Design is rapidly becoming part of the desire for wellbeing. That is, design in all its manifestations – including ‘the coordinated design of artefacts, services, systems, environments, human action, and many other resources’, according to design researchers.

Wellbeing is understood as being about health and happiness, but it depends on your viewpoint. Some argue that happiness is not part of the wellbeing equation because it ‘can come and go in a moment, whereas wellbeing is a more stable state of being well, feeling satisfied and contented’. While others see happiness as integral to wellbeing. Acknowledging the diversity of views on how to define wellbeing but the growing field that it constitutes, researcher Rachel Dodge and her colleagues argue that it’s time for a new definition of wellbeing that focuses on ‘a state of equilibrium or balance that can be affected by life events or challenges’.

In this post, I’m considering wellbeing in its broadest sense to include all aspects of health, including happiness.

But before we walk too far down the path of wellbeing let’s go back to the idea of design. Enter stage left, service design, arguably a relatively new player in the design arena. As Meld Studios points out, ‘service design is specifically talking about the process and act of designing services’. Adding to this, the Service Design Network manifesto says that service design is about and for organisations that ‘want to improve their services strategies, offerings and the user experiences’. There’s a lot of confusion around this particular facet of design practice but this post about what it is and what it IS NOT is a useful read, along with this definition and this very good overview. In a nutshell, service design is about planning and designing services, and all that entails – people, service models, communication, and sometimes, materials.

It’s easy to think about the topic of service design in the context of the digital space. Have you ever come across a badly designed website (I mean, who hasn’t?)? Well, some service designers assist organisations to fix that based on the research into the usage patterns, behaviours and needs of those using the website (and those that don’t but they would like to) within the framework of the organisation’s overall objectives. But service designers also work in a host of other industries and spaces to design processes, systems, and frameworks that mean that the end user (for want of a better term) is having the best experience possible. In some cases, this might mean thinking about how spaces flow. And in the context of wellbeing, this might include spaces that are a focus of health, such as hospitals, and even sporting complexes.

How can service design make a difference in wellbeing?

Let’s look at a few examples.

Service design in cancer care

Health is a big part of wellbeing. And cancer care is huge part of contemporary health practice.

Service design was used to improve cancer care in the Grampians region of Australia, a rural area about a three hour drive from the city of Melbourne. In this area, just one clinician provided the majority of chemotherapy required. They also had a high caseload and travelled long distances to see patients on a routine basis. The ability to service this need had a number of extreme pressure points. Studio Thick was engaged to work with a number of key stakeholders to design a better system to provide the level of cancer care needed.

Studio Thick worked with a number of key stakeholders to design a better system to provide the level of cancer care needed

A two day design forum was key to the process used in the case. Careful planning of this event was required because of the range of stakeholders involved, some of whom were commercial competitors.

According to the service designers:

“By the end, service providers had sketched the components of a universally viable chemotherapy service model, that addressed both public and private interests, including a funding and workforce model”.

You can read more about the background, process, and implementation of the new service design model created here. I think this quote about the outcomes of the project says it all:

“The first day the clinic opened it was fully booked with three new local patients and eight transfers from the private system, demonstrating the uptake of demand in the region and the desire for both public and private options. Both public and private providers exist in harmony, and the model has been used as a statewide example of public/ private partnership”.

A wellbeing index as a stepping stone to redesigning services

In 2015, there was interest in creating a wellbeing index for Santa Monica on the west coast of the USA. The Department of Community and Cultural Services for this city set out, in their words, to “define, understand and measure what matters most: how people are doing”. They asked residents a whole lot of questions about sleep, exercise, and economic worries, such as:

  • Do people smile at you on the street?
  • Will your kids be able to afford to live here?
  • How many fruits and vegetables do you eat?
  • Do you have the time to do things you enjoy?

Those involved asked these questions because, according to science and research, these are behaviours and conditions that add to or detract from wellbeing.

Service designers work in a host of industries and spaces to design processes, systems, and frameworks that mean that the end user will have the best experience possible.

They then used a whole host of existing data, including social media, to understand things like satisfaction and how it might or might not be related to place: Santa Monica in this case.

All of this information was synthesized to inform the wellbeing index for Santa Monica. The next step they face is to use this vast amount of information to shape policy and service design. Informed in this way, service designers can look at what is working well along with the wellbeing ‘pain points’, such as residents feeling lonely, and work with city planners and community organisations to create experiences that amplify the positive and attend to the areas needing work. This will make a huge difference to those living in this city. The emphasis on the change will be about how people experience services and human interaction in both formal and informal ways. This is the essence of service design.

Service design, culture, and wellbeing in Finland

As part of her Master’s thesis, Mari Lounavaara created a case study in the public environment called Service Design for Wellbeing in Turku, Finland. In her research, she looked at the impact of culture and exercise on wellbeing. The motivation behind this work was, as Mari says, to do with the challenges posed by life in the 21st century. What kind of wellbeing challenges do Fins face? According to Mari,

“The challenges of well-being in Finland are those of a modern, advanced soci­ety; unemployment rates are high and increasing, migration causes questions and even fear among the citizens, the inequalities of people grow deep­er, the ill-being and marginalization of youth is in­creasing and the population is aging”.

Exacerbating things further are rising costs and cuts to spending in the public sector. An innovative approach is essential, Mari argues.

Enter design thinking, specifically service design. Mari defines service design as ‘an um­brella term for an interdisciplinary approach of (co-)creative problem solving with a range of tools and methods’. She applied this approach to her research and found that:

  • People are a great resource when they are being heard
  • Raising awareness of wellbeing services is incredibly important. Social media is one great way to do this
  • Improving the user experience of culture and exercise related services with maps, new routes, social events, etc is key
  • It’s important to tackle loneliness in the design of services for wellbeing
  • Improved experiences of wellbeing will scale up.

Mari concludes that service design is the human way of tackling sustainable innovation and key to saving costs, and that this is very much the case in the context of wellbeing. You can read more detail on her process here.

As you can see through these examples, service design is powerful and increasingly so in terms of redesigning approaches to wellbeing. Hearing about how people have used service design is a big part of encouraging others to adopt this approach. Very few case studies related to wellbeing are publicly available at this point, which is partly a result of the new space in which service design inhabits. So if you’re a service designer who has worked on a wellbeing project and are reading this, please include a case study on your website.

The more information available about how service design has been used and impact of the change, the better. Because what these three examples show is that service design can bring a fresh approach to how wellbeing is experienced by involving those at the heart of each project. Such a model is not difficult when you break it down. It just takes a different mindset and an interest in and commitment to servicing people.

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