Friday, June 23, 2006

Designing services and the Grand Challenges in Services

I was one of approximately 30 participants at an event organized by my colleague Mari Sako, including academics from business schools, policymakers, and research scientists and practitioners from IT services companies such as IBM, HP and Tata Consulting Services. The event sought to stimulate and structure diverse thinking about services, which constitute over 70% of some economies, into a set of questions for research and teaching. My interest was exploring to what extent the emerging discipline of service design (inheriting and extending design methods and practices grounded in art and design education, as distinct from IT or engineering) has something to contribute to service innovation.

My presentation in one of the afternoon breakouts started with a provocative question: ‘You wouldn’t design a new product without a product designer. So why do organizations design new services without involving service designers?’ The question itself is of course problematic since it’s not clear that product designers are always involved in new product development, and if they are involved, what form their involvement might take; not is it clear what service designers do, or indeed if they form a recognisable specialization in the way that ‘product designers’ do; or if the managers, engineers, and other practitioners involved in designing new services are not service designers.

My intention was to share with participants some of the current developments within design and design management: the claims of some designers that design can ‘lead’ business or social innovation; developments such as the multidisciplinary d-school at Stanford; design-led research in public services by the Design Council’s RED unit; and the emerging practices of service design consultancies such as live|work and methods such as experience prototyping (see paper by IDEO).

I proposed a number of questions for further research:
- Who is doing the ‘silent design’ in service innovation (in the sense suggested by Gorb, P., and Dumas, A., 1987. “Silent design”. Design studies 8 (3) 150–156)?
- In what kinds of service innovation are service design methods such as experience prototyping most effective and why?
- How do service design practices ‘produce’ the service user?
- Can we talk about the aesthetics of services? How does aesthetics inform perceptions of value, performance and quality?
- What should service design education and research look like?

It was striking how asking these questions from a background in design practice and design research served to alienate some participants. The conventional conference mode of professional dialogue gave way to a degree of vehemence that was unexpected: as if the ‘designers’ wanted to own ‘design’. One academic said ‘None of this is new’ and that ‘Service design standards already exist’. One research scientist from IBM said ‘I’m insulted’.

Chris Voss of London Business School, however, was able to share current research from interviews with service design companies. David Gann of Tanaka Business School at Imperial College then described the school’s involvement with the RCA’s MA Industrial Design Engineering and his group’s research into building services such as the Design Quality Indicator.
If ‘none of this is new’, then I hope I’ll quickly be directed to answers to some of the questions I asked. However I suspect the strong feeling in the room indicates the complexity underlying service design practice and its inheritances, raising questions for both designers, design educators and researchers.

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