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Designing for impact with theories of change

Boris Divjak, Nov. 27, 2018

Over the past couple of years I’ve become very interested in designing services in a way that allows us to predict their impact before investing in large-scale pilots. Scaling new service concepts often feels like the chicken-and-egg question. Investors (internal or external) normally require reliable evidence regarding the impact of a service, but this is often impossible to gather without having secured funding for such research in the first place. On top of this, many frameworks for service evaluation are primarily aimed at services that have already been established. This is of little help to designers during the early stages of innovation, when the aim is to assess proposed service improvements while they are still being developed.

Article in the Touchpoint journal Read more about our approach in the latest issue of Touchpoint, the journal of service design

At Unboxed we’ve adopted an approach that involves developing a theory of change—a visual representation of how new service concepts lead to intended outcomes—in order to guide prototyping and evaluation in our digital innovation projects. This is an iterative process in which we explicitly link prototypes to outcomes, and then gradually refine our understanding of impact as we learn more through testing and research. The evidence gathered through this process is often not conclusive, but it does provide us with a strong indication that we might or might not be on the right track.

If ... then links in Theory of Change Using ‘if ... then ...‘ statements enables us to better understand links between concepts and outcomes in theories of change

Using theories of change provides us with:

  • a framework to sense-check our own thinking and keep our eyes on impact (rather than individual concepts);
  • a way of prioritising our prototyping efforts;
  • an iterative way of improving our understanding of impact that works well with our Agile ways of working;
  • strong enough evidence to support early investment decisions.

Where can you start with your own Theory of Change?

As a designer, I would suggest that the best way is to grab some post-its and give it a try. Think about the goals of your project, its intended outcomes, its potential unintended outcomes … and map it all out on a whiteboard. Then ask someone for feedback. Does it make sense? Are there any gaps or missing links in your thinking? Are there any other factors contributing to the outcomes you listed? Giving rationales for the ‘if … then …’ connections within the theory of change can help you articulate underlying assumptions and give you clarity around which elements require further research. Remember – it’s an iterative process, so it’s not supposed to be perfect the first time around!

In case you prefer to read/hear more about it first, there are a growing number of resources related to theories of change available online (try here, here or here). If you would like to learn more about the specific approach used by Unboxed, I will be running a workshop about it (Designing for impact with theories of change) on 7 March 2019 at the Service Design in Government conference in Edinburgh. I hope to see you there!

Service Design in Government 2019 Come to the Designing for impact with theories of change workshop at the Service Design in Government conference in March 2019!