In Flux: Canada’s First Service Design Conference

Jasmine CY Lam

At first glance, design and public policy may seem to have little in common. But, when we delve deeper, we see that people are at the core of both disciplines.

On December 1, 2016, Canada’s first service design conference, In Flux, was held in Toronto, Ontario. Practitioners from across private, non-profit, and public sectors shared how service design has shaped their experiences tackling challenges that society faces today and will be facing tomorrow.


As it remains an emerging field, service design still requires a concise definition. At the most basic level, service design is a multi-disciplinary field based on traditional design disciplines, but also incorporates techniques from business, sociology, anthropology, in order to address people’s systemic social, economic, and political needs.

Traditional design disciplines include graphic, interaction, and industrial design; and service design borrows from these methods, employing techniques such as experience mapping, co-design, and prototyping. However, service design offers a unique advantage in that it offers an ability to take a step back and look at the entire service experience, from how a user gets to know, approach, and engage a service, to its impact on both the user and the environment as a whole. Each step is understood from the user’s point of view.

Throughout the conference, there was real buzz about the role of government in service design. When it comes to public policy, implementation is delivered through services. It is here that the service design discipline can offer critical insights and shape services so that they are truly responsive to the end user. While many stories were shared at the conference, a few stood out for their direct policy implications.

Service design in the court system

For presenters Kevin Conn, Director of Court Innovation with British Columbia’s Ministry of Justice, and Gordon Ross, Vice-President of OpenRoad, applying service design means equal access to justice. In a report led by Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell, it is noted that: “Until we involve those who use the system in the reform process, the system will not really work for those who use it.” This, in essence, captures the problem that service design sets out to solve.

The court system is a difficult one to reform, and the nature of law itself is not very flexible nor easily changeable. Conn and Ross have adopted an incremental approach to changes that could lead to improved outcomes and quality of services. Though still in the early stages, Conn and Ross shared details on their ongoing projects. These include:

  • Reforming the way in which law firms enter administrative information electronically at the Court of Appeal, and creating a mechanism to accurately auto-validate submitted information; and
  • Widening access to audio and transcripts for self-represented litigants, lawyers, and judges.

These small changes are building skills, capacity, and appetite for change at an organizational level.

Digital Transformation in a Crown Corporation

Jason Fiske, Senior Strategist, Interactive and Online Services at Farm Credit Canada (FCC), offered details about service design tools and methods used to implement a strategy that transformed and digitalized their existing services, whilst maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction, including:

  • Journey maps: Visually capture the flow of customer’s needs, interactions, and emotions with a service over time. Allow for identification of current pain points and pinpoint opportunities for improvement from a holistic point of view.
  • Service blueprints: Specify how a service will be provided throughout the customer journey map by identifying and clarifying all the touchpoints (digital and human interactions), staff actions, front-end and back-end activities.
  • Design sprints: Structured, rapid process to understand, define, prototype, and validate with customers a new product, feature, or service. This compresses into a week discussions that could take months, where the prototype created can provide the organization with immediate data and results.

Welcome to Canada!

When refugees from Syria arrived at Pearson airport last year, Justin Kirkey, Associate Director at Healthcare Human Factors, was one of the people behind the scenes coordinating for their smooth arrival. Working with Ontario’s Emergency Medical Assistance Team (EMAT), their primary goal was to set up medical stations to respond to any emergency medical needs. However, EMAT understood that the set up of medical station should not be done in isolation, but rather, integrated in the wider arrival experience for our new citizens.


Here, Justin offered his service design expertise. He developed a guidebook for the EMAT staff that identified the flow from the moment refugees descended from the airplane to existing the airport. This included mapping out where each medical station and signages would be best located, and collaborating with other teams at the airport so that workflow is smooth but also adaptable to change as needed. In order for medical staff to interact with our new citizens with empathy and understanding, the guidebook also provided cultural context and information on language and religion. Even the design of informational signages are carefully thought-out, so that our newcomers were not overwhelmed with text and information, particularly when it can be stressful experience to arrive in a new country.

For Kirkey, “the ‘service design lens’ is a great way of approaching most any problem, but especially so for more complex situations,” and provides a “higher level vantage point to clearly see how the puzzle pieces fit together, and how changing one piece of that puzzle may have a ripple effect to other touchpoints within the wider ‘service experience’ of a product, ecosystem, or organization.”

Designing policy for people

There are clear benefits to applying service design techniques to improve on public policy implementation and service delivery. As collaboration between disciplines grows, what are some things service designers want those in the public sector to know?


Kirkey argues that service design is particularly useful for the government: “The public sector stands out as a great case for how the service design lens and approach can be most beneficial. This is because of the inherent complexity and hierarchy of the public sector, which lends itself well to mapping activities before more targeted design efforts are required. Get the lay of the land first (through ethnography, research activities, co-design, etc.), and synthesize said research (multiple ways of doing that), to ensure that you and the public sector’s often diverse stakeholders are aware of the landscape.”

In public policy, there is a real need to be responsive to the needs of all citizens, and the tools and thinking that service design offer have much to contribute.

Jonathan Veale from the Civic Innovation YYC Lab at the City of Calgary advises that incremental, small changes are necessary when working in the public sector: “It’s great seeing lots of young talent enter the public sector, eager to innovate and create transformative changes. My advice would be to keep in mind that once you enter government, there are lots of steps — incremental changes — you have to take until you start to see results. When students make a strong effort to understand starting points and the existing state, it would help shape and form the paths to come.”

In public policy, there is a real need to be responsive to the needs of all citizens, and the tools and thinking that service design offer have much to contribute. In Flux was a starting point for sharing the values of service design of and with organizations in Canada. As the discipline grows across sectors, discussions will be able to delve into not only the benefits, but into more critical analysis of service design.

Jasmine CY Lam is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, and holds a BA Hons in Political Science and International Development from McGill University. She has over 4 years of professional experience in the non-profit sector, with a passion to develop and implement effective policies and solutions that tackle social and equity challenges in Toronto and in Canada.

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