Archive for October, 2014

On my flight back to San Francisco I reflected on the past few days at the Global Service Design Conference in Stockholm. I’ve always taken notes at conferences but this year I committed to live-blogging the event as a member of the press. That brought a different level of focus. I was essentially listening to speakers, reflecting on their words and synthesizing my response all at the same time. Which is crazy for a two-day conference with dozens of speakers.

The pace of the conference added to the challenge because there were no gaps between presentations for the audience to ask questions (or for me to write). Without that interval I found myself listening to each new speaker for just long enough to grasp their thesis before switching gears to finish my post on the previous presentation, occasionally switching back to the current speaker when a salient quote caught my attention. Twitter was invaluable for this because it crowdsourced the note-taking burden whenever I missed a slide. I continued to switch back and forth between taking notes by hand and wordsmithing on my computer as the post began to take shape.

Once a new draft was finished I submitted it without much editing and then closed my laptop in order to preserve battery power and to devote my attention fully to the person on stage who was normally at the midway point in their presentation by then. I scanned through my notes and started reflecting on the content of the talk while mentally crafting an argument. That forced me to blog mainly from my own perspective without much time for research, which is too bad.

It was a valuable experience but also exhausting and isolating. Every spare minute of the conference was devoted to catching up on my notes or typing a post and even then I found myself blogging the last few presentations of the day from my hotel room. That left little time for the social aspects of the conference since every meal and every coffee break was devoted to blogging or finding a power outlet.

Ultimately the burden of real-time synthesis interfered with my ability to be present at the conference. The alternative would have been to wait and simply blog about it afterwards but in my experience that doesn’t work. I have notebooks full of observations about past conferences in Pittsburgh, Berlin and San Francisco that were taken with the best of intentions but that have never seen the light of day.

By live-blogging the conference I returned from Stockholm with 20 posts to my credit which is some kind of record for me. I’m pleased to hear that people found the recaps valuable and I’m already thinking about ways to accomplish this type of thing more efficiently in the future.

It was nice to dust off the cobwebs here at Design for Service and reconnect with the service design community.

Denis Weil closed out the 2014 conference in Stockholm with some reflections on the emerging frontiers of design. Formerly an innovation executive at McDonalds, his perspective is that Human Centered Design and Design Thinking are each showing their age (20 years and 10 years, respectively) and that designers are becoming complacent by following these paths. He identified Social Design and Venture Capital Design as the new vanguard.

Social design has certainly established its relevance. Denis spoke about the affinity between social design, service design and public sector design and the book Design Transitions offers a contemporary overview of these developments but if 10 years qualifies as long-in-the-tooth then social design is hardly the vanguard. Ezio Manzini has been writing about social innovation and design since the early nineties with a focus on sustainability. A more direct precursor is the work of Participle in the UK and the RED group from the Design Council in 2004.

I believe that Denis makes a better case for currency when it comes to Venture Capital Design. It certainly caught my attention when John Maeda left the world of academia last year to join Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Silicon Valley. Denis sketched a few examples of startups that exemplify this model such as Airbnb, Jawbone and Nest but the idea of a community of practice centered around this niche strikes me as fairly tenuous.

Throughout his talk Denis identified the qualities of a new breed of designer and a new model of collaboration. Phrases like “radical empathy” and “outspoken risk takers” stood out to me. He emphasized that these new areas of design require sacrifice and that the patterns are still emerging. He ended by quoting Allan Chochinov from the School of Visual Arts who observed that design has been moving from the aesthetic to the strategic to the participatory. Both the design and content of the Stockholm conference reflect that shift.

I would have liked to see more of an argument about why Denis felt that HCD and Design Thinking had lost relevance and how he sees our ecosystem changing in light of the new frontiers he described. But maybe that’s a question for the next conference.

The presentation by Wim Rampen focused on his journey through the world of customer experience and service design. Wim started blogging shortly after I launched Design for Service and I remember following some of that initial journey. He spoke about how chance, luck and the unexpected all influence change and how change is hardly ever consciously designed.

To cope with the impact of change he recommended five strategies centered around recognizing the potential for positive and negative change and preparing for these disruptions in advance by building a diverse base of knowledge. It’s important to embrace potential opportunities rather than dismissing them as a hazard.

Note: If you’re following along with your schedule, Wim was originally slated to present yesterday. Things got shuffled around a little through some last minute changes, thus reinforcing the theme of Wim’s presentation.

Adam Lawrence seems to have embraced the role of court jester for the Service Design Network. It’s part of the brand he actively cultivates with his rubber chicken prop. The community thumb wrestling war he proposed with Lauren Currie from Snook offered a nice boost of energy near the end of the Stockholm conference and honestly his remote control blimp at SDN San Francisco in 2011 brought down the house.

He’s really good at that type of thing but he’s also written some insightful pieces about customer experience and service design. I’d love to see more of that substance in future conferences.

Edite Amorim invited me to sit in on her workshop exploring the connection between positive psychology and service design. I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with this branch of psychology but Edite quickly dispelled any misconceptions about the practice and instead framed it as the study of what makes people thrive.

She and her researcher Rita Pureza facilitated an activity based on the theme of “interconnectedness,” one of the basic concepts of positive psychology. She challenged the group to identify strengths in their fellow attendees. Each participant received a set of post-it notes and guidelines to circulate throughout the room, interacting with others and jotting down first impressions which were then affixed to their target’s back anonymously. The observations didn’t need to be strictly accurate as long as they were positive and made in good faith. No criticism allowed.

The ensuing activity reminded me of team-building exercises I encountered during my time as an RA in college. The attendees mingled easily, laughing and making new connections.

According to Edite the exercise was about acknowledging others, paying attention to what’s good and filling each other’s “positive bucket.” This served as a point of departure for attendees to reflect on things they were grateful for in life and to use that insight to identify the potential for new services incorporating those values.

This workshop was the only time I observed any technical difficulties during the conference. The presentation system was offline for most of the workshop and although the conference staff eventually rigged a stop gap measure it meant that the projector was unavailable for most of the presentation. This led to Edite valiantly describing the contents of her slides for the audience to imagine. It worked surprisingly well and to my mind the graceful recovery engaged the audience more than if the slides had worked in the first place.

Edite’s workshop was concerned with exploring the intersection between positive psychology and service design. I can definitely see the overlap. Some of her photographs resembled traditional design research activities such as card sorting or affinity mapping. My impression is that, for designers, the differences would lie with the form-giving activities which follow the initial research and analysis.

After receiving two duplicate badges at the 2011 SDN conference in San Francisco, I spent the better part of my first day in Stockholm without any conference badge at all. After a few unsuccessful attempts to correct this problem one of the conference organizers finally scrawled a hand-written badge.

It’s an interesting contrast because the printed badges have incredibly tiny type for an object this size. Mine you can read from across the room.

I’ve written before about the futility of critiquing service design conferences as services themselves. They’re an easy target, and the irony is overwhelmingly tempting but when the venue keeps changing every year and the events happen so infrequently it’s tough to iterate the experience itself. But the individual touchpoints you can iterate. Certainly over seven years. Here’s a great post by Michael Lopp on the spectrum of conference badges he’s encountered throughout his career.

My recommendation for SDN is to make the attendee names bigger. That’s what the badges are for. Also, we already know where we are. There’s no operational need to devote half the badge to the conference identity, the date or the location. The color coding is great, the lanyard is functional and the stamps for special interest groups are a fun idea. Just make the attendee names bigger.

I enjoyed Richard Newland’s presentation on customer experience design at HSBC. He talked about navigating the “treacle” of modern organizations and clarified that in the organizational context it’s not enough to be right. There are always bureaucratic obstacles to change. He stressed the need to build internal and external partnerships around a simple design brief that continues to be referenced throughout the intervention.

Richard was funny and self-deprecating. He disclaimed any artistic ability (“I’m a civilian”) but I don’t agree with his conclusion that design should be left to designers. He’s adamantly against “design by committee” and buttressed that opinion with anecdotes about executives with terrible taste. It’s an odd sentiment for a conference that has focused on incorporating non-designers into the design process again and again.

What I think he’s missing is that co-design is actually a research method rather than a design method. The output isn’t a design specification or a blueprint. It’s not sacrosanct. The “designs” are only a way to uncover latent needs. It still falls to service designers to interpret the results.

A hyper-caffeinated presentation from Kaiser Permanente explored the topic of discomfort, courage and reality, building on ideas introduced in the book The Courage to Create by Rollo May.

The presenters incorporated several quotes about healthcare and design at Kaiser Permanente that brought to mind Nathan Shedroff’s talk from yesterday. Things like “healthcare does not care about design; it cares about results.” But they also shared ideas about design culture and strategy that were more hopeful and proposed the idea of designers as activists.

The final quote from their presentation recognized that all designs are essentially arguments about how we should live our lives.


To kick off the final day of the 2014 Service Design Global Conference in Stockholm the organizers invited a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Tenzin Shenyen to provide inspiration. His slides are an interesting exercise in meandering reflection rather than straightforward narrative. He hoped that they would simply wash over the audience.

His stories helped the audience to recall that design isn’t always a conscious activity and even though we’re designing the world there are aspects we can’t anticipate. It’s an act of humility to admit that we can’t design everything.

Service Design Books is a co-created library of recommended reading for service designers.

The Service Design Network has some interesting new titles available on their site but not all have made their way over to the community library. If you’re more up-to-date on your reading than me please take a moment to add your perspective. It’s easy to add a book, write a review or simply rate your favorites.