Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What if…? …..Report on Service Design Network conference 2009

Report on Service Design Network conference 2009

The conference archive including presentations is here.

My (short) conference paper is here, and a recent longer essay: Kimbell, L (2009) 'The Turn to Service Design' in Julier, G and Moor, L, 'Design and Creativity: Policy, Management and Practice', Berg.

This is a partial and highly particular account of the Service Design Network conference, Madeira, which I attended a few weeks ago. It’s partial since I do not aim to give a full account of what the conference was trying to achieve (as I understood it), nor everything that went on, which others have been doing much better than I could. And it’s particular, because I attended and spoke at it in my current manifestation as a researcher and educator situated in a management school and involved in teaching on the MBA. My remarks below should be read as critical reflection that I hope will be of use to others, some of which I have already discussed with the organisers. I raise what I believe are important questions for an emerging community seeking not just to survive but also grow, as it thinks about how to create new institutions and ways of validating its knowledge.

While I have a background in interaction design practice and live art, now supplemented by a vast amount of reading in management fields, anthropology and design theory, I am concerned at present with the body of knowledge on which a service design profession or even discipline might rest. What do organisations, groups and societies need to know in order to design for service? How can they go about designing for service? Who should be involved in designing and why and what ethical concerns exist about co-design, participation and accountability in designing for service? What kinds of knowledge are relevant and what assumptions and world views are they based on? What happens to “service design” when “non-designers” (such as marketing consultancies and management consultancies) take on some of these practices, do them systematically and routinely and at scale, win the clients and do the projects? What are the strengths and weaknesses of a designerly approach to designing for service? The SDN conference was not a good place to go to get answers to these questions. This is not to say the event was not of value – I enjoyed hearing from Joe Heapy (Engine), Lavrans Lovlie (live|work), Ben Reason (live|work), Bas Raijmakers (STBY), Bruce Tether (Imperial College) and many others (although I didn't need to travel 1000km by air to meet them).

I will comment in detail on one talk, not in any way as a personal attack but rather as the most clear example illustrating my concerns, which apply to the event as a whole. In their presentation, Craig LaRosa and Jon Campbell from Continuum talked about employee motivation in service design. To me, a European, they came across as arrogant, an interesting counterpoint to the more modest presentations by UK/Nordic consultancies the day before. It was a very polished, enjoyable presentation – full marks for use of rhetorical devices – but I was left disappointed by the sense I got from the speakers that no one other than a Designer could produce useful knowledge in relation to the design of service. Perhaps that is the case - but I doubt it.

There were two examples from their talk where there is extant literature the speakers seemed unaware of. First, the idea that employees in service organisations play an important role in constituting a service – interesting, yes, but that’s what Bitner et al were looking at in their paper on critical incidents in the service encounter in 1990 and Solomon et al in 1985. That’s well over 20 years ago. Second, the speakers shared insights about the gap between expectations raised by service organisations in their advertising (such as United Airlines) and the actual service delivered. A great insight – and one that is captured in the 5 gaps model of service quality created by Parasuraman et al in 1985, again over 20 years ago. But there was no sense from these speakers that they felt they had any responsibility as designers to keep track of relevant literature or – even better – work out what new research was needed as part of efforts to design better services. If this view is true, and is one that is shared by other individual designers and consultancies, then the knowledge upon which a professional field of service design could rest is unlikely to develop significantly.

Some may argue that it’s not a designer’s job to go and read academic literature. However I believe that these days most designers, consultants and design educators would see research as part of design. For the practitioners spanning anthropology and design (eg the anthrodesign mailing list), research – which includes reviewing what is already published – is a very important part of their work. I am not going to suggest how individual designers or consultancies should go about their work, but I am interested in what an emerging field of professional practice thinks it is doing, how it understand its knowledge, practices and institutions in relation to those of adjacent fields and the rewards it gives to its leading figures. Earlier I asked questions about what was involved in designing for service. But in terms of a developing profession, there are also questions of what constitutes good service design practice and who is defining what ‘good’ means within the context of professional standards. One particular challenge faced by those involved in designing for service is how to understand the social - not something taught in many design schools, still hampered by a legacy of craft and objects.

On the plane home I sat with several other participants who also had to leave slightly early. I asked one of them – a leading figure – if he had learned anything from the conference. He said he had not. It seems to me that if a network such as this, however young and under-resourced, is not stretching its core community, then it may not survive.

This journey allowed us to digest and share our different experiences of the conference. I began to think about my impressions as a shortlist of if onlys which I have now translated to a list of what ifs, which serve as my benchmark for future service design conferences.

- What if the conference brought together those interested in designing for service, broadly conceived, rather than mostly service designers educated and practising professionally within Design?
- What if that definition included those from services marketing, management, innovation, information systems and adjacent fields?
- What if the people present, speakers and participants, did not assume that the social worlds which they are involved in designing for, and which their designs create, were not just givens but were things to be researched and interpreted?
- What if there was no underlying but unpsoken assumption that “design” is owned collectively by researchers, practitioners and educators rooted in design schools?
- What if the keynote speakers came from outside the core field, to help articulate the boundaries between it and other fields?
- What if members of this community actively took responsibility to extend their knowledge by reading literature from diverse fields? (see Jeff Howard’s blog as a generous example of someone digesting existing literature for others)
- What if members of this community began to think seriously about the underlying assumptions about knowledge and what constitutes “the social”?
- What if practitioners who are close to action began to identify and share where they see gaps for further research, whether through practice or academia?

Image: £20 note showing moral philosopherAdam Smith, a foundational figure in economics whose work underpins the idea of exchange value, now being challenged by scholars such as Vargo and Lusch (2004; 2008) who suggest we attend to value-in-use in order to understand the transition from a goods-dominant logic to the emerging service-dominant logic


AK said...

Great review. I agree with your sentiments (even though I wasn't there) but wonder whether designers might be overshadowed (and probably bored) by some of those who are involved in services and systems design. Perhaps this should be a conference for designers (and their ilk), curated by designers, but showcasing fewer designers and more clients, economists, engineers and academics who can respond directly to their practice. A.

Kimberley Crofts said...

I think your 'what ifs' could serve as a menu for a good many conferences, design-based or otherwise.

Fergus Bisset said...

Indeed, a great review Lucy and nice follow up comments AK. Its long struck me as ironic that a discipline that is so focussed upon, and accomplished day to day in visualising complex relationships or system diagrams seems to struggle to define or map itself in those terms.

Perhaps, some of your thoughts Lucy can be attributed to the objectives of conferences in general as supposed showcases of 'new' contributions to knowledge. There undoubtedly should be a place for such 'new' knowledge to be shared but whether an annual conference is best for this in a largely applied discipline that shares so much online from day to day is another matter.

Kind of reiterating what you have said, I wonder instead if as a young discipline, the theme of the next physical real world conference should be looking around for existing examples of service (design) thinking in established bodies of research and knowledge - information systems, supply chain management, ergonomics, voluntary organisations and attempting to integrate with those fields rather than differentiate ours. For example, visualising what service design looked like 50 years ago or one hundred years ago. Perhaps this is where the performance art/exhibition museum design and some of our established role playing methods could come in useful...

camerontw said...

You are right to single out the Continuum presentation. It is in negotiating the role of service employees that the politics of service design is most explicit. That is to say, it is at that point that it becomes clear whether service design is a depoliticized tool of managerial control, or a politics of 'meaningful work.' This is the point of the paper Lara Penin and I contributed to the IASDR Conference a couple of months ago. Academic literature must be part of the expertise of service designers, not just because it is a repository of what works and what does not, but also because it is supposed to be a space of critical questioning (as opposed to design crit); in other words a prompt to worry about the politics of service work.

luisAlt said...

Interesting post. I would like to see more comments and counterpoints from people who were there.

A note I can leave here is that in last year's conference we had keynotes from an Austrian mobile company and McDonald's. Although they were working with service design initiatives inside their companies, they weren't service designers. At least that's what I recall. (Correct me if I'm wrong anyone!)

It was interesting!

Lucy Kimbell said...

Thanks to Cameron for highlighting the questions of ethics in relation to service design, that I failed to mention in my brief discussion of Continuum's presentation.