The seduction of change – a reflection on the SDN conference 2016

With this year’s theme of “Business as unusual”, SDN 2016 was sure to attract a sizeable audience, and indeed, about 700 attendees flew in to Amsterdam to learn about bringing ‘unusual’ into their organisations. Quite fittingly, the strongest theme resonating throughout the over 40 talks and workshops appeared to be that of change.

Yet, rather than conceiving change as a disrupter, the conversation revolved around how to make change more ‘usual’, in all its complexity. Change was discussed as a much-needed driver against inertia, as an answer to stalemate legacy systems and also as the key occupation of service designers and as their biggest challenge all the while. Discussing the different facets of change, the conversations refreshingly moved away from tools and artefacts to those around how service design might support complex systems change.

This related to organisational, professional as well as national culture with the main message being that designers and our tools have to adapt to their contexts, not the other way around.

Credit SD 2016

Credit SD 2016

The cultural appropriation of service design methodologies to different contexts

A number of talks stood out, amongst them presentations on service design in China, the UAE and Africa. All three demonstrated what may be required when using service design approaches in non-western contexts, for example, to change the language of design into local concepts. Cathy Huang and Xue Yin (CBi China Bridge) introduced a case where they appropriated Western terms such as iteration and prototyping into the Chinese concept of Wu Xing, allowing Chinese clients to be receptive and ‘owning’ a service design process in the first place.

Arash Aazami’s (Kamangir) talk on innovation in Africa demonstrated a need for shifting perspectives on developing countries. Exclaiming: “I hope every country is a developing country.”, Arash suggested we should see what we could learn from ‘them’ first and this in turn would help us to design for context. Similarly, Simone Carrier’s (FutureGov) and Muna Al Dhabbah’s (UAE Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the Future) presentation on changing Government services in the UAE showed that to design services well and to achieve cultural shifts, it is necessary to confront stereotypes on both a national and professional culture level. As Simone so aptly said: “As service designers we believe too much in our own tools and approaches. We ourselves need to change and adapt to our clients.” – learnings that in my opinion apply not just to different national culture contexts but equally so to organisational culture.

How in-house service design may be changing service design practices

The theme of culture change was dominant in all presentations, however it was not about bringing disruption into organisations but rather, to ‘seduce’ them to change. This became visible in conversations around in-house service design teams, where it ranged from a simple change of semantics to abandoning core service design tools all together. Katie Koch (Spotify) for example recommended to question the necessity of creating artefacts such as journey maps all together as they may not fit the mindset and pace of fast moving product organisations. Erin Muntzert discussed her approach at Google as being driven by analytics first, field research second, with product owners rather than researchers or designers introducing the insights back into the organisation. These suggestions are certainly a departure from classic design methodologies and practices but it appears they demonstrate the current reality of what it takes to implement service design in organisations.

These conversations will continue to dominate the service design field, according to Professor Birgit Mager’s outlook on the future of the profession, as we will see more and more in-house service design in organisations. She suggested that subsequently more sector-specific specialisation in the service design profession would occur, with more quality control and an increasing focus on the backstage of organisations, which ultimately would allow for service design to manifest itself as ‘business as usual’, the organisational norm. 

Questions

While I can say that these conversation certainly resonate with my own experience and practice working with organisations, they all the while raise a host of questions. For example, if service design is to be increasingly in-house, how may we avoid the typical inertia and culture pull that (especially large) organisations are so good at producing? How might we balance specialist’, sector-specific service design knowledge with a ‘beginner’s mindset’? How might we create empathy and calls to action if service design becomes business as usual, especially in the changing landscape of (visual) artefacts? For now, the seduction of change continues, what comes out of it remains to be seen.