Birgit Mager has watched service design evolve since the mid-nineties, and has been hugely influential in its development. She holds the first service design professorship at the University of Applied Sciences, Cologne, Germany, is the President and Co-Founder of the International Service Design Network, and Editor-in-Chief of Touchpoint, the International Journal of Service Design. Birgit is a keynote speaker at Adaptive Path’s upcoming Service Experience Conference in San Francisco, so I sat down with her to find out how she got into service design back when it was so new, and how she defines it more than a decade later.
Ayla Newhouse [AN]: How did you arrive at service design as your path?
Birgit Mager [BM]: In the early nineties, I was working as an organizational developer and in HR at Hewlett Packard, and later for a big cosmetics company. It was a time when companies were moving away from a product and technology focus and a solutions-focus was emerging. I started at HP to help organizational units figure out how to best create new interfaces for customers and the kinds of people needed at the contact points to really bring a solution-focus into the organization. It was very exciting for me at the time; in a way, I was trying to “design” organizations to be able to deliver excellent service. Then, a small team was asked to totally redesign the design education at Cologne University, and Michael Erlhoff, the founding Dean of the institute, was creating a new interdisciplinary design education agenda that aimed to tackle the relevant problems of our society and our economy. It was a really holistic approach that started to think more about solutions than about design silos. He included service design on his agenda of the future design education, and asked if I would be willing and able to create that area of teaching. At first I was a bit, I don’t know…the term service design did not exist at the time, but it all happened very very fast. After sleeping on it for one night, I thought, “Well, that’s really interesting–to bring design into this challenge of creating organizations and processes and interactions that are customer oriented.” I got the position and started teaching in 1995. Experimenting to develop theory and methodology was the first project, so it was a very thrilling and exciting time.
[AN]: I’m curious about that idea of breaking designers out of silos and specific roles; does that mean that you think a service designer ought be all of those things? How do you approach the role in terms of skill sets and interests?
[BM]: I think service designers have a good holistic capacity. In service design, there’s a good sense of what design means as well as the skill set of being able to do things. It’s an interesting discussion because, more and more, we see people who call themselves service designers who have no design background, and while I think that they’re able to facilitate service design projects well, when I work on projects, I really appreciate having senior service designers who have “doing skills” and not only facilitation skills. I think it gives you a better sense of what makes a difference and what it takes to make that difference.
[AN]: That actually brings us to my next question: what does service design mean to you? I know there’s a lot of debate and discussion on that topic, and you’ve been around it from the start. How do you think about it now? How would you define it, the scope, and its position within an organization?
[BM]: I think service design has a quite strategic position. You can practice it on an interface level, and that’s often the starting point to get organizations interested in service design. For example, former students of mine are running a successful service design company in Cologne: “Minds and Makers”. They started to work with a big European energy provider, initially to redesign the process of invoicing. The process looked at the whole experience: what does it mean to get an invoice, to have questions or complaints about that invoice, etc. They started with a very good service design project on that one aspect of the organization, and it was so good that the company has now put service design at the strategic level of the top management board to make sure that the whole relationship between the organization and the customer is reevaluated and redesigned through the use of service design. So from my perspective, of course, I’d really like to see service design on that strategic level, where management sees the value it has for an organization as a whole, but it’s often practiced in small projects looking at different processes through the lens of stakeholders and improving those. In the end, service design’s success lives in its doing, and in the ability to really co-create and spark the possibilities that you have for a fresh view of service experiences. On the other hand, making it part of the business plan and making sure that it is on the agenda of every manager in the organization is just as important. I think at the strategic level, the best case is that every manager knows and values what it means to bring service design into the organization and to work with it.
[AN]: What should service design not do or not touch within an organization?
[BM]: Well, service design should not let itself be too limited. There are situations where service designers are asked to do projects through a mainstream understanding of design. I think a service designer, definitely, should say no to a project if the scope is too limited or it doesn’t enable him or her to look at the system in a more holistic sense. A classic example is being asked to redesign the waiting room of a hospital. That would be a case where I would definitely say no, but maybe help the client to reframe the challenge and put it onto a more open scale. To redesign the waiting experience for our patients, that would be something that would be very interesting, beyond just the room itself. We shouldn’t let ourselves be put into too limited a briefing, or we should reframe the briefing so it guarantees the opportunity to design valuable interventions.
[AN]: Do you think service design is similar to design leadership?
[BM]: I think a good service designer needs to have understanding of strategy and a link to business. I loved the theme of the 2011 Service Design Network Conference: “From Sketchbook to Spreadsheet”. I really like that twist that says, yes, we bring this type of empathetic and deep-dive humanistic approach, but if we aren’t able to speak the language of our clients and not able to build a bridge from what they need and understand to what we think is good and important, then we can’t be good service designers on a strategic level.
[AN]: What sorts of perspectives or experiences specifically have helped you as a service designer?
[BM]: I think my background in psychology, organization development, and systemic consultancy was a good starting point, and it really helped me to not be afraid of organizational change. You need to be quite courageous to look at an organization and find the different aspects that need to be changed in order to have impact on the front stage. As a designer, you sometimes approach an experience and think, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice and easy to have a transition between the mobile touchpoint and the brick and mortar experience?”, but you also have to think, “Ok, what are the different departments that need to be involved, and what’s the amount of change that’s necessary?” You need to have a good knowledge about what it means, but also no fear about making that kind of change happen. The background that I had encouraged me to go in that direction.
[AN]: You eventually co-founded the Service Design Network; what purpose were you trying to fulfill with that, for yourself and for the broader community?
[BM]: At first it was very much about the need for a peer group that was interested in the same issues. In the early 2000s, there wasn’t much service design out there. I had been working with different companies and had been publishing a bit, but when I suddenly realized that in London, mainly, but also in Scandinavia and a little bit in the U.S., there were people talking about service design, I thought, “Oh wow, that’s wonderful, I need to talk to them.” We started to shape the Service Design Network in 2003 and it was really amazing to meet, share experiences, and envision perspectives for service design. It seemed quite courageous at the time because it was really new. Shelley Evenson started the first conferences at Carnegie Mellon University around the emerging issues, and I think it was the team of us that gave each other a lot of courage to believe in the potential that service design had. After the first two conferences, Shelley and I felt that it had enough momentum that it made sense to take our small network–we were five people at that time–and open it up in 2007. The growth of members allowed us to run more conferences and start publishing Touchpoint, which created real evidence of service design being there and moving forward. That’s something I’ve found to be really amazing; when we started in 2008 with our first conference in Amsterdam, we were talking about journey maps and stakeholder maps, sharing the beauty of the tools we created to help orchestrate and model innovative service experiences, but today, if you were to go to a conference and show your journey map…<yawns>. It’s become so natural to work with these tools; they’ve spread very fast and have become a commodity. The network has helped focus on new challenges and bigger issues, which is great.
To hear Birgit speak at our upcoming Service Experience Conference, register here.