Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Service design at a crossroads

Illustration credit Lisa Gornick

Lucy Kimbell
Director, Fieldstudio
Associate Fellow, Saïd Business School

Keynote at Service Design Network Conference, Berlin, 14 October 2010


A management consultant, a designer and a cultural anthropologist go into a bar for a drink.

I’ve had a long day helping my client be more efficient and more effective, says the management consultant. I need a drink. And give me a receipt so I can put it on expenses.

The anthropologist sits down next to her. I need a drink too, he says, but while I’m here can I observe what you are doing and take some notes?

The designer sits down next to them. I’ll invent my own drink, he says and gets busy creating an amazing concoction with the bartender.

The time comes to pay the bill.

The designer’s bill is €108. All those special ingredients and so many iterations. But it was worth it, he says. Drunkenly.

The anthropologist’s bill is €7 because he kept having sips of everyone else’s drinks. But he’ll have a terrible hangover from mixing his drinks.

The management consultant ends up with no bill. Why are your drinks free? ask the other two. Well, she says to the designer, I told the barkeeper how to roll out and make money out of the drink you invented. And to the anthropologist, she says, I told him to watch you going round talking to all the customers and find out why they really come here.

Can you teach us how to do this? the designer and the anthropologist ask. Sure, says the management consultant, but the next round is on you.

This story has the structure of a joke but behind these caricatures of three professions lies something more serious. I want to use this story as a way of reflecting on the origins of what we currently call service design and to raise some questions about where it might go next as a field, as a profession and as an emergent discipline.

There are a number of competing stories about service design. One is that it’s a new interdiscipline, a mix of concepts, methods and tools from several different fields, brought together to address the challenges that organisations face as they try to improve and innovate in services. As an interdiscipline it is presented as a happy fusion of the best bits of management or business, design and technology, and the social sciences. In this version of service design, the incompatibilities between the values and worldviews of these different disciplines are smoothed away to produce a better user experience and increased business value.

A second story about service design is that it is the underpinning of anything and everything. This story rests firstly on an expanded version of design usually credited to Herbert Simon (1996) who proposed that what people who want to change existing situations into preferred ones are doing is design, and that therefore design is the core of the professions from medicine to business to engineering. A second foundation is recent research in services marketing, for example Steve Vargo and Bob Lusch’s (2004) idea that service underpins all marketing transactions. If we combine these two ideas – everything is design and everything is service then – wow – service design is key to everything, and a theory of service design would have the status of a Theory of Everything.

A third story about service design is that it is going to shift designers away from their traditional preoccupation with objects and their roles in cocreating the world of unsustainable mass consumption that we live in. In this story, service design redesigns design. The UK consultancy live|work’s early emphasis on using not owning, and work by Ezio Manzini and others inherits a longer tradition in design of critique and questioning. This version of service design places an emphasis on accountability, and asks who or what is service design serving?

These are just three stories about service design – the Interdisciplinary story, Theory of Everything story, and the Redesigning Design story. There are, of course, others. No single person involved in the communities that make up the thing we currently call service design can offer the authoritative account of what it is, where it has come from and where it is going because it is messy, emergent and communal. So what I will do today is offer some reflections on what is going on around us, and pose some questions which, I hope, have something to say about where service design goes next.

Changing contexts

In what follows I note several recent developments shaping the landscape in which professional service design will continue to develop. In each of them, something that looks rather like service design is going on, but is being done in a particular way, often not called service design, or done by people who think of themselves as designers of services. By examining these trajectories, I hope to suggest what steps professional service design might take next.

Carnivorous management consultants
If you read the market research reports on utilities, telecoms, banking and other service industries, there are two important trends. First, the idea that customer experience is a way for service providers to differentiate themselves in mature markets, and second, that organizations will continue to outsource what they see as non-core services. The big IT and management consultancies are ready with their offerings. CapGemini, for example, offers Customer Experience Transformation. This starts with customer insight, then involves developing the customer journey, market positioning, identifying opportunities, and measuring results. Sound familiar? This is the high level thinking that service design consultants want to do, but if management consultants do it, then the designers are left with crafting the touchpoints. But what does not appear here is what a design orientation brings to service design: repeated quick cycles of prototyping and testing propositions, let alone the traditions from Participatory Design of engaging end users in co-design.

Clients doing it for themselves
In a context in which human resources and accounting services can be outsourced, it is a challenge to argue that design is a core capability within an organization. However in reports on the UK design industry, for example, evidence of companies down-sizing their in-house teams in 2000, shifted a decade later to organizations investing in building in-house design teams (although their budgets fell) . Once shifted inside organizations, what is lost in this translation of design’s attentiveness to experiences and aesthetics, let alone its (sometimes) critical and holistic eye? The previous UK government, for example, invested in a knowledge base for pubic service managers to help them create better customer experiences . What happens when designerly concepts and methods are appropriated by clients and propagated by them for people who don’t think of themselves as designers?

Branding on a bandwagon
For branding agencies, service design is an obvious new territory for them to take ownership of. As custodians of large brands, they claim to understand and shape the nature of the relationship customers have with their client organizations. Their core activities – developing customer insights, deep market research, crafting propositions – are already a kind of design and their understanding of what connects people to brands, and their commercial relationships at high levels in organizations, mean they are well-placed to design services. Consultancy WolffOlins’ website , for example, proposes seeing brands as platforms, by which they mean asking brands to consider whether they give power to consumers, or create ways for customers to participate in the brand value and do that with many others, using network effects. But what is not evident here is the internal focus of service design. What service designers have learned from bitter experience, or from reading some management literature, is that the delivery of a designed customer experience often requires redesigning processes and employees’ roles and paying attention to organizational culture and design.

Public services under pressure
In the new economic order, in which banks which were saved by public investment are able to go back to their ways of doing business without much censure, while public budgets are cut around the world, one thing is clear. We need new ways to understand what public services can do for us and our roles in shaping and contributing to the public sphere at a time when there is less money available to invest in them. In the UK, something that looks a bit like service design is happening, but coming from the new coalition government whose major activities since being voted in have been to plan severe budget cuts. This vision of a Big Society says “We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want.” In this vision, people come together to work together because “we are all in it together”, according to Prime Minister David Cameron. It sounds like a perfect opportunity for service designers to step in and help these citizens and communities work together and use their professional skills to guide the public service professionals who have been squandering public money. But it raises questions about what really underlies ideas like David Cameron’s Big Society – and larger questions about the social worlds that service design can help create. If we acknowledge that design is not neutral, and that the unintended consequences of designs may not be known for some years, even decades, it becomes important that service design, with its aspirations to redesigning the social, begins to engage more deeply with social, cultural and political theories about who has power, and how, and why, and ask itself to who or what as a profession service designers should be accountable.

Changing consumption practices
The final trajectory I want to point to is the challenges posed by climate change which, despite serious research, seems to be a problem for the future, rather than a problem for now. At a recent conference on enterprise and the environment, for example, speakers repeatedly contrasted the role of governments in setting targets, creating incentives and regulating to produce new behaviours that have lower carbon impact, versus the role of businesses in modifying activities to produce new behaviours among consumers. What was missing at this conference was evidence of the emergence of service ventures creating new consumption practices outside of big business, which bypass the carrot-or-stick dualism which waits for governments to act, while the planet warms up. Experiments in transition towns, sharable services and other kinds of low-carbon enterprises involve a design orientation and an attentiveness to new ways of conceiving of value. An opportunity here is for designers of services to bring their skills and knowledge into configurations in which there is no obvious client, and in which they have to become designer-entrepreneurs in order to scale up their ideas.


In each of these examples I have identified a trajectory – something that looks rather like service design but that is not necessarily thought of that way, presenting both challenges and opportunities. For each of them I have identified a question that I believe service design could find answers to. Combining them, I offer a particular way of conceiving of service design in the near future. It draws on the underlying professions and disciplines that we find in service design today, but proposes a slightly different configuration for tomorrow.

1. While managerial service design can generate customer insights and visualise customer journeys today, tomorrow’s service design can emphasize a design orientation that is centrally concerned with iterative prototyping and testing. Conducting what Michael Schrage (forthcoming) calls design experiments, this service design is well-suited to futures in which organizations need to develop and maintain an open stance about what is the right thing to do next and need help in doing this.
2. While organizations are building in-house capabilities in service design and customer experience today, tomorrow’s service design can make sure that the aesthetics of service is important. Having resisted being confused with mere styling for a decade or more, designers have forgotten how to argue the case for aesthetics mattering but should revisit one of the core things that distinguishes their work from other professions (a point also made by Cameron Tonkinwise in a paper at the Design Thinking Research Symposium 8, Sydney, October 2010).
3. While branding and marketing agencies are moving into designing service experiences today, tomorrow’s service design can bring its ethnographic eye and management expertise into working inside organizations to help them redesign operations and resources in order to deliver services efficiently and effectively but without wasting opportunities for improvement and innovation.
4. While governments find ways to reform or cut public services and call it unleashing community engagement today, tomorrow’s service design can bring its anthropological and sociological expertise into asking critical questions about what kinds of social and public worlds are being created, by whom, and to what end.
5. While governments and big business make limp attempts to reduce carbon emissions through changed behaviours today, tomorrow’s service design can combine the design orientation with a deep understanding of practices to shift from consultancy to mobilise new entrepreneurial offerings.

This is a modest proposal for a way of thinking about designing for service in the near future, which tries not to lose the particular contributions that different disciplines can make to designing for service and the important differences between them. However instead of an interdiscipline in which these differences are smoothed away, I propose a version of service design in which contestation is acknowledged and valued. To go back to the story about the management consultant, the designer and the anthropologist, this version of designing for service takes characteristics of each profession and emphasizes them. The designer insists on aesthetics, novelty and repeated experimentation. The anthropologist invests in careful, close study to understand structures and practices. And the management consultant finds ways to routinise, scale and make money. Each of these core activities has something to offer as the field engages with the challenges and opportunities I outlined above, but in unpredictable ways. Design’s traditional focus on aesthetics and novelty may breed disruption in ways that do not suit highly structured organizations. Management’s reductionism to efficiency and effectiveness may crush creativity and ignore material detail. Anthropology’s commitment to careful analysis of practices and structures may slow things down.

Returning to the three stories about service design I introduce earlier, this future version of service design is not, then, an interdiscipline that smoothes away important differences between professions. Nor is it a Theory of Everything, on the basis that everything is designed or everything is service. It is closer to Redesigning Design because it rests on an understanding of professional design practice that is concerned with (re)making the world in which we live and which we continue to shape, whether we acknowledge it or not. Thought of this way, service design has some implications for design itself.

A management consultant, a designer and an anthropologist go into a bar for a drink. The designer is drunk on his creativity. The anthropologist has a hangover from mixing his drinks. The manager is making money. This is a picture of service design today. What we do want it to be tomorrow?


Schrage, M. (forthcoming). Getting Beyond Ideas: The Future of Rapid Innovation. Wiley.
Simon, Herbert. A. (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Vargo, S. & Lusch, R. (2004). Evolving to a New Dominant Logic in Marketing. Journal of Marketing, 68(1): 1-17.

Thanks to Kate Blackmon, Simon Blyth, Duncan Fairfax, Engine, livework, Philip Hill, Alison Prendiville, Steve New, Daniela Sangiorgi, TaylorHaig and Cameron Tonkinwise for several conversations which shaped this piece.


Victor said...

Lucy -- this is probably the best synthesis of the field I've seen. Thank you. Having just returned from the Service Design Network event (sorry I missed you there) I agree it's in a rather messy state.

Though I disagree on one point that might be helpful for you to consider. One is the distinction between clients and designers. I realize this is a generalization and in the past it was certainly true that the culture of a design firm made different thinking possible. Now I see this distinction quickly breaking down. One reason is the greater awareness of the importance of customer experience and aesthetics in consumer services that is sensitizing clients. The other, perhaps more powerful, is that the first generation of digital designers are now older and moving into management positions within client companies, and hiring others with design agency experience to build skilled in-house teams (I think digital is both hugely influential in most organizations and going in-house in ways print design didn't). The level of experience of these teams means they can do the high-level design work themselves, leaving the less-experienced design firm with more procedural work.

You seem to hint the consultant-anthropologist-designer distinction could or will change, and I hope this is so. The best people in each of these fields already incorporate skills of all of them, but these labels force our minds into restricted cognitive containers. I think we'll need a new label to frame this new work.

Joel said...

Hi Lucy. Having jacked all trades from management consultant in central government, digital brand and comms agency and now in-house plugger of aesthetics, experience and behaviour change through "service design", I found myself smirking at your joke. We've talked about it before at previous SDN conferences - I'm still uncomfortable using the phrase "service design" in business as I always start by looking for common ground with whoever I'm trying to work with - working out which venn they sit in and then morphing my offer to fit the overlap. It can be exhausting and frustrating advancing in increments like this but it's effective.

My instinct is that service designers can't expect to forge ahead without this sort of approach - flexing our offer to integrate into other disciplines. The scope of our influence is potentially too large and, until we find ourselves sitting on the board dictating grand ethnographically rich projects (ie expensive and at scale), change will be affected through hard-won persuasion and collaboration (ie small and cheap).

I may be generalising, but my experience of capital 'D' Designers are that they lack patience for the sort of time-consuming slog and compromise I'm describing. In conversations with designers over the past few years I get the prevailing view that design ends with the visualisation of the service, whereas that's where it starts for me. And from discussions with buyers of this sort of design I hear a common refrain - "lots of good ideas but rarely do we actually manage to implement them". I'm guessing a product designer's job ends when the first product is run off. Shouldn't the same apply for service design?

I'm actually very excited about the sort of organic evolution we're going through. The industry is maturing into lots of different practices and fields, and being shaped in the process. Though I do look forward to the SDN conference or unconference where we can finally establish the professional parameters of this industry. I can't take too many more Christmas meals trying to explain what I do to a slightly drunk Aunty Susan...

Thanks again. Great post. Joel

Lucy Kimbell said...

Victor and Joel

Thanks for your comments. There is a little bit of fuzziness to be sure in this paper about designers and their internal and external organizational clients and collaborators, and I don't make clear distinctions here. Secondly, the story about the anthropologist, manager and designer are (un)ideal types that are making a point, not based on any real people I have met but rather trying to ask some questions about which professions or ways of thinking are leading what organizations do or can do.

I note both your points about some people combining elements of all these skills and knowledge in their work. I suppose part of my own interest is 'what does this mean for something called Design?' as an undefined grouping of professions and fields and educational contexts that continues to change. So although all service organizations are involved in designing services in one way or another, whether silently or intentionally, I'm particularly interested in what the people who call themselves designers rather than managers, many of whom come from Design-school backgrounds, and what they are saying and doing when they talk about something called "service design".

Unknown said...

Lucy, excellent post and a great, informative story. I always love your work.

As an ex-designer turned management consultant, one thing I realise more and more is that many management consulting firms, at least the proper ones with an established tradition, have a whole raft of analytic and intellectual capabilities that we as designers are utterly and totally oblivious to.

I never really knew that before, which sounds silly. But even after working in this field for almost a decade, I am still amazed to discover whole new countries of knowledge that I barely even knew existed before. This includes things like pricing expertise, strategy development, organisational design, training, capability building, marketing, customer segmentation, business process understanding, legislative expertise, etc.; each of which is really a distinct sub-discipline in and of itself.

When it comes down it, we're all subject to the competence bias, a.k.a., the Dunning-Kruger effect. Maybe this is particularly true for designers, although I can't really say.

Regarding the two most important bullets on your list about the future of Design; i.e., re-designing organisations and understanding the success conditions for entrepreneurship and managerial change, the embarrassing truth is that most designers are pretty miserable at both. It's just not our area of expertise.

We know practically nothing about how businesses are run, how corporate decision-makers think and make investments, how finance works, or any of the other numerous things which define business culture. The same is equally true for public policy. And yet despite our ignorance, we are actually foolish enough to think we know better than those who spend their entire lives perfecting these tools of the trade.

How many stories do we know of brilliant designers who alienate their staff, piss off their clients and run their business into the ground? It's almost a stereotype itself; the designer as bad businessperson.

What surprises me, on the other hand, is how visually illiterate and experientially tone-deaf many management consultancies are. What surprises me after that, though, is how successful they still are despite this.

This is changing, of course, in all the ways you have already pointed out elsewhere. But for now, management consultants know things that, for better or for worse, matter more to the people making expensive decisions in the world than the kinds of knowledge most designers are able to bring to the table. That doesn't make them better or worse. It just make them different, which is important to realise for designers trying to do what they do.

Getting back to your story, management consultants never end up paying the bill because they know the rules of billing and provide something of value that most other professions don't, i.e., how to make money and win when competition really matters. A savvy bar-owner would never hire a management consultant to actually design their restaurant or DJ their parties, just as they'd never hire a DJ to balance their books.

It's important to recognise our own limitations I think. It would save designers a lot of heartache and soul searching, in the same way the management people don't loose sleep over awful looking PowerPoint decks. Acknowledging that won't make designers any less powerful,it will actually free them up to offer more valuable and useful insight in the areas where design contribution really counts.

Unknown said...

PS - Per my previously posted comment, it almost goes without saying that designers are masters of things most MBA types can't even perceive. I guess my point is that this is the problems. The MBA guys rule the world, which means what they tend to perceive as valuable is what gets heard. Anyway, just wanted to clarify that slight point.