Fixing the SDGC19 post-conference blues
It’s been a while since the Service Design Global Conference in Toronto. Being my first SDGC, the conference was full of energy, inspiration, critical reflections and good discussions. After getting back to work for a few weeks I now had time to reflect on the talks a bit more. So in this blog I want to share a few of my takeouts and highlights with you. Hopefully this helps you in dealing with the post-conference blues or makes you feel guilty you weren’t there!
Great impact comes with great responsibility
My first realization is that service design has really put its ‘big boy pants’ on. We now design products, services, organizations and ecosystems that have a major impact on social structures, politics, government, healthcare and democracy. We are truly designing the fabric of society.
But as the famous line (spoiler alert!) from Spiderman says: with great power comes great responsibility. Many of SDGC19’s reflections revolved around this topic: what are we doing with the big responsibility we have been given as designers?
“With great power comes great responsibility” — Uncle Ben from Spiderman 😉
‘As a government we are often the only option.’ is what Hillary Hartley (Chief Digital, Ontario Digital Service) said about the role of government services. There’s no alternative to your driver’s license or a residence permit. So what if you’re not happy with the service or if the thing we designed is just not it for you? There’s no way you can leave, because there’s no alternative.
The same often counts for healthcare and other social structures we design. Other speakers spoke on designing for the homeless (Ben Hartridge, Dartington Service Design Lab), drug overdose victims (Tai Huynh, UHN OpenLab) and the Canadian welfare state (Sarah Schulman, InWithForward). All great initiatives that aim to improve the wellbeing of the less fortunate. But also a massive responsibility that has a massive impact on peoples’ lives. We now design so many services that are unavoidable in society that we need to be conscious of our impact.
We are getting more power, but this makes the task at hand way more complex. This was also one of the trends Jesse Grimes identified in his talk during the SDN Members Event: the increased mandate for service design coupled with growing complexity. So maybe we need to take a different approach? Designers are great at co-creating, taking a human perspective and coming up with great big new ideas, but maybe this is the time we have to learn from other fields that have been around for a while. What can we learn from political science, social work and systems thinking?
Aren’t we making things too big? Have we bitten off more than we can chew?
This massive impact on society made me realize: aren’t we making things too big? Have we bitten off more than we can chew? As Erik Roscam Abbing (Livework) said something similar in his closing remarks on day 1: ‘on the one hand it’s amazing what we do, but I also find it really scary’. I agree: it’s great to see that (service) design is fulfilling its desire and potential to change the world, but this requires us to remain critical towards the things we do and the decisions we make.
It’s all about power
The official conference theme was Building Bridges, but on day 2 I already heard people say that Power was actually the secret theme of the conference. I agree: many speakers explored the role of power in (social) design and in the relationships we build as designers.
In her energizing talk during the SDN Members Event, Zahra Ebrahim (Doblin/Deloitte) kicked off the discussion in her talk on blindspots and equity in service design. She urged the audience to pay attention to power dynamics and taking a closer look at them. Are we practicing reciprocity, where the people we work with get something in return for working with us? Is it actually a two-way conversation where you also leave something of yourself behind? And when we talk about co-design, are we really handing over power to our users?
As in any design conference, there’s a few frameworks or models that pop up in many presentations (yes, I’m looking at you iceberg, double diamond and Venn diagram!). In this case it was the citizen participation ladder by Sherry Arnstein, in the talks of both Zahra and Josina Vink (Oslo School of Architecture and Design). In short it shows the possible degrees of participation users can have. Starting from non-participation, via some more participatory methods to handing over full control. When we look critically at the thing we designers call ‘co-creation’. how much power are we actually handing over to users?
We all know we have to scope our design projects somehow, because you know, time and budget. But by making those decisions, aren’t we actively polarizing? Are some users excluded because you drew an arbitrary line through your target group? We may all think our decisions are neutral, but Josina Vink said that actually ‘design is inherently political’, and actors are entangled in the systems they’re part of. Therefore we need to think about how we shape social structures and make invisible relations visible.
Who’s in and who is out, and who gets to decide?
So what if our design decisions are not neutral and have an inherent bias in them? This means we need critical and systemic reflection on the role of power and social dynamics and the decisions we make. Consider inclusion, diversity, blindspots and reflect on the sources of power. Challenge the assumptions we have question yourself: who’s in and who is out, and who gets to decide?
Design for AI humans
AI is there to stay, and as service designers we need to be ready. Multiple speakers used examples of AI-powered services. This fits with AI-delivered services being one of the five trends Jesse Grimes identified in his talk. As designers we all think about applying AI in our services, but are we ready to deal with it? If we want to use more AI in the services we deliver, how should we deal with it? Should designers pick up new technical skills? If so: which technical skills do we exactly need as designers? AI knowledge, coding skills and data analytics might be the ones to start with.
AI is there to stay, and as service designers we need to be ready.
During the conference I also attended a workshop by Fjord: How do we humanize AI? My main takeout here was that designing for artificial intelligence means designing for human intelligence. This also became clear in Steph Hay’s example of eno, CapitalOne’s chatbot (but more on that talk later): we need design solutions that appeal to our senses and emotions. Fjord did a very interesting job of translating technical AI capabilities into human senses, e.g. image recognition into seeing. We need interaction principles that combine the strengths of a human with that of an AI. And some things that are explicit in a human need to be deliberately designed when creating an AI.
Designing for AI means designing for humans: emotional, intelligent creatures. Treat people as the human beings they are and find solutions that resonate with them. Make AI solutions transparent, understandable and pleasurable to use. To deal with the increase of AI in our solutions, make sure we catch up as designers. Let’s make sure our technical and emotional skills are up to the task.
Can we go to Fogo Island?
If there would be an award for most energetic, inspiring and convincing talk at SDGC19, it would for sure go to Zita Cobb. But other than the fact that I now started saving for a night in the Fogo Island Inn, what made her talk so engaging?
First of all, Zita’s description of our current society was spot-on: ‘we’re having a crisis of meaning’ and ‘the world is suffering from a plague of sameness’. Why are all the things we create so boring and out of place? Well, that’s where community comes in.
Because everyone is in a community. If you don’t think you’re in a community, look twice: you’re not looking good enough. Community (at least on Fogo Island) is ‘one of the basic building blocks of human life’. And that community became the starting point for doing activities such as the Fogo Island Inn. All profits of the inn are invested in the Fogo Island community. This makes the Inn not just a fancy hotel, but a driver for the community.
“Community is one of the basic building blocks of human life.”
So my main takeout here is to not just design generic solutions that are just all the same. Instead try to anchor them in a local community, just like the Fogo Island Inn did with the local people on the island. The Inn is designed in service of the community. So make sure you design something that helps a community thrive. That’s what makes your solution work, not just how pretty and well-designed it is.
Collaboration: With vs For?
Building on the hidden ‘power’ theme, I feel there was another important question: as a design department or agency, are you designing with someone or for them?
Gordon Ross (VP and Partner at OXD) reflected on this during Members day by looking at relations between a company and the agencies they hire. Basically there are two reasons for hiring a (design) agency: capacity (not enough hands) or expertise (not enough brains). Within this relationship two approaches dominate: doing it with a client or doing it for a client. The ‘with’-approach has benefits on capability building and adoption, but has drawbacks when it comes to speed and efficiency. Taking the ‘for’-approach however, gives added benefit of increased speed but trades it for a greater chance of non-adoption.
This triggered me to think on this a bit more metaphorically: using a sports team. Which of the following roles are you taking?
- Coach: Are you teaching the people you work with to better themselves by moving the pieces around?
- Player: Are you participating in the match as part of a team?
- Substitute: Are you being hired as additional capacity because a team lacks resources?
This topic was further explored by Gordon during the conference by looking at power in networks. Who has the power inside a network and who decides how to (re)shape it? As service designers we need to be power-aware: how does power impact our collaboration and the relationships we design?
Design for trust & emotion
Who knew that Sesame Street was deliberately designed as a learning tool for kids based on actual research? I didn’t, honestly. Steph Hay’s story on how CapitalOne built eno, a banking chatbot built on AI was one of the most engaging stories of the conference.
Money is a touchy subject, which people struggle with a lot. So how do you get people to trust a chatbot on such a sensitive topic? We need to make an actual emotional connection with them. But how do we connect with humans? Lets take a closer look at CapitalOne’s approach:
- Empower diverse teams: diverse teams may do a better job at grasping the core emotions of the people you’re designing for.
- Design authentically: users will know when your solution is genuinely helping them and just not a facade. Find ways to make your solution as authentic as possible and have it express genuine emotions.
- Use technology: Technology is only a means to an end. It’s a tool to be able to build an emotional connection with your customer.
So let’s all agree to make a commitment to put more emotion in the products and services we create. Emotionally compelling products will go a long way towards building trust.
Other than these absolute highlights there’s a few topics that I think deserve an honorable mention, namely:
- The double diamond: Cat Drew (British Design Council) spoke about how the double diamond made design process popular and so simple anyone can understand it. Its power is in demystifying design and making it accessible for anyone. Improvements in the 2019 version emphasize the non-linearity and support it with principles, methods, engagement and leadership.
- Service Design Maturity Model: A shoutout to the guys at Koos for coming up with this model (more on it here). Its 5 phases and 4 maturity indicators are a compact way of judging your organization’s maturity when it comes to implementing service design.
- Canada and its indigenous people: Many of the Canadian speakers explored the (improving) relation between Canada and its native inhabitants. It was inspiring to see the sense of community in the indigenous communities of Canada.
- The design mindset: David Dunne (University of Victoria) stressed that there is a distinct design mindset that is comfortable in space with unknown problems and unknown solutions. As designers we need to be mindful of other disciplines that are less comfortable in what he called the ‘black hole of discomfort’.
So, what does this mean for the way we apply service design in practice? We need to take responsibility for the way we deal with power in our relationships. Let’s start designing solutions that appeal to human trust and emotion, and anchor them in our social relations and communities. I had a great time in Toronto and I now feel inspired to work on designing meaningful services for the coming year!
Do you agree or disagree with any of my points in this blog? Let me know in the comments!