Service Design Melbourne

Warts-and-all: the real practice of service design

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by Yoko Akama

Presented at: DeThink Service ReThink Design, First Nordic Conference on Service Design and Service Innovation – Oslo, 24th-26th November 2009


Service design practice, discourse and education are still nascent in Australia where most designers are trained in fields such as industrial design, architecture, communication design, and to a lesser degree, interaction design (a field that is equally nascent). Academic research on service design has so far been limited (Kimbell and Seidel 2008) and much of the knowledge generated from business contexts has been proprietary (Tether 2008). These factors have led to a lack of critical engagement in examining and investigating the complex contexts that surrounds service design projects. This also adds to the challenging obstacles for designers seeking to establish and embarking upon a service design-led practice in Australia.

The paper critiques service design case studies that are often documented and reported in a manner that abstracts and generalises the realities of this field as obstacles to understanding the ‘real’ practice of service design. Through attempts to clarify, systematise and advocate the benefit of service design, authors might gloss over the messy realities and the contextual knowledge grounded in action. This has resulted in practice-based knowledge being ‘lost in translation’. This is a critical shortfall. It becomes a disadvantageous factor in developing learning frameworks for designers in similar contexts to Australia who are seeking models, methods, case studies and discourse on service design from established agencies and research institutions on service design across Europe. These case studies can, by default, construct an idealistic scenario of service design that omit issues such as relationship building, resources, skill-sets and disciplinary boundaries that are integral to the realisation of projects and the adoption of a service design-led practice.

Within this context, the paper offers learnings drawn from a case study of a team of communication designers in Australia who attempted to undertake a project from a service design perspective. As practice-based research, reflection and critique was emphasised to reveal knowledge generated and situated in action. Numerous questions rather than answers have emerged from reflecting on the case study, which are presented as ‘lessons learnt’. These lessons highlight logistical obstacles, issues of losing disciplinary identity and change management barriers that project stakeholders faced when embarking on service design projects. The discussion in this paper argues for the importance of documenting and reporting case studies that captures the grounded contexts as a way to facilitate knowledge generation and transfer. It also highlights the need to integrate knowledge from organisational theory and change management that examines, documents and addresses human-related challenges that are often omitted from service design discourse. These learnings are offered to the community of potential service designers who are broadening their current disciplinary practice and are seeking opportunities to create a service design practice. The aim is to provide ‘signposts’, particularly for communication designers intending to apply service design methods and thinking in their current or future projects.

One of the values of generating knowledge in service design and disseminating this as research is to assist and enable more designers to enter in this field. Our responsibility as design researchers is to apply service design thinking in the way we disseminate this knowledge to others. The unique knowledge situated and generated from service design context is complex, yet typical of practice-based design research. In comparison to those who argue for a ‘clear consensus or an over-arching unifying framework’ for service design (Saco and Goncalves 2008, p. 12), the paper argues that it can never be, nor should it be framed in such a way. If service design practitioners truly believe in its value and agency to companies, organisations and public institutions, then, accounts of the practice needs to be captured and articulated in ways that reflect the lived world.

Full Paper (254kb PDF)

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