A Report from Service Design Days 2021

service design

Stuck in the Middle—and Making the Most of It

Notes from Service Design Days 2021

September 28, 2021
by Pietro Duchi
service design days

Walking into BAU Design College, the venue of the 2021 Service Design Days in Barcelona, almost felt like being transported back to 2019. Designers! From all over Europe and beyond! Exchanging ideas in the same room!

In fact, it was clearly a 2021 event. And it wasn’t just the widespread use of the EU Digital Covid certificate (a good example of service design in action) that gave it away. You sensed that the practice of service design is going through a long-due reset, after the world has been dealing with systemic inequalities, undeniable proof of climate change, as well as the pandemic and its endless ramifications.

In this context, service designers take up the unique role of operating from the middle: Between customer needs and business goals, between the uniqueness of qualitative insights and the perceived certainty of hard data, between the urgency of global challenges and the reality of systemic lock-ins. Here is a selection of voices—from talks, classes, case studies, and even casual conversations—that speak to this common thread.

Pausing, Reflecting, Course-Correcting

Binit Vasa, Cultural Research Lead at IKEA-funded SPACE10, set the tone in one of the first talks of the weekend. “It's time to pause, reflect, and course-correct,” Vasa says. “As designers, do we fully understand the impact of our work and the frameworks that subconsciously enslave us? As we approach an unimaginable planetary crisis, is it time to rethink the role of designers in the 21st Century.”

He advises fellow designers to start on an inward journey, offering his own experience as inspiration. Having always had a keen interest in mythology, he started exploring how Indic mythology might offer an alternative to the Western ideals of order, centralization, and control—ones that many designers subconsciously or consciously aspire to.

The opposite of order is not necessarily chaos but rather complexity, and a designer’s job, he argues, is not to eliminate such complexity (as problem solvers), but rather to work with it, observing and interlinking different perspectives and even different truths.

Introducing the concept of design justice and its set of principles, he urges designers to always question who is in power and the long-term impact of any solution. He advises to constantly challenge existing norms and systems from within the systems themselves. SPACE10 was in fact created with the precise intent of provoking IKEA with new ideas: Challenging paradigms as a reason for design to exist.

Anna Kirah, design anthropologist and psychologist, echoes many of these sentiments: “Our biggest hindrance? Our inability to listen and our inability to see other perspectives than our own. We need to talk more about […] designers’ misaligned focus on self-glorification. What if some of the most used tools of service design actually cause the problem?”

She introduces designers to the concept of positive deviance, which first appeared in nutrition research in the 1970s. Researchers observed that, despite the poverty in a community, some poor families had well-nourished children, due to the fact that they did not wash the rice and thus the residual insects and fish managed to supplement the much-needed protein.

This approach to behavioral and social change is based on the observation that, in any community, there are people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and possessing no extra resources or knowledge. Can designers focus more on finding and evolving existing solutions already present “in the wild” rather than aiming to create entirely new-to-the-world ones?

Normalizing, and Coping with, Uncertainty

Naman Mathur, UX Research Lead at Uber, introduces another key topic: uncertainty.

“Uncertainty is everywhere” Mathur says. “We make educated assumptions when we think about the future, but the world has been faced with drastic change lately. Old assumptions no longer hold true as organizations scramble to make sense of their current situation and wonder what lies around the corner. So, what about decisions on the future direction of a product or service, let alone the entire organization?”

Designers are once again in the middle, on one hand observing and researching increasingly complex contexts, on the other being required by clients or upper management to confidently provide solutions that guarantee returns on investments.

One way to leverage this position, he says, is to bring stakeholders along on the field. When developing Uber Lite in India, the UX Research Team carried out ride-along interviews and observations on the streets of Bangalore—a method we at EPAM are very familiar with thanks to projects like Digital Wayfinding for Southwest Airlines or Silverkey.

By showing rather than telling, they were able to convince upper management that what Uber Lite needed to work was to do the unthinkable: Ditch Uber’s map interface entirely, since in India, and other markets like Brazil, addresses are notoriously hard to find and people just use landmarks or point of interests as pick up or drop off locations.

Rebecca Price, Assistant Professor of Transition Design at TU Delft, also speaks of uncertainty, but from a different angle.

The uncertainty that is inherent in the design process—incomplete information, projection toward the future—creates anxiety and vulnerability in designers, and particularly in design students.

Enter the concept of designer resilience, defined as “the ability to bounce back from setbacks, handle critique and negotiate uncertainty during the design process.” Price says: “Being able to recover and adapt is pertinent as a quality for designers—especially in a systemic context where non-causal links ensure that change is a difficult target, no matter how urgent.”

Given that setbacks are inevitable in a career of systemic design, Price is active in forging a new generation of designers able to bounce back to reframe and learn from negative system feedback; grow a thicker skin to the inherent uncertainties in our design processes; deliberately build peer networks for collective support to drive necessary systemic changes.

Rethinking Metrics

Silvia Calvet of King and Itziar Pobes of IED Barcelona takes another approach to overcome uncertainty when making strategic decisions—better metrics, ones that “measure what really matters.”

“Typically, businesses decide based on metrics and measure what is available” they say. “However, metrics are tricky: They tend to focus on what is easily measured. As a result, decisions are biased towards technology and short-term, small-scope changes and no innovation. Metrics become shields for companies, and people, to prevent real change.”

Designers and researchers do bring qualitative and ethnographic data from customers. Unfortunately, those insights do not always reach the metrics dashboard, and so, a big chunk of customer context and insights are overlooked in the decision-making process.

The answer, as often in service design, is in the middle: A new form of metrics, that combines the quantitative (what happens) with the qualitative (why it happens), an idea shared by Inga Kiskyte, Chief Service Designer at Volvo Group. This is the only way to really capture attention from upper management.

In their masterclass, Calvet and Pobes offered ways to understand different definitions of value—found, for example, not just in short-term behaviors like conversions but in long-term loyalty and impact on people’s lives—and opened up the possibility of different indicators and related collection methods.

Thriving in the Middle

Silvia Lleras is Head of Research at Wallapop, the leading Spanish platform for buying and selling second-hand products, with more than 15 million users.

In eight years, the platform has changed the perception of buying second-hand and has pushed forward a different type of commerce, one that puts local exchange and trust among people in the center. But with customers being conditioned to expect extremely convenient and hyper-personalized services, is there still space for a more conscious kind of consumption?

Lleras shared the three dilemmas that she has detected when defining new services and interactions within a scale-up like Wallapop. They represent challenges for designing new services for alternative consumption, and the answer to these dilemmas is often found right in the middle.

Immediate Convenience vs. Reducing Impact: Wallapop adopted some of the paradigms of hyper-convenience typical of eCommerce and applied them to conscious consumption, launching an in-app shipping service and home pick-up service.

Isolated Lives vs. Local Economies: The service gives customers the freedom to choose the degree of personal connection they’d like to adopt, from pick up and shipping to real-life meet-ups between seller and buyer. It also acts as a way for people to kickstart their own small, local businesses—specialized in selling specific items and with their own communities attached to them.

Hyper-guided Personalization vs. Owning Discovery: While of course adopting the latest in personalized recommendations, Wallapop is careful to avoid falling into loops of sameness, leaving instead some leeway for moments of serendipity and active discovery.

Wallapop is a great example of how service design truly thrives when it finds its place in the middle rather than at the extremes, leading to the kind of positive compromise that customers are looking for.

What this can mean for organizations is clear. Service design is not magic, but it can indeed be instrumental in bringing positive impact for people, the planet, and business. It won’t be easy, or a particularly linear process, but it’s worth the ride.

filed in: service design, complex systems

About the Author

  • PD
    Pietro Duchi

    Pietro is a Senior Innovation Consultant (Strategy & Digital Design) at EPAM Continuum Milan, where he partners with leading organisations in looking years ahead to identify future challenges and near-term solutions. His areas of expertise cover retail, food & beverage, and employee experience as well as healthcare & wellbeing. He is constantly on the lookout for fresh input, focusing in particular on the complex relationship between people, technology, and on our ever-changing sociological and political environment. Pietro has lead cutting-edge field research a across four continents, with a particular focus on Generation Z youth, including a recent project driving public engagement on Antimicrobial Resistance.

    Before EPAM Continuum, Pietro completed the Master of European Design program, exploring communication design, service design, strategic design, and creative sustainability, at Politecnico di Milano, Glasgow School of Art, and Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland.