What being an in-house service designer is really like.

I’m over a year out from grad school now. A little older. A little wiser.

And now a practicing service designer. I’m still a little surprised that I managed to pull that off.

Recently, I was asked by a former professor to come speak to a service design class about what exactly that does mean.

I quickly agreed because it sounded fun, but then I paused. Our business as a whole is still only tangentially aware of this in-house competency and even foggier on what that means for them. None of the projects I’ve worked on have felt like the projects I did in school. Very little of my day-to-day seemed to correspond to the conversations I see happening in a service design community Slack.

Oh my god. I’m a fraud.

Through a series of conversations with different colleagues and a read of this paper from Linköping University, I came to accept that it’s simply not true. It’s just a symptom of being in a relatively new field in a company where it’s an even newer competency. And this is a reality for many others. So in the spirit of positivity, I focused on the things I’ve learned and experienced over the past 15 months.

1. You have to evangelize. No one understands what you (can) do.
I’m lucky enough to have 2 other services designers on my immediate team as well has about half a dozen spread throughout the rest of the company. Together, we devise strategies for telling others what we do. In our office, we’ve set up monthly Service Design 101 classes for the other designers. The design team is 50% industrial designers who hadn’t heard of service design(ers) until they heard management had hired one. We go back to basics with an eye toward how we can work with them on their projects, how our work relates to, informs and enhances their own. We include activities when it makes sense and encourage conversation amongst the whole team. It not only informs them, but helps me better solidify my understanding of my work. (Providing cookies helps keep attendance up).

We take a slightly more professional tone when speaking with our business partners. It’s not uncommon for our entire department to be referred to as “ID” for industrial design and for people to be surprised we have any other kind of designer. We spread this message any time we’re put on a project as an ongoing conversation about the value we can add at each phase. It helps to be both patient and proactive. Find opportunities to show your value and be prepared to explain what you can do and how it will help several times over to multiple stakeholders. Be resilient against blank stares from people who don’t often interface with design.

2. You have to be a strong and concise communicator. No one listens if they have to work to understand you.
I was lucky enough to go through a grad program that was housed in both the Design and English departments, as well as have a journalism background. I’m also an avid reader of both fiction and news. I know words. And have gotten a reputation for it around here. This comes up when composing presentations, writing filler copy for app designs before marketing can get to it, and when talking to the wide variety of internal and external stakeholders I interact with every day. This obviously plays a role in evangelizing, but also in coordinating everyone involved in a project.

My favorite thing to harp on as I work through a project is making sure we’re using the proper terms and have a common understanding of what that term means. Which leads me to number 3…

3. You have to act as an interpreter. No one understands what everyone else is saying and they don’t realize no one is understanding what they’re saying. Now I am the first to role my eyes at business lingo. Acronyms are out of control. Buzzwords get thrown around so people can make themselves seem smart. Don’t be afraid to challenge that.

I’m often a quiet person. I spend most of my meetings listening unless I’m a key player in the topic. This allows me to more easily identify when two people are using the same word to mean two things. When this happens, pause the conversation. Bring up the difference. Say, “It seems like Joe is talking about Ewe as in the farm animals and Bob is talking about you as in the pronoun. Can we align (another overused business word) on what we mean?” You’ll be surprised how often that will progress the conversation and open up new ideas.

The other way of doing this is to use your special weapon as a designer: your familiarity with sketching. GO TO THE WHITEBOARD. Draw what you think each person is talking about. Draw arrows pointing to the commonalities or differences that seem to be the hang up in the conversation. If it’s something more abstract, draw a table, draw a little diagram. Just get something out for people to look at. Watch how everyone will now be referring to that thing you drew, pointing at it, correcting that part there or seeing something new in the way you drew this part here. Words have their limit. Know when to make it concrete.

4. You have comfortable facilitating. Do not underestimate the power of being the one with the marker.
This goes hand in hand with what I mentioned in 2 & 3. Lead those group conversations to make sure you are getting out of it what you need to do your job. Everyone in that room has their own agenda. When you’re the one with the sharpie and post it notes, it’s a lot easier to push yours. Prompt them to consider how a user might feel at this moment when you think they’re likely going to be overwhelmed. Suggest this might be a good thing to prototype and test.

When you’re the one with the marker, what gets written down is how you want to word something. You can be the gatekeeper before something even does get written down. Ask them questions, steer the conversation, and pull the knowledge out of them. One key thing to keep in mind though is that it is much harder to be both the design voice in the room and the facilitator in larger workshops. If at all possible, push to have a designer as a participant in addition to you facilitating if design is a key voice that needs to be heard.

5. No one understanding what I do allows me a lot of flexibility.
I’ve talked about this a fair bit with the other services designers in the company. I’ve been here a little over a year and I’ve been on a device UI project, conducted a few rounds of user testing, worked on a consumer app, acted as UX expert on a product-app offering, helped business partners think through and visualize a business segment roadmap, participated as a design thinker & facilitator in a few internal innovation workshops, and most recently begun to work on creating a service blueprint for a pilot program.

Service design skills apply broadly, so you can be applied broadly. It’s one of the things I like best about my title.

This is the reality of my job. It may not be what I expected leaving school. It is equally as valuable in my development though. It’s important to me to continue to reflect on my growth, especially when it’s not as readily apparent, and I hope to continue learning about service design practice as well as theory as I move through my career.

NOTE: I originally wrote this in October 2016 for my personal blog. I’ve recently given in to migrating over to Medium.