Service Design Tour: The Netherlands
Learnings and reflections from seven appointments
On Thursday 21st and Friday 22nd September 2017, a group of 18 postgraduate students from across Europe gathered in The Netherlands to visit organisations working within the field of Service Design. The event was the 7th edition of the Service Design Tour initiative and was the first to take place across multiple cities, giving a broad overview of how service design is currently being practised in The Netherlands.
The seven appointments
31Volts is a Service Design agency based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Their field of expertise is design driven innovation, which they apply to new service development and service innovation.
The first appointment of the tour featured a generous breakfast at 31Volts, where the group met with company founders Marcel Zwiers and Marc Fonteijn. Marcel led a presentation on the background and direction of the company, openly sharing details on the company’s approach to work, while Marc stepped in to answer questions during the group’s discussion.
Over the past ten years, the company has worked on several projects centred around people, policy and government. Marcel explained that during one of the company’s first projects, they discovered that there was a new field of design to explore beyond product design. Therefore, 31Volts became one of the first companies to define and practice ‘service design’ within the Dutch market.
Marcel took the group through several project examples and openly shared about projects that went well, as well as those that had been less successful. Marcel revealed how a subtext to many projects involved the team working to help clients realise how there is a deeper level of understanding their customers. As he spoke the tour group interjected with a range of questions, curious to learn more about the challenge of selling service design.
Towards the end of the group’s appointment, the group were told about the value of producing tangible outcomes as a result of a service design project. On the table were examples of previous custom-made design materials created for clients. Marcel presented one particular example of a neatly produced book that was developed after gathering a series of employee experiences and stories at a national airline carrier. The choice of format and quality of the final product has meant that the client continues to use it to this day. This revelation made clear the value that comes when providing clients with insights that can become long-term reference points.
Rabobank is a Dutch banking and financial services company built by and for customers and has its own internal team of Service and UX Designers at its headquarters in Utrecht.
For the second appointment, the tour group walked across town to meet with Anna-Louisa Peeters and Ruddy Rodriguez at the head office of Rabobank, one of the largest banking and financial service groups in The Netherlands. The group learned that the organisation has its own internal design department with many employees based in Utrecht. The group found out that the Rabobank design team consists of a combination of internal designers and external consultants, the number of which would fluctuate depending on the scale and number of projects at any one time.
The presenting duo spoke about how the ‘in-house’ design capability is able to influence the work of other departments, allowing for greater synergy between business, design and company strategy. As part of the approach for developing products and services, Anna-Louisa revealed how ‘design thinking’ is used to help the organisation stay ahead of the curve in terms of service innovation.
The group heard how the design department is active in all phases of the design process: from conducting research to developing solutions, ideas and testing prototypes. Ruddy revealed how the new perspectives gathered during customer research can quickly become outdated. Therefore Rabobank is focused on reducing the time it takes to go from customer insight to market.
Anne-Louisa and Ruddy went on to provide the group with an example of how financial products can be designed according to ‘major life events’. They explained how they develop customer journeys that map the points at which there are opportunities for Rabobank to provide people with a desirable and supportive service. The group found it refreshing to see how such a large organisation is designing products and services according to the finer details of people’s lives.
Livework have pioneered service design since 2001. They are an independent, international, strategic design consultancy focused on customers and services, using design, collaboration and research to guide all their projects.
Following a short train journey to Rotterdam, the tour group received a warm welcome from Fred Montijn and the team at Livework studio. Fred took the group on a live-sketching journey, mapping out his words as he presented on the company history and the landscape of service design in The Netherlands.
The group discovered that Livework was one of the early pioneers of service design and that even today they continue to profess and the value of service design when educating big business around the world. The company employs people from a range of educational backgrounds, from business administration to social psychology, as well as traditional design degrees. This mix of talent means that the company does not consider itself as a pure design agency nor a traditional consultancy; instead it is considered somewhere around the centre of this spectrum, offering clients the best from both worlds, as necessary.
In discussing the work that takes place at the office, Fred explained that the company takes on projects from clients based worldwide. Livework has seven offices situated around the world and yet they operate as a single branch, acting as a ‘mini multinational’ by forming inter-office teams. This means that client assignments can be distributed across offices which provides the company with the ability to place the most suitable people according to the requirements for each project.
Today, large corporations are becoming more aware about the the value of good design and some have started to build their own internal service design capability. However, Fred explained that Livework do not intend to follow the example of other design companies who have become integrated as part of a larger organisation. He highlighted the way in which the company was structured in such a way that it allow them to take risks with projects which, in turn, allowed them to try new ideas and grow as a business. Fred spoke about how Livework would prefer to remain independent from larger organisations and continue to operate as an ‘external partner’ instead, using service design tools to improve companies from the inside out.
Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken (Department of Extraordinary Affairs) helps organisations in transforming visions and ideas into tangible products, services and experiences.
To end the first day of the tour, the group visited Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken (A/BZ) to meet Strategy Director, Jan Belon. He provided the group with a sharp presentation on the type of project work they undertake at the company.
A/BZ started out with a small, specialised group of graduates from Eindhoven. As the company grew, Jan and others decided to set up their agency by moving across the country to a former warehouse in the picturesque Delfshaven area of Rotterdam. This decision in itself was an early example of how the company sets out to act differently and stand out, as many of their competitors are based in the bigger city of Amsterdam.
One of the main specialisms at the company is their ability to conduct public research through the use of disruptive research methods. Jan explained how there is a shared curiosity throughout the company to understand and question people’s needs and behaviour when interacting with products and services. They trigger discussions with the public by using ‘hidden design’ methods that often feature the use of ‘curious installations’ that capture the attention of passers-by.
Jan shared some examples from the company’s work with Dutch municipalities and provinces, pointing out how they use non-traditional, immersive research methods to fully enter the context in which they work. The group saw how A/BZ combines analogue methods and digital technology to create ‘interventions’ that capture the attention of the public and start asking them questions. They use design to ‘break things up’ and disrupt common knowledge and assumptions to form new approaches for developing public services.
STBY is based in London and Amsterdam. Since 2003 they have been one of the leading pioneers in the fields of design research and service design.
At the start of second day of the tour, the group boarded the train to Amsterdam to visit the STBY (‘Standby’) office were Sophie Knight introduced the company as one of Europe’s leading design research organisations, and a founding member of the Reach Network for global design research. She spoke about how the company focuses on service innovation through the application of design research.
STBY is made up of a core team of eight people plus two interns. Sophie explained that by having a small team, employees are more able to develop closer working relationships with their colleagues — something that would otherwise be more difficult if working within a larger organisation. The people at STBY have a wide range of skills — t-shaped people — and are expected to have a good degree of cultural sensitivity. Each of these people is given the title of ‘Design Researcher’ and are regarded as equal in opinion and authority.
The group learned how projects at STBY follow a process of learn-analyse-return. They learn about user behaviours and scenarios before then analysing this initial information. After these stages, they meet again with the same user group to repeat the process to verify their analysis and refine the information which users first provided. Once there is a set of cohesive, verified insights, the company develops materials and publications that disseminate information to the appropriate audiences.
STBY are aware of the need to continually innovate on new methods in which to gather information from research participants. The company conducts a variety of studies that span a range of complex topics, such as their work with the Dutch Institute for Health and Environment to investigate citizens’ views on the sustainability of their diet. To demonstrate how they work, Sophie invited each member of the tour group to take part in a task from the study, asking them to draw a meal which they often eat for dinner. The group was then asked to consider the sustainability of their meals and to assign it a ‘sustainability score’ from one to five. Sophie then asked individuals to explain their reasons for how they scored their meal which revealed how each person had a slightly different interpretation of what ‘sustainability’ meant in the context of food. For example, whether the term relates to how food is produced, transported or both. This activity allowed the tour group to get a sense of the materials STBY uses during research studies.
Koos is an international service design agency that works with businesses to improve customer experience, design new services and help implement methodologies to make organisations more adaptive to change.
Following a short walk through central Amsterdam, the tour group arrived at Koos Service Design where they met with service designers, Jeroen Otte and Noortje Hartman. The duo provided an interactive presentation which allowed the group to select what would be discussed during the appointment.
As they introduced the company, the presenters spoke about the core values and people at Koos. They revealed how the company has a strong connection with the University of Delft, as many employees were former students. Because of this, they explained that those working at the company share a common understanding of how to structure and follow a design process. On top of this, Jeroen and Noortje revealed how the organisation supports the development of self-organising teams by investing time in developing internal processes and team culture.
In the middle of the appointment, the tour group heard about how Koos takes a customer-centric approach to design better services. They help organisations to get to know and understand their customers, using a range of interview methods and design tools. During projects the company purposefully selects the most appropriate tools, for example, they develop personas based on user needs instead of demographics, as this often provides a richer range of insights with which to work. The company supports clients and users by keeping them involved in the design process. They build such transparency by using tools such as WhatsApp to communicate and gather information during the design process. At the end of a project, Koos provides clients with a book containing the outcomes while also revealing how the design process worked out.
As well as conducting design and research projects, Koos also builds awareness on the subject of service design through their Client Academy. Here they provide businesses with the opportunity to learn more about how to use design methods to increase customer engagement and deliver more effective services and experiences. The tour group found it interesting to learn about how the discipline of service design is being popularised and taught outside of a university setting.
Edenspiekermann is a global design agency operating at the intersection of digital, branding and content. Working upon a deep-rooted foundation of research, strategy and stakeholder involvement, they design meaningful digital brand experiences.
For the last appointment of the tour, the group walked en masse across town to Edenspiekermann. There they met with Jael Koh and Luke Veerman who delivered a gif-infused presentation that highlighted some key insights on what it takes to be a designer for global brands. To inject a greater sense of urgency and fun into the meeting, they asked the group to set a time limit — thirty-two minutes — and asked a group member to pop a large party cannon once time had expired.
At the beginning of the appointment, the group heard how Edenspiekermann is an international, partner-led agency that takes an approach of continuous innovation to improve businesses and build stronger brands. When discussing this, Jael and Luke presented a manifesto that describes how the company works with clients. This demonstrated how the company collaborates with clients and their customers, as well as outlining how the company is able to continue operating successfully.
The presenters highlighted some of the challenges of working with big brands, for example how a brand’s continuous push for efficiency comes with a risk of forgetting to treat customers as human. To that end, the group heard how the team at Edenspiekermann takes the position of working on behalf of customers, questioning any assumptions made by the client and exchanging new ideas in response.
As an example of this, Jael and Luke shared a story on how Edenspiekermann questioned a client’s assumption to provide rail passengers with a way-finding app to help them locate available seating onboard trains. They challenged the client by pointing out how in the given context (rushing to board a busy train), a person’s priority would be to simply get on board — they would be unlikely to spend time opening an app on their phone to plan on which carriage they should go to sit. In response, Edenspiekermann proposed a platform-long digital display board that stretched the length of the train and indicated where passengers would be able to find available seating — a much more appropriate solution for a stressful situation.
Whereas previous tour appointments revealed companies who were primarily focused on researching and designing for customer needs, the group learned how Edenspiekermann place a big emphasis on the importance of building unique experiences that tie in to the reputation and perception of a brand. Jael and Luke shared how some clients might risk losing brand personality by following best practice guidelines too closely. They highlighted the value and importance of designing unique service offerings that are based on brand values, but that also dare to be different from others.
The special post-tour event
To mark the end of a successful two days in The Netherlands, the group took to the canals of Amsterdam to enjoy a boat tour around the city.
This edition of Service Design Tour was organised by Roos Tigchelaar and Kevin Fox. They would like to thank each of the individuals and companies mentioned in this article for their willingness to support the tour.
Service Design Tour allows postgraduate students to connect with design companies across Europe. The initiative aims to enhance the understanding of service design between the academic world and professional practices. Each tour offers opportunities for students to learn how service design exists and is applied in real-world situations, and offers companies an opportunity to increase their profile among the young professional service design community.