Thursday, December 16, 2010

A year in designing for service: 2010

This time last year I said something like service design was now pretty established. So what do I say a year later? Avoiding any single metaphor I could it's a little bit firmer, a bit bigger, a bit more rounded.

In the UK, the year has been dominated by a limited economic recovery and the general election in May, with speculation about what that might mean for public services.The only question was, how big will the cuts be? Even once the Conservative-Liberal Coalition formed, months passed before the cuts in public spending began to take shape affecting nearly every area of public life. What this means for public service commissioners and managers is that service design might be reframed urgently as "how can we do more for less?", with additional pressure to be more transparent and accountable.

But into this mix came a new term - the big society (experimenting with lower case here as a form of resistance) - which is still to be fully defined although this early articulation of the vision remains useful. Since the big society is supposed all about local empowerment, innovation and new ways of doing things, this would seem to be an opportunity for designers, especially service designers but I think it is slightly to early to tell. There are various efforts to understand these developments and seize on this as opportunity for professional design. The Design Council, Institute for Government and NESTA hosted seminars discussing different aspects of the big society, while a review of DOTT Cornwall's work, which has seen the application of design processes and methods to a range of socio-economic issues in Cornwall, proposed this work as an example of big society in action. But is (service) design ready to take these issues? One person I interviewed, responsible for local government services, saw designerly design as a way of achieving innovation - but a key issue for him was the capacity of the organisation to understand its value. The question of the value of design, including service design, will remain an important one for the next year, something that was a key part of the conversation at the Design Management Institute conference in London.

In terms of numbers of people, the Service Design Network conference in Berlin suggested that business was thriving around Europe and Brazil too, with a separate conference in the US. The ServDes research conference in Linköping, Sweden, which I was not able to attend, picked papers which included, to my reading, a bit more rigour but still familiar names rooted in design disciplines. In academic terms, special issues on service design in development at the Journal of Behaviour & Information Technology and International Journal of Design will support a more peer-reviewed dissemination of developing knowledge and on the PhD-Design list there were a few sparks of interest in service design. I'd still like to a see a conference that brings together a mix of speakers as varied as Steve Vargo, Pelle Ehn, Wanda Orlikowski, Lucy Suchman and Tony Fry to talk about designing for service but that might be a year or two away, or never. When I look at the pages of consultancies I know the numbers of employees and associates are still small. The twittersphere suggests to me that service design is still a small community where agreement, rather than difference and dissent, is valued but this is of course shaped by where I am looking. (Please dissent below.)

One of the most exciting examples of service design came from somewhere unexpected. What we Londoners now call Boris bikes (after the current Mayor Boris Johnson, although they were planned by the previous one, Ken Livingstone) is known officially as Barclays Cycle Hire. Similar to schemes in other cities, the London scheme allows you to unlock a bicycle from a docking station, ride off, park it at another station, and be on your way cheaply, efficiently and without producing much carbon dioxide. It was rolled out and runs without a lot of fuss - well designed, well implemented, well used, and already a familiar part of London life. Launched in July, by December there were 108,000 registered users (according to the Evening Standard). Who was it designed by? Why, that well-known service design organization Serco, which designs and runs all sorts of services including prisons. The scheme is a great example of the internet of things realized as a service (including RFID tags in the bikes and data on the scheme made public and presented by various people such as here). It presents a challenge to most discussions of service design I hear. Firstly, your "experience" is constructed at least as much by your own pedalling, road sense, and the weather, as by the touchpoints in the service. And second, the service would not exist without considerable investments in political, institutional and financial capital; the designing of the organizational ecology and the associated processes is as much a part of the service as the bikes or the apps. One aspect of the service I am less impressed with, pointed out to me by Alison Prendiville, is the way the branding (in Barclays Bank's blue) has how made its way around much of inner London, competing with other London brands including those of the borough councils, Transport for London and the Mayor's office.

New books included Christian Bason's Leading Public Sector Innovation, partly drawing on his organization Mindlab's work in Denmark. A highly illustrated book edited by Marc Stickdorn (in which I have a short chapter) also came out making the claim This is Service Design Thinking. I look forward to seeing where the "thinking" tag moves things. Finally Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers' What's Mine is Yours became a (nice-looking) text to wave at people to prove - look! - things ARE changing for the better. I'm looking forward to books including Daniela Sangiorgi and Anna Meroni's and others in progress by Joe Heapy at Engine and Ben Reason, Lavrans Lovlie and Andy Polaine, and there are bound to be more.

My own circumstances changed. After five years on the faculty at Said Business School, my fellowship came to an end and I left, somewhat unhappily. I will still be teaching my MBA elective there, which brings to the class experiential learning of design practices, knowledge of design management and a particular focus on designing for service. In 2009-10 48 MBAs took the class; I have yet to hear how many have picked it for this academic year. I finally finished a paper on service design I've been writing for three years. I did keynotes on service design at the Design Management Institute conference (the text is here) and at the Service Design Network (the video is here). Leaving full time research has however freed me up to explore the value of academic research in consultancy, particularly around service innovation and I have enjoyed working with Engine researching the drivers of change on service organizations, and culture-led service and organization design with TaylorHaig. I also helped Derek Miller and Lisa Rudnick at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research organize an event looking at the possibility of bringing design-based approaches to security programmes and policy. Next year I might finally get my book proposal to the the meantime, happy new year.

v1.1 with errors corrected, sorry, MrStickdorn