What We Learned at The Service Experience Conference 2017

“We have a responsibility to humanize technology, all of us in this room,” said Kendra Shimmell, opening SXConf17.

“We need to be responsible for what we’re co-creating, whether our design is explicit or not,” continued Andrea Fineman.

This theme persisted throughout the conference. As did a few others: Are products services? Are services products? What are we doing? Why?! Our wonderful speakers unpack all these ideas.


Sense & Respond: Principles for the Next Century of Service Design 
Jeff Gothelf, Executive Coach & Author, Sense & Respond

Consider the complexity of humans. Jeff’s new book, co-authored with Josh Seiden, is about co-creating products with your customers in a continuous loop that goes something like ship → sense → respond → ship, and so on. His talk and the book have plenty more, but for the recap notes, here’s how to think through this:

Plan for uncertainty. Products are consumed by humans, who are increasingly involved with technology. Promise outcomes, not futures. Create a culture of continuous learning, and have an agreed understanding of what to do with those lessons. Do less, more often. Ship smaller things regularly rather than large things infrequently. And lastly, organize for collaboration by building a team that supports these cultural and process values.

Innovation Mindsetting
Lea Simpson, Founder, Brink

Successful teams listen, build, learn, and share. It sounds simple, but it requires much more cultural work than just talking methodology. Your team mindset needs to enable innovation.

The first step towards innovation mindsetting is giving yourself and your team permission to change your minds, which is antithetical to the decisive quality we throw at leadership. Let that go! Lea recommends building in milestones to ask how hypotheses have changed throughout projects because it implies at the outset that we expect ideas to change.

Another mindset we cling to is the lone hero or genius. The reality is nobody succeeds entirely alone, but sometimes we put people into teams and incentivize their competition with each other. Let’s stop that, too!

Lastly, we need to embrace conflict as something new that’s trying to emerge. She calls this having “the sweaty conversations” to acknowledge they’re uncomfortable, but that they’re the path to success.

Designing Living Services
Andy Polaine, Regional Design Director APAC, Fjord; Author, Service Design

Delight is the far-reaching goal of every service experience, and it’s becoming the norm. We, as consumers, no longer compare services to other similar services. We expect each service to be seamlessly, equally, delightful.

Designing delight begins by establishing overarching ambition to set the personality of the company. The “how” something is done isn’t nearly as important as the “why” something is done. The ambition statement as a rulebook helps govern millions of unpredictable scenarios, and enables employees to select the right path when choosing between options — for example, an ambition statement would help you decide between an option that is better for the bottom line of the company, or an option that is more sustainable.

Once the rulebook for the service is defined, designs can be present, timeless, even magical. He digs into all these concepts in the talk, but the most important is using judgement when developing living services. The potential is amazing, and it’s the designer’s role to maintain service personality, transparency, diversity, and inclusion.

Designing Agentive Technology
Christopher Noessel, Global Design Practice Lead, Travel and Transportation, IBM

Christopher is no stranger to thinking about a distant future based on ideas in science fiction and existing technologies. In his latest book, Designing Agentive Technology, he reveals his interest in Narrow AI, which he points out has three flavors.

The first is Automatic, in which a user is never meant to think about it, like a pacemaker. Assistive AI is like something sitting on your shoulder, helping you do a task. Agentive AI is in between the two. For example, a Roomba responds to a trigger telling it how to behave. Christopher likens that trigger/response to designing services. Designers create a system of triggers to push outcomes.

Summary: Get ready for a lot more agentive technology. APIs like Watson already exist, and it’s our job to decide what to do with these. Designers are the guardians of ethics of our designs (see Chapter 7 of his book). We need to ensure that our incentives are aligned between user, business, and the technologies performing the tasks to deliver outcomes.

Serving Hip Hop? How Culture Shapes Service and How Service Can Change Culture
Khafre Jay, Founder and Executive Director, HipHopForChange

HipHopForChange shapes cultural empowerment. As a Hip Hop artist himself, Khafre recognized he could combat the homogenization of Hip Hop music by showing people how to sell CDs on the street, and using the money to build stages, and eventually, communities. HipHopForChange teaches kids to raise their voices, becoming part of a culture they’re proud of through rapping, breakdancing, and graffiti arts.

Khafre says we must carefully consider who has a seat at the table when we’re building our organizations and products. If your user audience is diverse, your team better be diverse too.

When “Fail Fast” Isn’t an Option: Redefining Risk through Design in Government Services
Dana Chisnell, Co-Director, Center for Civic Design

As taxpayers, we’re funding the government. How much risk are we willing to take on government initiatives? Dana Chisnell shared her story of of bringing the immigration form process up to the digital age. When she came to the Digital Service under the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, part of Homeland Security), she discovered few people had an understanding of human-centered design.

Instead of rushing in and changing things, she built trust within the organization, and was eventually able to create a culture that built “with, not for” the users, thanks to radical exposure. Every person in the organization participated in user research for 2 hours every 6 weeks, and every other Tuesday the entire organization met to discuss their findings. She also discovered ways to redefine risk because the government isn’t really in a business that can rollout services in beta.

For anyone working through the growing pains of introducing healthy digital design practices into an established organization, Dana’s experience will resonate and possibly inspire new methods for breaking through old barriers. Also check out her book on usability, and the great resources on her website, usabilityworks.

Drastic Measures: An Inquiry Into the Ethical Boundaries of Design
Allan Chochinov, Chair, SVA MFA Products of Design; Partner, Core77

What would happen if you took your design to an absurdist level? If you’re willing to take Allan’s advice, shoot for one day in the app store. As Chair of the MFA in Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Allan has seen some interesting thesis projects. Sometimes his students bring him to question the ethical boundaries of what should be designed, but he has learned to give “bad” ideas a chance to become “good”.

Sometimes creating work that is objectionable or designed for the wrong stakeholder can pressure test ideas. His talk includes examples of what he calls “designing with fire”.

Don’t worry. He isn’t suggesting we do terrible design, or create evil products, but that we’re conscious of our ideas, and examine the consequences.

Think big. Start small. Scale smart. Leveraging Successful Innovation in Big, Established Organizations.
Rupert Cryer, Assistant Director, Cabinet Office, UK Government

In his quest to create SKYrooms with the UK Government, Rupert Cryer learned to work with constraints as part of the innovation process. His government-savvy shows in his encouragement to stay within the lines, and apply judgement and integrity between them. This doesn’t mean he’s afraid to ask for innovation. He frames big leap changes saying, “I know this is completely unreasonable, but how about we…” and gently explores the responses until he finds a “yes, if…” answer.

Knowing the blockers around why things haven’t worked in the past or why they’re perceived as impossible is like striking gold for identifying the next steps toward viable solutions. His tips help stop the impulse of ripping up the rules, and promote finding opportunities within them.

Transition Design: Using Design to Affect Systems Change
Cheryl Dahle, CEO, Flip Labs

Transition design requires layers of change. Not all those layers seek the same outcomes, especially when it comes to industry-wide transitions. Cheryl Dahle asks how we could be better at solving complex problems, intersecting business and social good. This led her to fish.

Overfishing, mislabeling, bycatch, and waste are all leading to an ocean ecosystem lacking in diversity, much less anything we’d want to eat. To fix this, she and her team did a system analysis to see where they could intervene. But what if the thing that would make the biggest impact doesn’t exist yet? They realized there wasn’t one solution they could design to fix the problem, and instead focused on entrepreneurs within the field already, acting as an incubator for disruption.

Even if you’re not interested in the challenges of the fishing industry (careful with the white tuna), Cheryl’s talk helps us think outside the box of philanthropy to create widespread change.

Design on the Edge: Lessons Learned by Falling in Love with the Problem
Jason Ulaszek, Founder and Chief Design Officer, Inzovu

Think every single minute of every single day about how we can impact the people we serve. That’s what it means to fall in love with the problem. Love doesn’t always sound like “generating brand awareness, improving user experience and engagement”, but it can if the problem motivates you!

Jason fell for the problem when it wasn’t so simple. He was sent to work with the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. Not being Rwandan, nor a genocide survivor, he had to recognize his humble role as the facilitator of the story. His work isn’t just a website or an app, it’s aligning to the greater long-term good of a community and culture, inside and outside the organization.

Crickets on the American Plate: A Service Design Challenge
Megan Miller, Cofounder and CEO, Bitty Foods

Having your product in stores within the first year is a bit of a dream. Now, if your product is made of bugs, it’s even more impressive. Bitty Foods hatched out of the realization that people eat bugs all over the world, and with a growing food crisis, we need to find ways of making insect proteins palatable in the States. With the nutrition facts alone, selling crickets as food should be easy — 2-times the protein of beef, 1.5-times the iron of spinach, and 18% healthy fats.

Megan shares Bitty Foods’ history of a TEDx appearance, accidental seed funding, unexpected user feedback, an existing supply chain, working with a celebrity chef, designing the packaging, and the ongoing plans for Bitty Foods. All while she convinces us to try Chiridos.

What is Service Design in Service To, Really?
Alexander Baumgart, Professor, California College of the Arts; Partner, Futuredraft

Alexander’s talk is like the fairy tale story structure in which you realize the main character had the power all along. Only you can decide what you are in service to! So what is it?

Once you decide what it is, repeat it, out loud, imagine the consequences of what would happen if you weren’t in service to it. Let it motivate you. When you are in service to X, which is in service to Y, who is in service to Z, the cascading effect shows the full scope of what is possible.

If you aren’t sure of what it is, seek the tension, find the challenges, fall in love with your problems (to borrow Jason’s ideas), and make the service statement your daily mantra. The work that finds you will be fulfilling, and your outlook will change. Then go tell Alexander about it on Twitter.

Designing for a Data-Driven Economy
Jodi Forlizzi, Professor, Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Carnegie Mellon University

Service design is alive and growing in new ways. Data is everywhere. Products are used with other products to create platforms. Sensors are on everything, and the internet of things is allowing communications between all of it like never before.

Designers have the responsibility, and/or the opportunity, to add humanity into these systems. We get to decide, for example, what is creepy when it comes to sharing data, and whether platforms like Google Assistant or Alexa should respond to us around the world the same way the unit in our homes would.

But, Jodi warns, we should not get too caught up in design methodologies. Bring people from different disciplines together, and allow each to participate in the process of making these decisions for how technology will continue to serve us.

Speaking CEO: Business Fluency For Designers
Jess McMullin, Principal, Situ Strategy

The secret to speaking CEO, Jess says, is you have to consider business influence. Rather than looking out at your customer or user, their values and needs, use the same design tools to look inward at the business. Your conversations at different levels of the organization should scale too, applying cultural fluency authentically. If nothing else, remember his ratios of where time should be spent when forging new frontiers: 70% of time should be spent in empathy, 20% in inquiry, and only 10% in advocacy. When we focus on understanding, advocacy comes naturally.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Give Service Design Away
Jamin Hegeman, Head of Design, Financial Services, Capital One

Introducing service design to organizations is like snowboarding for the first time, says Jamin. Some people fall down, and it hurts, and not everyone can get through that pain. But some snowboarders (organizations) grow through the transformation period, and eventually fly down hill with their new purpose.

Having vision for what’s next, connecting that to implementation, and employing management skills to integrate service design at our organizations may not always be easy, but the only way to scale services is to get back up and keep trying.


Warm fuzzies and high fives to all the attendees, speakers, workshop instructors, and volunteers who made SXConf17 possible.

Hang out with The Service Experience Conference on Twitter, and stay tuned for future Adaptive Path events.

This recap was written by Dorothy Levin. Thanks for reading.

And oh, wait, one more thing! Come work with us. It’s awesome.