A design comparison of a delivery notice from the U.S. Postal Service.
Courtesy Touchpoint

Going to the DMV is nobody’s idea of a day at the park, but the emerging field of service design aims to change that. The Brooklyn-based nonprofit Public Policy Lab (PPL) incorporated last year with the goal to improve interactions between public services and those served by them through research, advocacy, and technical assistance.

Explained PPL executive director Chelsea Mauldin, “At the DMV, it’s important to look at how we interact with the created artifacts of that service—the physical space, the forms, the actual driver’s license. There’s a sequence of service steps you encounter.” By studying these interactions, service designers can decipher the strategic goals of public policy and improve efficiencies between the public agencies and their audience, while also saving money.

PPL’s first major initiative is a collaboration with the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and Parsons’ new interdisciplinary service design program, the DESIS Lab. Following a scoping meeting in late January, the team will spend a year studying how the agency interacts with its clients—developers, property owners, and residents—to recommend pragmatic and implementable design ideas. “This is an out-of-the-box collaboration,” said Kaye Matheny, the HPD assistant commissioner for strategic planning. “We’ll be evaluating how people engage with HPD—what are our touch points across the city, how do they engage with us, and how do we improve that?” A second phase of the partnership will study the impact of HPD’s providing over $8.7 billion to neighborhoods since 1987. “We want to understand how our investment has shaped and defined neighborhoods,” said Matheny. Achievable recommendations could begin implementation next year.

While service design has long been employed in the private sector, Mauldin believes this approach has broad applications in the public sector. She said service design is picking up where public space design began several decades ago. “At this point, everyone’s just learning. It wasn’t always the case that public spaces needed thought or design,” Matheny said, but now she added, “it’s becoming clear that there is a need.”