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A service design intern at GDS

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Applications are open for Service Design and Interaction Design internships at GDS. Bethan, who was GDS’s first ever service design intern last year shares her experience.

Bethan Mitchell at the Royal College of Art (RCA) talking to colleagues
Bethan Mitchell at the Royal College of Art (RCA)

I’m an MA Service Design student at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and last summer I joined the Government Digital Service (GDS) as the organisation’s first Service Design Intern.

At the RCA we have one particular lecturer who likes to drill us on our place in the industry. At the start of each of his lectures he asks us: “What is Service Design?” and then gently scolds us when we fail to come up with a definition which reaches beyond “service design is the design of services” without turning into waffle.

I’d always questioned the merit of this exercise. Surely this is a question which the whole industry is wrestling with – how could we as first-years be expected to have the answer?

And what is the point in this exercise? Is he trying to prepare us for networking drinks and elevator pitches, or to explain our life choices to our relatives at Christmas?

My experience at GDS though, shed some light on his motives.

“I needed a definition. Quick”

At the RCA we work on live briefs, splitting our large class into small project groups. We’re all from different backgrounds: some of us come from other design disciplines while others have ventured over from sciences, engineering and humanities. As such we call our teams multidisciplinary but in reality we’re far from it – we work in teams made entirely of service designers.

Arriving at GDS I joined the Verify team which was truly multidisciplinary, with full-time user researchers, business analysts, project managers, content designers and me as the sole service designer. Suddenly, I needed to be able to position myself within a diverse team, to know where my work ended and my colleagues’ began. I needed to know what service design was. Quick.

I gave a presentation to the GDS Design community at the end of my 2 month internship and told this story. I didn’t claim to have settled on a dictionary-worthy definition, and I won’t here.

I did however share some of the roles I found myself fulfilling as a Service Designer during my time there, and I’ll share 3 of my favourites here.

Service Designers facilitate

In my second week, I was asked to lead an ideation session for my multidisciplinary team to begin to explore some of the directions our work might take us  – this was not the 2 months of shadowing I had been expecting!

I found that some of the beauty of design thinking is its ability to enhance the practice of any discipline. It was a real privilege to share these tools with my team and see their own expertise enhanced by them.

Service Designers tell stories

The joy of working in government is the potential to make a real difference, to real people, at scale. As our team spent time conducting research we began to piece together what the impact of our work might be.

Working closely with our user researchers, I got to play a part in telling the stories of the users we had met to the rest of the team. I then had the rewarding experience of seeing our user’s realities shape and influence our team’s decisions.

Service Designers multitask

On joining GDS I hoped I might get to test my skills as a designer on a few small areas of a project. To my surprise and delight I was invited to bring my full skill-set to the table. Most service designers have a past and, using my training as a graphic designer, I transformed our concepts into storyboards to look at how our concepts might play out in reality.

Seeing service design in practice

During my time at GDS I saw service designers using and lending the tools of their past and present trades with great skill. I saw them leading in team discussion and being faithful team players. I saw them advocate for the user, questioning assumptions and challenging the status quo.

I feel privileged to have been a part of this team and as I head back into my final year of studies I see their positive influence on my own practice.

GDS is currently looking for two Service Design Interns and two Interaction Design Interns. Applications for both roles close on 17 June.

Read more about the design community on the Design Notes blog.

To find out about the different user-centred design roles in government, read the Digital, Data and Technology jobs roles.

Follow Bethan on Twitter

If you want to find out more about the work of the GDS, we’re speaking and running workshops at Civil Service Live around the country in June and July and the Public Sector Show in London on 26 June.

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