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.

china-bridgeCathy Huang & Xue Yin from CBi China Bridge spoke about shifting China from an industrial powerhouse to a service powerhouse. From making goods to providing services that deliver goods.

They recognized key differences between traditional Chinese value systems and western value systems common to service design. Because of this divergence, western service design practices have not been successful in China. Instead, service design requires a different approach to get traction with C-level executives in China. Their tactic was to focus on organizational elements using the metaphor of the relationships of Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Water, Metal, Earth. This led to insights into Strategy, Leadership, Culture, Creativity and Data that were more widely adopted.

In their experience, clients better understood the value through this framing. The SDN Shanghai chapter has been successful in promoting this approach.

Katie Koch from Spotify spoke about integrating service design into organizations. This was a great talk about what has worked in her experience.

Whose job is it to practice service design in a product company? In her early career she focused on a traditional model of design for designers to control experiences. Her views have changed based on experience collaborating with teams of stakeholders.

She used service design at her previous financial service job at American Express and brought that experience into her new job at Spotify. They have 60 designers in eight different offices around the world. Her squad in Stockholm is focused on particular aspect of the customer journey. Their group focused on reducing the barriers to adoption.

Their process is: Think it, build it, ship it, tweak it. That allows them to iterate the experience from things that are okay to things that are great.

For designers, that poses some challenges. It’s harder to think more broadly and strategically. The connection between siloed experiences can be lost. Katie promoted service design at Spotify to solve this but it’s tough to shift product-minded people to a service perspective. She noted that service design is not magic.

She recognized the tension that service design represents to agile or lean processes. Thinking strategically is tough when everyone else is focused on shipping.

Katie acknowledged that they needed to shift how they used service design so it fit into the process of a fast-moving team. Is there a way to get the benefits of the service design process along with the pace of lean or agile?

The first step involves building relationships. Think of stakeholders as partners. Learn about them as people and not just requirements. Drop the idea that you need a formal service design practice. Just talk with each other. Bridge gaps between silos.

Next, make things together. Once you find allies; start making things like journey maps. It’s tangible and understandable for new stakeholders. Focus on tangible and participatory journey maps, storyboard, service safari. Service blueprints, task analysis, mental models can be abstract and complex. Use small products to build service awareness.

Throw away your artifacts. She encouraged designers to work at a low fidelity at the beginning of a project. Her admonition to throw away your artifacts reminded me of Marc Rettig’s YAGNI acronym (“You Ain’t Gonna Need It”). Use just enough fidelity to move the conversation forward but the process is a means to an end; not an end unto itself.

Birgit Mager, the founder and president of the Service Design Network spoke about the history of service design and the organization’s place in its development.

Service design as a profession did not exist when she began teaching in 1995. She shared a quote from Design is Invisible: “It is not the tram that makes transportation a successful experience. It is the schedule.” This is essentially the difference between process and outcome service experiences. Twenty years ago they had no vocabulary for the design of services but designers were able to essentially invent techniques that are more commonplace today.

But in 2000, London saw the introduction of service design agencies such as Live|Work and Engine which had migrated from interaction design and experience design. Practitioners and academics met in 2003 to create the service design network manifesto. Formal programs began teaching service design as Ivrea and Carnegie Mellon.

Service Design creates services and that useful and usable and desirable from the customer perspective and efficient, effective and different from a provider perspective. They framed service design as interdisciplinary. The design doesn’t know everything; they function through co-creation. Methods and tools were important to this early incarnation of service design.

The first Service Design Network conference in 2008 was held in Amsterdam. The SDN purchased a supplement in the Guardian for over 10,000 euro in 2009.

In 2010, service design choreographs process, technologies and interactions within complex systems in order to co-create value for relevant stakeholders.

In 2012 the network began to focus on the return on investment and government agencies began to take notice and request service design.

She shared a project from Lufthansa in 2014 that showed how far service design has evolved over the past three decades. Demand for service design agencies; service design moving from front stage to back stage, business perspective; measures of impact.

She shared a brief glimpse of an Evolution Map. She cautioned designers to maintain some control over the quality of their deliverables and not create 3-day workshops that unrealistically make people into service designers. I would have liked to see some more expansion on that point because it strikes me as counter to the ethos of co-creation.

Holger Hampf from BMW Group Design spoke about the evolution of the automobile industry from one focused on manufacturing. He acknowledged being new to the world of service design and instead focused on how digital experiences are being integrating with the automotive world from a product design perspective.

He spoke about a paradigm shift in automobiles from driving machines to a digital device as a trustable and reliable co-pilot. He projected that in 10 to 15 years the focus might shift to the automobile as a lifestyle space. Essentially quiet time in your 2nd living room.

The disruptive service economy was top of mind in his presentation. Add to that the expectations of experience-savvy consumers who are used to high quality digital experiences and he sees the need for an iconic change. New driving experience such as autonomous driving, and e-mobility are the most important elements in creating a unique customer experience in the interior of the future

Two examples of companies that are transforming themselves are a German lighting company Erco, who are not selling lighting fixtures, they’re selling “light,” focused more on the result and less on the hardware. The second example is well known in the world of service design. Rolls Royce doesn’t sell engines anymore; they sell service and maintenance of their engines. They’re selling runtime; engine power by the hour. I believe there’s more about that shift in Pine and Gilmore’s The Experience Economy.

But what does that mean for BMW? It’s critical to anticipate user needs. It’s not about bending sheet metal; it’s about an emotional experience. To communicate with the driver BMW is creating a new digital architecture for the car interior; roughly 1000 icons that communicate status; even he doesn’t know all of them. Some of the icons he showed were especially cryptic. His design group is learning and has room to improve in this regard.

85 / 15 was his characterization of the division between analog and digital experiences at BMW. But to be relevant there’s an opportunity to blend the visceral elements of product design such as aesthetics, functionality, ergonomics and material quality with the experience as a behavioral element in terms of usability contextual intelligence and flexible customization.

He ended by framing the car as a delivery platform for mobility services.


The 2016 Service Design Global conference at the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam is set to begin this morning. From a glance at the program is looks like there are quite a few speakers I haven’t heard at past conferences. I’m particularly looking forward to Joe Macleod’s talk on Closure Experiences just before lunch.

I’ll be blogging each of the sessions I attend this year. All the rest should be on Twitter under the #sdgc16 hashtag. If you’re in Amsterdam stop by and say hello.


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.

Anna Whicher and Paul Thurston from PDR closed out the Future Directions session of the conference by speculating on the next five years of policy trends in service design through 2020.

Their presentation began with a bit of a roll call to demonstrate the balance between government employees and designers in the audience. More than a quarter of the presentations at the conference this year were from government.

They shared a trend toward more inclusive, transparent policy making and the potential for design to engage with the political system. They also shared some success stories from over 100 workshops for 1000 government officials to learn hands-on service design methods for policy.

Less encouraging, the team also reported the results of a design survey conducted in the US and UK where less than half the organizations surveyed used any design at all. I’m not totally convinced about the numbers because only 14% admitted they even used design for styling and that’s the basic thing that every organization already knows about design, whether it be logos, web pages, signage or printed material. That number should be somewhere around 100%.

At any rate it called to mind a pair of studies from the late 1980s in the UK that explored organizations using design without calling it by that name.

The final part of their presentation focused on nine trends in the design innovation ecosystem:


  • Agile procurement will become the norm.
  • Government digital services.


  • Growth in niche design support programs
  • In the past they were broad (small businesses, etc)


  • Design promotion will be treated as a strategic investment.
  • Design investment in a very high level.
  • Promoting awareness and capacity of design in private and public sectors.


  • Thirst for knowledge. Increase in courses and training for service design.
  • People are asking about accredited courses.
  • We’ll see specialized design courses for government services.


  • Using design for policy making (not just for service development)
  • Using service design research with seniors exploring euthanasia.
  • A provocation to enable debate.
  • Design in innovation policy.


  • Design in innovation funding programs.
  • Government support for small companies is quite common.


  • Design and research getting closer.
  • The connection between the two domains is tightening.
  • Design research as a flagship investment priority.


  • Job specifications for policy makers will include design skills as standard.
  • Two examples of current UK contracts.


  • Government as service design agency.
  • The opposite of the acquisitions trend.
  • Internal groups will spin out as private industry.

It was interesting to see the speculation about internal groups spinning out as private industry. That’s essentially what happened with Participle in the UK eight years ago. The trend in the opposite direction toward design firm acquisition has certainly caught people’s attention; I’ve heard it mentioned in several presentations throughout the conference.

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.

Cameron Tonkinwise and Terry Irwin from Carnegie Mellon spoke about their ongoing efforts to redesign the curriculum in the School of Design across several design tracks and areas of focus.

They summarized these efforts in a 32-page monograph called Transition Design 2015 [PDF 635k]. I haven’t had time to dig into the details but it immediately called to mind the RED group’s influential 2006 paper on Transformation Design in the UK as well as Pine and Gilmore’s framework about transformations representing the final stage of the evolution from commodities, goods, services and experiences.

Terry framed service design as a key component of designing for transitions and the long-term future. Carnegie Mellon has always set itself apart in its approach to interaction design which goes beyond interactions with things to interactions between people, the built and designed world and the natural environment.

The shift in Carnegie Mellon’s curriculum represents an evolution with service and social innovation take center stage along with a new emphasis on transition design concerned with system level change and an awareness of place.

Cameron’s half of the presentation was more aspirational and caused the only moment I witnessed during the entire conference of spontaneous applause from the audience.

He pointed out that transitions are at the heart of service design. As service designers, we’re designing roles for people and transitioning them into new relationships with co-workers, organizations and customers. This focus on the employees of the service in addition to the customers is a key distinction between service design and CX or UX design.

He also cautioned that as a community we may not have the right organizational forms for transition design. Stand alone consultancies are often too small to efface long-term change. Teams within management consultancies typically deliver commoditized plans and aren’t built around longer-term engagements. Teams within corporations are often too insular to reach beyond their local mandate.

Finally, he presented quite a bit of new service design literature, including a paper by my former advisor. I’ll work on digging up the references and adding them to my service design archive.

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