Service Design Tour London

An overview of the inaugural Service Design Tour in early 2016.

Day 1

First stop of the tour was the Government Digital Service (GDS). The GDS is in charge of the digital transformation of the British government, introducing user centered design practices and administrating the roll-out of the portal-site They do not normally do tours, but one of the service designers — an alumni of the RCA, it turns out — was kind enough to take us in and show us around for about 90 minutes.

It was really eye-opening to see the GDS’ dedication to user-centricity, agility and good practice. We all felt that they were actively implementing what you normally hear about at conferences or read in books. Instead of the practices being tried at one or two projects, only to be forgotten later, the whole organisation felt vibrant and experimental. Most people would have a rudimentary understanding of code, so everyone can be in on the conversation and pitch ideas meaningfully.

It was also interesting how they did not have a design department per se, but rather, had design competencies across all activities. The different specialities would then meet up once a week to catch up and share progress with each other.

We were introduced to several departments. For example the department for “finding things”, which tries to organise the massive amount of information on the website, in terms that makes sense to users. Another department was developing manuals for design, so officials across government could take effective, consistent steps when developing or improving a service function.

Here’s a clip from a talk from the former head of design, Ben Terrett. The current director of design is called Louise Downe.

EY-Seren is an international design and innovation consultancy who helps the clients to transform toward digital business, and James, one of the service designer, says they call themselves as an innovation company.

Their interaction with the clients gave us rich insights on the first hand experience in service design company. James says as a designer it is important to keep hands on emotional, intangible perspectives rather than focusing on only statistical data. Then how do they communicate such emotional, intangible data? A lot of their expertise comes down to being able to define measurements, and the data needed to be collected. Also, they have a clear understanding of what it means to deliver a piece of work into an organisation. They are not so much involved in “actual”, visual design. Also, they emphasise ‘embedding’ the idea in the client organisation; the ideas created through the project need to be embedded in the client and therefore their approach is critically dependent on senior stakeholder, who can make decision, buy-in.

What they did was to make a phone call with a physician very early on, to get the questions out of the way, make the patients feel that their treatment had somehow begun, and prepared them for better food and exercise habits which is good at any rate, but not actually part of the real treatment. But it made the whole psychological difference, that patients had concrete objectives to accomplish, so their waiting time felt meaningful.

LiveWork is an international agency with five locations, and over 40 people on staff. They are a very diverse firm taking on both private and public sector work. LiveWork was kind enough to open their doors for an afternoon session where we could come and talk a little about our studies, and hear about their experience in working with service design.

In their work, they emphasise making tangible/graspable the ideas at every milestone in the projects.

As the way to communicate the process to the clients, they give make diagrams or videos.

During the presentation, we were asked about our education as an M.Sc., and how this affected our approach to Service Design. In the RCA, they do not have very much if any programming, and a more focused on design research. It is interesting to consider if such a thing as a soft and a hard approach to service design exists.

They mentioned that they do a lot of large, A-Z projects where they do the research and come up with the concept (for someone else to implement).

During the casual conversation afterwards, we heard a story about a project with cancer care. They found that patients getting a diagnosis were very keen on getting care from the next day — even though it rarely makes any difference to hurry — but it was psychological. So many were tormented by the waiting time, and at the first check-up they had so many questions and fears.

Visit to the RCA service design education

Day 2

Nesta is a design company focuses on public sectors and social innovation. There, we had a funny schedule mix-up; Johanna and Peter, the service designers we planned to meet, had also another Danish visitors on the same time on the same day with us, and they had not noticed that we are different the Danish groups — so their time was double booked! However, they were kind enough to take 15mins for us to talk about what they have done.

As the hot service design areas, they mentioned health care sector and digital education. They have groups for each area. It was interesting that most of the other service design companies we visited gave health care sector as the growing area.

They also introduced their process of service design, which they call the innovation spiral, looked very much like the golden ratio. The step 6 and 7 are where service design is distinctive from product design.

In order to prepare for the deep organisational work, they do a lot of preliminary stakeholder mapping and immersion, to get a concrete sense of the flow of information and people. In relation to this point, we briefly talked about education for service design, and how in university there is too little focus on involvement of others in terms of bringing the solution to life. Too often educational projects end up in deliverables for the drawer, which is a huge shame, because the actual work we will be doing later on is so dependent on matching the dynamics of huge, moving organisations.

Nile is an agency with about 20 staff working out of London and Edinburgh. We visited Nile in the later afternoon, and Hannah Kops gave a very nice and engaging introduction to the company and their work.

It was very interesting to hear how their projects are shaped less by one-brief-one-solution, but rather by building capabilities within their client organisation. They do this with custom tools that can be used by anyone, so the change can take root within the organisation. The experience with many projects in the past, has been that deliverables such as blueprint etc. often end up in the drawer without being acted upon.

Nile focus on orchestrating the whole process when implementing their proposed solution in the client organisation. This means that they reach out to all relevant stakeholders, and develop their ideas across silos.

They make sure that they talk to marketing about how it will affect their work, and the technical department about how it will actually be realised.

We visited the service design programme at the Royal College of Art for beer in the evening. They had 10 people come from their programme, so it was quite a lively gathering. The service design course in the RCA is now 4 years old, and the programme seems blessed with very active ties to industry. This means they get to work with real cases that companies bring to them, so they seem used to making a difference.

One thing we noticed was the diversity of their students. So many backgrounds and ages were gathered in the programme, and it perhaps goes to show that pure service design programmes are still not so prolific.

The students are at the school most days, getting a lot of face time with their teachers.

Day 3

PDD is a design consultant who has competence both in product design and service design; they say they are slightly moving their focus on service design these days.

With Jon and Katrina, the 2 designers, we had an interesting discussion on planning of a design project. Every project is different, so they need to improvise by selecting the most appropriate tools for each job and prioritising the focus. On the other hand, they have to plan the project step by step beforehand in order to bill it and they are getting better at this, so it mostly fits now. Their rich experiences of service design might have taught them a tacit pattern of project.

Since PDD is one of the companies we visited on the last day, we had some service design company cases in our minds. So how does PDD stand apart from other agencies? Interestingly, they stressed that getting work is very much dependent on likability (“Clients decide depending on if he/she likes the designers”). Also, they gave as a competency the methods themselves which are transferrable between agencies, so people choose one over the other because they like the relationship. Thirdly, because of their historical background, they have strong in-house prototyping capabilities; they have a whole machine-shop to act quickly (“People want to see their ideas alive.”). Lastly, they have good collaboration with internal client teams.

Through service design is such a new area, London is known as a leading place of service design. It was interesting to know how the service designers identify and differentiate themselves.

Method is an international experience design firm having offices in San Francisco, New York, and London. In our visit to London office, we presented our study briefly. Afterwards we joined a brainstorming session of the company. First we wrote a feeling and a trend to the cards. And then facilitator mixed the cards. By combining random a trend and a feeling that is written on the card, we created some concepts related to skin care.

We participated in the event called Immersive Experiences & Technologies was organized by Soda Social.


Aino Hanttu, Service Design Lead, Futurice

Anio, service design lead from Futurice talked about, reality, virtual reality and augmented reality and discussed how the lines are blurred between physical and digital. Aino described immersive experience as emerging, trigger multiple senses, blur real and virtual. She discussed how can design and digital technology make those experiences more meaningful and immersive. She gave several examples including her service design project that they use virtual reality to rent summer houses in Spain.

Sergio Irigoyen, Senior Designer, Neutral Digital

Sergio Iriven talked about virtual reality projects that they are working in Neutral Digital. After presentations, we tried Virtual Reality app that they build for an in-flight entertainment system.

Dr. Mitra Memarzia, Artist/Senior Producer, Seeper

“Dr. Mitra Memarzia is an artist and Senior Producer at Seeper, a pioneering London based studio working at the intersection of art and technology for live event and installations. Their work can be found in cultural attractions, public spaces, innovative advertising, architecture and world-class theme parks.” Their work was very impressive that you can be seen at

Day 4

Futurice is an international digital service company based in Finland. The company is growing and currently it has offices in Helsinki, Tampere, London, Munich, Berlin and Stockholm. Futurice stands out with being transparent, and autonomy is the essential value of the company and its employees. In our visit, we were invited to office by service design Lead Aino Hanttu. We met with senior designer and strategy consultant Cathy, Senior Software Developer Guillaume and visual designer. First we talked about the study and ourselves and then they shared their personal experiences. We are impressed with friendly and welcoming environment.

Their approach to their work is transparent trying to involve the human perspective from their own employees. They presented they work as the transformation of complexity into digestible, simple and readable data/information. Taking into account the relevant connections between the different stakeholders involved in the process, understanding their connection between each other, and their environment. They also told us about their project of starting a startup program for investment and accelerating entrepreneurship in London.

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