Service Design, Finland and the Grey Wolf

The best part of research is discovering the unexpected. I’m currently deep into fielding a first-of-its-kind global survey on the team roles involved in building digital products (by the way, if you have any role in bringing technology products to life, please add your voice here). As the survey approaches 500 responses, I’m starting to see some interesting trends.

The survey explores 15 product team roles typically involved in researching, defining, and delivering digital products. The bulk of the responses come from UX Designers, Business Designers, Service Designers, Product Designers, Product Managers and Product Owners; roles I’ve dubbed the ‘strategic six’ due to their relatively high scores on an index I’m using to rate expectations of strategic ownership by role.

While fielding the survey, I contacted Kristiina Suominen, a Senior Service Designer at Deloitte Digital in Helsinki, seeking her input on Service design in general. She had this to say:

“The maturity of the application of service design varies highly by country. Finland is a very strong geography in leading design practices, as well as other Nordic countries, Australia, UK and US.”

Is Finland a global leader in service design? Honestly, this sounded like the typical statement anyone invested in their discipline and country might say. But in my years at Nokia I hadn’t known a single Finn prone to hyperbole. I had to dig deeper, so I set out to see if her claim could be supported by data.

The internet’s most boring social network

As it happens, LinkedIn bills itself as “the world’s largest professional network with more than 546 million users in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide.” Not bad, not bad at all; I could get a pretty good indication of the prevalence of job titles by country by looking at Linkedin search results.

To do this, I wrote up some python to web scrape Linkedin search results for job titles around the world and then dump the results into a csv. Actually, I didn’t do that. I searched manually and tallied the results, which probably took less time but doesn’t sound as cool.

Armed with a full data set on the number of profiles fitting the ‘strategic six’ across 28 geographies (25 countries and 3 bellwether startup hub cities), I started comparing both the absolute number and respective ratios of those roles globally, and in each geography.

Rare Animals

Fact: at 6622, there are 378 fewer Service designer profiles on Linkedin than there are Grey Wolves in the wild — a species currently listed as an endangered (but stable) population. By contrast there are 1.5 million product manager profiles on Linkedin, dwarfing Service Designers as well as every other title among the strategic six by at least 15x.

But before you lie awake at night worrying about the plight of service designers, consider that business designers are rarer still, with only 1943 daring to position themselves as such on Linkedin. They too deserve your thoughts and prayers.

Empathy begins with understanding

With such a thin herd, should we be worried about service and business designers? Should we fear them? According to the wildlife protection advocacy defenders.org, “the greatest threat to wolves is prejudice, fear and misunderstanding about the species.” So, to completely run my grey wolf metaphor into the ground, I think a brief examination of these rare animals will help us understand them better.

A main reason for their low numbers is that Service Design has only recently become a thing. While the concept can be traced back to the 1980s, it has only gained traction during the current decade. Conversely, Product Management traces its origins to 1930s.

Looking at Google search term popularity over the past 5 years for these two design roles, one observes a slight upward trend in interest in service design while business design has remained generally flat. If you believe these practitioners of both service and business design, there’s a good reason that interest in the latter trails the former: business design is a recent offshoot of service design intended to address implementation challenges.

A survey run for a global research project called “Design for Service Innovation & Development” reports that 51% of the projects run by Service Design agencies never get implemented. As a consequence, Service Design agencies have started a transition toward a more business relevant language and offering. Today, almost half of the Service Design agencies around the globe offer Business Design as part of their offering.
— liveworkstudio.com

It’s an unfortunate human trait that we often fear what is new and different and this instinct may be at play in the case of service and business designers. Based on comments I’ve received in survey responses, I think it’s fair to say that these roles are not well understood, and in some cases not respected as valid by other designers.

“one of the main problems of the design industry currently is the abundance of titles/positions which are sometimes a mere rebranding of older specialities (e.g. copywriter) and sometimes a complete fabrication.”
— Anonymous Survey Respondent, UX Designer

Globally, service designers and business designers are a new breed, a result of an evolution and reinvention process currently underway in design. Also, there is a tangible trepidation among some in the design community about their emergence. Fortunately, there’s one place in the world where these roles flourish and roam free.

Finland First (sorry Trump)

A multi-country comparison of the proportion of business design and service design profiles to the more established design titles of ‘UX designer’ and ‘Product Designer’, shows that Finland is simply different.

Returning to the question that inspired this analysis in the first place, was Kristiina correct after all? Pretty much. At over 41%, Finland has a significantly larger representation of these emerging design roles than any other country, even the countries she gave credit to as enlightened peers. If anything, Kristiina was too generous to the other countries by mentioning them in the same company. That’s so Finnish of her!

The loneliest number

To put Finland’s embrace of service and business design in context, it helps to look at its inverse. With a population of over 40 million, Argentia has more than 8x as many inhabitants as Finland, but has a total of only eight service designers, and one, yes one business designer listed on Linkedin. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to Rolando Meyer, ‘el lobo solitario’ of Business Design in Argentina.

I contacted Rolando to ask him for his thoughts on why he would be the only Business Designer in his entire country.

“Maybe there are a few others in Argentina doing business design and design thinking, specially alumni from the Domus Academy. Perhaps they didn’t put it in LinkedIn because the role, job position or search for business designers doesn’t exist here as far as I know. We are disguised as management or innovation consultants, startupers or professors.”
— Rolando Meyer, the only business designer in Argentina

Ok so maybe it’s not exactly as lonely as Linkedin suggests, but still. My question is, which friendly Finns are going to invite Rolando out for a visit?

Death Metal and Design

If anyone does host Rolando on a design pilgrimage to Finland, please take him to Lordi’s Square. I was there with some Nokia colleagues a few years ago and as a foreigner, I can tell you it’s a surreal experience.

For those unfamiliar, Lordi’s Square is an urban park in downtown Rovaniemi named after — and featuring a monument dedicated to — death metal band Lordi. While I haven’t tried to quantify this, it seems that Finland has embraced death metal like no other country in the world.

“the Finnish death metal scene has been revered for years as one of the best around”
— Toilet OV Hell

A stop in Lordi’s square would be appropriate for Rolando because much like the country’s unique-in-the-world love of death metal, Finland seems to have embraced design culture in a similarly unique way. But what is it about Finland and subcultures that struggle to find a foothold elsewhere in the world?

The Cultural Argument

According to a geographic comparative study of empathy published in the Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, Finland ranks 58th in terms of total empathy (a combination of empathetic concern and perspective taking) among 63 countries. Reima Rönnholm, one of the founders of the Palmu design agency has suggested recently that the lack of natural empathy among Finns is connected to their desire for tools such as Service Design methods which allow them to systematize what doesn’t come naturally to them.

The same study refers to Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions and their potential relationship to empathy. When comparing Finland to other countries on the Hofstede dimensions, it’s its relatively low score on one of the dimensions — Masculinity — which may offer some clue the Finnish predisposition to business and service design.

“Finland scores 26 on this dimension and is thus considered a Feminine society. A low score (Feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. Decision making is achieved through involvement.
— hofstede-insights.com

It’s that last point from Hofstede’s description of Masculinity — that decision making is achieved through involvement — which many Finns I contacted cited as a key cultural driver of an interest in Service and Business Design. According to the comments I received, Finns are more receptive to the integrated decision making methods common to service and business design approaches. Finnish customers expect to be included in the design of the services they consume and so are more than willing to participate in design research.

The Institutional Explanation

In his address to to the Service Design General Conference in 2017, Mikko Koivisto credited the translation of Service Design into the Finnish “Palvelumuotoilu” as a key milestone in the adoption of Service Design into Finnish culture. Palvelumuotoilu is also the title of a book by Juha Tuulaniemi on Service Design which you can buy here.

If literature is a circumstantial evidence of institutionalization of a topic, the existence of academic offerings is a smoking gun. The extent to which design thinking took hold soon after the Stanford d.School first offered it as a non degree program is evidence of how support from academia can trigger a revolution. In Finland, there’s no shortage of academic opportunities to pursue service and business design. Kristiina explains:

Aalto University started to teach service design and user-centred design to their students quite early in 2000´s. Today many designers focus on learning service design in their master studies in Collaborative and Industrial Design MA program. It is also possible to study service design today in University of Lapland, University of Tampere, Laurea University of Applied Sciences and South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences.

The Big Bang Theory

Sometimes all it takes is one spark to create a chain reaction. Several of the people I contacted for insight cited Helsinki’s reign as the World Design Capital in 2012 as a tipping point. As Kristiina describes it, During 2012, many public sector organizations and citizens learned about service design because Helsinki was the world’s design capital. Several open workshops, events and lectures took place during the year which increased public sector organizations’ understanding of and expectations about design.

The Muotoiluajattelu Approach

In the process of trying to validate Kristiina’s original claim, I sought answers from followers of the facebook group ‘Service Design, Design Thinking, Service Innovation’ to the question “why are Service Design and Business Design so HUGE in Finland?”. In the spirit of inclusive solution design, perhaps the best answer for why service and business design have blossomed in Finland can be found among these comments from practitioners:

So how does your country’s design culture compare to Finland’s?

Umm hello, your country sucks and Finland rules, or didn’t you read any of this? Alright if you really want to see how far behind your country is compared to Finland, I’ve open sourced my data set containing the count of Linked in search results for each role by country here.