5 x 5 - Get to Know a Service Designer, April Starr

Interview with April Starr, Director of Experience Design, International & Professional at McGraw-Hill Education

by Thomas Brandenburg

"I think the most critical skill for any service designer is self awareness...Across the entire design process, being self-aware is critical for success."

1. What issue related to service design thought leadership is most interesting to you?   

It’s not necessarily solely related to Service Design but right now I’m obsessed with knowledge management within organizations. It’s incredible that most knowledge is locked down in powerpoint files attached to people’s email. If the organization isn’t aligned around what they know about their customers, we can’t do our jobs as service designers. On the other hand, some organizations are all frameworked-out because every part of their company has a different journey map and that causes similar problems. I think there is a huge opportunity to address this beyond an intranet site.

2. What skill(s) should a budding service designer have in their back pocket?   

I think the most critical skill for any service designer is self awareness. When I was asked to teach Service Design Workshop at IIT’s Institute of Design, I approached the topic as a means to teach students self-awareness. Across the entire design process, being self-aware is critical for success. When planning and conducting research, you need to be aware of your own biases, assumptions, and behavior. When working and with team members from various backgrounds and parts of the organization, you need to be aware of what is working well and be willing to adapt if it’s not. When communicating with others, you need to be able to step outside yourself and see how others see you. Self awareness can be exhausting, and you will never please everyone, but it helps to know where your skills are strong and where you are weak. Others will always respect you if you have a realistic sense of yourself and be willing to accept feedback.

3. What reading material (articles, books, blogs, etc) would you recommend reading?  

It’s funny, students always ask me for service design reading materials and I’m a terrible person to ask because I’ve always been bored by reading things within the field. I prefer to read about outside topics that can be applied to service design. For example, my husband recently passed away so I’ve been interested about reading about widowhood, the funeral industry and the science of death. I just finished Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by byCaitlin Doughty. She makes a compelling argument that the mortuary industry’s approach of shielding customers from the details of death has negative consequences on our society. As designers, we don’t spend enough time thinking through the consequences of our actions as designers. I also like to read about everyday creativity—books about outsider art and prisoner inventions—examples of how creativity thrives under extreme constraints. I recommend Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts. It has images and stories of objects people created based on a lack of access to manufactured goods during the collapse of the Soviet Union. One final favorite is Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It really gets at the heart of designing systems and what it means to design for humanity.

4. How would you describe your work style?

I love working with other people. I am an external processor so I need to talk things out to move the process forward. Although sitting in front of my computer alone is not my favorite way to work, I do find satisfaction in organizing information and thinking of ways to communicate complex issues.

5. What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

That what you are good at and what you like doing are not the same thing. You need to minimize the work that drains you, even if that’s what you excel at, and maximize work that energizes you. Service Design is so broad that it’s easy to get caught up in work that takes your energy away. For years, I was mostly in research roles despite two degrees in design. It took awhile to realize that I wanted to be on the design side, and now that I am, I’m very happy.

Bonus question “What is your best ninja skill?”

I wasn’t sure about this one so I asked my colleagues and they said “patience and persistence” I would have never thought that about myself (so much for being self-aware!) I think my unprofessional ninja skill is sarcasm.

Check out other 5 x 5s on the SDN US National Conference Blog