The value of brief encounters

For over a year, people across the world interested in service design have taken part in online encounters organised by Open Change — Randomised Coffee Trials.

Barbara Mertlova
Open Book


Illustration showing two cups of coffee connected by a speech bubble which says ‘Randomised Coffee Trials’.
Illustration showing two cups of coffee connected by a speech bubble which says ‘Randomised Coffee Trials’.


Please visit the Distanced Gathering website or email to join.


They are monthly paired conversations, arranged randomly. 85+ people are paired up for an online chat with a coffee, on topics of design, service design, and other areas of interest. Not everyone is a designer by profession, and participants come from all corners of the world. Some use the monthly chance encounter as a break in their busy working lives, making friends in the community, while others have embarked on collaborative projects from that single conversation.


Open Change initiated this project during the first UK lockdown in May 2020 to run alongside the Distanced Gatherings. The Gatherings were at the time weekly meet ups on Zoom of the (mostly) Scottish service design community. Since then, the Gathering has developed, broadened its community, addressed 28+ themes and changed in frequency, while maintaining most of its original format.

Similarly, the Randomised Coffee Trials have turned from weekly to monthly events, their community has grown from 10 pairs in the first week to 40+ randomly matched couples in May of this year, and over 400 paired conversations have taken place at the time of writing.

We used NESTA’s template to start the idea, tweaking it to fit the needs of the community. With the help of participants’ feedback, we have recently introduced theme prompts to kickstart the conversations, the process of connecting has been streamlined, we have overcome some barriers in the effectiveness of email communications and we are currently working on introducing an online sign-up form, making the joining process even easier.


The Randomised Coffee Trials — like the Distanced Gatherings — were set up to help people overcome the isolation and anxiety caused by the first lockdown, by bringing people together through conversation. Because being locked down shouldn’t mean feeling isolated and anxious.

People have joined for a wide variety of reasons — broadening networks, feeling part of a community, connecting with like-minded individuals are frequently cited motivations. However, people have also used this as an opportunity to support their career development into service design. Students and recent graduates in particular have found the networking and ‘informal mentoring’ invaluable. Many have built on connections made in the Distanced Gatherings and other community initiatives, and likewise many of the Randomised Coffee participants have taken up the chance to interact with others in real time and joined the Gatherings that way. People have said that the opportunity to have a chance encounter during lockdown, to feel part of the community, to get inspired by others through meaningful conversations — that has been the real value.

What, then?

One year on, and we have seen the numbers of participants grow considerably, and the conversation focus shifted from the pandemic to more professionally focused topics. The coffees bring different things to different people. Many value the possibility to drop in for a one-off chat, while others like the regularity of pairing up with a different person every month. Most importantly, initiatives such as this have shown us the vital importance of community, in times of unimaginable challenge and change.

If you’d like to experience these random encounters for yourself, please email to sign up or to find out more.

Read what participants have said.

“These sessions find a place in my gratitude journal. Made some friends and had some very interesting conversations through this forum and coffee trials in this community”

“The opportunity to speak to people from different industries and disciplines has been extremely valuable to me especially as I pursue a career change towards service design / service design thinking”

“A great way to connect, share our experiences, area of interest and make wonderful associations”

“I’ve loved the opportunity to have ‘chance encounters’ — a rare thing during lockdown”

“The rippling effects of these networks and connections are hard to capture but can be far-reaching”

“I got ideas and content from so many people and made so many great contacts, both in the gatherings themselves and at the coffee catch-ups”

“I have loved the virtual coffee trials and have enjoyed some really amazing chats with people”

Share your experience

If you’ve taken part in the Open Change Randomised Coffee Trials and would like to share anything about your experience or your feedback with us, please get in touch at — we would love to hear your thoughts!



Barbara Mertlova
Open Book

Service Designer. Exploring the power of community, advocating for accessibility, inclusion and care deeply about the environment.