Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Design Of Service Design

Service Design has been one of my ongoing topics of interest. It is something that I have been triangulating towards for many years. I have it up on my mental whiteboard in a group of topics addressing how designers can move further up the value-chain in an environment of commoditisation. I also have identified it as another hedge against that future impact point whenever the phenomenon of ‘Software Eating The World’ finally puts white collar professions and the creative industries on the menu. 

With that in mind, I recently participated in the Service Design Masterclass at The National College of Art and Design. The organisers may have mis-calibrated the naming and positioning of their summer school experiment. ‘Service Design Bootcamp’ would be a more accurate name. As this three-day course was no theoretical wander through the conceptual underpinnings of the discipline of Service Design. Rather it was an intensive, headlong dash through the Service Design process. We worked from initial research on the first day, through to taking a suite of prototype services out to market on day three. Ré Dubhthaigh, Lynsey Duncan and Sean Miller hosted the course which itself was a prototype of a new kind of offering for NCAD.

I have captured my initial reactions and learnings in this post. There is more that I still need to unpack long-term, but it is valuable to record first impressions. Just to note that I will examining this through the lens of brand consultancy, as that is my current area of focus. These are not my final thoughts on the subject. The course participants came from a broad variety of disciplines, including architecture, UI/UX, graphic design, planning, academia, innovation, and in-house service delivery, amongst many others. So the learnings from this course have a lot of other useful potential aspects of analysis.

The chosen course methodology was ‘Learning By Doing’. Which seemed prudent given that so much of the fundamental theory is available online and in books. What that method delivered was a tangible sense of the culture and the atmosphere within a Service Design team. While I have read some books on Service Design over the last three years, I never grasped that core cultural essence before. That is not something you can grok from books or websites – there is no comparison to just doing it. I have a working understanding and appreciation of the specific kinds of internal cultures that differentiate Design Studios, Internet Agencies, Advertising Agencies, PR Houses, Branding Consultancies and related enterprises. Now I think I can add a clearer understanding of the three P’s (the mix of People, Processes and Priorities) that might typify a Service Design Agency as well. What is interesting is that it is a culture with quite a different stance and attitude to what I am used to operating within. So that makes developing a Service Design competence more of a challenge than I had envisaged. But it is a positive challenge.

Reviewing first day’s work in progress. (Yes it is designers looking at Post-It notes on white boards.)

One key fact I have taken away (blindingly obvious in hindsight perhaps) is that organisations are building new services and refining their existing services all of the time — consciously or unconsciously and with or without the help of dedicated Service Designers. So there are many opportunities out there for design thinkers to contribute. The challenge we need to set for ourselves is how to add value and become useful participants within those processes. Thinking about many of the organisations that I interact with, (and using a metaphor given on day one) it seems obvious that many are still building their services from ‘back-of-stage’ outwards rather than from ‘front-of-stage’ inwards.

The most profound difference from the professional offerings I am accustomed to is that the design component of Service Design is fundamentally about co-creation. Design Agencies and Brand Consultancies primarily operate from a stance of expertise. Yes, there is an emphasis on working closely with their clients, of course. But in practice that only goes so far, at a certain point the experts go off on their own and return later with their considered response for the benefit and edification of their clients. Service Design is far, far more about discovering the best solutions together.

So being a good facilitator is a key skill for Service Designers. The working assumption seems to be that the Service Design experts alone cannot find the best answers. They must form them with the integral participation of those who deliver the service. While my own practice of delivering brand consultancy does include a significant amount of workshops; those are usually with C-level participants. When workshops have been with service-delivery teams they generally have concerned mining for raw materials or gathering information to filter upwards.

Service Design sits at the intersection between Research and Design. Both aspects are integral to delivery. The designers need to be researchers and the researchers need to be designers. The kind of research used in the Service Design process is all about listening. I found it to be much more exploratory and open in testing assumptions.  The research I am more familiar with, is sometimes concerned with finding the necessary evidence to buttress a certain position.

Ré in action.

The clichéd narrative about design is that clients do not understand it, and it is always something that merely gets added on at the end. While that is often indeed the case, it is also worth remembering that some client organisations do perceive ‘design’ as being about true problem-solving at a higher level, whereas they consider ‘branding’  as only about messaging and communication. Some people see branding as a subset of design: others see design as a subset of branding. The fact that both of these terms have become empty signifiers is something we simply have to deal with. Yet, that does not imply we cannot work their imprecision to our own advantages either. So, depending upon the particular emphasis taken by a client or potential client, Service Design can be proffered on its own, or else as an integrated element within a larger project offering.

I think the biggest challenge facing experienced designers is the learn to let go early and then go out and test ideas that are only half-formed, or quarter-formed even. I can just imagine the initial reaction of some of my designer friends to the prototyping mantra of “Early, Ugly & Often”. The fact that much of the Service Design practices outlined on the course do work best when the prototypes are almost un-designed is a mindset that is challenging to engage with. I can see how well this approach works. But overcoming the well-worn grooves of minimal design quality habits is a non-trivial exercise.

A friend of mine has been putting together a great novel framework of organisational personalities. It is based on the metaphor of everyone being either Tinkers, Tailors, Soldiers, or Spies (with suitable apologies to Mr. Le Carré). Within that model, the members of the design community are predominantly ‘Tailors’ by nature; obsessing about the fit-and-finish of every detail of every single thing they do. Service Design asks us to step outside our traditional mindset and become ‘Tinkers’; adept at putting things together using whatever is to hand to discover what works.

On-street interview to reality-check our prototype service.

The kind of rapid iterative prototyping we did on this course is far messier and rougher than anything that we would consider in my current practice. But, critically, that does not mean that it is uncontrolled and chaotic — it is just that the control has shifted to a different axis. Ré recalled a pertinent quotation that “a prototype is worth a thousand meetings’. While I do know that from my own experience, what I would have considered a prototype before is so much further realised and polished than anything we produced on this course. I suppose that for those of us with a design background, our innate response it that a consistent high degree of finish is a key aspect of the value we deliver. That is now something I need to recalibrate.

Productive chaos

Early in the course Ré and Sean deftly side-stepped the issue of precise academic definitions. I got the sense that parsing the nuances between Service Design, User-Centred Design, Human-Centred Design and similar terms was a potential conversational black-hole which could have swallowed a lot of time. From where I am operating, the relevant matching term would be ‘Brand Experience’. We would include much of the activities and deliverables of Service Design would  within the remit of that phrase. Yet, it is always worth bearing in mind that intra-sectoral naming debates do fall prey to the Narcissism of Small Differences (if that reference is too Psych-101, just think the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ and the ‘Judean People’s Front’).

I approached this class in a spirit of enquiry and curiosity, and with a willingness be challenged and to learn. The worst outcomes from investing time into this kind of enterprise is to come away thinking either “I knew most of this already” or “this does not apply to me”. Where I have ended up is that Service Design as a methodology and mindset would be a challenge worth taking further.

One opportunity arising from this initiative is perhaps to start forming a nascent community of practice around Service Design here within Dublin. I have been assembling a Twitter list of the course attendees which anyone can subscribe to. There is also an excellent masterclass Tumblr which has a comprehensive photographic record of the activities conducted.

Finally, on the lighter side, over the three intensive days we somehow also managed to address a significant amount of tangential, yet critical, issues and topics of the day. To throw out a few examples: we discussed how challenging it is for dolphins to use the Internet effectively. We explored the pros and cons that we might associate with the founding of an international ‘Festival of Questionable Digestion’ taking place in Dublin’s Liberties district. We also made a tentative diagnosis of ‘Post-It Sole’ as a common pernicious malady that afflicts Service Designers in particular. We also did some inadvertent primary research into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as it pertains to the inverse relationship between the tea and caffeine intake of professionals and their learning acumen.

Spot the Service Designer’s room!
Two other class participants have blogged their ​r​esponses to the course.