Interview with the Service Design Network

Reposted from the Service Design Network.

“Education, Environment, Health, Public Service, Giving – for good.” This is the first thing you will read on the website of Thick Studio, a strategic design consultancy from Australia. Reading about their projects in the informative case studies collection proves that the tagline is not just a hollow promise. Thick’s purpose is built on ‘thick value’, which means minimising harm and maximising good and is a term coined by economist Umair Haque. They are one of the first Australian companies to be certified as a B Corporation and therefore recognised as a company that creates the most impact for a better world. Thick also skilfully blurs boundaries between service design, digital technology and strategy. Their Business Victoria project has been recently shortlisted, together with four other nominees, for the Webby Award in the category of the best government website in the world.

In this interview for the May issue of the Insider newsletter, we talked to Liisa Vurma, the service design director, and Ashlee Riordan, the business designer, who, on behalf of the team (9 gals, 8 guys and 1 dog), talked about Thick’s design process and service design implementation.

SDN Insider: From setting up a pop-up office at your client to organising a big forum for all the stakeholders, co-creation appears to be at the heart of your open design approach. What is its most challenging aspect?
Liisa Vurma & Ashlee Riordan: Our co-creative approach is usually a very different way of working for our clients. From our side, it requires patience and being aware that we are asking them to step out of their comfort zone. Our clients might not be comfortable with “the fuzzy front end” of the project or the fact that we are building prototypes that might fail before they succeed.

Thick-Ange-Tait_smallOccasionally a co-creative approach is suggested in the brief but, generally, there is some guidance required, so we need to take our clients on a bit of a journey. Initially there can be resistance to more generative research practice – naturally we all just want to crack on with things and get to the ‘making’ part of projects – but the benefits quickly become apparent to everyone involved. Working through this and educating teams on the design process is ultimately a really rewarding experience for both our team and our clients’ teams.

SDNI: You craft both the experience and the delivery of your client’s service. What happens afterwards: what is your position in the service design implementation phase?
LV & AR: We try to be involved as much as we can in the implementation phase: we’ve set up pilot sites and live service prototypes. In our opinion, services should always live in an iterative loop of testing and improving, so it becomes hard to draw the line between a prototype and the ‘real’ service.

We’re constantly working on measuring the impact our work has, beyond the obvious economic and service metrics. Our raison d’être is to bring about positive social and environmental benefit, so measuring that in a consistent way can be hard, especially when we are working across many different industry verticals and many different disciplines. We’re releasing Thick’s first annual Impact Report in 2015, so it will be interesting to see that take shape over the coming months.

What sets us apart from other service design agencies is the fact that we are essentially a full service digital and brand agency as much as we are a service design agency. So we get to design and build most of the touch points in the service journey. It makes a huge difference when designers and developers are involved in the research phase and the research translates really well into the digital products and service touchpoints that we create.


SDNI: The new Touchpoint focuses on how policies and guidelines concerning the implementation of service design are becoming increasingly prevalent in both public and private sector. What is your take on the role of policy in the practice of service design?
LV & AR: Policies and guidelines come in many forms. Some are about enablement and support. Service design asks practitioners and organisations to be comfortable with uncertainty, to trust that the process will lead to success. So much of our success relies upon our ability to make experienced, informed judgements about how to move through that process. However, not all organisations have had the time yet to find and develop the sort of expert practitioners who can navigate a service design process successfully. Given this, policies and guidelines that help practitioners make informed process decisions are essential for the support and management of fledgling capabilities. We often create toolkits, frame up guiding design principles and define best practice guidelines with clients who need help in this respect.

On the other hand, some policies are more about maintaining a current state, which can conflict with the intent of our work. Service design is a transformative practice. It challenges the status quo and often points out inefficiencies, redundancies and opportunities that have the potential for real disruption. Some organisations want an innovative, best-in-class service, but they aren’t prepared to bring about meaningful change in order to get there. This is where organisations need to be very careful about the policies they introduce. Will the policy help manage risk at the cost of value creation? Will true excellence and innovation be possible under the conditions a given policy will create? At the end of the day, it is possible to strike the right balance between risk and reward, between disruption and BAU. Good policies should be measured on their ability to foster that balance for an organisation.

SDNI: Thick is a corporate member of the Service Design Network. How do you see your role as a member within the network and how does your membership relate with your strategy?
Thick-Kelsey-Ange-smallLV & AR: We believe business can be a transformative power for good in the world, and we take our role as members of the international service design community very seriously. Every opportunity we have to learn through experience, every milestone for us comes with a sense of duty to share. Not just with our peers, but with the people who still don’t think change is possible. We try to talk often and clearly about what we do and why we do it. We speak at conferences, we distribute case studies, we host community of practice events, we are now publishing our own articles. The more people we can inspire with our work and our client’s stories, and the more agencies and practitioners do the same, the better chance we have as a collective of succeeding to create positive change.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us. SDN wishes you all the best with your future projects.

Why do we struggle to talk to our users?

User-centricity has become a bit of a buzzword lately, and for good reason.

Organisations are beginning to understand that to stay relevant in this fast-paced, hyper-connected world, they have to gain a deep knowledge of their audience.

Service designers have also become better at talking business and building a case for customer-centricity. It’s a major competitive advantage.

Unfortunately there is still an immense gap between a company’s perception of the user experience and the real user experience. Many organisations believe they are being user-centric when in reality they’re struggling to talk to their users.

The perception gap

More often than not, organisations are not built to be user-centric. Although some have begun to hire user experience and service design teams, it’s not enough. User-centricity needs to be ingrained in the whole organisation. Top down and outside in.

Unless you’re a start-up, becoming a truly user-centric organisation won’t happen overnight.

To fully understand the power of service design and other user-centric approaches, you need to experience it. And the best way to experience it is to stand up from your desk, leave the office, meet the people who are using your products and services and spend some time with them.

Did you leave your desk yet? Didn’t think so.

Why is it so difficult?

What are the barriers that make it hard for us to step outside, talk to real users and get their valuable feedback?

We’re used to being an expert

Most of the barriers are related to the way we’ve always done business. We’re used to being the expert. We think we know better. We have so many years or decades worth of experience under our belts, that we assume we know the market better than anyone.

You might be the expert of the business you are in but you are not an expert of your user’s experience. Your user is.

We want to be prepared

We’re not used to delivering things early and incomplete. Our organisations are built to deliver products that never see daylight until they’re pitch perfect.

Pitch perfect in whose opinion? If you don’t test your product early and often you might have some expensive mistakes to correct..

Failing is not part of our culture

When someone thinks our ideas won’t work, it doesn’t feel good. Especially if that someone is our own client on whom our organisation’s success depends.

You can’t innovate if you’re playing it safe. Your competition will outplay you.

We feel uncomfortable being too close to our users

In the eyes of our customer, we like to remain the confident expert who knows best. What will they think when we appear to them with a solution that doesn’t work? What if they tell us they’re not happy with the service we provide? And to our face?

If you’ve ever had a good heart-to-heart conversation with someone, I bet you felt much better afterward. This is how your customer will feel after you take the time to ask their opinion. They’ll really appreciate it.

We don’t know where to start

Sometimes we just don’t know how to talk to our users. We might never have done it before or think it’s complicated and expensive. At other times we’ve done market research and it’s been expensive or it hasn’t shown us an obvious way forward.

Not every type of research is equal. There are simple and cheap ways to include techniques in your day-to-day business that generate feedback loops you can draw from.

Stepping out of your comfort zone

These barriers are nothing new. They’re human. They’re so common that they’re present in even the most user-centric organisations. In fact, we at Thick struggle with these sometimes ourselves.

Stepping out of your comfort zone is never going to be easy. But you don’t have a choice. It’s actually as simple as that — you need your customers more than they need you.