ServDes: value, trust, transparency, ethics and shared expertise

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 StefanJohan (on the left) and Fabian (on the right) for the very generous Swedish welcome and the awesome conference.

4 thoughts on “ServDes: value, trust, transparency, ethics and shared expertise

  1. Hi George,

    Cheers for posting this, really interesting to hear your point of view.

    So, value. I must stress these are just my own thoughts, off the back of your post.

    I think what is important is that we understand who we are trying to provide value for, and what the value we are providing is. What you describe wonderfully is the different levels of value, and I think service design in general has been focused on one of those areas more than the others. Working within the public sector the predominant value that a service design agency would bring used to be that a better service experience would be provided for the user. We are all aware of a people centred approach to design.
    This comes back to the point of having the passion and desire to improve peoples lives in a way. I don’t think this drive and passion should change or will ever change as it is this empathy, understanding and passion that leads to innovative solutions. However what I think will have to change in terms of the value proposition service design agencies will provide is they will need to prove an element of economic value. In other words are you saving us money, or can we decommission services or let people go as a result. This is extremely tricky ground and it requires a really sensitive and thorough approach. If the value you are providing is that you make a service more efficient, or more cost effective and that results in job losses then it is a very difficult thing to get your head around. Its the horrible fight between providing something socially good on the one hand, but then effectively adding to a social problem (unemployment) on the other.

    In terms of measuring the value, what service design agencies working in this space will need to adopt more of is the SROI methodology. Despite being quite a complicated and time consuming process there are ways in which we can adapt some elements of it and feed it into the work we do. Borrowing and learning from this process and reflecting it into our work will be essential in clarifying the value. I think this already happens to some extent but sometimes is perhaps not objective enough.

    Its a really good way of being able to balance the value you are bringing in terms of social improvement against the financial costs, and also reflecting the costs and savings on a much wider scale taking into account a huge array of factors. I also think that having a deep understanding of SROI adds value because you can ensure that the value you are bringing is “real”.

    What is also massively interesting is when the value of the work you have done is measured.

    Project work, I feel sometimes doesn’t translate particularly well to the design, development and then implementation of services. If you are commissioned for 4 months it is going to be a big ask to get to the stage where a service is functioning fully and successfully.
    The social, even the economic return on that investment will not be abundantly clear when the project ends, which is when evaluation of the project often happens. There needs to be a series of evaluations after various time scales to truely understand the value that has been delivered.

    One solution to this I have felt would be to set projects up slightly differently. So you are commissioned for three months full time as a team, and then subsequently are employed by the organisation for 1 day every week for a following four months, to ensure smooth transition.
    Another alternative that I think is starting to unravel, and I think will become far more predominant this year is service design agencies taking a more entrepreneurial approach and starting social businesses, using the knowledge connections and skills they have. I think in this instance its interesting in thinking about the value this could bring.
    This way you are free to evaluate and test the value you are bringing constantly.

    As you said, and I agree, it does seem that their is value in the process or journey of organisations or communities working with certain service design companies. The exposure to collaborative new ways of working, all being introduced around a cause etc definitely has merit. My fear is however that service design has often over relied on this excess value brought about by the process. Im not saying it shouldn’t be acknowledged, just that it shouldn’t ever be the focus.
    To me I think of it was the excess energy, its not its main purpose despite being a lovely side effect.

    I was going to chat about ethics too…but I appear to have rambled. Maybe later. 🙂



  2. Hi George,
    I enjoyed very much your interesting comments about Servdes and critical analysis about responsibility and aims of the disciplinary area of service design. Agreeing with Joe about the necessity of adopting a SROI methodology to evaluate the impact of service design projects, I’d like to add a small comments about ethics. There is a curious book by Alex Voorhoeve, “Conversation on ethics” (you can read a review by Prof Shlomo Cohen here:, where he interviews some famous philosophers on the topic. Among them Daniel Kahneman talks about our frequent irrational moral judgements. I think that working at projects involving social matters we have often to front some difficult dilemmas and of course the new experimental methods advocated by Don Norman are a solution, like a sort of risk analysis applied to design. It can be useful also analysing past failures, but maybe, as you underline in your post, transparency and honesty would be more and more critical points of our projects. Practicioners and users have to be involved in co-creating, co-producing the service, but also, as much as possible, in sharing the responsibility of policy decisions, being informed about the pros and cons, about the scarcity of resources and about how their lives will be conditioned by the effects of the project. Also service design needs to face in some cases a Malthus dilemma…

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