Service Design Network Conference 2009

IMG_0611I toyed with calling this “Helping clients see their organisation as their customers do” – as that was my best takeaway from an interesting conference. I had a great time in Madeira. The sun shone, the many swimming pools sparkled against the ocean and the hotel was sufficiently plush to warrant the flight. I thought I’d summarise my initial thoughts and reflections here.

Joe Heapy of Engine

The show opened with Joe Heapy talking us through some interesting case studies, and overcoming some technical problems that were to stick around for the whole two days. I was particularly intrigued by the Barnet Council example. Having heard about it first at Service Design Thinks, it was great to hear more. Just the sort of thing I’m looking at.

I’ll be honest and say I was pretty mystified by Live Work’s presentation on their work with the UN. It sounded interesting, but acoustics and accents got the better of me and I just couldn’t get a handle on it.

Similarly we had an interesting sounding, though also hard to follow, insight into what T Mobile have been doing in this space. As well as the acoustic/accent challenge, I felt they fell into the trap of talking about high level method too much – leading to a pretty generic set of conclusions. There was a bit too much of this over the two days, and not enough drilling into the detail of what works, what doesn’t and why.

Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive PathJesse James Garrett was a bit of a surprise speaker. Great to be taken back to the days when I had his books on my desk. Seems he’s had a similar journey into services, though still with a focus on the user experience – which he applied here to the wider scope of services. Not much evidence of how that method could be applied to more complex service systems, but a refreshing reminder of some of the principles.

The afternoon workshops were pretty diverse. I attended a presentation on Carnegie Mellon’s work with the Mayo Clinic, which felt like a deja vu of a similar presentation at last year’s conference. Followed by “Co-creation sucks!” a flamboyant and welcom dose of energy. It basically explored the misuse of co-design in the world. All good and interesting but for me it went a bit far down the purist route, almost concluding that any designer involvement would skew the findings. Sadly, the reality of time and budget constraints mean that the designer has to intercede to help the group reach a conclusive point. That’s the thing about democracy – it’s the art of getting everyone involved AND reaching a conclusion. Great animated workshop though. And another great takeaway – “agree to disagree rather than consensus.”

IMG_0626Day one closed with an interesting insight into service design 20 years from now. Some great pie charts demonstrated that, compared to other sectors like construction design and manufacturing design, there should be 300,000+ service designers in business. Of course there aren’t, because most service businesses are served by a medley of professions, not least management consultants. It was an tempting argument for manifest destiny – although we’re nowhere near claiming anyright to the sector. The presentation went on to explore whether service design should become a profession and so provide a clear articulation of our role. I don’t even think 10 years is realistic for that. We need to agree a clear value and approach, be regarded as a coherent discipline, before we can start broadcasting it – and certainly before we can claim a privileged position.

In the evening we all got bussed up the mountain to a traditional Madeiran restaurant where we drank some local brew and watched some locals dance. The food – great skewers of chargrilled stake hanging in the middle of the table – was great and it was good to drink my way through a few more rambling service design discussions. Had to keep reminding myself how lucky I am that Europeans invest so much on learning English.

Day two opened with an interesting project from Birgit Mager. Some interesting material, although the focus on change management perhaps stretched the role of service design. I was more interested in how the change was managed through the city bureacracy.

We the heard from Continuum with a very polished presentation around using employee motivation to ensure your staff are the ambassadors your service business needs. Though this strayed into well-trod HR territory, it provided some good insight, used some great case studies and was pretty energising.

engine2In the afternoon I attended a workshop run by Engine, covering “Selling Service Design”. Unsurprisingly it was heavily oversubscribed with lots of people showing up. The guys did a great job of facilitating the session, with six good explorations covering different approaches/challenges. Ours was selling service design to a company that didn’t recognise service design or know how to buy it. We opted to sell service design to a utility company – assuming that their current heavy investment in staff and customer churn could be better directed to improving services.

engineThe six approaches fell into roughly two camps – external and internal. The former groups settled on the following type of approach – identify the client’s problem, give an evidence based opinion, illustrate how it will be fixed and then demonstrate it on a small scale (“Clients don’t buy elephants” was a good quote). The second cluster of groups focused on selling SD internally – evangelise, gather followers, create a task force, pick your projects, build momentum. Informative and fun. The guys said they’d post the six mini-projects to their site so will have to keep an eye out.

engine 3Unfortunately I missed the end of the conference as I had to catch a flight, but I found myself mulling it over during the journey. I was left wondering whether we’d moved on very far from last year. I know for a fact that one of the workshop presentations was a repeat case study from last year, which is pretty lame. But can you blame the conference for not moving forward when the industry has struggled with a tricky year? I got to thinking what I’d want from a conference next year. Here’s my wishlist:

  • We’ll be big enough to draw a major keynote speaker – a design advocate from a prominent organisation. Someone like Richard Branson who just gets the importance of good service.
  • Speakers will come from related industries eg HR, change management, product design etc. This will help inform the industry and also define our scope. As designers, we’re too happy reinventing wheels.
  • Clients will come in to talk about their experiences procuring and implementing SD projects. They’ll give a great inside-out view.
  • They’ll be more opportunity for open dialogue eg panel discussions with questions from the floor
  • People will focus on aspects of what they did, to provide focus and diversity of view, rather than the whole process of how they did it, which ends up feeling generic.
  • People will be comfortable discussing failures, as a focus on perpetual success ends up feeling like a polished pitch
  • The conference will loosen up a bit. It’ll feel more intimate and energised. Smaller main room, more time allowed for questions, more intimate compeering.
  • Cities will collaborate and host workshops. This will bring together local communities / chapters in advance and also draw out diversity of approach.
  • We’ll have a facility to sustain debate after the conference. The twiter hashtag is still being used. Maybe a Ning site would be good too. People will be able to see a profile of other delegates and contact them / follow them. I lost half my business cards along the way.
  • The technology will work seamlessly
  • There will be as much sun and even better food. Madeira set a high standard.
  • It’ll be in the UK

7 thoughts on “Service Design Network Conference 2009

  1. Obviously your last two points on your wish list are a total contradiction. Good food and sunshine don’t belong in the UK 😉 How about Switzerland or Germany?

    I’d like to see a bit more of an academia/industry crossover too. There’s a bit too much “they’re not relevant to us” coming from both sides, which is utterly pointless. The theory/practice gap is really important to plug, especially for those of us trying to teach service design.


  2. joelbaileyuk

    I agree and remember we discussed the difficulty of teaching service design at this point. Unfortuantely I missed your slides but took a look after the event. Blueprint is a great example of a tool that needs rationalising. Lots of people reinventing wheels. I’d like to champion this site – a good start but lacks critical mass


  3. Yes, the Service Design Tools site is great and we dug around there a lot, but it’s lacking a bit of content as well as critical mass. Not sure how often it gets updated.

    I had a good chat with Jesse James Garrett about the whole Blueprinting thing and I’m writing up the associated paper that goes with my presentation so that I can capture the research, thoughts and approaches a bit more for those who weren’t (and were) at the presentation. Stay tuned.


  4. One more thing. Something I pleaded for was for other service designers in the commercial/public sector to share their Blueprints, even if it means asking us/me to sign and NDA and we do the work making the examples anonymous. Otherwise it’s really hard to gauge where the state of things is at and who is reinventing the wheel.

    I also prefaced this with a point that most design companies’ processes really aren’t that special or unique (I’ve interviewed many over the years), even though a few try to sell themselves on that. The secret ingredient is never the process but how its executed. IDEO are a great example of how opening up your tools to the world helps move the conversation and discipline forward as well as positioning yourselves as thought leaders (to use that horrible new biz, innovation, blah term).


  5. “The secret ingredient is never the process but how its executed.”

    I have been thinking about this for some time in regards to the focus on design methods (and design thinking) in the design and business world. Exposure to and execution of process is no guarantee of success and reduces design to something artificially formulaic.

    I’m not sure there is just one secret ingredient, however. How design is executed may be one of them. How synthesis occurs may be another. Why process and synthesis between different designers with the same data yields different results may be yet another.


  6. joelbaileyuk

    Yes execution is key. It’s 90% I’d say. But if we aspire to be a discipline we need to demonstrate just that – a disciplined method that is shared, scrutinised and recognised. Let’s not all waste time reinventing stuff of we’ll end up like the railroad pioneers with a bunch of different gauges that don’t connect, thus undermining the strength of the network


  7. I agree completely. I’m not saying that method isn’t important, just that it’s not usually very unique, hence there is no harm to be open about it. That way we avoid the re-invention part.

    I think the reason this focus on method is so strong in the design business world is because it’s easier to grapple with that ‘synthesis’, which is the powerful part of design (IMHO) but often messy and a bit indescribable. And that doesn’t fit the quantifiable, economising corner that business has painted itself into. No wonder there’s so much talk about design thinking in business management, etc. At the same time the Six Sigma crowd want the magic formula they can learn and apply, but it doesn’t work like that.

    If you were to ask me what the difference between someone who has a designer’s mind and someone who doesn’t, it’s that ability for synthesis. It’s the stuff we try and teach our students but just getting them learn through doing projects – it’s quite hard to teach or express directly. I don’t mean that only those trained as designers can think this way – I know plenty who have real problems with this – but that it’s definitely a key feature of that kind of creative innovation. My experience is that university is pretty late in the day to engender that mindset and that it gets set at a much younger age.


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