely reconfigures services and leaves the ones that haven’t been reconfigured looking third rate. Take the new banks such as Starling and Monzo that you can join without ever entering a branch. Or TV and film streaming services like Netflix take minutes to set up but totally change the way you get entertainment to your home. 

But it’s not just happening in the private sector. Citizen’s Advice is investing heavily in ensuring that whatever channel someone comes to them via, the ‘service’ feels easy and seamless. Local Government is working to do the same. If you need to pay rent or book a bin collection on a council website, it’s increasingly likely that a service designer has spent time improving the process.

Which services to start with?

The designer Matt Edgar (it’s worth reading what he writes), has said that “Most of government is service design, most of the time”. This is quite true for unions too. So where should we start?

An auditing method used in the early days of digitising central government is useful. 


First, write down all of the services your union offers. 

Some will be bigger and involve several steps or interactions, some will be smaller and may require no contact with you or colleagues, but you’ll end up with a list like (in no particular order):

  • Join the union
  • Apply to be a rep
  • Change payment details for subs
  • Update home address and contact details
  • Get advice at work
  • Ask for representation at work
  • Vote in a strike ballot
  • Book a course
  • Access legal help
  • Take part in a direct action
  • Get a password for the members’ area of the website
  • And so on…

Second, rank them by use. 

How many times a year are each of these services accessed? Bear in mind that a high use service could be something used only once by a very large group of people, or used very regularly by a smaller group.

Third, think about how much benefit each service delivers to your members. 

Which ones really make a difference to their working lives? 

Fourth, how complex is each service to deliver? 

What is the existing process? How many teams are involved? How much of what happens is routine vs. bespoke for each member? How many systems are used? 

More complex services contain many opportunities for improvement, but are also more difficult to successfully change. Given this, it’s worth looking at simpler services to start with, as you build your service design capability.

Looking across these dimensions – use, benefit and complexity – you’ll have some criteria to decide which services to work on. It may not be perfect, and other organisational goals may shift things a bit, but you now have some rational basis for the next step of your work.

What are we looking to achieve?

Well designed services benefit a) the member, b) the bottom-line and c) the organisation as a whole.

For members, that looks like:

  • Increased satisfaction and a better relationship with the union
  • More uptake of services
  • Reduced irritation with service failures

For the bottom-line, it’s:

  • Lower cost of servicing members
  • Better retention
  • New opportunities and new services

And for the union as an organisation, you expect to see:

  • Increased understanding of the services being delivered
  • More consistency
  • Cross-team working
  • Better staff engagement and participation

Service design concepts: Movement and layers

One of the challenges of any analysis is trying to be comprehensive, and not miss anything. Service designers use two concepts to build maps that try and capture the entirety of activity within a service. The first concept used in mapping is time, and the second is layers.


Services travel from left to right, past to future. Like a story, they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Each phase poses different questions:


Services can be thought of as having a ‘front stage’ layer and a ‘back stage’ layer. 

“Front stage”Member touchpointsFace to face, website, phone, printed material, app etc.

Organisational activitiesE.g. Building tribunal cases
“Back stage”SystemsDatabases, CRMs, policies

Support processesSolicitors, software/IT providers, printers

Creating a basic service map/blueprint

In the Digital Lab workshop, we combined the two concepts to start working on a ‘service map’ of a chosen service (for example, proving a member with advice about a difficult work situation). Each group worked methodically through the template below, documenting what happens at each step and in each layer. 


“Front stage”Member touchpoints

Organisational activities

“Back stage”Systems

Support processes

Having taken a first pass at a map of our chosen service, we started to look for opportunities to make them better. Looking at our service maps, we started to ask the questions that could lead us towards re-imagining how we deliver them:

  • Where are we failing members?
  • What are the opportunities for improvement?
  • What might we do?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • What’s the smallest thing we can do to learn something about whether ideas will work (i.e. prototype it)?

After discussion, you could use a simple exercise such as ‘dot voting’ to pick the area your group thinks has most opportunity for future development. Then get to work fixing it!

Next steps:

A blueprint and some opportunity areas isn’t the same as delivering an improved service to users. Some opportunities will be quick and obvious, while others will require detailed analysis and understanding of members’ needs and the organisational challenges of meeting them.

There’s a plethora of tools and approaches for digging deeper and working out what to do next. Covering them in detail is beyond the scope of this post (and any one book or article), but to take things further, consider learning about:

  • User research
  • Member profiles 
  • Member insights
  • Service scenarios
  • Organisational impact analysis
  • Creative design workshops
  • Design sprints
  • Prototyping
  • And many more…

Together, these form the service designer’s toolkit, though the work is never done alone, being best performed by cross-departmental teams empowered to take a root-and-branch approach to improving the work of an organisation. It’s also worth noting (as we’ll see in the case study below), that this work is never truly ‘done’, instead forming an approach which can be used to iterate and improve on services over many years.

Case study: The Natural History Museum

For a comprehensive overview of a substantial service design project currently underway, we were joined by Florence Okoye, a User Experience Designer at the Natural History Museum, to take us through the way she and colleagues are tackling a major project for the museum which aims to better understand how families experience the space, and how the services the museum provides could be improved.

The museum had been looking into visitor feedback – in particular the online reviews left on sites like TripAdvisor.  These were showing that families in particular weren’t having the best experience possible. As this affected the museum’s core business, it was important to help senior leaders to understand the situation in more detail. The Audience Insights team organised a series of accompanied visits for senior staff during which they were assigned a family who were willing to be accompanied (and received a small payment for their involvement). They followed the families and watched how their experience developed throughout the visit.

This seems like a very labour intensive way to conduct research – and it was. But Florence believes the best way to understand users is simply to spend time with them and see problems through their eyes. If you solely conduct desk research, you can get too theoretical and detached from reality. Gaining real empathy for users, by going through as close as you can to what they experience, is really helpful. Otherwise you can miss crucial context of their feedback, and that can lead you to try to fit the evidence into your own theories, which can often be wrong.

It also means you’re likely to better understand how the user would approach other situations if you can really think yourself into their shoes. Gaining a real sense of empathy for users is key to keeping them in mind throughout a complex project.

Setting expectations about what the research would involve was important for the families involved. They were told they were there to just do whatever they would normally do, rather than being there specifically to answer the researcher’s questions. 

Another crucial factor was making sure that insights were fresh in the mind. For the staff, this meant debriefing immediately after the research sessions. This was hard when multiple senior people had diaries to work around, but making it a priority helped get the insights surfaced and recorded.

The visits showed two broad areas for investigation and improvement:

  • Physical access issues – getting into and around the museum.
  • Accessibility and relevance of content – how well the exhibits worked for these users.

From the research insights, the team created two personas that exemplified visitors who needed to be better served. These were archetypes – not exactly the experience of a real person, but were derived from real people. The personas helped the team visualise users’ thoughts throughout the project, so it was important to define them well and check that everyone had the same understanding of them.

To create these personas, they asked some simple questions:

  • Who are they? E.g. Single mum with two primary school age kids (a basic biography)
  • What do they see, think, hear?
  • What are their goals from the visit?
  • What are their pains in achieving those goals?

Establishing a shared understanding of a persona helps a cross-departmental project team to see problems without bringing in internal politics. For example, if a user finds the exhibit text too small, it could be seen as a mistake by a designer, or a mistake by a curator for cramming too much information on the signage. But establishing the fact a user can’t read it means the feedback is coming from a real user, not a colleague interfering in the work of another team.

The users’ feedback was then turned into a customer journey plan, showing what they did, and how they felt over the course of the visit. It was important to structure this around how the user would see the different stages of the visit, rather than around the museum’s internal structures. For example, for the user getting to the museum involved the train trip, arriving at the station, and walking to the museum, before you considered factors the museum controlled, such as the queue.

The customer journey plan helps you see that people sometimes do things that make them fail in their goal, not because they intend to do them but because that’s the way it looks like something flows to a user (even if it’s wrong).

It also helps you become more aware of touchpoints with the user that you might not have considered (for example, assistants in the queue proactively chatting to visitors made a big difference to their experience, but it wasn’t something they had been told to do by their managers, so wouldn’t have been evaluated from an organisational viewpoint).

Once the customer journey plan was complete, Florence’s team mapped out the touchpoints behind each issue uncovered, including all the people involved in that interaction with the user from the museum’s side. In a complicated organisation, it’s rare for an interaction to have only one person contributing to it.

For example, when looking at directional posters from the station to the museum, problems needed to be solved together by media buyers and by graphic designers, as well as by the staff responsible for the museum’s signage. Showing the dependencies between teams and colleagues can create more empathy where people don’t realise why things are currently happening the way they are.

A RACI analysis (working out who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted or just Informed when making changes) helped clarify what was happening, and gave people the right level of insight they needed to have trust in the process. The team also worked out who were the lynchpins for each interaction – not always the person they had expected would be.

The customer journey plan has been a crucial artefact for the museum for developing a shared understanding of the problems, and where changes could be tested.

It may sound excessive at first to go into this detail in writing down things that everyone instinctively thinks they have a grasp of. But in reality it’s very easy to sustain  misunderstandings in a team based on personal and collective bias. Developing visual assets like the customer journey plan takes time, but helps everyone find common ground around issues of change in the organisation.

As a result of the insights gained from it, the Natural History Museum have already tested many interventions and are monitoring how the changes they make affect visitors. The museum have been able to develop a Visitors’ Charter to guide their ongoing work, and a cross-departmental visitor experience group to oversee it, so the work put into the initial stages has really paid back in changing the way the organisation works for its users.

A short service design reading list

There are hundreds of service design books, but two highly recommended starting points are:

Again, there are hundreds of websites, but the Government Digital Services blog is a fantastically valuable resource for larger organisations. The Co-op publish useful insights from their own programme, as do Barnardos.

There are also loads of opportunities out there to meet practitioners and learn more. Meetup’s many service design focused groups are a good place to start.

Sam Jeffers (of The Shop) is a consultant to the TUC Digital Lab, and facilitator for the workshop series.