Leading the Field: Kelly Benton

A conversation with a Senior Service Designer at Code for America
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For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. In the weeks leading up to Code for America Summit 2022, we’re lifting up the voices of Summit speakers who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. Recently, we spoke with Kelly Benton, a Senior Service Designer at Code for America. Along with several other Code for America service designers, she’ll be leading the breakout session: Service design 101.

At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the authors.

How did you find yourself in the service design field? What experiences were most impactful in leading you here?

I don’t think there is an atypical pathway toward entering the field of service design, and my story was nothing different. From a young age I knew I wanted to do something meaningful with my career, and more specifically utilize art and design to inspire change. Which in turn led me into the fields of healthcare, philanthropy, education, sustainability, and more. Service design is everywhere and can aid many people and institutions toward creating an inclusive impact. After graduating  from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a degree in service design, I was able to further my passion in closing the gap for people who desire and need more equitable solutions. 

Since I identify as a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) individual, I appreciate owning the ability to thoughtfully apply my practice by leveraging my own learnings from the lived experiences I have obtained and the things I have educated myself around, including inequity, social impact, and neurodiversity. The fight to get to where I am now was a long and hard one as many can imagine and have encountered. I’ve been so inspired by the vast differences we all have and want to emphasize that uniqueness on every level within my own work. My goal is to inspire other little Black and Brown kids in knowing there’s nothing wrong with sticking with your passion and wanting a job in a creative field. You will succeed as long as you have the drive and perseverance, as long as you believe in yourself. I hope to learn from the ones who’ve inspired me thus far, from past civil rights activists to current equity and inclusion designers across many industries, and to be a key player within this generation through sharing the stories, strengths, and needs of our people in pursuit of a brighter and more inclusive design community.

What are some misconceptions people have around the term “service design?” How do you explain what you do to people who aren’t familiar?

There are probably a dozen or more ways “service design” can be defined. There are many layers of complexity within the field and various forms it can be represented along with the several applications the practice can have in a particular context. Service design is what makes an experience meaningful and is what brings people back to take part in that experience again and again. In saying this, service design is not just a one-way exchange. It can be cyclical, as value within the service is ongoing in the forms of customer service and other layers of support. 

The ability to narrate, in a visual form, an experience from the front-end to the back-end for organizations to better understand the journey and flow of their service in parallel to the elements of the overall experience is what service design is all about. It’s storytelling, it’s process building, and it’s making valuable connections across stakeholders. To envision the capacity of service design would be to picture a classroom. The knowledge learned is the elements, the paper and textbooks are the objects, the exchange between the teacher is the interaction, and the school is the service. If you’d like to learn a bit more, a good resource/introduction I’d recommend would be Nielson Norman Group’s Service Design 101 article.

I hope to learn from the ones who've inspired me thus far, from past civil rights activists to current equity and inclusion designers across many industries, and to be a key player within this generation through sharing the stories, strengths, and needs of our people in pursuit of a brighter and more inclusive design community.

What does service design look like in government? 

Service design is everywhere. It can present itself in many forms and it thrives in systems. Many people in this space don’t realize that they are already practicing service design within their work. Connecting the dots between otherwise disjointed parts of a process and making decisions that impact the experience of people delivering and interacting with government services. 

I believe that the civic tech space especially has one of the most meaningful opportunities to provide more accessible solutions and build better services for diverse populations. The catalyst to this is collaboration. Collaboration across state partners, agencies,  community based organizations, and other nonprofits to collectively build a network of offerings that satisfies a problem space. In this case it is essential to use client research and ongoing relationship building to further understand those problem areas by discovering needs and other barriers to help achieve holistic service delivery for people who are marginalized or continue to be underserved. The pursuit of this data should aid that understanding and knowledge growth, to then extend these learnings to other problem spaces that account for a similar context and needs. Once these insights are translated into comprehensive design interventions, pilots can be run to help learn if those ideas are working and what area needs additional development or iteration. This can in turn help a civic org define the current and future state of a government service visually, narrating a process value flow. Service design in government—it’s storytelling, it’s innovation, and it’s everywhere.

What do you hope attendees of your breakout session will learn? 

By attending the Service Design 101 session, we hope attendees will walk away with an overview and applied understanding of what service design is. We hope to facilitate this breakout session in a way that’ll give a glimpse into the process of creating a service blueprint, a key service design tool. In tandem, we’ll show how to peel back the complicated onion of a government service and the experiences of everyone involved—including how to spot gaps in services and surface opportunities for change.

We’ll also explore what a service looks like end-to-end, using a framework grounded in insight and empathy—allowing us all to begin applying a broader understanding of ‘service design thinking’ to our work. Attendees will get the chance to create their own blueprint from a given prompt, and have the opportunity to evaluate and analyze a problem space around particular user stories that take into consideration barriers to access and other client and organizational needs. After doing this, you might come to realize that you’ve been practicing service design in your job all along!

The theme of Summit this year is “building the path forward together.” What does that mean to you?

To me, building the path forward together means empathy. Our nation and our world seems to be even more divided than ever before. Having empathy and understanding, even though we may not agree with each other’s beliefs, is what keeps us going. With good intentions we can each do our best to work together in laying the foundation for a more inclusive and equitable society. It starts with you as an individual, but it ends with us as a collective. Likewise, it’s going to take a lot for us to get to where we need to be, and the journey ahead is not going to be an easy one, to say the least. But with the right support and tools we can create equity-based change, and that’s where I believe service design can be leveraged. By looking introspectively and allowing our understanding of the intersections of race, ethnicity, language, gender, class, and disability guide us forward, we can achieve more, together.

Want to attend Kelly Benton’s breakout session and hear from more speakers like her? Tickets for Code for America Summit 2022, happening May 17–18, are still on sale. Browse the full list of breakout sessions and register for Summit today!

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