Service Design meets Futures Design

People say “Hindsight is ever the cruelest and most astute adviser”. Looking back into your past, selling that stock sooner or switching jobs earlier would have made perfect sense had you had the knowledge you have now. In the world of building products and services, too, having actionable foresight leads to more informed decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Kimmo Kuisma
Sep 28, 2018 · 7 min read

Designing for futures, or futures design, can produce some such foresight and become an invaluable tool in strategically guiding your business towards desirable futures.

In the last 10 years, design thinking practices have risen from a designers’ only craft to a global movement used to solve business problems. Disruptive companies have embraced the teachings of design thinking and placed customer experiences in the limelight. AirBnB figured out that feeling at home while travelling is what matters the most. Uber believed that who’s driving the car doesn’t matter much as long as you get from point A to point B as quickly and reliably as possible. Crafting their services from ground up to reflect these characteristics that were overlooked by others is one thing that builds businesses that can potentially slay old industry giants.

I’d argue that the work of designers in these groundbreaking companies varies surprisingly little from company to company, project to project. In the beginning, some time is invested into figuring the needs, pains and (hidden) desires of customers. Next, business models and goals go under scrutiny or even re-design. Based on these two sides, a synthesis is made to align business goals and customer insight.

The synthesis usually works as the starting point for ideation, the phase for creating concepts that support the two sides. Of course, some risk-takers go out on a limb to support the needs they believe could be potential even if there isn’t immediate profit in sight. The most worthwhile ideas are crafted into concepts, out of which prototypes are built. Prototypes, in turn, are shown to consumers, and refined or abandoned according to feedback. In reality, this iterative process is very dirty and jumps back happen all the time. It’s just the nature of design done right.

Just like the neck and neck competition between companies like Uber and Lyft has shown, competition in most industries is fierce. Coming up with ingenious, insightful services that resonate well with customers is painstaking and your timing needs to be just right in order to succeed. Designers would benefit greatly from being able to anticipate how peoples’ behaviour and their surroundings could change. Strangely enough, we’re still often only tapping into the needs of the customers today to gain this future-oriented insight. By the time the service or product hits the market, it’s often behind the curve at birth unless the company is one of the unicorns that operate on the edge of innovation.

As a designer, I often find myself wondering if we’re looking far enough ahead in time in the daily work that we do? Are we looking into various possible futures that lie ahead, or do we just cherry-pick our favourite near-future scenario and turn a blind eye to other possibilities and the constant elusive nature of what the future holds in store? Are we really taking full advantage of all that design has to offer by just helping our clients beat their competition quartile by quartile?

Of course, cutting corners and prioritising things happens all the time due to limited time and money. I feel that in service design, data about futures that could inspire us designers is often paid lip service to. Trend reports and (hidden) signals remain a source of insight and inspiration mostly to the world of ad agencies, whose ad campaigns hype the next big things to come. On the non-commercial side of things, academia dwells in the theoretical possibilities that lie ahead. But what about service design? It almost feels like there’s an unwritten rule in it to prioritise the present over the more distant futures.

Could futures design help bridge this gap between service design and the need to also consider possible, probable and preferable futures?

In academics, gazing into future scenarios is nothing new. The discipline has existed since the novelist H.G Wells first advocated the idea in his 1902 book “Anticipations”. These days, academics and design thinking practitioners often refer to the field as futures thinking. Futures thinking relies on a body of tools and methods that make gazing into possible, probable and preferable futures plausible. Even though H.G. Wells managed to describe very tangible things that would happen in the future, the challenge from a business point of view is that academic futures thinking tends to widen the horizon and envision all possible futures. Businesses are looking for more practical ways to understand what future means for them, and how they can turn the opportunities that lie ahead into tangible outcomes.

For us at New Things Co, Futures Design means applying the principles and methods of futures thinking to real-world business- and design problems. As an analogy, just like service design means applying the principles of design thinking into practice. To get the differences between service design and futures design and to understand their interplay, it’s worthwhile to look at the two from various angles.

The function of service design differs from that of futures design. Service design focuses on the present day world and often one future. It tries to improve products and services for the near future by organising people, infrastructure, materials, and communications through design. Futures design aims to inspire, and to explore several large future scenarios that could exist in the more distant future.

In a typical service design project, most output needs to align tightly with an organisations’ current business goals, their customer’s desires, and the realm of what’s technically possible. There’s often a strong drive to create concepts that end up as prototypes, which can be pushed quickly from user testing to design, development and deployment.

The output of futures design different radically from those of service design. Futures design often produces provocative prototypes, or provotypes in short, that help people imagine how the future could be. These provotypes are exposed to consumers in hopes of gaining insight into their reactions and thoughts. Technical feasibility or profitability of the provotypes in the present is a secondary concern.

In terms of scope of changes, futures design looks at products and services with a broader lens than a typical service design project would. In service design, the scope of changes is relatively tight: Improvements to a company’s current service, or conceptual work for their new offering. In futures design, the scope is very broad. Business models, conventions of using (digital) products and services, and all the environments that people might live in are all up for speculation and imagining.

The timeframe examined in service design typically spans from the present moment to some point in the near future. In futures design, looking into possible futures starts by first examining what has happened in the past, often spanning back at least tens of years. The causal relationships between past events and milestones fuel the projections and foresight about different futures.

In terms of strategic significance, futures design can help in shifting an organisation’s long-term decision-making to a more stable ground. Compared to service design, futures design focuses more into possible, probable and desirable futures. As a result of getting some foresight, long-term strategic planning can become more informed than just trying to beat the competition one quartile at a time. Being prepared for possible futures is always better than just keeping your eyes on the present.

Service design and futures design serve different purposes with a lot of overlap. Futures design can create scenarios and provotypes which can illustrate what kind of futures might lie ahead. On a more concrete level, a provotype may also function as a starting point for a service design project which aims at creating a prototype of a new product or a service, or at least provide some vital pointers in guiding such a project.

Granted, futures design isn’t an exact science by any means. Just like service design, the range of tools, methods and data sources that can be utilised is vast. The right selection and application of methods and tools that help gaze into futures depends heavily on designers’ personal skills, insight and experiences. Just like with any methodology, going by the book is often a lousy match to the complexities of real world.

But when you’re thinking about the long-term strategies to steer your business forward for the next 10 years to come, can you actually get much valuable foresight from service design about futures? Are you tapping into data sources that illustrate large trends and changes that are likely to happen in the future? Could futures design complement service design by providing different starting points for service design work, because it sets its sights to future scenarios without the burden of being stuck in the present day, or at best, in tomorrow?

At New Things Co, we’re looking for a practical approach to tackling this challenge. We’ve been sparring with our clients about our approach that we call “Future Sprint”, which can bring strategic foresight into design work and decision-making. We’ll dive into what our Future Sprint actually is in the follow-up to this blog post!

Kimmo Kuisma

Written by

Design Director at Vincit. Freelance photographer, street workout athlete.

New Things Co

New Things Co is a fresh digital consultancy. We're all about experimenting, curiosity & heavy-weight experience.

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