More and more companies are exploring service design with external consultancies or by building in-house teams. In the past couple years, as we’ve seen many design firms (including Adaptive Path) get acquired by large companies, it feels especially timely to reflect on the different advantages of internal versus external design groups and the types of work each is best suited for. Mark Jones, VP of Design at UnitedHealthcare and former Managing Director at IDEO Chicago, will speak at our upcoming Service Experience Conference about his experience on both sides. I sat down with Mark to get a preview of his well-balanced perspective, the blurry boundaries of defining service design within a company, and the qualities he believes make a great service designer.
Andrea Fineman [AF]: The subject of your talk–working with in-house design groups vs. external consultancies–is a big topic these days and especially interesting for us at Adaptive Path. Can you give me a bit of a preview?
Mark Jones [MJ]: It’s funny, when I was approached to speak and was considering my topic, I honestly thought, “Well what am I thinking about today?” I was at IDEO for 15 years and worked with lots and lots of companies, and now I’ve been at UnitedHealthcare for about a year–long enough to give me pause–and I’ve been reflecting a lot about what the differences are between internal and external design groups. First, I’ve never thought that it’s an either/or situation. In my experience, it’s not like once you have an internal group you’re never going to hire external people or vice versa. So I’ve been trying personally to reflect on: so, what’s the purpose of an internal team versus an external consultancy? With my relatively small internal team, there’s no way that we can service the design needs of this entire, giant company. They hire external people all the time. As an internal design group, we should be thinking about the best use of our team to make sure that we’re really aware of what we should be doing.
AF: That’s interesting; so as someone who was an external consultant and had to work with internal designers at a client company, do you have a different perspective now that you’re on the other side? Are there circumstances where an external team would be better than internal, or vice versa?
MJ: It’s about a series of qualities to consider as you think about teams and the reasons for the projects. Do you need a deep understanding of the industry to do well on this particular project, or is this a situation where you really need to challenge orthodoxies in the company? Are you more interested in building a culture of design and human-centeredness? Is this one giant project or a series of small initiatives that add up over time to something? I put these questions on continuums: is this particular project better suited for an external consultancy or an internal design group?
In my experience, if you really want someone to come in and challenge your orthodoxies, it’s better to go external. It can be very hard for an internal voice to have credibility. Often companies would come to IDEO because they wanted an external voice to do that. Certain clients were very articulate about saying, “You have the brand and the credibility to challenge our assumptions and our worldview. We want to bring you in because you can say things that people might be thinking internally, but that need to be stated by an external voice.” That’s an example of a role that an external consultancy can play really really well. They can deliver everything from the user voice in ways that haven’t been heard before and can look at the whole industry in a way that can’t be done internally. An external team can look at how the world’s evolving–whether it’s technologies or user values or whatever it is–and explain how it’s shifting or at odds with the orthodoxies in the company. Those can be hard things for internal design groups to deal with because from inside the culture, there’s a chance that they’ve absorbed some of those orthodoxies as well.
On the converse, some of the things I’ve worked on internally at UnitedHealthcare involve the multi-stakeholder world of doctors, providers, patients, caregivers, complex care, chronic conditions, and a quickly evolving landscape. It’s really, really complicated, and, frankly, the kind of work we’re doing is not the kind of work where an external consultancy can get up to speed in a couple weeks and get going using their best instincts, scrappily learning as they go. External agencies rely heavily on the user voice and needs. There are some types of projects where you can design responding to the user voice, but if you don’t have a deep understanding of the industry and all the factors, players, and subtleties of the stakeholders, you’re going to design something that’s really naïve and that won’t work in the industry environment. That’s not to say there aren’t topics in any industry that can be tackled by an external consultancy, but some of the services that we’re designing for doctors and nurses dealing with complex care, for example, how they can use data to get better insights out of their patient panels, that’s really sophisticated work that I don’t believe would be done well by an external consultancy. The learning curve is so steep to reach the level of knowledge to do that work well.
AF: That aspect of needing domain knowledge to work in the healthcare industry–how much of that do you think has to do with industry regulations rather than domain experience? It’s something we’ve faced a lot with our internal clients. Our industry (finance) is so regulated that it’s easy to say, “well we can’t do anything because of regulations.” From a design perspective, you don’t just want to take something as a blanket excuse to not design around it, but on the other hand, you can’t just pretend the regulations don’t exist.
MJ: Even working at an external consultancy, regulations came up all the time. For example, the work we did at IDEO with Walgreens, they had to change regulations state by state to bring about the service model we designed for pharmacists because of all these personal health information issues that were being raised. Yeah, we have to be smart about the regulatory environment, but we’re the advocates of users, and if serving their needs bumps up against regulations, it’s our job is to challenge those regulations. It’s our job to ask, “are these things that can be changed?” A lot of laws were put in place 20 years ago in a completely different technological environment. You have to make the same case whether you’re internal or external: this is what’s right for our users, and it’s going to make a better experience and change the outcomes. With Walgreens, the government could see that antiquated regulations were restricting the ways pharmacists could behave in their environment, and they changed the law.
AF: You’ve been working at UnitedHealthcare for a year; in that time, what changes have you made or seen in terms of service design within that company? What kind of initiatives have you taken on to try to make that happen, or is that even a goal for you and your team?
MJ: Well, it is a goal. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but while most of the people on my team call themselves service designers, we call the group I lead “the HCD Studio” because human-centered design is an easier calling card internally than it is to say “the Service Design Group.” People understand what it means; they understand we’re advocates for users and we’re using research methods to define better service experiences. So while we’re using all the techniques of service design, we’re promoting ourselves internally as human-centered designers because it more clearly communicates how we think about things, the techniques we use, and that we’re designing around people and our stakeholders. Another thing I’ve found is that when you’re designing for a service company, many people, when describing what I would call services, they call them products. There’s a mismatch in language. You can get into a bun fight about language, but everybody can say “we care about users.”
Before I came to UnitedHealthcare, the mission of the group was to promote HCD, and what they did was really help people understand the value of it. They did lots of research projects, they set up a design boot camp and put thousands of people through the course to spread awareness of HCD and those tools. That was the foundation I came into. What I did when building this group was to say, “and now we’re going to do more of the design of the services, really do it in the robust way that an external consultancy would do, but we’re going to do it with the advantage of being internal.”
AF: So you don’t feel the need to strictly define what service design means and police the boundaries of that?
MJ: I don’t believe so. I do think there are certain aspects like understanding stakeholder landscapes, service journeys, and how to use tools like service blueprints that are a critical part of service design. Particular techniques, like really understanding value exchanges among stakeholders, are unique to service and don’t exist as much in other kinds of design, but many of the tools you need to design great services overlap with other disciplines. It’s all part of it though when you’re designing around users. I think of myself as sort of an integrator of all goodnesses, rather than trying to separate this discipline from that. Service design and design thinking and even lean design are compatible with all of those things if they’re used correctly at the right time.
AF: You teach Service Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, and one thing I think is interesting is that there aren’t many service design programs for students in the U.S. Almost no universities offer a service design major or master’s program. As someone who is responsible for hiring service designers, how does a candidate’s educational background affect the way you view them?
MJ: Yeah, I do think it would be beneficial to have a sub-discipline where you can really dig into the subtleties and complexities of service design, but I think the programs just aren’t big enough yet. I think there will be more in the future.
There’s a sensibility that makes a great service designer. Really great service designers are truly systems thinkers who are very comfortable with complexities, more so than other designers. Instead of getting overwhelmed by it, they can manhandle it and rein it in and create simplicity and structure to make it understandable and respond to it. Some people, instead, create even more complexity and chaos. It’s like, “Look at all the wonderful complexity I’ve created!” They don’t have that trait to look at the complexity, pull out the important parts, and then create a great focus around those parts to design a compelling experience. So I think there is some training, but if you find that sensibility, you can teach the tools later.
To see Mark speak at our upcoming Service Experience Conference, register here.