Archive for the ‘observations’ Category


The SDN Global Conference in Amsterdam is distributed across several buildings on the Westergasfabriek grounds. I’ve set up shop over in the theater for the balance of the morning. The topics focus broadly on Expanding the Service Design Palette. I’m looking forward to the speakers but incidentally the theater venue from 1885 seems much more conducive to blogging because I can set up my equipment in the wings with access to electricity and a table (or at least a bench).

Update: this didn’t work out quite a well as it could have; primarily because the theater is smaller than the main hall and the sold-out conference resulted in several dozen attendees sitting on the floor.


I’m really looking forward to the 2016 Service Design Global Conference later this month. After eight years the SDGC is returning to Amsterdam on October 27th and 28th and the Westergasfabriek looks like an interesting choice of venue. Amsterdam will be a first for me this year but I’ve attended the SDN conferences in Berlin, Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm and New York and I’ve been thinking about the differences.

Last year the SDN tried something new with distributed proceedings between buildings on the Parsons School of Design campus in New York. It’s a beautiful place with some fantastic architecture but the weather didn’t cooperate that week and scurrying back and forth through the rain between sessions was a distraction. I was live blogging the proceedings as I did in Stockholm the year before but the New York venue imposed itself on my awareness in a way that hadn’t been a problem at any of the earlier conferences.

Juggling a laptop, tablet, voice recorder and camera in theater-style seating with a packed crowd and locked-down campus internet isn’t really the best way to cover a live event. Especially when you’re constantly relocating. If you see me zealously guarding my place at a table in Amsterdam this year, now you’ll understand why.

For the past couple conferences I’ve been attending as a member of the press but logistically I’ve been on my own. This year things are a bit more organized. Daniele Catalanotto will be blogging many of the sessions and SDN photographers will be providing a pool of imagery. There’s always going to be some friction running a conference at a new venue but I’ve wondered whether it might be possible to do this job from home by asking an SDN intern to Skype the sessions to me over a video call.

The downside is that I would miss out on connecting with the people who make the Service Design Network so vibrant. My hybrid role already cuts down on socializing during the conference and I’d hate to miss that part of it altogether. And I don’t want to wait another eight years to visit Amsterdam.

Maybe there’s a middle ground. All services need to consider not only the needs of their customers but the needs of their staff. This year I’m formalizing my relationship with SDN a bit more and I can see a future with a press table off to the side of the main auditorium stocked with the accouterments of a home office and functioning as a hub to synthesize interviews, video, photographs and presentations into a live conference stream.

We’re not quite there yet, but maybe I should check in with Daniele and ask about his strategy. I’ve got a day or two in Amsterdam before the conference starts. Maybe we can find a way to smuggle in a table from IKEA.

Olof Schybergson and Claudia Gorelick from Fjord spoke about the need for continuous innovation. They started with a disquieting quote from Matthew Bishop at the Economist Innovation Forum who observed that the pace of change will never again be as slow as it is today.

They spent their talk exploring these shifts in innovation and the conditions that drive change, pointing to three aspects that influence customer expectations:

  • Direct competitors
  • Experiential competitors
  • Perceptual competitors

Customers have been conditioned to expect magic but the most profound technological changes over the past decade have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Slow hunches rather than sudden bright flashes. Olof pointed to the development of the iPhone as the synthesis of existing technologies with uncommon execution or Amazon’s development of one-click shopping as an outgrowth of their dominance in supply chain management.

They proposed that the current decade is building on the success of the web, internet and mobile technology with the emergence of “living services” that are profoundly customized for each user and that serve as the antithesis of the one-size-fits-all strategy at the heart of the industrial revolution.

Living services have the ability to learn, evolve and change over time. Olaf and Claudia predicted that these living systems would have wide-reaching effects on our homes, bodies, families, education, work, transport, finances and shopping. I enjoyed the followup question from a biologist in the audience who observed that living things eventually die…

Ultimately, Fjord tied this back to service design with the observation that user centered processes were already at the heart of the discipline. That positions service designers to help organizations grasp the importance of user-centric understanding.

Camilla Buchanan from the UK Cabinet Office spoke about designing social investment.

She didn’t define the term and it wasn’t clear to me from context, but a quick search turned up a definition: “Social investment” is the use of repayable finance to achieve a social as well as a financial return. Essentially loans and equity arrangements to fund social programs around areas such as youth unemployment or homelessness.

With a background at the Design Council, Camilla was most interested in the design patterns behind successful government programs. She saw value in a grounded, practical discussion and complained that those types of tactical details were often missing from case studies in favor of broad themes and high-level strategies.

She made the observation that you need to be able to translate that high level vision into concrete results. How do you get there from here? In her experience, the policy folks are creative already and don’t need as much help with the empathy side as with the operational aspect required to take control of some aspect of the experience.

I heard this theme a few times during the conference from presenters who claimed no shortage of ideas among their clients but a real deficit in operational knowledge required for implementation.

Camilla shared some examples from her experience and showcased other organizations around the UK focused on similar goals. She also offered a framework of ideas around social investment:

Knowing the users

  • Questionnaires
  • User Research
  • Changes how we see our constituents

Clear and visual communications

  • Shouldn’t seem like gloss
  • Elegant and legible design
  • Clear presentation paves the way
  • Habits around legible mapping
  • Norms of visualization

Framing problems

  • Exploratory area
  • Design in a non-design context
  • Want to see higher level project patterns
  • Blueprints, etc

Camilla ended with a plea for others working in this area to share project patterns in order to help network with others working on these problems. From her perspective, design is good at generating insights but the handoff back to the policy team can still be a little rough.

Yegor Korobeynikov and Mikhail Belyaev from Aventica spoke on how to design new urban experiences. They used the case study of Innopolis, a newly established city in Russia designed specifically to attract highly skilled technology workers.

One of the questions asked during the Q&A afterward captured my general sentiment. The questioner asked “is this a real thing, or is this fiction? Because it sounds incredible.” He was referring to the idea of creating a new city from whole cloth for a particular target market with no established services or infrastructure. Which, to be fair, seems a lot harder than trying to update an existing city literally anywhere else in the world.

To me it sounded like the company towns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries where timber or mining organizations would establish temporary communities on the frontier for their workforce. These company towns were built around the commodities they were extracting. Innopolis seems like an updated version for the 21st century to attract tech workers, but since tech can be done anywhere it’s hard to imagine a fabricated city being a better draw than actual cities with actual culture.

Yegor and Mikhail shared several examples of city-based services from around the world and then moved into the idea of the city itself as a service looking at the macro-level, mid-level and micro-level across social, information, services and the physical realm. Many of the ideas seemed like scaled up versions of a college campus where every conceivable amenity, from food and entertainment to housing and utilities are available in one place.

There’s also a bit of resonance with the planned, walkable communities that are a facet of New Urbanism pioneered by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Those places are built around design guidelines that are desirable but rare in the modern world. The Innopolis example seems much more centrally controlled than places like Seaside, Florida or McKenzie Towne in Calgary. I’m curious to see how it unfolds.

Sandjar Kozubaev, a Ph.D student from Georgia Tech spoke on the concept of Transmedia Storytelling and how it might relate to service design.

He began with Henry Jenkins’ concept of Transmedia Storytelling in which integral elements of fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.

  • Spreadabilty/Drillability
  • Continuity/Multiplicity
  • Immersion/Extractability
  • Worldbuilding
  • Seriality
  • Subjectivity
  • Performance

He illustrated these concepts through the books, films and media environment surrounding the Hunger Games franchise.

The idea behind this presentation was interesting, but other than a brief, tantalizing chart, Sandjar failed to draw any substantive parallels between transmedia storytelling and the principles of service design embodied in user centered ideals, co-creation, sequencing, evidencing or holistic scope. This was left as an exercise for the audience.

Luis Alt from Live|Work in Brazil gave an awkwardly placed presentation during the Methods and Tools session that was almost certainly intended for the Selling Service Design session across campus. He acknowledged the complete mismatch without any real explanation and directed us to the Live|Work website to learn more about tools and methods.

Instead, he started with a question: why do you do service design? He spent most of the presentation focusing on the emerging climate for service design in Brazil and sharing some ideas from his upcoming book.

Rather than summarize a Service Design 101 talk, I’ll follow his advice and direct you to Live|Work’s website for more on service design tools and methods.

Sarah Brooks and Julia Kim presented on their work with Veterans Affairs for the US Federal Government. Their project was part of a transformation within the US Federal Government, using service design to change the relationship with customers.

VA is the 2nd largest federal agency in the United States.

  • Healthcare (largest system in the US)
  • Social Services (employment, education, loans)
  • Government Agency

The system is brittle at three levels.

  • Strategic: Mistaking tactics for strategy
  • Operational: Products and services are not well-designed, deeply siloed
  • Local: Human touchpoints

Much about the VA is designed in Congress. They know their constituents but their solutions aren’t rooted in design research. There are legal restrictions but it’s possible to find some gray area for innovation.

The VA aspires to do right by their customers through three principles:

  • Predictable: Be transparent, set expectations
  • Consistent: Have systems in place to achieve minimum standards
  • Easy: Make it easy to be a customer

The team conducted immersive research with thick, qualitative data. They talked with over 100 veterans over many weeks of field research. Importantly, they including veterans who weren’t actually using the service. The team came up with 7 personas.

Building a co-design competency within the organization by training employees. Planning new interventions for the coming year to work directly with customers.

Also working to consolidate hundreds of VA websites into, launching later this year.


Birgit Mager and Kerry Bodine presented the 2015 awards to kick off the final day of the Service Design Global Conference in NYC.

Birgit helped to launch a service design competition in Switzerland in 1998. But there were not enough examples of practice at the time. The board decided at SDGC14 in Stockholm to launch a new competition for service design for the 30k people affiliated with the SDN.

Award Criteria:

  • Clarity of presentation
  • Relationship between cause and effect
  • Clarity of results
  • Holistic and multi-channel
  • Organizational change

Prototyping for Organizational Change

  • Travellab: Airline Prototyping
  • Thick: Re-imagining Government Services

Results-Driven Service Design

  • Hellon: People’s Pharmacy
  • Designit: Redesigning Breast Cancer Diagnostics

The awards were not just an example of methods, but of the impact of service design. The projects were exhibited in a gallery at Parsons. The winners hail from Finland, Norway and Australia.

Jon Campbell from Continuum in Boston and Dr. Munib Karavdic from AMP Financial in Australia gave a presentation on building a sustainable engine for growth within established organizations.

The number one issue for most commercial clients is getting ideas commercialized and into market. Not generating ideas or developing them, but launching them.

AMP partnered with Continuum.

Disrupt or be disrupted. Industries need to adapt but actions don’t ensure the best outcomes when it comes to impact on the market. Results are paramount. Companies need to focus on the implementation. They underestimate their ability to find or acquire new ideas but overestimate their ability to implement new ideas.

There are a range of ideas. Incremental Change is comforting. Cold Fusion is aspirational which is comforting because the technology isn’t there yet to worry about implementation. In between is the “scary zone” where implementation becomes difficult.

The Implementation Dilemma:

  • Don’t focus on the wrong problem (nice landing; wrong airport). Build the customer case first rather than the business case.
  • Avoid expensive approaches.
  • Organizational constraints.
  • Measures for success based on time and budget

Three critical elements of an innovation pod.

  1. Empowered Team: 5-7 individual full time pulled from the core business. Availability is not a competency. We need the best of the best: business, design, product, marketing, digital. Led by a design lead and business lead who report to an offer owner no more than two levels from the C-suite.
  2. Physical Space: Co-located space for the team members. New governance model for this team. White boards, tack surfaces, posting space for artifacts. Behavioral perception vs space configuration; the space needs to feel different AND look different than their normal environment.
  3. Common Approach and Tools: No handover. Front end design-led core tam carry through to the end market test. Back end business-led extended team is integrated from the beginning.

They also identified some important enablers for innovation pods.

In terms of training, they created a common vocabulary around the project, so that everyone understands concepts like “prototyping.” Not everyone needs to be a designer, but they need to share a common language throughout the organization.

There are also elements to minimize the appetite for new risk.

  • Outline leaderships risk tolerance
  • Place small bets with market tests
  • High fidelity front-end, low fidelity back-end
  • Measure ROL (return on learning rather than return on investment)

Finally, some thoughts on radical transparency and the importance of communication. Check-in sessions and brown-bag lunches. Then distribute those reflections throughout the organization.