The elusive Service Designer is indeed very hard to find, but if you know what to look for, your business will never be the same. Guaranteed.

The Six Million Dollar Service Designer

The 9 key traits common to many successful Service Designers

Greg Lakloufi
Nov 27, 2018 · 10 min read

I am often asked how companies can hire Service Designers, or how to become a Service Designer, and that is never an easy question to answer. Because truthfully, the Service Design discipline itself is quite difficult to define. Ask 20 Service Designers to give you a proper definition of Service Design and you will most likely end up with 25 unique definitions. The name itself is quite the puzzler.

I recollect having that very conversation not too long ago with my friends Marc Stickdorn and Adam St. John Lawrence over a piping hot calabrese pizza in New York City last summer. Marc and Adam literally “wrote” the book on Service Design, so of course they had a couple of ideas on the subject.

In term of formal education, we all concurred that there are currently only a handful of true Service Design schools in the world, and probably only one in the U.S. worth mentioning today (Savannah College of Art and Design) so the talent pipeline is incredibly thin, while the overwhelming demand swells by the minute. But as we continued our discussion, we very quickly agreed that a very large number of current service design practitioners are obviously not formally trained in the art and science of service design. Far from it. Engineering, Advertising, Marketing, Industrial Design, Psychology, Research, Photography, Theater… you name it, all walks of life are represented in the wonderfully inclusive global community of Service Design.

So, who is the prototypical Service Designer?

How did he/she end up in Service Design? Has he/she taken Service Design classes? Does he/she have special inherent traits that makes them uniquely suited for Service Design? Is there a proverbial DNA of the Service Designer?

Turns out… there kinda is.

We Can Build Him/Her. We Have The Technology.

Marc, Adam and I very quickly started to discuss a very interesting set of recurring patterns emerging from recruiting Service Designers. Marc pointed out to a study done by the Swedish Service Design agency Expedition Mondial which spent a decade scouting and recruiting Service Designers all over Europe looking for the ever elusive service designer.

Turns out there is a very clear commonality pattern that can be defined through a lens of 9 attributes present in an overwhelmingly large number of service designers.

Erik Widmark and Susanna Nissar, co-founder of Expedition Mondial, quickly realized that they would have to look beyond the mere scholastic abilities and existing skillsets of the applicants to predict future potential.

  • Who were they looking for?
  • Who have they been consistently recruiting?
  • And which ones have turned out to be very impactful Service Designers?

Turns out there is a very clear commonality pattern that can be defined through a lens of 9 attributes present in an overwhelmingly large number of service designers. Who knew right?

The key finding here is that based on their long scouting experience, SD recruiters at Expedition Mondial now look specifically for those key “service design genetic markers”, which may not necessarily show up on standard CVs, Résumés and Portfolios, especially if all backgrounds and walks of life are in play.

So, how do you spot a potential great Service Designer in a stack of résumés, or on the street?

Of course, many Service Designers out there most likely do not identify with all 9 key traits, or even 6, maybe not even 4. This is just a pattern. A collection of data points. But a very well documented and very actionable set of observations nevertheless. So maybe there is something there for all of us to learn from?

Before we look at the 9 identified common traits, if you are interested in moving from UX (User Experience) or UI (User Interface) or IA (Information Architecture) or even FED (Front-End Development) and boldly foray into Service Design and feel that you do not fit in ANY of the below key traits, please do not enroll in accounting night classes quite yet. This is not a golden rule. Not even a guideline. Just an interesting observation. And subjective at best.

Service Designers are human lovers. Service Design is all about understanding people. Humans, Consumers. Users.

But let’s also be pragmatic about it, if you are currently a UI Designer and have no sense of empathy, are not detail-oriented and are not a born problem-solver, you may have bigger problems on your hands… Just sayin’.

So without further ado, let’s go through the 9 common traits of the Service Designer:

1. Service Designers are Great Listeners

Service Designers are human lovers. If you don’t like to talk to people or if you just can’t seem to care a great deal about people’s problems, whatever they are, you may not need to go down the rest of this list. Service Design is all about understanding people. Humans, Consumers. Users. You can be an introvert or extrovert, that is totally irrelevant. But you will absolutely need to score off the charts on the emotional intelligence and empathy scales. You need to be a people person and absolutely love interacting and learning from people of all shapes and sizes. As Erik and Susanna added: “A huggable service designer is highly employable.”

2. Service Designers have Genuine Humility

Ego. Take a good look at that word. EGO. It is the last time you will see it. Nothing about Service Design is about you. You will spend your entire career listening, understanding, sharing, sympathizing, and empathizing with other people’s challenges, issues and even ideas. Even if you run super cool and creative co-creation workshops with ideas flying off the walls, remember, you are just a facilitator. None of those ideas are actually yours. Remember that word we just discussed earlier? What word? See, you’re catching on.

3. Service Designers have an Unquenchable Thirst for Learning

People learn in many ways. When it comes down to Service Designers, you will need to learn about industries, companies or subjects you have never heard of before. Literally. And you will need to know a great deal about them in a very short time or you will never be able to start thinking up solutions to solve the problems. You will also need to learn in non-academic ways. Yes, you will need to sift through potentially tons of documentation, books, manuals, handbooks. But you will also need to learn by tinkering. Tinkering intellectually and manually. You will need to build stuff of cardboard, paper, plastic, wood. Break it apart to rebuild it again. And again. Sounds like fun?

4. Service Designers have the Uncanny Ability to Shift Perspectives

Service Designers need to have an incredibly pliable mind. You will need to be able to shift from Agricultural Machinery Manufacturing to Women Healthcare packaging, from interviewing Public Transportation users, to building support processes for major financial institutions, sometimes the same week. You will also need to be able to zoom out from high level customer strategy to human-centered solutioning, all the way down to systemic methodology, organizational effectiveness and infrastructure resiliency processes. At the same time.

5. Service Designers can Simplify the Most Complex Issues

Not a lot of Service Design projects are simple. I can’t think of a single project I was ever evolved with that was ever “simple”. The very nature of Service Design calls for a deep understanding of things that are broken, fractured, mis-aligned, dysfunctional. Or you wouldn’t be here. And because the root of the problem is not clearly identified yet, you have to go look for it. In a lot of places. Through a lot of people. You will eventually gather an overwhelming amount of data, both qualitative and quantitative, and you will need to make sense of it and simplify it so you can start building solutions to solve the problem. And remember, you knew absolutely nothing about Industrial Coal Mining Excavation Machinery a couple of weeks ago. Think about it this way: There are currently entire branches of the British government that are being “re-designed” through Service Design methodology. Is that complex enough for you?

6. Service Designers are Very Detail-Oriented

This is probably the most obvious of the traits depicted here, but remember that Service Designers are not only asked to simplify and re-think the future state of a particular problem, but while they are re-imagining the future they are also asked to zoom in to the proverbial granular level and identify thousands of micro-second touchpoints in a customer journey of a software engineer working on cloud migration on-boarding and software release methodology for a top 5 global financial institution, for example. Yes detail-oriented indeed. I have designer friends who have been working on very large Service Design projects for over a year and are still in the discovery phase of the project.

7. Service Designers have Contradictory Educations

This is probably the one trait that surprised me the most. At first. Then totally made sense. Erik and Susanna found out that a very large part of the Designers they interviewed had a very contradictory education. Or at the very least unrelated and unexpected fields of study. Erik and Susanna even pushed the observation to define a combination of “rational” process-driven fields mixed with “creative” emotionally-driven educations. The idea here is that the individuals have developed an ability to be both intuitive AND logical, and most importantly the ability to easily switch back and forth… at will. An unbelievably valuable trait to work in Service Design. For example, they pointed out to the examples of a Biochemistry undergrad major followed by a Master of Interactive Art Direction. Pretty unusual combination for sure. Or Business Administration +Product Design as another example. They call it Bipolar Education. Which makes complete sense if you think about what we have been discussing thus far.

8. Service Designers are Travelers or connected to Different Cultures

Erik and Susanna also pointed out that a very large amount of the designers they interviewed had very strong connections to different cultures. Whether they grew up in a different country, or lived in multiple foreign places for extended amounts of time, or simply were married to a person from a different culture, all the way to traveling extensively all over the world, the connection was way too blatant to ignore. This is no coincidence. They pointed out that perhaps it is a sign of inherent curiosity about other people and perspectives. Highly subjective of course, but again, makes total sense.

9. Service Designers are People Problem-Solvers

Human-Centric Solutioning. I know it’s a cliché consultant jargon nowadays, but at the end of the day, this is what we do. We solve problems for people. We may use methodologies and processes and a bunch of innovative and bleeding-edge technologies to solve the problems at hand, but never forget that this started with a person with a problem, and this will end with that person equipped with a solution. Everything in between is just logistics, research, data, analysis, prototypes, wireframes… and lots of yellow sticky notes. The great service designer never loses focus on the why. Why are we doing this? Why should the user care? Why would the users adopt this solution? And after spending 6 months neck-deep in the inner-workings of cat food manufacturing and integrated chain-of-supply, boy is it easy to forget.

So what do you think?

Do you think you have what it takes to be a Service Designer? How many of the 9 afore-mentioned traits can you identify with? 5? maybe 6? All 9 of them? If you feel very strongly about all the above please call me right now. I’ll pass along your info to Jeff, my head recruiter.

All joking aside, you can easily argue that some of those traits could easily fit many other professions out there, from nurses to accountants to software engineers. Absolutely. No one is arguing that.

What is hard to argue here, is that those common traits and patterns are factually VERY prominent in a vast majority of the Service Designers recruited by Expedition Mondial over the past decade. Over and over and over. And the combination of them all is also what starts painting a pretty clear picture. So if the picture we just outlined here immediately reminds you of your little sister, college roommate or next door neighbor, hey, drop them a line, they may be a Service Designer Superstar in the making :)

UPDATE: I have received an overwhelming amount of questions, friendly notes and positive comments about this article. I am very thankful for all your claps, likes and pokes :) I have mostly been asked to provide real-life examples of the above article and I will do just that as soon as possible. Please look for a follow up article highlighting three incredibly talented Service Designers: Robin Roberts, Sr. Experience Design Lead at Capital One; My Bach, Experience Design Consultant at Slalom Consulting; and James Utley, Principal at Dialexa.

If you are, or know a Service Designer who fits this story to a T, please get in touch. I would love to include them into future updates and share their experience with others in the community. The proof is in the pudding right?

Many thanks to Marc Stickdorn, Adam St. John Lawrence, Erik Widmark and Susanna Nissar for their insightful inputs and contributions.

Greg Lakloufi

Written by

Experience + Service Design Principal @ Slalom Consulting.