It’s all about you? Service discovery beyond organisational boundaries

The discovery phase is the time to set the course for transformation. Service-design professionals need to ensure the journey is embarked upon throughout – and beyond – their organisation, believes Gordon Haywood of BJSS SPARCK

In our experience, discoveries are often started in order to understand the different needs and pain points that users have when using the service in question. 

Programmes of work then mobilise to build from a prioritised backlog of user stories, and success is measured by tying back to the original needs and asking: how well did we do?

However, we must move beyond this narrow understanding of a ‘service’ – beyond the constraints of typical digital transformation initiatives – or run the risk of missing root causes and powerful opportunities for improvement.

So, how might work done in discovery set us up for this kind of success?

Learnings from practice
The role of leading consultancies is to help provide not only technical know-how but also, and crucially, a wide-reaching understanding of the goals and objectives of a range of public sector organisations. 

The work we have done within the public sector has helped knit together diverse, multi-actor service journeys for the like of DfT, DVSA, the Home Office, PHE, city councils and the NHS. In practice, these journeys frequently cross-cut organisations and traditional experience boundaries. 

Such wide-ranging experience is critical in helping guide and inform the direction of service delivery in true partnership. Service designers are driven by a desire to ‘join the dots’ and it is only natural that they want to contribute outside silos and ensure the very best citizen services are found in the UK, and make contributions to national policy. 

The art of good discovery work is knowing where to draw the line.

Designing for consistency across the service landscape
Having understood something of the life of users and the challenges they face, teams leading a discovery phase need to keep a few things in mind:

Conscious (and conscientious) design of boundary experiences

Likely your service is but one of several utilised by a user in achieving their goal. Knowing where they’ve come from, when they leave, where they go and why is crucial to informing design decisions about how to join the dots and best serve users at any given point in their journey. 

Our discovery for Public Health England identified user needs and pain-points for the national breast screening service, a front-line service serving 2.5 million citizens. Extensive nationwide user research was conducted with an extended network of patients, carers, clerical staff and clinicians. Insight was gleaned from workshops, ethnographic field work, interviews and surveys to identify root causes and design a ‘crack free’ service that prevented missed referrals and avoidable deaths. 

Designing for integration

The future landscape in which your service will need to operate is never certain. Technologies, integrations and interoperability should be strategically thought through based on discovery findings. 

Our inside knowledge of the connectivity between NHS healthcare systems gives us a unique understanding of what it means to ‘join the dots’ across health services nationally, along with common patterns of usage, and an appreciation of NHS England and NHS Improvement’s priorities. Partnering with NHS Digital, we worked with primary care, NHS trusts, CCGs, urgent care all in an extended manner to develop services suitable for all kinds of users, across the NHS.  

Designing for inclusion

While promoting service consistency, it is important to address both the diversity of user cohorts involved in research – internally and externally – and the make-up of your own discovery team, their bias awareness, maturity and other factors.

While helping to deliver the NHS App for NHS Digital, our consultants conducted research with clerical and clinical staff across the NHS, pharmacies and GP practices, as well as patients and relatives from a wide demographic and digital ability. This symmetrical treatment of different users and journeys led to the power of this digital service being realised through ‘network effects’ that might not otherwise have been uncovered.

Heuristics for widening the net
Useful tools to use when exploring the wider service ecosystem include:


  • Stakeholder mapping. Not just a RACI matrix! Use it to understand culture, structures, conflicts, power and influence, inside and out. This gives a sense of the domain and provides a springboard for a more detailed exploration of the wider service ecosystem and the value networks inherent within it.

  • Exploit the ‘hive-mind’ and use your partners. Take a strategic approach to understanding the existing service landscape and the direction other service designers are taking. Draw on the knowledge pool of your partners and their wider ability to support an integrative approach to service design. This is their value-add.

  • Get the best from GDS. Conduct user research with an extended range of actors. Build on the transparency of prior GDS work to find comparators and join the dots. Draw from the goodness of research operations frameworks and forge alliances. Good social research skills are the foundation of good discovery work.

  • Play it back strategically. Share your discovery approach with organisations in the wider ecosystem. Leverage their ability to see another level back, revealing more layers. Sense check with users – and users’ users – early.

  • Dig around the unexpected. Users will do things you had not anticipated – ‘hacking’ the service when options are not obvious in order to achieve their goals. Often, these hacks provide great insights and inspiration. Extending user research means that, thankfully, you will find these things out. Doing something about it is another matter, but better the devil you know.


Transformation initiatives must avoid isolation, or a belief that they are exceptional. Instead, they should promote the need for wider collaboration to drive consistency and a joined-up understanding of needs and opportunities: between client, suppliers and organisations in the wider service ecosystem; in the service-design community, to create wider strategy and direction – especially when considering journeys that cut across public, private and third-sector organisations; and involving decision-makers, budget holders and strategists at all levels outside of the confines of local service transformation work.

Discovery is the perfect time to set this course and the leadership role of service design in paving the way for ecosystem-wide change should not be understated.


This article is part of PublicTechnology’s How to Design a Government Service project, in association with BJSS. This specially created content week will feature a range of exclusive interview, feature, and analysis content dedicated to the art of delivering digital services for citizens and public sector professionals – from the earliest stages of discovery, right through to maintaining live services in use by millions of people. Click here to access all the content.


Sam Trendall

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