The Gap in Service Design Education

School is back in session for many students this side of the Atlantic. I’ve been following the development of service design education for the past three years, interviewing students and highlighting projects; both at home and abroad. These days programs are springing up all over the world.

But as I’ve talked with students and reflected on my own background as a designer, it’s become increasingly clear that there’s something missing from service design education here in the United States. Co-design is barely on the radar.

When I was at Carnegie Mellon we learned about generative research methods for interaction design and how to work with individuals, but virtually nothing about how to facilitate groups of non-designers during a service design process. Even the basic methods we learned were a tough sell. I think it’s fair to say that the US design community is reflexively hostile to the idea of sharing creative agency with non-designers.

Student projects face an even larger obstacle. There’s simply no time or budget. When confronted with looming deadlines it’s tough to embrace the right methodology under the best of circumstances. And when design schools depend on the charity of volunteers for their research efforts it’s more than a little daunting to plan a collaborative workshop.

So student teams cut corners. Many of the projects I’ve reviewed rely on guerrilla user research. A few ad-hoc interviews; some fly-on-the-wall observations. Then the heroic designers retire to their studio with its virgin expanse of whiteboard. I’m just as guilty, but I’d like to shift my trajectory a bit.

Of course that’s easier said than done. Besides the work of Liz Sanders there’s not much of a framework for learning co-design values, methods or techniques. And maketools aren’t exactly widespread. Maybe it’s different overseas but I’m the product of a design culture that demands control. Designing for users rather than designing with them. And rejecting the notion that all people have within them the capacity for design.

I’m committed to bridging that gap. For the past six months or so I’ve been studying an array of participatory techniques from many different sources and working to distill principles that could be applied to service design. I’m looking for approaches that might not be rejected outright by US designers.

To that end, it’s important to address the “why.” What exactly is the problem with genius design? Why should designers embrace a participatory approach to working with clients? Why is co-design such a critical part of the service design ethos?

Over the next few months I’ll be sharing everything I discover on the topic. If you have advice regarding co-design values or methodology I’d appreciate the input.


  1. Jeff, at ID we had a presentation last friday from Jacob Burr (SPIRE). Seems like they are doing a lot of experimentation in this area. I agree though in the methods for co-design are not concrete.

  2. This is great to see and I’d love to see what you come up with. I’m shifting from teaching interaction design (which has been my main teaching area for many years whilst my practice has moved into service design) to service design. Even on the interaction/experience design side of my teaching, getting students to engage in the ethnographic research has been difficult for all the reasons you mentioned. It’s even harder with services and co-design because you really need to have the infrastructure of a service/company in place to do some of that. Whilst you can prototype services in the studio to a degree, it’s pretty hard to prototype co-design with anyone other than the other students. I think, though, that there could be some good symbiotic relationships to be had between companies, charities and the like who are interested in engaging in service design but are perhaps not in a position to afford it. Or, the other way around, for companies that have successfully integrated service design to teach the students – outside input is always good.

  3. It is true that participatory design (PD) methods are used more widely in Europe, but some PD happens in the states. Notably the PD Conference was held at Indiana University in last year (www.pdc08.org) and there are some PD oriented activities happening in The School of Informatics and Computing there. Certainly being aware of the PD community surrounding the conference and all the PD activities that happen especially in the Nordic countries would be an essential part of what you’re doing. Sounds like a good project one that is much needed and timely.

  4. Hi Jeff,

    I think this is the key element in the whole story:
    “Designing for users rather than designing with them. And rejecting the notion that all people have within them the capacity for design.”

    Over the past 3 years we’ve worked with a lot of students from different schools (design and non-design) spread all over the Netherlands. The general mindset is that as a designer you learn a skill to design something. You always need to deliver and end product to show how good you are.

    If you’re co-designing with users then how can you show what your part has been in the end result. Teachers don’t grade you on the process and approach but on the stuff you deliver. At least most of them.

    I’ve recently read the work of Katja Battarbee on
    co-experiences. It offers a not often mentioned reason to practice co-design. People shape a different meaning when they experience things in social interactions rather then experiencing them alone.

  5. Nearly every, if not all, design projects I worked on at Carnegie Mellon had some component of participatory design, co-creation, make tools…call it what you will. Interviews and observation were seen as the foundation, but actively engaging users in the design process through participatory methods was seen as required. This was done with both individuals and groups.

    On the professional side, I have brought these methods into my projects. Though I agree that time has not always allowed for extensive participatory design. And from the education side, I think there could be more teaching on leading small groups and participatory sessions.

  6. I think teaching students how to lead and facilitate small groups is probably the road in. It’s very hard to teach them true co-design without real participants I would imagine though. In the classroom they’ll always tend to be other design-minded students unless it’s really possible to get some cross-departmental action going on (always good in theory and intention, always hard in practice simply because of timetabling).

  7. Jeff

    Thanks everyone for the comments. Looks like I’ve got some new ideas to pore through.

    Andy, I think that the small group facilitation techniques are definitely critical. I’ve been doing some reading on the subject (and on facilitating large groups) but I’d certainly appreciate any leads you might have.

    Jamin, I’m trying to identify specific techniques for co-design that include a bit of methodological rigor. None of the thesis presentations I’ve attended or projects I’ve reviewed from CMU since graduating seem to reflect the kinds of things a European audience would recognize as co-design. That includes the projects I’ve posted here on the blog.

    But it’s entirely possible that I’ve just been asking the wrong questions. If CMU is teaching specific co-design techniques (aside from the Liz Sanders stuff) I’d love to hear about what they entail.

  8. Hello Jeff,

    Thanks for opening up an interesting and timely discussion. I wanted to let you know that I have been busy facilitating (small and large) groups of designers and non-designers during service design processes using co-creation tools for the past 5 years. Most of it is in relation to new healthcare experiences/environments. (I consult for a large planning and architectural design firm). Unfortunately I have not been able to write about/publish this work yet. But I did want to let you know that it is happening.

    And that the situation in Europe is more advanced, but not as advanced as you might imagine. Service designers I know there have some of the same issues you talk about. I was fortunate to be able to take part in the Copenhagen Co-creation Summit last week. You can see what is going on here: http://copenhagencocreation.com/
    It has not yet been fully updated with what happened last week so be sure to check back.

  9. Jeff, and everyone,
    in our teaching we apply several different techniques to make students learn to use co-creative, generative and participative design. With first year students as well as master level students. In design/product development course, service design courses as well as interaction design courses.

    Other interesting work to look at, especially regarding co-design activities, is the the work of Tuuli Mattelmäki, Kirsikka Vaajakallio, Froukje Sleeswijk Visser, Bill Gaver, and others.




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