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Purpose: the cornerstone of effective service design
As audiences, experiences and contexts diversify, the only way to design consistently brilliant experiences is through a dogged devotion to…
As audiences, experiences and contexts diversify, the only way to design consistently brilliant experiences is through a dogged devotion to purpose at every level of the design process — from organisation to component.
By Sorcha Daly, Associate, Wilson Fletcher
We describe our approach to design at WF as ‘purposeful’. Of course, all design is purposeful in some way: a designer without a purpose is just a person with a pen. But over the last few years we’ve made that purpose-driven approach much more explicit. We talk about purpose in every meeting, review and conversation we have. We write it on every document. It’s the way we spark ideas, the way we frame our concepts and the way we annotate our visuals. It means we can always be confident that we’re designing the right things, in the right ways, for the right reasons.
Purpose is important because it’s an incredibly powerful tool with which to confront the issues facing organisations today. Purpose sets the context for innovation; it frames the goal and establishes why it’s important. It’s the link between strategy and design, between organisation and experience, and between thinking and executing. It’s a constant reminder that everything must come from a strong centre, whether it’s at organisation level, service level or even component level.
Big ideas need to relate to the ever-adapting context in which they’re expressed and experienced. A clearly defined purpose enables brilliant adaptive thinking, coherent design and quick decision-making in a world where the goalposts are constantly changing. It forms the core of a service-led strategy.
The materials with which we traditionally bridge this gap between strategy and design aren’t fit for modern use. The big strategy presentation, boilerplate, mission statement, the declarations of proposition and values, become redundant so quickly. They sit on ‘about us’ pages of websites, in pdfs on servers. They’re essential, foundational elements for a variety of business activities and audiences, but they’re not the useful, strategic beacon that’s needed when designing services for a diversifying set of contexts and audiences. They’re designed to be presented and read, not designed to be used.
The first thing we do for any client is to make all that stuff useful, to transform abstract notions of ‘brand promise’ into a design tool. We distil proposition and values until we can articulate purpose in a compact sentence, usually six to ten words. This is pretty much exactly what words were designed for: distilling complex meanings and feelings into something that’s memorable, accessible, powerful and portable (you don’t need a copy of a pdf to take it with you).
Achieving this isn’t easy. The process of writing a purpose statement forces brands to rigorously interrogate their offer to reach a single articulation and choose one thing that matters above all else. It’s a process of distillation and prioritisation. What is your vital idea, ambition, essence? Why do your customers care about you? What is your centre of gravity?
We create a Russian-doll-style stack of purposes, from service-level purpose, to journey-level purpose, right down to page and component purposes — all stemming from the big organisational ‘why?’. This helps us make sure we’re using the right channels to perform the right role in contributing to our big picture.
How can your purpose be expressed as something everyone can confidently say — without shame, jargon or hyperbole — remember and share? You’re only allowed one purpose, so does yours apply to everything that you do? Does it apply to everything that you want to do in the future?
Once crafted, we use this purpose statement as the guiding light when designing. We use it to spark our ideas, frame concepts and establish principles. We create a Russian-doll-style stack of purposes, from service-level purpose, to journey-level purpose, right down to page and component purposes — all stemming from the big organisational ‘why?’. This helps us make sure we’re using the right channels to perform the right role in contributing to our big picture. Nothing is redundant — everything we design contributes to furthering our big ambition.
Using purpose as a framework, the ultimate objectives are clear in our minds. The why is taken care of, so we can focus on how we’re bringing each experience to life. It’s much easier to be creative when we can channel our energy into designing the best execution of a clear idea. When you truly understand why you’re doing something, you can unleash all your creativity to go after it.
The purpose statement is then used to interrogate and optimise. How can we make the experience we’re designing better achieve our big purpose? We check the rationale of everything against the purpose again. We use it to prioritise features, to order components, even to determine the placement of a single button.
When we’re helping clients with their entire digital portfolios, we use purpose statements in the same way, but on a different scale. We obsess over purpose to ensure complete alignment around a clearly defined, common ambition. It becomes a gatekeeper for roadmapping, for prioritisation and for budget allocation. Pointing everything towards that one goal makes it a damn sight more likely that we’re going to get there.
The result of taking an explicitly purpose-led approach to service design is of course felt internally — better decisions, alignment, speed, more confidence in what you’re creating. But its real impact should be best felt by consumers. When you make sure your purpose pervades in every single aspect of your experience, you’re bringing the people who use your services closer to your heart. They can have much more meaningful and useful experiences with your brand.
You’re not just creating things because they’re cute, because they’re delightful, because they’re cool — you’re making things that count. And as the whole world has been going through extreme waves of transition and turbulence, we’re emerging into an era where stuff counts much more than it used to. So it’s time to get purposeful.