Transforming complex systems: a case study in service design

JakeJake Garber is a senior service designer for Innovation Unit. He uses a service design approach to help partner organisations address challenges in a radically different way. Jake specialises in using ethnographic research to unlock hidden insights and prototyping to develop very different ways of working. Before joining Innovation Unit he worked at the social innovation agency Participle, amongst other things, helping to design and launch Backr, a new social enterprise that helps people to invest in their own employability. Previously he researched and co-wrote Dying for Change with Charles Leadbeater at Demos and ran community development art projects with Gypsy Roma children in East London at The Children’s Society.

Editor’s note: This month, Jake Garber‘s account delves into his ethnographic research into the challenges of designing services for families facing difficulties such as suicide, incest, and long-term unemployment. Beyond the challenges inherent in working with such vulnerable populations, the service for which they conducted design research ultimately needed to coordinate the activity of over 20 different government agencies – each with their own priorities, budget conflicts, and factional interests.

This case study used ethnographic research and service design to put vulnerable families at the heart of a new system of support. In this post he outlines one family’s turbulent pursuit of stability, while reminding us of the critical importance of two valuable commodities: time and empathy.

The Trouble Families research is a project of Innovation Unit, a not-for-profit social enterprise that uses the power of innovation to solve social challenges.  Jake spoke about this research at the most recent EPIC 2013 Pecha Kucha in London.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.


Riding around with no place to go. © Innovation Unit 2012

Let’s imagine we’re designing a new service for families. To be confident our service is going to work for these families, it’s going to be pretty important to understand what they value, what their priorities are, how they see the world and how they respond to it. Ethnographic research can make important and decisive contributions to this task.

Now imagine we’re designing a new service for very vulnerable, complicated and often misunderstood families. Not only that, but we want to deliver our service through a complex and overlapping system of more than 20 separate agencies. This time ethnographic research is not only vital for understanding what can make a difference; it is also indispensible if we’re going to maintain focus on families and avoid getting completely lost in organisational bureaucracy.

In my work at Innovation Unit we support public services to radically improve what they do. In the service design team here, we rely heavily on an ethnographic style of research to ground and inspire the work we do.  I want to share a story of one of our recent projects to illustrate how we use ethnographic style work to create human centered system transformation.

Troubled families

Last year, an English County Council approached Innovation Unit for help. At that time, David Cameron, as Britain’s Prime Minister, had proposed a new ‘Troubled Families’ policy initiative. The aim was to help families to ‘turn their lives around’ and thereby reduce the amount of money the state was spending on them. Press coverage at the time painted lurid pictures of benefits cheats in mansions living off their neighbour’s taxes. The council’s analysis was more subtle. They wanted to use the troubled families agenda to address a wider issue; that of services too often organised around individual problems rather than around a ‘whole-person’, let alone a ‘whole family’

A wide partnership of different agencies was involved, each frustrated at what they saw as a lack of impact and wasted effort with some of the most vulnerable families they served. Leaders of these services were all too aware of fragmentation across the system: the limitations of their specific remits and falling budgets were backing them into a corner. And yet they knew that what they offered was failing some of the families who needed their support the most.


Building a trusting connection between families and professionals is not always easy. © Innovation Unit 2012

The challenge was to redesign the system, but to do that, we had to understand what was happening first. We began with a round of ethnographic-type research with ten families across the county who were facing a huge variety of challenges. We met families with children truanting from school and adults out of work for decades through to families experiencing domestic violence, serious mental health problems, incest and suicide. These stories became the bedrock of the redesign we supported the partnership through. To illustrate the effect of this research, I want to share a brief story of the first family I met.

My first research visit


Nisita getting ready for work. © Innovation Unit 2012

Their name was Farouk.[1] On a sunny day last summer I followed my map to a leafy, affluent seeming suburb. This surely couldn’t be the place I was looking for. I knew the press stories weren’t showing the whole picture, but this didn’t seem right.

I found the address and knocked on the door. A young woman, holding a baby and preparing to go to work answered. She warmly showed me into a well-kept house. This was Nisita, definitely the person I was expecting to see, so I was in the right place, but this still didn’t seem to be a particularly ‘troubled family’.

Nisita’s mother proudly told me she was a straight A student. Now she’s working part-time at Mark’s & Spencers to save for university. Nisita told me she would like a career in development economics to help people less fortunate than herself. So far, so untroubled.

As that day went on it became clear that this was in fact, a very complicated family. In the three-bedroomed house there are four adult children, their mother, Samina, and Nisita’s little boy. Their father, Akash, doesn’t live there at the moment, because he’s in prison for armed robbery.

Both parents have a history of serious mental health problems. When Akash lost his restaurant business in 2005 things really started to go downhill. Since then he and the two boys have used their entrepreneurial spirit on both sides of the law.

Over the last few years, Akash had become frequently drunk and violent. Despite this he maintained absolute control over the family and prevented any support reaching the rest of the family. According to Samina, he successfully convinced all supportive services that she was insane to prevent her side of the story being considered. She told me,

“He strangled me and told me it was not to leave any marks. I bit him to get him off and he called the police. I spent that night in a cell because they already believed I was mad.”

Now all children engaged in risky behavior, including unplanned pregnancy, robbery and drug dealing. One of the boys gave me a tour of the neighbourhood pointing to the most lucrative territories for selling drugs, and explaining the limitations of the youth offending service he was then attending.

Early insights

Across the ten families we met, we saw how hard it was for workers with very limited time to penetrate beyond the types of superficial judgments I also made when I first visited the Farouks. In fact the key indicator of the stability of a family was often taken to be the cleanliness of the house – something we found to be almost totally unrelated. When complex families were in touch with ten different agencies, the time each worker could spend with them was always a fraction of what was needed to really understand what was happening. Despite that, the system as a whole was spending huge amounts of time and resources on the family. With so many workers, each playing peripheral roles, families like Farouk were practiced at showing what they wanted to the agencies sent to support them.

The result was these agencies mistaking stasis, a lull in visible chaos, for stability. Where families had real stability they had a base to build on, and the relationships and resources to transform their own situations. Agencies who mistook stasis for stability were then usually surprised and disappointed with families who then relapsed into crisis.

Across the research we also saw seeds of opportunities for new kinds of relationships – trusted relationships; with real conversations, where promises were kept. These, as much as the issues we found, became the fuel for imagining a new kind of system of support.

Creating a platform for collaboration

Our next challenge was to bring these stories into the heart of the system transformation. We began by presenting the stories we collected to a group of over 60 staff, commissioners and elected members from across the organisations in the partnership. Immediately, new kinds of conversations started happening that were more humble and collaborative. A common vocabulary based on the experiences of the families emerged. For example, when discussing new ideas for services, we started to hear staff asking, ‘how will this actually work for the families we met?’


Staff designing a new system of support for vulnerable families. © Innovation Unit 2012

Over the next few months we supported the group, including local families, through a collaborative, user-centered system design process. We used collaborative analysis of the ethnographic research to generate core system requirements and principles as well as personas that we could shape our ideas around.

With these elements, the group designed the new system they wanted to put in place and mapped out the steps they needed to take to get there. Some of the changes involved inter-agency and shared system functions that are now currently being built. Others are new ways of working directly with families that are now being tested on the ground. We know that supporting families as complex as the Farouks will not be straightforward, so we’re learning as we go, but early signs are positive.

Now workers are spending more time with different family members to triangulate and build up a more complete picture of what is happening for families. Our ethnographic work has also made it possible for workers to explicitly ‘invest in trust’ with families, which is starting to create new kinds of relationships. Small changes like these are helping workers get under the surface of family situations and form much more productive partnerships with them.

One of the key moments in the project I remember happened at the workshop where we shared all the stories for the first time. We had trained a group of staff to conduct ‘mini-ethnographies’, among them was the project sponsor, the Director of Children’s Services. When she stood up and told the story of the family she met with tears in her eyes, somehow everyone understood we were serious. That day I think pretty much everybody in the room accepted that we need real, empathic connection with those we are trying to serve if we are going to notice whether we’re creating stasis, or real stability.


The power of storytelling. © Innovation Unit 2012

[1] All names and some details have been changed to protect participants’ identities.


Other posts in the EPIC 2013 theme:

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