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The importance of frameworks and first principles in service design

The importance of frameworks is that you focus on a smaller set of things because you can’t focus on everything.

I spend a lot of my time designing, or constructing frameworks as a way of helping others access a way of working that’s anchored to a design process.

Jon Kolko talks about frameworks in his excellent blog post ‘Design is a mess’:

A framework or model is an excellent way to learn about the most basic parts of a new idea because it’s purposefully reductive. It takes things away, emphasising only a small part of a large whole, so that we can focus only on what remains. A world map is a model of earth that removes nearly everything about the planet, leaving only relative masses, names of countries and cities, and overall proximity.

Frameworks in service design

In service design a framework is a way of navigating and communicating complexity. As an approach, it’s a reductive model which gives us a set of tools to work with complexity when designing services at scale, and for dealing with system level change.

Most services are inherently complex. If a key focus for service design is organising and creating shared understanding, as well as facilitating decisions across channels, teams and even multiple organisations and partners, then frameworks are essential.

As a service designer, or if you’re working with teams to design services, you will need to be able to both work with frameworks, and to be able to design frameworks. This means creating space and opportunities, and the right constraints for other people to do their work or to contribute something when larger systemic change is required to deliver better products, services and outcomes.

Good design has always been about recognising and working with constraints. Constraints include time, budget and what’s possible. Frameworks are an extension of learning to apply constraints helping us to reframe and construct alternative models that then enable us to reset and challenge other constraints and assumptions.

Starting with first principles

A starting point for working with frameworks is first principles.

First principles is about breaking something down to its most fundamental component parts, or the things that you believe are true.

As explained in this blog post by James Clear “you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘What are we sure is true?’ … and then reason up from there.” – he goes on to explain that it’s actually easier to work from a perspective or understanding of how things work by analogy and how they work now (I think of this as ‘business as usual’ thinking in service design terms). It therefore takes far more effort to reason from first principles, because you have to invest time in understanding how things break down into their most essential and core components as well as the relationships between those things (I think of this as discovery, research and investment of time in synthesis as part of a service design process).

First principles is a discipline that requires time and effort.

The solution to this is that it doesn’t have to be an exact science when applied to service design. It’s okay to work from clearly stated assumptions as part of a hypotheses-led approach to discovery, where we’re reframing problems to set out future opportunities and in order to explore new service models and future uses of technology.

To emphasise again, this is reductive. Applied as part of a framework it’s about deconstructing something much bigger and more complex to help communicate and create shared understanding through a process of working with other people and teams.

Examples

To pick out some examples, frameworks like the double diamond are shared and almost universally adopted by a majority of design teams.

Design sprints is more of a methodology (a system of different methods), but essentially consists of a high level and reductive framework that constrains work and focus to a 5 day sprint.

My approach to framing the problem (a set of 5 questions) is a framework, as is Melanie Cannon’s guide to writing a good problem statement.

Start with one thing is a very simple framework, and you can apply design principles in this way as well. For example, my all time favourite design principle is ‘do less’.

You can think of rapid prototyping, and the construction of living artefacts like service roadmaps as types and applications of frameworks. These are all models that communicate how things work, or help frame questions and priorities. They act as a way of communicating more complex layers of change as part of service delivery.

Finally, maps in service design are the most powerful frameworks we have. As explained before, a map is always reductive, working within a set of constraints as a way of making and often co-designing a model to navigate a problem space. They enable us to get somewhere and are a primary tool for working with complexity. They are how we visually capture and communicate an understanding of the world as we work from what we believe to be true.

It would be great to hear your experiences of working with frameworks and first principles. You can get in touch with me directly.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.