Is this peak service design, and if so, what should we do about it?

Blog post
Niall Shakeshaft

A journalist recently posed me a rather leading question. She asked me if I thought service design might be completely over-hyped and if maybe in ten years' time, the whole field might even be viewed as something of a joke? I thought for a few seconds, before attempting an improvised defence of my profession. What follows is a more considered version of that defence.

I believe, that yes, the industry may indeed be somewhat over-hyped, maybe even a victim of its own success. Some kind of backlash may be coming, but I believe that design is here for the long-haul and will play a major role in the future of business and society.

Although highly personal and subjective, this is the perspective of someone who entered the industry as an outsider in early 2014, but since then has gained a very broad and deep appreciation of service design through hands-on work with dozens of clients across many industries, throughout the Nordic countries and beyond.

Presentation slide describing buyer personas as part of an exercise in VTT's service design training
Part of VTT Design’s mission is to bring service design and other human-centric ‘pull innovation’ methods into VTT research projects.

The rise of service design in business and society

At the beginning of 2019, design— particularly service design— has become widely adopted in both the private and public sectors. The fundamental driver for this has been digitalization, through the rise of firstly the Internet and then the smartphone. The early adopters of digital service design were of course service companies, such as banks and telecommunications operators, who initially sought to use digital channels as a way to gain cost efficiencies by automating and digitizing their customer processes, but then went on to see opportunities to differentiate by designing better experiences along the entire customer journey.

But product companies have not been far behind. They see the possibility of wrapping services around products, creating a continuous relationship with customers and thus the possibility of earning recurring revenues in addition to one-off product sales. Companies also began to see how such digital services would naturally give access to a wealth of customer data that could be monetized through a variety of 'two-sided' business models. During the last five years, I have become very used to executives proudly confiding in me that they want their company to become the Facebook of their industry. If data is indeed the new oil, it seems that service design is the preferred way to start drilling for it.

Design has also become an important part of the start-up world, not only because so many start-ups are digitally-native, but also because design is the best way to establish hypotheses about customer needs, then quickly begin creating prototypes to test them and accrue 'validated learning', thus iterating towards product-market fit. In the last ten years, Lean Startup has become the dominant method for entrepreneurs and service designers have become some of its leading exponents.

With its emphasis on putting people and their needs at the centre of any problem, design really is a genuinely transformative way to approach a wide variety challenges. All value, even in seemingly abstract business-to-business contexts, is ultimately human value which can only be realized by meeting real human needs. At its best, service design is evidence-based and outcome focused, a powerful framework to identify, prioritize and make ideas actionable. It empowers technology and business by placing them at the service of people, not the other way around.

Bracing for the backlash

However, the demand for service design has grown far quicker than the availability of good service designers. This has led to several unintended consequences that pose risks to our industry as it prepares to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Universities, colleges and private educational providers have begun to offer a wide variety of ways to learn service design, ranging from short seminars to in-depth degree programs. Students have flocked to them all, drawn by the promise of learning highly marketable new skills.

Management consultancies and technology service providers have also been quick to spot the rapidly expanding demand for service design and have tried to meet it by growing or acquiring agencies and scaling them as quickly as possible. They have also brought Design Thinking into their own core offerings, converting consultants into 'design thinking facilitators', sometimes in just a few days or even hours – and of course offering the same process as a service to their clients.

The market is now flooded with new design agencies and new inexperienced practitioners. Of course, this means the quality of their work varies wildly, at the same time as they make bold, far-reaching and sometimes outlandish claims for their results and impact.

In particular, Design Thinking, despite its rich and noble history, has today been commoditized and most often is just shorthand for executive entertainment -- a workshop consisting of fun 'creative' exercises, strewn with Post-It notes, done without much preparation or follow-through and with the more deliberate and time-consuming steps of research, prototyping and experimentation usually ignored.

Corporations now also increasingly look to design agencies to help them act more like start-ups. Some advocate 'move fast and break things' approaches to new product and service development that lack rigour and largely ignore strategy and feasibility. In these circles, 'roadmap' and even 'plan' have become dirty words. Such dogmatic adherence to pure 'prototype and iterate' produces results that are often obvious, lack ambition, don't have much business impact and contain massive technical debt – if they are even feasible at all.

The large established design agencies are also often guilty of massive hubris, living the maxim that if you have a good hammer, then any problem starts to look like a nail. Many have begun to offer their clients 'design-driven', deep-reaching business and cultural transformation programs. Although design definitely has a key role to play in the future of business and can have a positive influence on a company's culture, these approaches often just boil down to placing a design team at the centre of a company, then running workshops, training sessions and projects and hoping that good things will happen. They ignore decades of management research and practice while promising that a company can be made fundamentally more innovative, agile and profitable in almost zero time.

So writing in early 2019, this really does feel like some kind of peak and a backlash may indeed be just around the corner. There is a real risk that the service design baby may be thrown out with the bullshit bathwater. Given how much value good design offers this would be a tragedy.

What do we do about it?

Although there are risks in the current state of the industry, I believe the long-term prospects for design are very positive. 

Those of us who are passionate about design need to make sure we double down on craft and quality, while encouraging a culture of honest and challenging critique. We need to kill anything fluffy in our methods and craft and make sure that whatever we do, we do with rigour. We need to be firm with our business leaders and clients. It is better to walk away from a bad brief than to accept it and then deliver bad work. 

We also need to acknowledge that although very valuable and necessary, service design alone is not sufficient to deliver good work or even to sustain a good career in the long term. We all need to become T-shaped individuals where service design is our common horizontal framework, but we all have at least one vertical area of deep craft, whether that be interaction design, visual design, prototyping, design research, creative technology or business design. Business design in particular needs to mature as a craft. Design teams need to hire business designers who are real business people who understand strategy, operations and finance and can truly talk that language with clients and other stakeholders. Interesting new craft areas such as design for data and design for emerging touchpoints such as augmented and virtual reality are already appearing. In the future we can expect to see the rise of new craft skills such as perhaps design for artificial intelligence, design for privacy or even design for ethics.

Designers also need to commit to collaboration. Doing a project with only designers on the team may be appropriate for pure customer or user-experience work in an easily understandable business-to-consumer context, but as we seek to address more complex problems we need to form joint teams with business people, technologists, engineers and scientists.

For those of us who are willing to commit to quality, craft and collaboration, the future looks very bright. We need to be bold enough to advocate for design and to take on the biggest challenges and yet humble enough to acknowledge the limits of our skills and embrace real collaboration with other disciplines.

Infographic showing how VTT's City Tune model calculates how factors like mobility, population, education and economy affect CO2 output, water consumption, for example.
VTT CityTune concept prototype of a digital service for city authorities. Developed by VTT’s Smart Industry and Energy Systems group, in cooperation with VTT Design

At VTT we are already beginning to bring designers into the same projects as our researchers, not only to design our future customer experience, but also to collaborate on solving the major global challenges that drive our purpose. How can we renew industry? How can we limit and even reverse climate change? How can we more wisely use and re-use our planet's resources? How can we create a healthier, safer and more secure future for our children and their children?

The future needs good design. It will make an essential contribution to creating a world that has people at the centre, making sure we solve the biggest global challenges for the benefit of us all.

This article originally appeared in the book Sisustusarkkitehtuuria palvelumuotoiluun edited by Laura Honkasalo.

Niall Shakeshaft is Vice President, Head of Design at VTT, based in Espoo, Finland. During an almost 25-year career, spanning four countries, he has held a variety of technology, business and design roles as both a consultant and in industry. He holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Electronic and Electrical Engineering from the University of Bath, UK and an MBA from Aalto University School of Business, Finland. The author would like to thank Antti Kilpelä, Mox Soini, Leena Rantasalo and Mika Toikka for their comments and opinions while writing this article.

Niall Shakeshaft
Niall Shakeshaft
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