Friendship, Collaboration, and Service: How Shelley Evenson and Birgit Mager designed a movement

by Andrea Fineman and Thomas Brandenburg

The friendship of Shelley Evenson and Birgit Mager represents a collaboration that has sustained the field since its early days. Their work has been especially instrumental in the United States. Service design’s origins are in Europe, but early interest in the field across the Atlantic played a part in the development of the global Service Design Network. Though it only went on for only two years, the Emergence Conference in 2006 and 2007 marked the first service design conference in America, and was an important tipping point in the history of the field.

This year, the SDN hosts the first U.S. National Conference on service design. In an interview this summer, Evenson and Mager reflected on their work with the SDN, the Emergence conference, and the way the field of service design in general has grown since its early days in 2003.

“At that point I did not really grasp the significance of what was happening,” said Mager, reflecting on the first Emergence conference.

“I think it was really a starting point for a bigger movement, and gave me the confidence that [the field of service design] is not just the few of us, but that there is a huge interest. I cannot underestimate the confidence and awareness level [that the conference created].”

Though the Service Design Network was founded in 2004, the community was initially quite small outside of Europe. Mager, the founder of the SDN and a professor at Köln International School of Design, wasn’t acquainted with Evenson, who was then teaching at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design.

“I had been asked to teach a week-long course at the Interaction Design Institute at Ivrea,” said Evenson. “They wanted to learn about service design, which I really did not know anything about. We had been doing design strategy for a long time, and we would write product-slash-service, but we never really explored the service side. After this week it became clear I had to learn about service design. It was suggested to me that I contact Birgit.”

“I received an email from Shelley from Carnegie Mellon. I was not so sure what she wanted,” said Mager. “At the time, we were building the Service Design Network; we decided to go to Chicago to meet with a group of people. I thought, since Shelley is in the United States, she could come to Chicago. I was thrilled and amazed when she said yes.”

Said Evenson, “It’s funny, I do remember, I asked you for articles you had written, and you said they were in German. I said, send them anyway, and I put them into Google translate and made sense of it, which was remarkable!”

In Chicago, said Mager, “we had a good talk, good beer, and good jazz, and we made friends!”

A couple years later, while Mager and Evenson were speaking at an event in Florida, they found they had become frustrated with not making as much progress in furthering the field of service design as they had hoped. Walking along the beach in Sarasota in 2006, “we decided that we needed to do something,” said Evenson. “I said, I have able grad students. Other grad schools have their students put up conferences, why shouldn’t we?”

That same year, Evenson, Birgit, and the Carnegie Mellon School of Design hosted the Emergence Conference. “We ended up with a very remarkable service design global conference,” said Evenson. “People came from all over and they were so excited they were going to have an international service design conference.”

The decision on that beach walk to host a conference was a tipping point for the SDN. At the time, Mager was already conducting service design projects with large German companies, “but on a scale that was not really remarkable at all,” she said. “The SDN was a pioneer group that collaborated, and we really enjoyed the type of work we were doing, but we were a bit isolated.

“We felt that we were the pioneers, but we realized around 2006 that there was a movement starting. More and more people were getting interested in service design, and starting to work with it on an academic and practitioner level.” There on the beach, Mager and Evenson had reflected on the need for a platform where those interested in service design could connect. “That was where we made the decision to build the Service Design Network as a community for practitioners, academics, and business, to share and to develop the field,” Mager said.

“The [Emergence] conference itself felt very much like a community of learning, co-creating a profession, together,” said Evenson. “We brought together those thinkers and visionary people who were already testing those big topics. The collaborations between Carnegie Mellon and Köln International School of Design, and Linköpings Universitet in Sweden, and the Politecnico de Milano—they built the ground for many things that would happen about three or four years later,” said Mager.

Mager presenting at the first Emergence Conference, Sept. 10, 2006.

As leaders in the field of service design, Mager and Evenson have had to manage the challenges of being seen as authority figures in a field that prizes co-creation. “Being ambassadors of the field always demands courage to take the lead and at the same time requires you to leave a lot of openness to the community,” said Mager. “Some people call me the ‘mother of service design.’ I always knew that wasn’t true, but at the same time, people need leadership and openness. It is something that was and is still challenging to me in being one of the ambassadors of service design.”

“I totally agree with Birgit,” said Evenson. “It’s all about co-creation. Being persuasive enough—with your clients, with your colleagues, and others—in order to take the time to do that co-creation, and do it effectively, is one of the biggest challenges. Especially now, with Agile, for instance—some of these things take time. Service design is fundamentally about serving people, and so if you don’t have a good understanding of that then you are not going to be able to deliver on that promise. Having enough time, and taking time, are always the biggest challenges.”

Defining service design for those clients, colleagues, and others has been a challenge for service designers since those early days. “Sometimes it’s a bit tiring—that again and again and again, you have to explain,” said Mager. She continued, “Of course that is not the fault of the people who ask, but is maybe the fault of strategic communication and marketing. When you compare what service design as a field has achieved to what design thinking as a field has achieved, I think [design thinking] has done much better in terms of the promotion and marketing of the terms.

“Business leaders spend two days at Stanford and then come back and say ‘OK, design thinking, it is the new knowing.’ But service design is not easy to grasp or easy to promote within an organization. I sometimes wish that, in earlier times, we could have focused more on a marketing and PR strategy in parallel to our content strategy and our development of the field,” Mager said.

As many service designers can attest, talking about service design with other designers has gotten easier in the past couple years. Universities are increasingly offering courses in service design, and more and more companies are building internal teams. Said Evenson, “We hit the tipping point about three or four years ago. I think many large organizations are realizing that they have to serve their employees, and so traditional approaches to HR, recruiting, and etcetera are actually service design challenges.”

What does it mean if we are no longer designing for people to people, or people to machine interactions, but maybe we are designing for machine to machine interactions, but still bring value to people? —Birgit Mager

According to Mager and Evenson, the future of service design will bring us into bigger, more global, systemic, and wide-ranging domains. “Companies themselves are embracing the service design attitude, the human-centered, creative way of working,” said Mager. “That’s really big, and it will make service design grow, and it will also challenge the expertise of service design.” As companies continue to incorporate service design’s practices and culture into their organizations, they also seek metrics on service design’s capabilities. “I think we need to help communicate impact, and to encourage service designers to observe, document, evaluate, and communicate the impact that these kind of projects are having in the real world,” Mager said. Mager pointed to the SDN’s recent impact reports as evidence of the organization’s efforts to help service designers become more professional in measuring and communicating the impact of service design. The SDN has conducted research on service design in financial services, the public sector, and this fall will release a new report on service design in healthcare. The reports give an overview of service design activities in their area of focus, examples of positive impact, and explore areas of opportunity that haven’t yet been exploited. “When we started out, we had small projects, we did great research, and we had wonderful concepts; in the best case these concepts would be implemented. Today when we are working with companies, it is no longer enough to have a great concept; it is also about scaling the whole idea of service on an international level within big organizations. This will be the topic of the next SDN Global Conference in Madrid: ‘service design at scale.’ The question then is: how can we grow from creating small projects into creating huge organizational change projects?”

The future of artificial intelligence is what’s on Evenson’s mind. “If we think of service design as being ‘person to person,’ ‘person to machine,’ and ‘machine to machine,’ and back, I think that we are going to be touched by a lot of questions about ethics and methodologies for designing those services. I find that very exciting,” she said.

“I think this is a very very big topic Shelley is mentioning here,” said Mager. “It will change the challenge of service design. What does it mean if we are no longer designing for people to people, or people to machine interactions, but maybe we are designing for machine to machine interactions, but still bring value to people?

“It almost makes me feel embarrassed to think that when I started to enter this the field, we had no internet. And we still thought that services would be all about people-to-people interactions, and they would not be storable, and they would not be standardized,” she said. “It was such an amazing development to see that, today, we are looking at services that can be totally standardized, that are not at all depending on people, and that are available wherever you want, whenever you want them.”

That’s what I still get from the global Service Design Network—we learn so much from each other, from the differences, and from the wonderful explorations that folks do around the globe. For me, it started at Emergence, and it continues. —Shelley Evenson

Next month in Chicago, Shelley will be giving opening remarks at the first SDN U.S. National Conference. Looking back on the first U.S. service design conference, in Pittsburgh in 2006, she said, “The fact that I got connected with Birgit, to me, was absolutely remarkable. I think the thing that it leaves with me, and is part of my joy in being part of Fjord, is how much we can learn from each other internationally. And that connection of scholarship and passion is something that I strive to bring to the work I do every day. During my time at Carnegie Mellon, Birgit and I did a joint project on ‘the art of service design’—thinking about how the arts could influence things. She did a project in Köln, and I did a similar project in Pittsburgh, and the results were very different and equally wonderful.

“That’s what I still get from the global Service Design Network—we learn so much from each other, from the differences, and from the wonderful explorations that folks do around the globe. For me, it started at Emergence, and it continues.”

See the transcript of the full interview.

Mager and Evenson at the SDN Global Conference in 2011 in San Francisco, CA.
Evenson and Mager stand with other conference organizers at the SDN Global Conference in 2014 in Stockholm.