I am writing this post because I am curious about the status of the early Service Design community, the pioneers of Service Design.


Tell me! How are you doing? What is the general feeling of what you’ve accomplished and where you are heading?


It has been 10 years or so since a new group, a new generation of professionals, started to develop and work within the field of what they called Service Design. These people, some just graduated, entered a field already occupied by a multitude of experienced academics, marketeers and consultants.


The community started introducing a new language, style of communication, a collaborative and sharing spirit and, from a traditional consultancy perspective, an unprecedented openness. This openness, some would consider it to be naivety, is what made these pioneering people different, attractive but also extremely vulnerable to the business 'sharks and dinosaurs'.


And as we all have noticed Service Design is getting more attention from business. This growing awareness and interest also triggered some aggression from the more traditional professionals… So we must be doing something right.

Unfortunately competitiveness and attacks are an accepted part of the business world, openness and vulnerability are not. And as service design takes a holistic approach it is almost by default we are trespassers when we naively wander into the fields of qualitative research, ethnography, innovation, business consultancy, change management, marketing… the list goes on.


And what about the pioneers? Are we successful now, have we “professionalized”? It seems so. But as a sad consequence the online Service Design conversation amongst pioneers has almost disappeared. Why? Is it because of the hostile takeover of the conversation by ‘real’ business consultants the ones so lively, inspiring and generally uplifting Service Design conversations on e.g. blogs and Twitter has died? I have been told that this is a reason. Another reason: we just got too busy working. I know I have… but maybe we started to take ourselves a bit too serious?


However, it is my experience that the growing interest also has resulted in a better more sustainable client – agency relationships, resulting in more and higher quality projects. Speaking from DesignThinkers Group, our gut feeling and numbers foresee a bright future indeed.


It seems Service Design has a foot in the door of big business. A door left open by traditional business consultants, consultancies and other established agencies whilst under growing pressure to re-invent themselves. Service Design took them by surprise but it might also be their ticket to survival. And they have already started to adopt the Service Design lingo. A question I have; Are they taking over the Service Design conversation? Seems like it. And will they, after learning how to actually do it, close the door again? Probably. But this will take some time. The traditional consultancies are organized after the same model and just as inflexible as most of their clients. Maybe they should hire a service design agency… oh wait… they already do :-)


I was and proudly remain part of this new Service Design movement, as part of a larger wave of transformation, and I have been watching how competitiveness has grown; a healthy development since it indicates that a more mature market is emerging. There are more projects, we can finally create a benchmark for what is good Service Design and a good Service Design agency and the quality of the deliverables, the value created for the clients, will increase.


I am not going to try and retrieve what we lost as a community. Things change. We still have plenty of fun. But I have been missing the rich conversations. They were important to me and helped me with my first baby steps in Service Design.


So answer me this; How are you doing? What is the general feeling of what you’ve accomplished and where you are heading?

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Comment by Arne van Oosterom on February 11, 2013 at 15:44

Hi Rick,

As an Gov. insider, could you share what the response of the Dutch Gov. people was to our approach and the effect it had? And how you think Service Design can be important for the Gov. & public services in the future?

Because during our last project together you were the client, the buyer of service design, can you share some of your thoughts from the perspective of a client?

Comment by Rick Lindeman on February 11, 2013 at 15:28

We're fine. Feel like the "trickle down' effect of doing our first service design campagins is starting and we're now reservicedesigning the government,,,

Comment by Arne van Oosterom on February 10, 2013 at 21:56

Hi Graham,

Thanks for your well thought through response. I particularly agree with you that drawing from many different field is a weakness and also a strength. It is something most of us need to get a better understanding of. But definitely, a multidisciplinary approach is the way forward.

We started an initiative recently called "Get It Together" to emphasis and act upon this point of view. We just held this pilot event with an interesting mixed group of professionals http://tinyurl.com/ba97fjk

The pilot made very clear we share common values, but mostly we lack knowledge of what other actually do... and sometimes we lack the willingness to learn from others.

I'm looking forward to having Kaffee und Kuchen with you. Lots to talk about.



Comment by Graham Hill on February 10, 2013 at 11:27
Hi Arne

A thoughtful post and an interesting response from Matt.

It is coincidental that you write your reflective 'state of the nation' post at the same time that the UK Design Council released the results of a detailed study into the emerging discipline of Service Design (see http://bit.ly/12vqb4i for more details). The study suggests that Service Design as a discipline is relatively recent, with over a third of respondants to the study having been involved in it for less than three years. The study goes on to suggest that service design is a multi-diciplinary activity, without a strong theoretical or practical background, mostly practicied by small groups or freelancers, on small scale projects, and perhaps most damninngly, "there is little compelling academic or professional practice material on the impact and value of service design". Quite damning!

The Design Council study and common sense suggest a clear direction for service design: Firstly, we should stop trying to back-fill service design's history by linking it variously to a desired origin in UX design, product design or almost anything designerly. Service design is an emergent discipline drawing from many different fields. That is its historical weakness, it is also its future strength.

Secondly, we should start to work much more closely with other disciplines to broaden, deepen and strengthen service design's foundations. I am saddened by the frequent attacks of service designers on well established disciplines such as lean, for example the recent polemic by @wearesnook who purported to show the differences between lean and service design but only showed her complete ignorance of lean (see http://bit.ly/14dBn49 for more details). And the almost complete ignoring of the more widely praciced customer experience management. I have been a consultant for almost 25 years and during that time have borrowed heavily from such disciplines as software engineering, service management, marketing operations, ux design, advertising, lean, biomimetics and more recently behavioural economics. Each brings new perspectives, new insights and most importantly, new tools to add to my consulting toolkit.

Thirdly, we must develop a common, multi-disciplinary approach that incorporates all of the other disciplines required to effect large-scale, even transformational change in organisations. Instead of reaching out to the collective wisdom of others, too many service designers claim that they know how to redesign jobs, redevelop organisations, optimise business processes, develop integrated systems and manage all the associated changes required at the individual, group and organisational levels. Yet a brief conversation with almost any service designer shows that these are aspirational rather than actual capabilities. If service designers want to be taken seriously for large-scale organisation transformation projects they will have to reach to other professionals and construct viable teaming arrangements. And to accept that they will not be in the project driving seat nine times out of ten.

Fourthly, we must professionalise the discipline of service design. We must not only develop a common framework, set of tools and approach to doing service design, we must also set out a common curriculum of training to teach others about it. That training, perhaps similar to the SSMED (service science, management, engineering and design) curriculum under development in the UK and US will draw in the best of the other disciplines that service design relies upon for success.

And finally, must show how service design pulls all the levers of success for organisations, including the critical financial and ROI levers that service design has so struggled with. This is not as hard as many service designers would have us believe. There are widely accepted shareholder value frameworks that are relatively easy to adapt to show the contribution of service design. And there are structured approaches to gather missing outputs and outcomes data during the early stages of projects. Service design isn't the only discipline that works with intangibles and their valuation! If we can't show how service design drives financials, why should any serious organisation want to employ us?

If we don't do these things we will be doomed to repeat what the Design Council has already laid out as our history. We will be doomed to not be taken seriously by potential employers, we will be doomed to working on small departmental -level projects, we will be doomed to have to operate as one-man bands and ultimately we will be doomed to be replaced by another emergent discipline in the future that is happy to take the best from the service design toolkit and mix and match it with other tools. I know of serveral management consultancies that are actively developing large internal service design groups to support their consulting practices. The writing is on the wall.

I am a huge fan of service design and its designerly approach. I use it in my corporate transformation work each and every day. But it isn't the only approach I use. And I know exactly how to show its value to the banks, telcos, airlines and automobile companies that hire me. None of this is rocket-science. If I can do it anyone can do it. Perhaps it's time we did! For the good of service design.

I know that you are doing many of these things Arne. And even though I have been critical of DesignThinkers in the past I do appreciate all your hard work. I look forward to chatting about the future of service design with you over a Kaffee und Kuchen in the near future.

Graham Hill
Comment by Arne van Oosterom on February 3, 2013 at 22:42

Thanks for your response Matt! And I think your story is very recognizable. 

I also realized that the online conversations, like you said, became repetitive and overly theoretical. We have started doing instead of talking about it. Somewhat paradoxical it has now became a priority for me to start writing about what we have been doing :-) We have been working so hard we found it difficult to write case studies. We are producing them now and will publish soon.

Comment by Matt Currie on February 3, 2013 at 22:22

What a great reflective post!  As I sit here on a Monday morning I realise how little I've looked back of late on my 10 year service design journey.  Not sure I'd consider myself a pioneer but here are my thoughts.

I am doing great.  My consultancy business is growing and we continue to get involved with cool people doing cool things.  As an individual practitioner I've refined my methods, clarified my philosophy and sharpened my point of view. 

If I'm honest with myself I haven't done as much of the service design I'd initially set out to do as I would like, tending more to deliver what the market is looking for which, here in NZ, for us is a mixture of capability development, consulting on specific touch point innovation & a sprinkling of service strategy work.  

That's cool with me though.  I've realised over time that while service design certainly does spin my wheels, what I'm fundamentally excited about is creative problem solving – design thinking.  I still believe that services really matter and therefore ought to be really well designed; I guess it's just been a case of adapting to what the market wants and learning to love that.  In any case, I'm still able to apply a service mindset to all of the design challenges that come across my desk. 

Specifically on the subject of service design accomplishments, I'm proud to have made some kind of contribution to the "movement" in NZ.  I like to think that might efforts to raise the volume on the SD conversation have helped consolidate and strengthen the practitioner base in this country, and maybe switched a few new folks on to the subject.

Regarding the online SD conversation amongst pioneers; I'm not sure how privvy to that I ever was, but I do recall drawing great value from the online dialogue in the early days as I defined and molded my own view of SD.  For a couple of years now I've been actively tuning out of the online conversation; it appears to me to have become very repetitive, overly theoretical and somewhat aimless.  I still love to read about case studies, and the occasional fresh take on SD, but would generally prefer to spend my time trying to do SD than talk about it

Looking forward, I'm excited about the current trajectory I'm on.  I'm looking forward to doing more service design and whatever other innovation work comes our way.  I'll keep a watchful eye on the SD movement and industry and speak up whenever I think it'll add value.  I suspect my main focus as a business owner will be on evolving the business to better meet customer needs while ensuring our SD/DT values remain well intact.

Thanks again Arne, for the prompt to reflect.  It's been a fantastic journey and I look forward to reading the reflections of others.  


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