Why I Couldn’t Become A Service Designer

4 Reasons Why Service Design Is Still An Obscure Career Choice For Designers

This was the slump just after the dot-com bust in 2000. I could have easily explained away my joblessness when the dot-com company where I held the new-fangled and coveted title of “Interactive Designer”, laid off most of its staff. The writing was on the wall, so I acted fast.

I remember, several nights in a row I would swipe into the dark corridors of the swanky office of the startup I was working for, built in a prime location in Navi Mumbai overlooking the Trombay creek. I’d get a coffee and then proceed to spend the night to do my “What next?” research on the only free internet connection I had access to.
By then I had made up my mind about studying for my Masters. Going back to the Mumbai advertising world – where I started my career as a “Visualizer” five years ago — was out of the question. I had scooted from the ad agency, tail between legs. I swore to myself, “I’d rather starve than work in advertising, ever again.” Why the unceremonious exit is a topic of another post.

Plus, I had already tasted blood. As the World Wide Web grew, I grew with it. And I grew hungrier to know more. So job be damned, I applied for and got accepted into the very first batch of the newly minted Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy, which later became part of the Domus Academy in Milan.

Nestled amidst the picturesque Aosta valley in the erstwhile industrial town called Ivrea, the institute was a Bauhas-esque experiment in itself. I was fortunate to be part of a group of trailblazers who would become the next generation of renegade experimenters, researchers, interaction designers, UX designers, design entrepreneurs, and published authors.
Apart from pathbreaking new domains of study like Physical & Wearable Computing, Information Architecture, Interaction Design, there was one more specialty on offer at the Institute — Service Design. And I promptly opted to be part of the Tomorrow’s Services Group. Why? I guess one reason trumped everything else — I couldn’t code to save my life. A minor handicap for dabbling in physical computing, wouldn’t you say? You’ve probably heard of Arduino. It was conceived in Interaction-Ivrea as an easy to use platform for non-programmers to play wizards and conjure up awe-inspiring little projects within the academic realm of physical computing. We were the lucky few to try the Arduino board first-hand in its infancy. I sucked at it.

Next doors, Service Design was experiencing its pioneering moment. I literally sneaked into it. When we were done, I had a bunch of projects in my design portfolio which looked strange — there were no pretty designs and mockups, but lots of diagrams, service ecology maps, customer journeys, personas, storyboards, blueprints and pieces of evidence of future services.

Still, heady days, those…

I was back in India after 2 phenomenal years in Italy. And I promptly abandoned Service Design as a design career option. There was nothing called Service Design in India or anywhere else in the world at that point — barring the very people who pioneered it; Livework, in London and a few others like Engine that came soon after.
Talk about bad choices. Ok, I’ll take that back. I did make something of it. I went ahead and shared what I had learned at Interaction-Ivrea when I started teaching a module on Service Design at the Bangalore campus of the National Institute of Design in India.

It’s been almost 10 years since I taught those three batches and I still haven’t come across a single Service Designer in my professional network in India. They probably are lurking somewhere, if at all. So, send me a wave and a holler in case you read this.
Why are Service Designers such a rare, elusive species? I have a few hypotheses;

1. Service Design is still largely a walled garden both in academia and in business consulting

Service Design first came into prominence way back in 1982. It was not until 2001 that it came to be offered as a full-fledged consultancy by Livework followed by Engine in 2003. By 2010, as a discipline, I’d argue, it was still not quite mainstream. Paul Sims presents both sides of the story in his post, ironically titled “Service Design Goes Mainstream” – those defending the “special status” of Service Design as well as UX practitioners who felt that somewhere these two practices are bound to meet in their evolution. 10 years since then, and we still don’t see those paths meeting despite sharing common methodologies and approaches to problem-solving. Service Design continues to function as an exclusive club of practitioners, happy to offer their services as consultants. As with UX, which started as an Outie (Consulting) discipline but eventually became well-established as an Innie (In-house) function within organizations, one would have expected a similar trajectory for Service Design, but it is yet to come to fruition.

2. The barrier of entry is high for UX designers to become Service Designers

When I was still starry-eyed about making it big as a service designer, I bravely applied for a position in Sydney. This was around 2009-10 by which time I had a decent portfolio of UX work and some amount of Service Design teaching under my belt. It was an entry-level position. I had a couple of rounds of interviews and I believed I had a good chance of making it through, considering the talent pool for specialist service designers was small. I soon heard from the consultancy that I did not have enough experience and hence did not make the cut. It left me wondering – if not a Masters in interaction design with a specialization in service design, 10 years of UX design experience and some teaching exposure, what does it take to break into service design? Especially, when it was still a niche discipline? I think the answer lies in the reach of Service Design as a discipline. Unless it sheds a bit of its pricey, exotic image, and allows for “cross-border migration” of UX professionals, it’ll not attract talent and will cease to grow. 

3. Service Design needs to become an Innie function

Service Design needs to make more rapid in-roads into product organizations that in reality are offering services. For instance, just take a slice of what Amazon does – say, the end-to-end customer journey on its retail e-commerce platform. Looked at holistically and end-to-end, it’s a mammoth service! There are the pre-purchase, purchase and post-purchase aspects of the service. There definitely are backstage and front-stage dimensions to enabling that service – marketplace, fulfillment centers, customer support infra. Delivery and pick-up points, websites, apps, physical stores as touch-points etc. What would it mean to think of e-commerce as a service design challenge? If you were to apply a yardstick similar to the UX maturity model, Service Design thinking in product organizations is, non-existent.

4. Barring a few super-mature markets, the rest of the world doesn’t get it!

While emerging markets are, in reality, ripe with opportunities for service design thinking to play a significant and meaningful role, bodies like The Service Design Network – represent markets that are solving problems alien to less affluent parts of the world – with few notable exceptions who seem to walk the talk like Ideo
In India, it’s hip for design schools to offer introductory courses on service design. Some of the academic projects that I seeded with students in the service design modules I taught explored myriad issues from environment and sustainability, public health and economic empowerment of women to simplistic but commercially viable services targeted at urban middle-class workers like the Tata Cha example And I came to the conclusion that the powerful problem-solving tools that Service Design employs actually has the potential to bring to life services that can transform the quality of life of people in not so privileged societies. Sadly, these projects have seldom moved out of the academic fold. In an environment where corporates are still grappling with incorporating fundamental design thinking into their business, making a shift to service design thinking is far-fetched. In less-established consultancies in this part of the world, it’s the latest buzzword to bring in business. And nothing more.

With UX at its most mature state in years, there is no dearth of talent willing to stretch their capabilities. Under the ambit of an already established discipline, Service Design could thrive and create opportunities for UX designers to make a shift from products and explore the world of services – or design for both, as the boundaries between them disappear altogether.
Looked at from a different perspective, all product experiences arguably are touch-points to a service, designed as such or not. In which case, wouldn’t you say, we as designers are all designing service experiences? Or wouldn’t it be more apt to break down artificial walls between service and product as they evolve to become indistinguishable and simply call what we do as Experience Design?

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