Founder at Resonant Design and Innovation Ltd, former Head of User Experience at Plan
24 November, 2015
I guess I'm not a typical service designer, because my background is mainly in UX design – I studied industrial design that I think taught me design discipline, approaches and processes that have been very beneficial, partially because industrial design goes over thinking about purely digital solutions. Having that background, trying to learn how to apply myself into different areas has been valuable. Equally, I very quickly went into management consulting at PA Consulting, within an IT-based practice background that was pretty good for me, understanding more about business, the commercial side of things as well as bigger IT challenges.
So that gave me very interesting foundations before I went deeper into the user research and experience design. I mean, I've always been interested in that and in my degree course I was thinking already about how to connect products, services and systems when other people were just making nice objects. When I left the management consultancy, I went to Flow Interactive – that later became Foolproof — very much a research-focused agency where I didn't do any project that wouldn’t have primary qualitative user research in it. A lot of people say that there are time or budget constraints – but, now, I always find a way to do research. The critical thing is learning how to cut the right corners.
I also spent time in digital agencies in places like DigitalsLBI, and within those projects I did a lot of work in healthcare and financial services: we were taking service level vision across things - whether that was specific aspects of the physical products to digital services channeled through mobile devices, or a whole new digital service.
But I actually left LBi to join a company called "The Team"; they were part of the Loewy Group which included Seymour Powell, an industrial design consultancy/research consultancy, and "The Team" wanted to try bringing this user centered design into all the different work. It didn't quite happen like that: we were involved in projects that were sort of “service design” – for example one of them called "Knowhow", involved Currys' and PC World, and was aimed to create an online service similar to the shops stores experience: we collected a lot of insights but they haven't really been translated into a real vision that worked.
I was also continuing a lot of work I had done in healthcare before I went to RMA Consulting. That was very much related to employee and staff applications: I always believed that in order to create a great customer experience you need to create great employee experiences and thinking about the interactions they have with customers, so I have been very deep on the backstage side of things. When I left there I went to Plan Strategic, a very well respected but pretty unknown design consultancy which is more focused on physical products, design management and product strategy, and I went there to help developing a sort of user experience / service design strategy offering. They did a lot on experience design in physical design language on physical devices and consumer electronics, but they didn’t really go into digital services so much. So I worked on a couple of projects there and I’m still working on one of them right now that is a classic service design piece to do with transportation, the sharing economy and services that go across many physical, digital and human touchpoints with a lot of complexity.
I can't say too much about it, but generally is a new transportation service for London: it's been done by an automotive company and they are looking at different ways to move people, not just by owning cars. They are trying to experiment and I'm now leading the project – we did some very interesting, rich research around transportation and prototyping while I was at Plan - but they also have to deal more with the nitty gritty side: bringing that service to life and managing all from call center scripts to email campaigns and marketing. So that's what I'm doing at the moment, aside from an in-car project for another client.
I have noticed some change. Years ago I went to some of the service design conferences and I was pretty much annoyed about all the service design things they talked about, but then I went to another one a couple of years later and I thought: "hey what's going on? It has matured!” I think it’s finally understanding that those projects take ages to be done and they require a lot of patient and persistence.
It's not about setting up some diagrams and applying this “pretty holistic view”.. It's usually way more complex! And it also showed me that actually, the contempt that service design has had with user experience, was getting even more laughable, because actually they were doing digital services. And digital services are exactly what user experience people have been doing! Just because UX has become predominantly about digital, it doesn't mean you don't have to deal with all those system levers.
It was just funny, and it is still funny that those days there's still a separation! I mean both practices are meant to be human centered in some ways and yes, service design tries to look at a broader canvas, but user experience has become this small thing focused on the user interface side. I believe it is just unfortunate because good user experience people are not that at all. But, to be honest, in user experience there's more roles, there's more money to be paid, it's more tangible what can be done with it.
I still want to believe in this wider, holistic view, but I just think it's really hard to do it and it requires a lot more business appreciation and maturity.
I remember asking some service design students that were working on a project how long they thought it would have taken for it to be actually realized and they replied something like "three months, six months maybe..?" But we are talking about a 5-10 years projects! It takes ages! One of the things that I’ve seen in a single frame of their storyboard was like 10 years worth of work by itself!
However, I've seen more a few clients requesting it. And I've seen also some more recognition in the States where they were they were talking about it as “experience strategy” and design thinking. But it never really got hold as much as service design did, which is more a European focus. So it seems like the US is picking up on those things and as the US market does, they are very good in self-promotion and inflating the value and I guess we will see more of that.
I really don't know about the future. I think there are increasingly more consultancies buying user experience/digital studios. And they want to do more of the bigger system-thinking: when they don't just have UX people, they use some of their business analysts to understand cultural changes - I talk about the Deloitte, Accenture, EY, buying the agencies to try get into that space. And they're the better places to actually do those complex pieces of work because of the relationships they have with the legacy software and with very senior stakeholders.
The real challenge with them is that you have the small design thing at the top - which is almost leading the sexy sell and often doesn't get bought in the project - and the reason they want that is that there's a whole source of systems implementation and support that follows: millions of pounds, years of contracts that follows those ideas. The difficulty is that, if you are in the design part, you can't recommend something that doesn't mean you are going to get all of that later value for the onsell. This is why I do believe in a sort of level of independence as well, where you want to go when you want some sort of independent advice: the thing is that, as a company, I might just want a little bit of work that is cheaper – and that's it. So I think there's a role for independent agencies as well.
There's an opportunity for brand agencies as well and they are trying to fill that space. They can better define which set of product and services a brand might need, but they just have no idea on how to execute it down to the detail. And I think all of them have a role to play.
Digital agencies are huge as well. Companies would come to them because they do the tangible part, but they also probably have got thinkers in there. But when you are a minority within a majority, how do you manage that? Do you try to diffuse those skills across the whole organization? Or do you try to train more people to make more "designers"? Do you make designers out of nothing? There's probably just more demand than supply of good people: I think we need to better educate and diffuse those skills and mindsets into all these organizations and then focus on where we bring the best value. Which is not going to speak about design thinking all the time, or doing the hard work rather than the system thinking!
It's a little bit of all of those things and also better communicating these ideas. Coming up with good ideas is not just enough. It's about communicating them brilliantly, engaging people – and we're back in making diagrams again and that’s not all bad! When you show a diagram, a slide, you are selling (and naturally distorting) a confident, clear, robust idea. Even if sometimes it's a lie! We don't know clearly what we are talking about because its "foggy", but at the same time we need to go back to the advertising world and know better as designers how to sell. Selling should be our best asset, as we are communicators. We might not always be the greatest at thinking - as designers we are full of too many ideas - and we might not have the crystal clarity that others have. In order to obtain it though, you need to get rid of the details and focus on the interesting stuff, and sell. And that means being economical with the truth. It's not necessarily lying, it's just – you can't tell the whole story, because that doesn’t sell anything. We have to twist data sometimes, like advertising people do – but we also have to do the emotional sell – "big driven insight", "creative ideas"... We can deliver and we can sell it, and I think that the more consulting side of things is learning how to infiltrate organizations' people and convince through "poisoning the water" - or just knowing people's emotional needs and cultural differences. To actually influence people, you need to connect deeply to people's motivation, and that's a consultancy thing! Designers are often too pure to entertain such tactics.
Social innovation is interesting. I had a few problems with social innovation: when I used to really dislike service design it was because it was full of people saying “oh we’re going to cure world hunger". It was so ethically skewed that it didn’t make any sense. I mean, I care about the people and the world where we all live in, but I'm a designer and my mission is not about making the world a better place. I'm being paid by a client that needs to have some results. You need to make sure the client is happy, understanding the market, the needs of people and designing better systems and solutions. But when it comes to users’ needs versus business values, then I'll focus on business value. I have to prioritize that: that's me as a designer. I'm not doing exactly what they say but what I do is about giving them something more which goes beyond – and that's the consultancy part. I'm not an artist, I'm not self-expressing. There's too much design and activism going on and it goes against the professionalism that clients need from us.
Yeah, there's always going to be someone in the organization who wants to do something more meaningful and this makes them feel better. I'm glad to do something that makes people happy, I only say that sometimes you need to prioritize money. Too many people spend their time in this difficult area. As noble as it is - it's just not easily translatable in the commercial world. But for what I look at, all this commercial work can create social impact. Sometimes the social impact is greater, even if less measurable, within that commercial work, rather than in some "design a community" project. For instance, the companies that are being criticized because of selling cars, well I believe that without their contribution our cities would be different, our shops would be different. I know there are bad parts that today got to a point where it is all almost unmanageable, but overall I believe is mostly being positive, through connecting people together."So, I have my own ethics.
Another aspect often sold as a deeply ethical business is the healthcare. I remember when I was doing things in healthcare businesses, a peer within the agency who was doing a lot of financial work said to me "stop making out you are actually better than me because you work in healthcare: it's more corrupted then anything". And he was right! It is still, often, private sector business and individuals trying to make money.
I see people criticizing technology for being anti-human. I don’t see anything more human than technology: it’s the thing that separates us from other animals. We create technologies that make us better humans by empowering us, amplifying our abilities. The problem designers would have, is to find a way to use those technologies in a good way.
So, I have my own ethics. My problem with the social innovation is that I don’t see who's to judge what is good and what is not. And why do they always have to show-off what they do and make the things you do look like they don't matter? Ethics is such a personal thing. And the reality is that most of the people honestly just don't care at all.
One of the common criticisms I make to service design graduates is – how could you tackle things in-depth but holistically? Even though I have not been trained in every discipline, I believe I can actually feel more comfortable managing complex situations because I’ve gone deeply in a couple of the fields covered by the multidisciplinary service design. There's an interesting key skill that I believe is massively missed, but could be useful to have though: copywriting. I wish I was much better at that! I think it's so important: everything we do is around words and pitches. Being able to convey so much in a word is so valuable!
My feeling is that interaction design itself as a discipline is fundamentally core to service design, and the reason to this is not so much related to the graphic interfaces but actually to the principles around discovery, understanding, comprehension, feedback and flows. Actually you can zoom out to a macro level and we are talking about human to human interaction vs human to computer. That's what interaction design is about: how people think, how people perceive. With interaction design you can adjust that. So in my view we will see more people going from interaction to service design because it is all about designing broader interactions.
I can see it stabilizing. I'm not sure I can see myself in the position of working across multiple projects at the same time – unless I go back working for an organization. I hope it will not be only digital, hope I will get more into physical design – connecting products or whatever they are. I miss a bit my industrial design background, I hope we'll reach a level where we understand when it's appropriate to do that and when it's not. So, I don’t know yet clearly what I’ll do in the future, I just hope I’ll have the chance to do the things I really love to do.
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