The Digital Service Manual. Beyond Strategy.

Paul Boag

Having a digital strategy is important. But a strategy lacks a lot of tactical detail. Details that are essential to success. Details that you need to communicate to colleagues. That is where a service manual can help.

Many of my engagements with clients follows a similar pattern. First there is a discovery phase. We:

  • Research the user.
  • Identify organisational objectives
  • Review digital assets.
  • Look at staffing and governance.

What we discover becomes the basis of a strategy. A strategy that addresses friction in the user journey. A strategy that highlights inefficiency in the use of digital. A strategy that addresses governance and staffing.

The strategy is a valuable tool. It helps identify objectives, focuses on user needs and addresses issues surrounding governance. Most of all it is a business case for change. One that you can use to convince management.

But what happens once management approve your strategy? What next? Many jump into a prototyping phase to address some particularly weak part of the user experience. This is a great start. But many organisations miss a crucial element that should sit alongside this prototyping phase. A service manual.

What is a service manual?

For many the Government Digital Service has become a template for how to deliver modern digital services. Almost all my clients are aware of there work and some have met with them in the hopes of learning more.

They have indeed learned a lot. They have learned to prototype, test and iterate. They have embraced the alpha, beta and live stages. But they have ignored a key deliverable produced by the Government Digital Service. That is their service manual.

The GDS Service Manual is a crucial deliverable.
The GDS Service Manual is a crucial deliverable.

If you want to know what a service manual is, you couldn’t do much better than look at theirs. It is a practical guide to commissioning, building and running a digital service.

I believe this is an invaluable tool often lacking from organisation’s digital arsenal.

Why have a service manual?

A digital strategy is great, but it is always going to lack details. They also end up in a draw, rarely referred to. But a service manual is practical, providing detailed guidance about best practice and implementation.

It is also an educational tool. Many of the mistakes made in digital are due to lack of knowledge. Departments come to the digital team asking them to build tools the team knows will fail. But often they are not in a position to say no.

Even if they can say no that does nothing to educate colleagues. It does nothing to build a digital first culture.

But a service manual helps to inform and educate. It helps reduce the number of daft ideas and gives the digital team something to refer to when they say no.

As well as all this a service manual also encourages an open and collaborative working relationship. By publishing everything the digital team is doing and why it is doing it, it nurtures feedback. This is crucial to long term digital success. Digital teams need to be reaching out and engaging with colleagues if they want to improve the user experience.

What does a service manual contain?

What your service manual includes will be specific to your situation. That said, I have helped many organisations create the core of their service manual. In doing so I have come to identify some common characteristics.

Most service manuals I have started for clients begin life with three main types of content:

  • Guiding principles and priorities.
  • Content guidelines.
  • Advice on developing digital services.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Guiding principles and priorities

When you work in digital you have to make hundreds of decisions everyday. Decisions that need to balance a variety of priorities. By documenting how you make decisions, you keep everybody on track. You also explain those decisions to those who might not like them.

For example you have to balance the needs of different audiences. So your service manual should contain a prioritised list of users. That way when you have to prioritise one audience over another the decision is already made. You don’t have to debate it every single time.

The same is true for digital objectives. Knowing what you want to achieve with digital tools is crucial. But this information is often buried in a strategy document somewhere. Dig them out, prioritise them and add them to your service manual. That way they are there for all to refer to. They keep everybody on track.

The US government has an excellent list of guiding principles for digital.
The US government has an excellent list of guiding principles for digital.

But a good service manual does not stop there. Audiences and objectives are great for some types of decisions but not so good for others. That is why a set of guiding principles are needed. These principles are not about prioritisation but more about how you should work. Take a look at the US Governments Playbook to see what kind of thing I mean.

Content guidelines

Next up a good service manual should contain guidelines about content. A good place to start is with a content style guide. A document that addresses tone of voice and grammar. But it is also good to include some general advice about writing for the web too.

Beyond that you will want to provide details about who can write for digital services. What kind of approval process do people need to conform to? In particular focus on things like blogs or news sections. Often organisations allow almost anybody to post and the results are often terrifying!

You will need some guidance about the use of social media. This will include policy information on who can do what. But it should also provide advice on how to get the most from social media. If you don’t have that you will end up with people posting links to press releases and little more.

Advice on developing digital services

Finally, a good service manual will contain information about how to develop a digital service. Whether that is a mobile app, social media presence or new piece of website functionality.

It should include detailed information about how to commission a digital service. What should people be considering before they commission anything? What information does the developer need? You get the idea.

But it is also good to go beyond that and start to unpack how your digital team works. Have a section about your working practices, especially if you work in an agile way that may feel alien to many people.

Also include a regularly updated section that includes your development roadmap. Let people know what you are working on and what is in the pipeline. That will help manage their expectations when they come to you with a new project.

Example service manual

This sounds like a lot of work

No doubt you are thinking this all sounds like a lot of work. If you have looked at the Government Digital Service Manual you may feel overwhelmed. It has turned into a large and comprehensive resource for those in government. Something that you would never have time to write.

But it wasn’t always that way. It started simple and has grown over time. The same should be true for you. It doesn’t need to include everything overnight.

Don’t let this slip down your priority list. It is too important for that. In the long run it will save you many more hours than it takes to write. Time that you would have wasted justifying decisions to colleagues and debating the same old issues.

If you can’t find the time to start this yourself, get outside help. It will make your team look a hell of a lot more professional and start shifting the decision making power about digital to you. It will also improve the understanding of digital across the whole organisation.

Learn to build a service manual