This week we were super excited to hear that a project we’ve worked on over the past couple of years received two important awards.

The Deadly Allstars Healing Garden Project, which we’ve posted about before, won a Good Design Award Gold Tick – awarded to just 145 of the 830 entries they receive.

On top of that we were absolutely over the moon that Sharon Williams and the Allstars team, made up of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 5 – 18, received the Indigenous Designers of the Year Award!

The project was set up in order to facilitate a process where service design set up the scaffold of inquiry, but the young people drove the process, decisions and outcomes through a focus on using service design as a support for self-determination.

Congrats Allstars – this award is yours and you deserve it!

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With the ongoing changes to the way we live currently taking place, we have been asked to share a framework from the research we did with and on 13-17 year olds that highlights how they might be making sense of our current environment.

In our ongoing interactions with this age group in our peer groups, work communities and ecosystems, and our connection with the Education system, we increasingly see articles concerned about young people’s mental health in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and other timely but confronting culture shifts, we thought it might be useful to share.

For this research we were working in the Sydney Local Health District who wanted to ultimately improve the health and well-being of the young people in its area, but we think the outcomes are applicable to ‘the new normal’ as well.

As we delved into attitudes, motivations and influences on adolescents (in general, ‘how they operate’), the following building blocks for co-design were developed. They highlight key foundational themes and logic around how young people build their knowledge, create action and maintain it.

We do not pretend this is an answer or guidance, but on reflection of the themes we see a relevance to understanding where young people might be exploring and/or struggling at this time and may be a good guide for those working with young people to make sense of where we are all at today.


For more on the work we did in this project and for the sources/references see: ‘Show Me How’ – co-designing a healthy and active future with, and for young people

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Between early 2018 and late 2019, DMA was involved in a very special project with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural support group, The Deadly Allstars.

Justin set up a service design scaffold that would see the Allstars – a group of young indigenous people in care – lead their own garden design and construction project.

For DMA the project was an exercise in supporting self-determination. For the Allstars it was about leaving a legacy and creating a healing and reflective space for yarning.

Mawang means ‘together’ in the Wiradjuri language. It’s what the garden was all about.

Share our journey Creating Mawang here:

Video Production by our friends at Newcast Studios

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We have had an amazing relationship with the education experts and leaders at local Primary School, Ainslie School, for many years. So when they were very suddenly immersed in a rapid shift from so-called ‘regular school’ to something altogether different in Home Learning, they knew they needed, amongst other things, an artefact that would support the shift in service expectations.

The importance of an artefact in design – or, as we often say ‘something real to point at for reference’ – is that it provides a key role in change. It may be a visualisation, information design, a ‘poster’, or a source of digital images that can be dropped into any channel, but the point of it is:

  1. It has a specific audience of service users – we are after all service designers, not communications experts or graphic designers.
  2. It provides a defining position by the Maker for a point in time – that position might be to guide, help users make decisions, or give people a visualisation of how things actually are (such as an experience map).
  3. It is relatable on an experiential and human level – it must be understood in ‘plain English’ or appropriate audience jargon, but also must reflect the voice and intent of the Maker.


In discussion with Principal, Wendy Cave and Deputy Principal – Pedagogical Transformation, Sophie Bissell there were three key messages they wanted to express:

  1. Define exactly what ‘home learning’ was in a simple way (and also what it wasn’t)
  2. Describe how teachers and parents/carers could expect to connect practically over time – daily, weekly, per term.
  3. Provide Ainslie’s clear strategic foundations that underpin, not just this Home Learning service, but all of their education service delivery and expertise.

This artefact was about providing a level of confidence in parents/carers in the continuity of their child’s learning. But we wanted to also give them some ‘relief’ from the perception of expectation in their communities.

  • Home Learning is the name of the service – not ‘Home Schooling’, not ‘Online Learning’, ‘Remote Learning’.
  • We explicitly empathised with service users who may all be moving through different levels of response to the COVID-19 public health emergency as parents/carers, employees, and possibly newly/unexpectedly unemployed. This was without judgement or expectation that there is a ‘place’ to get to – the deception of the ‘new normal’ when the reality is we are moving through ‘right now’; the difference for the adults between ‘Working from Home’ and ‘Working from Home During a Crisis, Trying to Work’1.
  • With the school approach to deliver ‘playful and sophisticated educations services’ this artefact must follow that with imagery and colours. Whether it was saved to the desktop of a computer or printed and put on the fridge, we wanted a lightness and ease of access about it.


Wendy and Sophie were able to consult with teachers and some parents before it was finalised. Since it’s distribution we’ve heard directly from teachers and parents:

“Love that poster – I have it over my computer right now”

“My parents love it – it’s really helped them”

And the Principal Association’s of South Australia and Victoria are sharing it with their members.


There are so many artefacts, messages, communications, all vying for our attention right now. But, success will not be measured the same way it was when things were normal.2 The measure of success for this artefact is:

  1. It has a specific audience of service users – So does it provide confidence to the primary audience?
  2. It provides a defining position by the Maker for a point in time – So does it support the Teacher relationship with their students, and their student’s Parent/Carer?
  3. It is relatable on an experiential and human level – Does it support people experiencing collective trauma to cope with the ‘now’?


1 and 2: Extract from a @ShaindelBeers tweet from her employer, Blue Mountain Community College, Oregon.

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DMA Co-Principal Justin Barrie has a very intimate connection to the COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting everybody at the moment. His much loved father-in-law caught the virus and passed away just seven days later. Whilst the family is dealing with the grief of his passing, they are also at the centre of a range of government agencies trying to manage this catastrophe.

He sent this message as a reflection as a service user at this time.


Hi ya – I know we’re in the thick of this thing at the moment, but in spite of that I have a bit of time on my hands so I put together some words.

Before and since the passing of my wonderful father-in-law, our extended family has been in forms of both quarantine and isolation. We are also navigating the services, rules and protocols that govern us all in a unique way as the family of a ‘covid-19 victim’ as the media would call him. We are still unable to meet together as a family, hug and console as we wish we could. Even within our house, my wife is quarantined from the rest of us and we can’t enter her room or have physical contact.

I spend my days traveling to my mother-in-law’s house to keep her company through her window as she is also in complete isolation.

This post isn’t about us though, it’s about reflecting on the service deliverers we have been dealing with over the past couple of weeks. The care and attention from ACT Health, ACT Education and others has been extraordinary. This is at a time where much of how they work is being made up for them on an hourly or daily basis.

As a service designer who has worked in some of the most complex social situations imaginable, it has caused me to reflect on two things.


Firstly, experts are key.

Expert care, expert advice, expert delivery. We thank the experts. Now is not a time for anecdote, opinion and gut feels. And while some in politics and the media (including many delivering their hot takes on social media) can say what they are going to say, those of us at the centre of this thing, those of us directly affected, are relying on experts.

Secondly, humans are at the heart of great service.

Services in times of complexity take time to get right. Systems and processes have to be invented overnight. During these times it isn’t the design of the service that is key, it is the human delivering it.


The people we have dealt with who have been forced into an untenable situation, particularly in ACT Health, have been simply outstanding. Empathetic, professional, thorough – in times of exceptional uncertainty for them. These people are trying to create space for us to process and grieve whilst attempting to map and understand the impact of a pandemic. Their actions have been exemplary and the best service design in the world is nothing without humans, with a human touch delivering them.

So in amongst the commentary that is going on, the opinion and views and narrative and discussion – including many of my fellow designers talking up the wonders and ‘opportunity’ of the new zoom world – I’d just like people to remember those directly affected and the outstanding people doing their best to deliver services in this new context which we navigate.

To the Public Health, TCH and Communicable Disease team – our thanks.

To Rob, Jason and Ben and the rest of the team at LHS for delivering outstanding educational and pastoral support to our son in amongst this – our thanks.





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Generally in our work we focus on delivering results ‘in spite’ of the organisational hierarchy; building compelling design cases for focusing on service and delivering quality services. We aren’t naive about the importance and role of hierarchy, it’s just that with a sound evidence base, multi-disciplinary team and meaningful insights we are generally lucky enough to have decision-makers at the highest level tell us that we should “do whatever we need to do with structure to get the service delivered”.

But what about when the key outcomes of the design work affect the lead decision-makers themselves and not their teams?

Just over two years ago we published a series of posts about the evolved notions of service and organisation within the new digital reality. One of our reflections in that series was about the evolution of CIOs from Information to Investment Officers. Those posts were in response to recognising that digital had more of an influence than just with the client experience – if organisations were serious about service it had a direct influence on their ‘E’ roles and structures.

We’ve been thinking about the issue again as over the past year we’ve had a range of work that culminated in a challenging of the very lead decision-making structure of a number of our clients – primarily within the Public Sector, so we thought we’d take a moment to reflect on what the uneasy tension is and how it can be addressed.


Tension 1: It can be is difficult for lead decision-makers to see service delivery models without seeing structure

Public Sector Executives work hard to get to a level. They strive to be ‘Band 1s’ or ‘Band 2s’ so it’s only natural that level becomes a determinant of influence and position. In a traditional organisational hierarchy (leaving aside personal influence and relationships) the ‘level’ is seen as the determinant of position and equity.

But that doesn’t necessarily work in a service focused organisation. If you have five Band 1 positions delivering a public service, they represent a range of capabilities and outputs. There is no way their work is ‘flat’ or ‘even’. Some are accountable for front-facing services, some for enabling services, some for expert capability. But often when you visualise how services are actually delivered and how this should be influencing decision-making, scope and work programs, they only see structure. “I’m not delivering to my peer – they are at my level.”

Part of this phenomenon is a result of the gradual movement of rewarding administrative skill over technical expertise or specialisation that we have seen over the last 20 years. As the seeming rejection of expertise continues, lead decision-makers with the same administration skills expect hierarchy only exists above or below them – not at their level where ‘everything is even’.

We try and counter this by continuing to re-draw organisational structures as living service delivery organisations. Pointing out that there must be a co-relationship between deliverables at the level of the lead decision-makers that focuses on the service and the service recipient – not the structure they happen to have been appointed within.


Tension 2: Lead decision-makers can tend to focus on ownership rather than outcomes when they see a work program

Work programs are (sadly) rarely an investment and value-based view of the total outputs of a particular public sector organisation. Though valiant efforts are made to apply value-based measures and prioritisation processes, the work program as we know it is largely what we call ‘a candidate list’.

This concept of candidate list is driven by whether or not the ‘work owner’ has funding, resources, people and a deadline. Multi-million dollar departmental budgets are run based on this notion of approving ‘candidates’, not integrated outcomes. What this means is that a tension arises around ownership of work rather than outcomes for lead decision-makers.

In fact, the ‘outcome’ often becomes the delivery of the work, not the value it is creating for people. Lead decision-makers have often gotten to their current position because ‘they deliver’ and that can breed a singular view of delivering what they are accountable for, whether it fits with the rest of the organisation or users or not.

We try and counter this tension by constantly drawing the lead decsion-makers we work with back to their strategic, operating and service intent. By articulating and sharing an intent that goes beyond the strict deliverable of the work item, we create a platform for being measured by outcomes not just outputs. Nuances can be interpreted by the decision-maker that accords with their business or policy drivers, but they also get a language to situate their position in the context of other decision-makers in the organsiation.


Tension 3: The industry of the public sector allows some lead decision-makers to forget that the main reason they have a job is, in the end, to deliver services

Three words keep coming up in the work that we do. Governance, Risk and Strategy. Increasingly, these words are used to create an ‘industry’ in their own right rather than to make services better. The Public Service is just that; a sector created and running in order to deliver services to the community. Whether those services are wanted, desirable, positive or not doesn’t matter. They are still services – at base, an exchange of something for something between multiple parties

So when service design and delivery is encumbered by business management processes – risk management, governance processes and multiple levels of strategy – becoming larger than the service themselves (problems arise.

We try and counter this by demystifying business management processes so lead decision-makers can be focused on the delivery of services. We work with clients to ensure risk management is inherent in all aspects of the service rather than a separate process in its own right. We work with them to pull apart what they call governance and see if (as it is in many cases) the forums, groups and acronyms in the process are just there because decision-makers (lead and otherwise) aren’t enabled to make accountable decisions. And we work to define what people mean by ‘strategy’ and at what level they are using the term. It doesn’t hurt to just call something an operating procedure or run plan rather than everything being a strategy.


We know the public sector operating environment in many ways is getting more complex – even the recent rise of potential pandemics means years of hypothetical planning must now turn into the delivery of actual services and human responses. But releasing the tension of complexity and freeing up lead decision-makers to look beyond hierarchy and focus on service can help everyone with accountability to live that accountability.


For more of our thoughts in this space, see also: Forget Wicked Problems – Wicked Decision Making is what matters most.


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We are really pleased to announce the release of ‘Right Birth, Your Choice’.

It’s a short video on how to have the birth you need and deserve, and how to make the right decisions for you and your baby’s care and it was developed in collaboration with women’s health pioneers the Canberra Mothercraft Society and Safe Motherhood for All.

Why did we think it was important to support CMS and SMfA in developing this video?

• Birthing in Australia is increasingly medical and interventionist and does not consider the autonomy of the woman by providing respectful maternity care.
• Despite increasingly poor outcomes, medical and interventionist birthing is normalised and birthing decisions are based on this incorrect paradigm. There is resistance to a non-medical model.
• As few as 15% of births may actually need medical intervention.

The current dominant experience based on research with mothers:

  • People can have no idea of the hugeness of the experience.
  • Unbiased information about options is not out there in general.
  • “Mums feel up against it (the system)”.
  • People can be traumatised and distressed going into parenting.
  • There is a gap in the system – preparedness is self-navigated, not genuinely supported.

The flow on from this experience

  • Poor birth outcomes can put considerable strain on marital or partner relationships, parent infant bonding and breastfeeding which has flow-on effects for the other children, as poor early relationships in child hood lead to great vulnerability in life.
  • Ongoing stress post-birth due to the medical model can have lasting effects.

So what is the video about?

It’s the genuine reflections from a range of people on what the birthing experience can and should be like. It is clear that no-one birth journey is the same and that ‘experts on tap, not on top’ should be there to guide the mother on the choices SHE wants to make.

The vision of CMS and SMfA for safe birthing for the mother is evidenced based quality care which includes:

  • Continuity of care.
  • Informed decision making.

The vision of CMS and SMfA for the birthing journey is:

  • Information and options are paramount.
    • Creating knowledge of the health system on how to interact with and get the best out of the health system.
    • Increasing the capability of women, their partners and their support network.
  • Creating positive action from the knowledge base is key.
    • Ante-natal actions.
    • Post-natal actions.

Most importantly the video is about highlighting that for the right birth, it’s your (the mother’s) choice.

We hope you enjoy the video and find it informative. Thanks to all of the wonderful volunteer participants for taking part and to our production collaborators Newcast Studios for shooting and delivering the final video.

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Yesterday we were headed to a meeting, as we walked towards the venue we were presented with a classic dirt ‘desire path’.

It got us talking and thinking about this concept that has become something of a design icon. In fact, for some time the notion of a desire path, and the ubiquitous image highlighting it as a metaphor for the difference between design and user experience has been part-and-parcel of the designer presentation toolkit. The slide goes up and people respond, naturally, with empathy and support for the desire path makers. It’s nice to think that the numbers of people who have created their own (collective) way based on their needs, not the supposed needs to the ‘machine’ that built the formal path in the first place get a voice.

But the notion that what a group of people ‘does’ should override other user needs as their desire is visibly less obvious, is a bit one note.

To us, the desire path isn’t some goal of ‘natural design selection’ – in fact, it can be an emblem of a number of things that don’t make things better in our society and our design community.

So here’s our three rules for not taking Desire Paths as a design goal:

1. Desire Paths may ignore expertise at the expense of a single ‘desire’

Let’s call the opposite of the desire path, the designed path. Of course the jury may be out on whether specific paths are designed well or not, but just because a group has decided to create their own desired solution doesn’t mean the intended design was necessarily wrong. The designed path has to take into account a range of factors in determining its solution: regulation, safety, biodiversity, erosion, population movement, just to name a few.

These factors mean a range of experts must balance the constraints and opportunities available to come up with the best possible solution. Do those creating the desire path know that whether where they are walking contains an under-threat species? Do they know that the rough path they are creating has led to a number of accidents? Do they know the path is driving a number of people into a place that is unsafe?

To take on questions like this experts are engaged. Town Planners, Tradespeople, Regulators, Environmental Scientists.

The designed path is a compromise, but it’s compromise based on expertise. Making the desire path is human nature, lauding it over the designed path risks celebrating ignoring necessary expertise.


2. Desire Paths can assume the intent of efficiency and speed trump all other intents

Most examples of desire paths (physical and digital) are driven by a singular intent – efficiency. That intent is often highlighted by the attribute of speed to complete a task. Speed may be critical for some but it’s not the only intent of a particular population. A desire path in this context may only represent an ableist route of a user with a specific need.

Defining the intent of a given design solution and the multiple users of that solution is critical to good design. With a clear intent the expertise mentioned above can be engaged. If we think that efficiency and speed are the only intent required for pathways (physical and metaphoric!) we dramatically underplay other possible experiences. We think intent more is layered and varied than that.

If efficiency and speed are the only goal then we can just start putting straight travelators through all National Parks now!

Again – there is absolutely no problem with a group of people having the efficiency as an intent, but as designers promoting that a singular intent should drive the solution and not pausing to consider user types and differing motivations is naive.


3. Desire Paths sometimes forget people built the designed path as well

There’s a curious way that the alternatives to desire paths are presented. The desire path is described as the way ‘people’ want to move. The ‘designed path’ is represented as some abstract thing that has just landed. ‘Put in by them’; ‘Delivered by machine’; ‘A result of bureaucracy’. It’s curious to us that these descriptions de-humanise the designed path. It’s a deliberate play on seeking empathy for the ‘human’ approach, but it says much about the willingness of designers to set aside what true service designs is – a multi-disciplinary process that seeks to ensure the people who deliver the service are as critical to its success as the people who use the service.

That for us is what’s at the heart of the desire path narrative. An inference that all design should match the needs and desires of a few (often an unmeasured few). Desire is great for design thinking, but expertise and a balance between delivery and user types is what is required for solid service design.

Desire paths can give you input; and understanding who uses them can give you insight; but thinking of them as a singular and correct indicator of better more humanistic answers to intentional design and decision expertise is a path to paradise that begins in hell.*

*DMA is not recommending all designers who talk about desire paths should be cast into Dante’s Inferno ;)

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A mantra at DMA is that we design to make, not just think. There can be a tendency in design approaches to focus on discovery. To learn, to understand, to research.

But unless you MAKE something, you may have built a lot of empathy for the user, you may have created outstanding IP, but you haven’t actually helped them directly with anything.

A great example of designing to make is some work we undertook with our technology collaborator, Graham at GMWEB. The client, Audi Australia, was moving its apprentice training in-house and wanted to digitise the experience for all of the users involved.

The collaboration saw a detailed service design front-end that seamlessly transitioned into a tech build that has offered immediate and lasting results for Audi.

We’ll be talking about the project at Acquia Engage Asia Pacific (Acquia Engage APAC) conference in Melbourne next week. As a lead in to that presentation, we developed a case study on the work with the Acquia team.

Read about the project here.

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It’s the last day of work for many today here in Australia, including us.

We’ve had an amazing year, delivering excellent work with extraordinary collaborators.

In 2018 we’ve touched the health, IT, telecommunications, taxation, digital identity, social housing and data sectors.

We’ve co-designed with young people, worked to support the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Government service design and mentored public sector professionals on the power of service design in their work.

And now, it’s time for us to take a break and recharge so we can do it all again in 2019.

We wish all of our collaborators, clients, followers and mates a fantastic Christmas and New Years break!

While we are away, take in these beautiful New Zealand flowers from Mel’s homeland.

Our office will  be closed from today December 21 through to Wednesday January 9th.

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