Service Design Tour Copenhagen

A short video to give an impression of the tour — the weather and people were amazing!

In early May 2016 we went on a two-day tour of some organisations practicing service design in Copenhagen. As we are about to complete our graduate education, one goal of the tour was to meet the kind of companies we might work for in the near future. But it was more than anything a study trip, and we were all simply interested in how service design is practiced, and how organisations use it to create value.

We had participating students from 11 different nationalities, and four different universities: Aalborg University in Copenhagen, University of Southern Denmark, Technical University Delft and Politecnico di Milano.

Danish Board of Digitisation
First stop of the tour was the Danish Board of Digitisation (DIGST). In two very effective hours we were presented to their work with the new digitisation strategy, the new iteration of the Danish eID-system and their challenges with mandatory self-service in fx. digital communication with the government.

Many of the participants of the tour had also been on a similar study trip to London in January 2016 where we visited the Government Digital Service (GDS), so we were naturally inclined to compare the two organisations as we listened to the presentation. But it was clear that they were facing very different challenges. The GDS started from an immensely bad foundation, so it was more obvious for them to start fresh and build things anew. DIGST on the other hand could not make as clean a cut, and also is working with deeper integration between government agencies. This means they have to deal with legacy systems that hinders rapid innovation, as well as a lack of understanding from legal departments who would face big work loads if too drastic changes are introduced.

It was clear that Denmark is making good advances in digitisation efforts, but we also discussed opportunities for going even further. For instance, international standards was mentioned as one clear driver of innovation, because it forced the government agency to comply. This is good to ensure a high international quality, but it is not so good in giving clues about radical improvements in the citizen experience of the future. To this end, it might be relevant to set up a kind of black lab which had the freedom to develop prototypes and test them in a city or a portion of the country, to show new ways of doing things. Running and participating in such a lab for exploration of governmental services of the future is definitely something many of us students could imagine looking into in the future.

The second place we visited was the 〜2 years young agency Urgent. They recently won the special price for visionary concepts at the Danish Design Awards 2016 together with LEGO and others, for their work in developing a strategy for the city of Billund to become the Capital of Children.

Diagram by Doblin Analysis (2011). It is remarkable to think about how much more impact the work of design can be when phrased in terms of this graph.

We had a very good conversation with founders Mads Quistgaard and Christian Pagh about the design process and how they are working towards framing problems quicker. There was especially a point to be made about the change from design being a discipline mostly about intuition and inspiration, to being a process driven by enquiry.

Mads had a slide with the diagram here from Doblin Analysis. He used it as an example of how they explain the relevance of investing in proper strategic direction, before investing in costly, low-impact areas. When they look into the strategic situation of a given client, they often use the Vision-Image-Culture (VIC) model. This is a good tool to understand (and talk about!) where a strategy might be failing. The vision is the way the leadership wants the company to be seen, the image is how it is viewed externally and culture is life on the ground — or how it is viewed internally.
The model enables them to point out that the vision might have changed, but nothing is done to align the culture with the vision, nothing will happen and tension might even affect the image negatively.

It was a very good presentation, and it was clear that these discussions are also very relevant to the practice of service design, fx. for looking at the brand qualities you want a service to embody, or for explaining the relevance of a new service offering to an organisation.

Danish Tax Authority
At the Danish Tax Authority (SKAT) we heard from three service designers. They were all alumni from the Master’s programme service systems design at Aalborg university in Copenhagen, but they had very different roles in the organisation.

One was working with the systems aspect of his education together with software engineers to ensure compatibility between 250+ systems the tax system relies on. Another was working with improving customer service in the customs section, and was currently supporting a developer team with research into the different processes. The third service designer was working with developing new solutions in an internal innovation lab which got set up in response to a goal to implement a culture of innovation at SKAT. Concretely the initiative relies on the rapid process of design sprints to bring development time down from several years to only six months. Time is money, and just like the Digitisation Authority, SKAT has felt that they need to look to the private sector for approaches that enables them to be more nimble.

One major take-away from our visit to SKAT, was the power of visualisation that design brings to the table. Being used to working visually with new ideas helped the designers get people to talk about the problems they were facing, in ways that framed them around the user experience.

Molamil is a digital solutions agency. During the one-hour presentation, we got presented to some cases as well as to how they work with clients. 
Many of their projects are one-off projects for marketing departments or bigger agencies. The client bring an idea or a goal, and Molamil’s job is then to get creative about how to bring the idea to life. It seemed like they get quite free hands in dealing with the brief, and it seemed to suit them quite well as they had a very playful culture.

The agency is very creative, and the people are very hands-on about playing with new technology. As the founder Jorge Hernandez told us, the staff-profile is T-shaped, meaning they have a clear expertise in one area, while being generally versed in other, related areas.

One challenge that was mentioned, one which many similar agencies might be facing, was concerning the span of the projects. Many agencies would like to make projects run longer and perhaps even become recurring. This gives some peace around hiring and economic planning of the agency. 
One way they mentioned they are dealing with this, is to mark a portion of the hours in a project, to a follow up six months from delivery. It creates continuity, and it ensures a higher standard of the project as it will have been tested in the field, and a roadmap for improvements can be laid out.
For our future service design practice, this seems like a very relevant way to think about billable hours.

The final stop of the “official” tour was a visit to the Danish design agency 1508. It is a very interesting agency, and has among other things recently stood out in the Danish Design Center’s plus+programme, with their partnership with the recruitment agency Moment where the two companies co-founded a new business based on their collaboration. They are very articulate about the business-impact of design, and that is also what the presentation had a good focus on.

One interesting thing mentioned was about a challenge that many agencies are facing: how to deal with transitioning from web-sites to solutions. Although some clients are providing better briefs, there are still many which simply ask for a new website. This is not only low-value work for the agency, it is also very likely to be low-impact for the client organisation. But framing the brief from the beginning in such a way, that opens up for questions into how the website might act as a more valuable platform for the users is not easy.

In many cases a client ask for a solution without checking if it is the right problem to look at. In this regard, a major take-away from the presentation was the encouragement to test below the radar before asking whether or not you can continue in a certain direction. Instead of simply discussing the client’s brief and asking if you may take it in another direction, make a small hypothesis, test it and bring the result to the discussion. This emphasises the nature of service design as an evidence-based activity, where asking questions of the material, gathering insights and finding the right problem are key to real, valuable impact.

N55 Presentation
An “optional” part of the tour was a presentation at the Danish Workshops of Fine Art titled “Let’s Design a Better World”. The presentation was by the collective N55 who have been working for more than 20 years with bridging the gap between art and the everyday, in the pursuit of a better world. One of the ways this shows, is in their XYZ Spaceframe Vehicle bike platform. This is an open-source blueprint for building sturdy bikes with only hand-held tools.

A specimen of the XYZ Spaceframe Vehicle Bike. (photo: N55)

The presentation was not about services or any design methodology in particular, but more about how to make an impact by investigating the basic things of the everyday that we tend to take as a given, and reframe them for the greater good. The XYZ-platform is a case of such questioning: can’t everyone actually make sturdy bikes that are meant to last?

For our future work, an area such as servitization seems to be an interesting comparison in practicing reframing. We might be challenged to open up a manufacturer’s product offering into a platform, and negotiating not only ownership but the means of production itself.


All in all it was a really great trip. Both in terms of the breadth of visits, but also socially. It was great that people responded so well to the initiative and took time out of their schedules to come from the Netherlands, Italy and Jutland. I personally think one of the main (and encouraging) take-aways of the trip was how diverse the job market for service design professionals is.

With as much hands-on design thinking practice as we receive at university, we all felt optimistic about being able to contribute to the different companies in the future.

Thanks to all the companies, and of course all the participants who smiled through both Spring days!

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