Chris Downs – service design: are we still talking about this?

Chris Downs of Method kicks off NEXT Service Design by questioning the very concept that has brought hundreds of people to Berlin on a Monday morning…

Chris Downs founded a Service Design agency in 2001. And there was one problem in being the first – they were also the only ones. They wondered if they were insane. But now, there’s 400 people in this room talking about it. He now works for Method – not the people who make the beautiful bottles, whatever his mother thinks…

Is service design a field, a discipline or a practice? Probably not. It’s a set of tools, a process and most importantly, it has a point of view. It’s a logical, sequential process that understands the needs of both the users and the business.

He’s become sceptical about the process – too often the insights research is thrown away when the designer get to work. Better, perhaps to start with a hypothesis, build it quickly, test it with the users, and work with that data to iterate the next stage of the build. This is articulated in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Also The Entrepreneurs Guide to Customer Development.

The translation of observation into ideas is critical – and where things often go wrong. Anyone who misinterprets what they’re seeing sends the project in the wrong direction. It’s a high-touch process, so it’s time-consuming and costly. And once you’ve got the insight, you tend to lose the people you got it from, so you lose the ability to go back and test your insights on them.

Many web-based tools can give you data on how people are actually interacting with your services. Blueprints are useful – but they’re a guess, and people often behave in unexpected ways. Service blueprints rarely bear much relationship to what actually happens.

The most important part is the point of view. He started life as a product designer. They account for only 20% of the western economy – and they’re not particularly sustainable. At his first company, they let go of the idea of products and focused just on services. It’s sustainable – you don’t throw services away. It’s financially sustainable, and more socially inclusive – it’s based on people helping each other.

As he’s got older, though, he’s softened his thinking. Services do exist, but not in isolation. Products are part of it. He hates being trapped between products, services, brands and marketing communications. Hates it. The products aren’t great, so they have to spend a fortune marketing them to him, and then reluctantly provide services to deal with the product’s shortcomings. Inevitably, the answer comes back to more products – the more stuff you own, the better you feel. He hates being described as a consumer – it makes him sound like he’s gorging on things.

However, all these things are blending together. The platform for service design is technology – the web. “I am as much your brand as you are”. Services are developing which let us contribute to them – we’re no longer just passive consumers. Products are no longer things we covet, but are things that give us access to the things we need or want. He wants his children to grow up in a world where they feel needed, not like passive consumers.

So, are we still talking about this? In some ways, no. The version we started talking about 11 years ago has seen its foundations fundamentally changed. When we started talking about this 90% of the people at a conference would be academics. Now this room is full of practitioners – we’re doing it.