Transcript from interview with Shelley Evenson and Birgit Mager

by Andrea Fineman and Thomas Brandenburg

I think it was a starting point for a bigger movement. It was a significant meaning that Shelley picked the topic and succeeded in pulling the conference together two years in a row. —Birgit Mager

To start, please tell us a little about how the two of you first met?

Evenson: I had been asked to teach a class at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. They wanted to learn about service design. I didn’t know anything about it even though we had been doing design strategy for a long time. We would write “product / service,” but we never really explored the service side. It became clear I had to learn about service design. I put together a little presentation which haunted me for years and years online since it got posted. Somebody suggested I contact Birgit. So I sent her an email and I did not hear anything for the longest time. And then out of the blue she responded and said, “We are having a meeting, why don’t you come?” And I did. (laughing) ...What would you add, Birgit?

Mager: Nothing other than that I received an email from Shelley from Carnegie Mellon and I wasn’t sure what she wanted.

At the time we were building the Service Design Network and we had a couple of meetings in London. We decided to go to Chicago in 2003 to meet people who were interested in service design. The group was quite small. I remember thinking since Shelley was in the United States; she could come to Chicago as well. I was thrilled when she said yes!

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 it anyway,” and I put them into Google Translate to make sense of it. It was remarkable.

Mager: We had a great conversation, some beer and listened to good jazz; before we knew it, we were friends. That was 2004.

We hear there is a back story to the genesis of Emergence, the first U.S. conference on service design at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006; would you tell us about that?  

Evenson: We wanted to have action in service design and have global participation. I was teaching students at that time and they were willing to do the exploration to start to put it together.

Are there any valuable lessons learned from that first conference that you could share? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Evenson: I think we learned a lot between year one and year two. The first year we spent a lot of time tracking down speakers and curating who would be coming. We could have distributed that activity more, which we did in the second year. 

Another thing was that we had a very broad definition of service design—that was helpful for drawing a new community together. However, if we had a slightly narrower focus it could have jump started things more easily.

I felt both conferences (‘06 & ‘07) were very successful in bringing together an international cohort and community. The conferences themselves felt very much like a community of learning and co-creating a profession.

Mager: In retrospect, I would add that I didn’t really grasp the significance of what was happening. The field was so young with so few seeds out there. We were far, far ahead of of our time.

The effort that Shelley and the team made in putting these conferences together was a starting point for a bigger movement. It gave us confidence that it was not just a few of us, but that there was a huge interest. It had significant meaning that Shelley picked the topic and succeeded in pulling it together two years in a row.

Thinking of these conferences as milestones, how did they shape your practice?  

Evenson: Getting connected to Birgit, for me, was absolutely remarkable. I was so grateful that she joined forces with me and the students to give birth to this powerful movement. The thing that lives in me and part of the joy is how much we can learn from each other internationally. The connection of scholarship and passion is something I think I sort of strive to bring to the work I do every day.

Birgit was incredible in terms of the topics we explored with her students. We did a joint project, "The Art of Service Design." We wanted to think about how the arts could influence things. She did a project in Cologne and I did a similar one in Pittsburgh. We learned the results were very different, yet equally wonderful.

For me, what I get from the SDN is that we learn so much from each other, from the differences, from the wonderful explorations that folks do around the globe. It started there and continues for me.

Mager: One of the big impressions from that time was to trust students and encourage them to explore what is new in the world, in the field of design.  

I was doing projects with huge German companies, but now that I think back to that time, it was not really remarkable. So when the students identified service design as an interesting topic, and we took the opportunity to draw together those thinkers and visionary people, it really was a tipping point for me.

Also, the collaboration between Carnegie Mellon, Köln International School of Design, Linköpings Universitet, Politecnico de Milano—they were building the ground for many things that would happen later.

In 2006 and 2007, what were some key developments happening with the SDN?

Mager: In the early time, we were more of a pioneer group that collaborated. We really enjoyed the type of work we were doing, but we were a bit isolated. Even though we could feel a movement starting, and more and more people were getting interested in the topic, both on an academic and practitioners level it still felt like it was in its infancy.

That was the “famous” walk that Shelley and I took on Sarasota Beach in Florida. We reflected on the need for a platform where we felt that people getting into the field could connect. That decision was in 2007, and we formed the Service Design Network as a community for practitioners, academics, and business, to share and to develop this field.

It is about co-creation. Being persuasive enough with your clients, with your colleagues, and others about taking the time to do that co-creation, and do it effectively—I think it is one of the biggest challenges. —Shelley Evenson

What are some risks and challenges you had to overcome in the last ten or so years in being service design ambassadors?

Mager: Service design is all about co-creation and collaboration. Being ambassadors of that field always demands courage to take the lead and at the same time leaving a lot of openness to the community.

For me that was always a bit difficult. Some people call me “The Mother of Service Design.” I always knew that’s not true, but at the same time people are in need of leadership and openness so I took charge and started shaping the discourse.

The balance was something that challenged me then and it still challenges me to this day as I continue being an ambassador of service design. I don’t want to preach “the right way to do service design,” but at the same time leadership requires that you continually talk about your perspective. That balance isn’t always so easy.

Evenson: This is a hard question. I totally agree with Birgit. It is about co-creation. Being persuasive enough with your clients, with your colleagues, and others about taking the time to do that co-creation, and do it effectively—I think it is one of the biggest challenges.

Especially now with Agile and moving fast, some of these things take time. Service design is fundamentally about serving people, and if you don’t have a good understanding of that then you are not going to be able to deliver on that promise. Co-creation is about having enough time, and actually taking time—those are some of the biggest challenges.  

Mager: Looking back, I know we have had amazing growth and success, but not everyone knows what service design is. Sometimes that feels a bit tiring, having to explain again and again. Maybe that has to do with strategy in combination with marketing. When you compare what service design has achieved to design thinking, as a field I think they have done much better in terms of promotion and marketing of the terms. Business leaders can spend two days at Stanford; they can say with a bit of confidence that they understand design thinking.

However, service design as a practice, that really has some depth in its work—it is not easy to grasp or easy to promote within an organization. I wish that we could have focused more on a marketing and PR strategy in parallel to our content and development of the field strategy.

Evenson: We could have done a better job bringing it to the forefront. But on the other hand everything takes time. We did not have an organization to put that kind of money behind it to do that kind of promotion.

Mager: I don’t want to sound frustrated; I think we are doing a great job. We have the maturity to go beyond our internal view. We are focusing more on communication and learning as part of the Service Design Network.

The Tipping Point

Do you think it has changed in the last two to three years? Do you think other people now have a more nuanced understanding of what service design is?

Mager: Definitely. I have been observing that more and more on a company level people are asking for service design. They have a very clear understanding of what they want and the expectations they have for the process and the outcome of the service design project.

More and more companies are building in-house service design teams—really looking for professional service designers to bring in cultural changes on the one side, and also change the design of experiences within their organization.

Last but not least, suddenly universities are popping up with BA and MA courses in service design. It is all growing fast.

Evenson: Honestly, we hit the tipping point about three to four years ago. Part of what I thought was interesting was about Fjord’s focus on service design. I think they were one of the largest organizations to focus on service design. I think their interpretation may not have been what we have come to know as service design today.

However, I think, as Birgit said, there are a lot of people asking for help to design their organizations, for designing for service. I think many large organizations are realizing that they have to service their employees, so traditional approaches to traditional outputs from HR, things like recruiting and other kinds of things, are actually service design challenges. They know that they can learn a lot from service design. 

One of the other things that happened, and I briefly I touched on it earlier, is the connection to service marketing, which is a very large academic contingent—part of business schools. And I think the connection there was also really solid and helpful in creating awareness, and the business rationale for great service design.

Mager: That is an interesting point, Shelley, because when I started to build the field of service design in 1995, it was basically a marriage of Mary Jo Bitner and Lynn Shostack and those folks that had already started to explore what is the difference between the marketing of products and the marketing of services.

They were taking the lead in building some sort of expertise around the emerging economy of services. Then in 2007, I think, for the first time Mary Jo Bitner did this research about the priorities in research in the domain of services. She put service design right in the center of it because she was very much aware of the power that design brings into innovation for these invisible products of service. The collaboration of marketing and design is very, very important. Bitner is definitely one of the leading figures to support bridges between these different silos, I would say.

Evenson: Yes, she was a speaker at the first conference.

Thinking ahead, what do you expect to see happening in the next ten years in the professional development of Service Design?

Mager: I see a couple of trends. One being building service design expertise within organizations. It is no longer external design agencies bringing a point of view to companies. It is companies themselves, the attitude, the human-centered-way of working, the creative mode of working. To start to build different types of innovation labs. This will make service design grow and it will challenge the expertise of service design as a practice. Moving beyond where it was first grown in the design community to becoming more part of organizational change, cultural change, and business development.

Designers who are working in the field of service design are challenged to grow their expertise beyond the primary design need. This in-house service design I perceive as a big challenge in the next couple of years.

The other thing from my perspective is of course being more professional in measuring and communicating the impact of service design. Three years ago we started creating impact reports. We started to explore different areas where service design can achieve. We need to communicate the impact and encourage service designers to observe, document, evaluate, and communicate the impact projects are having in the real world.

The last thing I will say is when we first started we were on a craft dimension, working on small projects. We did great research, we had a great process and a wonderful concept. But today it is about scaling on an international level in organizations—that is another issue we are now facing. This will be the topic of the next global conference in Madrid. How then can we grow projects and prototypes in huge organizations, that are about organizational change?

Evenson: I would agree with everything Birgit said. However, Birgit and I sort of intersect and separate. What is the most interesting thing for me in terms of service design is artificial intelligence. Because that is definitely this service design we will be interacting with. If we think of service design from person to person and person to machine, machine to machine, and back, I think we are going to be touching on a lot of questions about ethics and methodologies for designing those experiences. I think that is very exciting.

I agree with Birgit on the in-house innovation and the growth and actually getting to implementing and implementing at scale. I was on a panel discussion with someone from Kaiser Permanente; one of my students had gone to work for her and I talked about all these glorious things we had done with students. What she brought up was, “Yeah, but the real challenge is making it real.” That is why I am really excited about what is happening at the conference as well. This flow of being able to design for services at scale within organizations. Touching all the touchpoints. And looking at future technologies too.

What is the most interesting thing for me in terms of service design is artificial intelligence. Because that is definitely this service design we will be interacting with. If we think of service design from person to person and person to machine, machine to machine, and back, I think we are going to be touching on a lot of questions about ethics and methodologies for designing those experiences. —Shelley Evenson
What does it mean if we are no longer designing for people to people, or people to machine, but maybe we are designing for machine to machine interaction, but still bring value to people? I think this is a very very big topic. —Birgit Mager

Mager: The digitization and IoT perspective for services is already changing. It almost makes me feel embarrassed to say 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 would not be standardized. It is an amazing development to see that today we are looking at services that are totally standardized and not at all dependent on people. Services are available wherever you want—whenever you want.

Shelley is putting her finger on a very good point—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, but maybe we are designing for machine to machine interaction, but still bring value to people? I think this is a very very big topic.

On Advice

What was the best professional advice you ever received?

Evenson: It wasn’t professional advice, but more advice as a designer. I went to school at Ohio State University. I was originally in communication design. I had a summer job designing print materials for the university for various events. I was complaining to one of my professors about the client I had; she [the client] didn’t understand, the usual thoughts that young designers have—I just wanted to make something beautiful. 

What he told me was that it wasn’t her responsibility to create the conditions for me. I had to create the conditions for myself. Even if I had to work within her constraints, I should be able to deliver something exceptional.

I think that is always the challenge for us, we always have constraints. I love the Eames piece where he talks about constraints. Constraints are good; add in a focus on designing for people to get to great.

What piece of advice would you give someone entering the profession now?

Evenson: I think there is such a wealth of information between the SDN, the Touchpoint journals—the running history of design those journals provide. Start there. Another piece of advice, I suggest, is never be afraid to experiment. The way it has always be done isn’t necessary the way it should be done. Absorb as much as you can from all the wonderful resources out there and make sure that you step beyond.

Mager: I would put it in different words, but going in the same direction. Today, if you are entering the domain of design you need to have a good understanding of the design-driven approach to experience, to needs and systems.

You are required to get a good understanding of the business perspective and organizational change perspective. The young designer needs to digest enough different perspectives, and I encourage them to do.

Also, they should use the design perspective while they are exploring the business and organizational perspective because it is one of the most important contributions. And not to expect the present as necessarily the future.

Always challenge the situation as opposed to the opportunities. Balancing knowledge of different domains but keeping the design perspective. It is something I find as a big requirement for successful service designer.

Evenson: I think that is totally right. Making sure you understand you are going to have to be knowledgeable relate to people, the business components, as well as the technologies.∎

Shelley Evenson is Managing Director Organizational Evolution and Strategy, at Fjord. Throughout her career she has integrated design innovation with business opportunities. She has also worked at companies such as Facebook and Microsoft. Along with her rich corporate experience she was an equal contributor in the academic sphere, where she was an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon. She has served as co-editor of Touchpoint: the Journal of Service Design, and has contributed to several books and journal articles on service, interaction, and design strategy.

Shelley jumpstarted the study of service design in the U.S. While heading the master's program in design at Carnegie Mellon University, she hosted the first international conference on service design, Emergence 2006.

She eventually a co-founded the SDN in the U.S. with Birgit Mager and continues to be an advisory board member for the international Service Design Network.

Birgit Mager is Professor for Service Design at KISD, the Köln International School of Design, based in Cologne, Germany. Over the past eighteen years, she has been a leading figure in developing the theory and practice of service design. Her publications and lectures have contributed to the establishment of service design as an independent research discipline.

She is the president of the international Service Design Network and is responsible for organizing SDN's national and international conferences. Along with Shelley Evenson, Birgit founded the SDN and was the keynote speaker at the first international conference on service design, Emergence 2006.

See interview article here.

Above photo: Mager and Evenson stand with the other conference organizers at the SDN Global Conference in 2014 in Stockholm.