A couple weeks ago I had the absolute pleasure of attending ServDes, the Nordic Conference on Service Design and Service Innovation. Held in beautiful Linköping in the middle of the South of Sweden (Swede’s seem intensely proud of which bit of Sweden they’re from so I thought I better clarify that), the research conference was focused on ExChanging Knowledge. Acknowledging that most publications in the field of Service Design have focused on establishing the discipline, the call for papers for ServDes was an explicit invitation to those in research and practice who wished to contribute to developing the service design knowledge base to:
“…openly discuss challenges of the field. Changing Knowledge is about investigating the fundamentals in service design and challenging the knowledge inherited from the disciplines which service design has grown out of. Exchanging Knowledge refers both to integrating knowledge from other fields and the ongoing conversation between conference participants with their various roles; consultants, students, in-house, clients and academics”
The full conference programme, linked to all the papers presented, is available on the conference website. Better still you can view videos of all the presentations on the conference Vimeo site. The conference kicked off with an unconference day; myself and Fergus Bisset hosted a room exploring Evidence Informed Practice in the Design of Services. You can read our session outline here and we’ll report the day in another blog post shortly. I really enjoyed the day, we met some fantastic people with a range of views and we had some great input from people on twitter who weren’t able to be at the conference….but more on that later.
For now I wanted to just offer a few of my highlights, thoughts and reflections. I’m sure these will develop over time and more blogs will follow but this post in itself is way overdue now so I wanted to put this out there as a starting point. I have chosen to just offer random thoughts, grouped where possible, but not linked to the conference programme in any structured way – partly because I prefer chaos, partly because I’d like (at some stage) to comment on some of the papers in more detail and partly because it all merged into one amorphous collection of thoughts in no small part influenced by the pre-servdes chats and the learning and conversations outside the conference proper. When looking through my notepad of scribbles and drawings from ServDes I found a napkin on which I’d scribbled a bullet pointed list of the key terms and phrases that seemed to emerge throughout the conference – the top four for me were value, trust, transparency and shared expertise. As good a place as any to start methinks.
Value – what a biggy. Value came up again and again, with reference to the value of service design as a discipline and of design more generally. Katarina Wetter Edman reported her (PhD??) study on value in design, you can read her paper here. She referenced Graeber’s four (anthropological) perspectives on value: the concept of doing good, value in a monetary sense, value as meaning and meaningful difference and value as action. WetterEdman’s research found that designers don’t talk about value, not as an explicit concept, the v word was rarely mentioned with a preference given to talking about emotions, contextual understanding and helping others. Within that, designers tended to focus on value in use and/or economic benefits – the real challenge of this perspective of course is that value is a value-laden and individualistic perspective (apologies for stating the bleeding obvious) and therefore how designers understand and share ‘value’ is key to success.
Value is without doubt key to judging what the outcomes of good service design are. It struck me time and again at ServDes when I asked people why they were interested in designing services or what service design is (I’ll come back to that in a later blog post), that almost everyone made reference at some point in their answer to wishing to do good or to the fact that they wanted to make a difference. I admire, respect and whole heartedly support anyone’s intention to do good or make this world a better place – however as genuine as I am in that sentiment, I am also incredibly wary of the damage that good intention’s can do when left without recourse or measure! This may all sound terribly worthy (and at some level you’d be correct to view it as such) but in few other professions would young graduates be given free reign and direct contact with people relying on services without any support, checks or balances – personally I think this is less of a concern when relating to someone’s experience of their supermarket shopping trip than raising their hopes about their ability to influence their lives, their community, their health service or something else of significance for their future.
In my opinion one feature common to both the concept of value and the intention or wish to do good is ethics. Without a consideration of ethical standards I’m unclear of how anyone can have confidence that they aren’t doing harm, or indeed that they are making a positive difference and doing good. The topic of ethics came up a few times at ServDes – probably more in the informal break and lunch conversations than in the papers, we discussed it in our EIP unconference and Sarah Drummond made reference to it in her case study presentation, building on some of our earlier conversations and some topics we’d thrashed around the night before. Sarah was reporting the Getgo Glasgow case study and drawing on her experience gained through her Masters studies, you can read her blog post about it here. Sarah’s blogpost that followed her presentation drew heavily on Don Norman’s post, Why Design Education Must Change, which deserves a blogpost in its own right to continue the conversation. Don’s post complements the unconference discussions we were having around the use of evidence in design, he states:
Science is difficult when applied to the physical and biological world. But when applied to people, the domain of the social sciences, it is especially difficult….Designers, on the whole, are quite ignorant of all this science stuff. They like to examine a problem, devise what seems to be a solution, and then announce the result for all to acclaim.
I’ll discuss this further in a later post but would like to think that the time is coming when designers will freely, openly and confidently discuss the ethical implications of their work. Which brings us on to trust and transparency. I’ve been digging around trying to learn more about service design for just over a year now; the notion of designing for services make sense to me, I am certain that service and experience of service is as, if not more, important than product – my interest is in the journey, not just the outcome, and yet I was tentative about attending ServDes. In part this was because I had followed the SDN (Service Design Network) conference in Berlin from a distance, dipping in and out on twitter, and was even more sceptical about service design at the end of it. Throughout that conference the twitter stream was predominantly self-promotion, lots of patting on the back, lots of bigging each other up, very little critique, discussion or reflection – obviously I wasn’t there but from the outside I was left underwhelmed and sceptical about the value of attending ServDes!
For those of you reading this with an understanding and unquestionable belief in service design I’m sure this may come across as quite harsh or unduly cynical, however I consider myself to be a service design agnostic – I’m just waiting for more proof! I was a little nervous about how I would find ServDes and how open people would be to discussion and debate, to questioning and challenge. It is fair to say the whole conference experience far exceeded my expectations from this regard; I met some fantastic people who seemed equally ready to have these discussions and I think some were even seeking them (that or they were all just exceedingly polite with me). I found a humility about service designers which on the whole I had not felt before – maybe that is what comes from immersing yourself in someone else’s discipline, maybe it was the effect of people being able to be honest and let their guard down (in the absence of many clients), maybe it was an environment created by the explicit focus of the conference on openly discussing challenges in the field or maybe it is just the stage in development that the discipline is at, I’m not sure which but I was blown away by how honest (some) people were about not having all the answers. For me there is a real need for trust and transparency – designers don’t have all the answers, none of us have all the answers, so the earlier we admit that the easier things are. From what I heard at ServDes there is very much a focus on multi-disciplinary working and/or gleaning tools and techniques from many different established disciplines and for this to be successful, people need to be honest. To build successful and ongoing relationships between customer and client, between designers and users, people need to trust each other and be transparent in their dealings.
Which leads on to my final reflection about shared expertise. In my experience to date in life, most progress is made working in a team, with a range of people who between them hold a broad spread of skills, abilities and approaches. I can’t imagine that successful design is any different. There is an absolutely solid evidence base about what factors help and hinder multidisciplinary working and lead to best use of shared expertise. Common challenges are around identifying a shared starting point, a common language, a way of working and creating an environment where people feel able to question the status quo and admit when they don’t have the answer. ServDes was a great success for me in this regard – the designers, marketeers, students and academics I met were all open to my alternative approach, in fact I felt very welcomed into the conference (no small achievement for someone with a below par starting point, a different professional language – evidence anyone?, and an irritatingly challenging approach to learning new stuff – which is a glossy way of saying if I don’t understand something I tend to ask too many questions); I very much hope that the conversations that were started at ServDes – both in person and through twitter – will continue to develop over the coming months.
A massive huge TACK to everyone from the Cognitive Science Dept at Linköping University who arranged ServDes; to all the volunteers and especially to Stefan, Johan (on the left) and Fabian (on the right) for the very generous Swedish welcome and the awesome conference.