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Stakeholder engagement for service design

Service design is a stakeholder-centered design discipline, which means that various stakeholders are involved in the process of service designers designing new services. Current tools for stakeholder engagement have been developed within the discipline as well as been borrowed from elsewhere.
After graduating from his master’s programm Fabian Segelström decided to do a PhD on service design and spent ~5 years on researching and teaching service design at Linköping University, up until his viva in October 2013.  His research focused on what service designers do before they start designing, namely the stakeholder research and how the outcomes of it are communicated. His thesis is  in this post available as a PDF.


Service design is a stakeholder-centered design discipline, which means that various stakeholders are involved in the process of service designers designing new services. Current tools for stakeholder engagement have been developed within the discipline as well as been borrowed from elsewhere. The tools used today serve service designers well, but there is still room for improvement. Service designers are proud over their ability to understand people and their needs. It is stressed that this includes being able to not take everything a stakeholder says at face-value, but that thorough analysis is needed to formulate insights. These insights are visualized to provide easily accessible depictions of service systems, a skill and practice which distinguishes service designers from other service professionals. The techniques used will however need to change as service design adapts the theoretical grounds of other service fields although the techniques can help other service professionals understand the design perspective better.
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Service design is a field emerging from the new-found interest in services as a design material by practitioners and academics of the human-centered design tradition. As such, the field can build on the knowledge from previous work in design as well as in service research. Introducing a new design material may however also introduce new challenges to  practice. The research presented in this thesis investigates how the design research phase of the human-centered design process is affected by making services a design material.

Four studies

How users, staff and other stakeholders are involved in service design projects was studied in four studies. Two studies focused on getting a holistic view of how service designers engage stakeholders in their design research. The methods used for these two studies were interviews in one case and participatory observation in the other. The two remaining studies focused on specific aspects of the stakeholder engagement process. One compared how designers and anthropologists approach ethnography, whereas the second investigated the communicative qualities of service design visualizations. It is argued that service design is a stakeholder-centered design discipline. The conclusions chapter summarizes the main outcomes of the research presented in this thesis. This summarization is divided into two main sections, one summarizing the findings and the other the challenges for service design over the coming years as identified in the research. The end of the chapter (and thesis) contains a a paragraph-long summary of the contents of this thesis and suggestions for future research.
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Summary of findings

The findings from the studies performed confirm that service design belongs to the user/human-centered design tradition. It is however suggested that it is more appropriate to call service design stakeholder-centered as service designers need to consider users/customers, employees and whole organisations when devising design suggestions. The studies furthermore make it possible to describe the steps undertaken from when a project team has been formed to when the insights identified through the research have been communicated. In brief, the activities done to support stakeholder engagement for service design should be roughly these:
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Preparations start with understanding if material already exists which could be helpful for the project. This includes going back to previous work for the client, learning from other projects in the client organisation and the designers using the service themselves (and potential competitors’ services). Based on the knowledge gathered from this process an initial plan for the stakeholder engagement is done, focusing on what should be learned from whom. The plan needs to be well thought-through, in such a way that it not has a rigid structure and can be changed if so needed. The tools presumed to be the most suitable for the project should be selected, not the most convenient ones. When the planning is done and participants recruitment is finished or at least started, it is time for the detailed preparations; formulating interview questions, preparing artifacts needed etc. Stakeholder interaction is the part of the stakeholder engagement in which the stakeholders are involved. It is done to understand the users and staff of the service by engaging with them in various ways. Common approaches to stakeholder interactions are interviews, observations, design probes and various kinds of workshops. However, how these techniques are used varies greatly between the agencies observed. Two main approaches to which kind of data is desired exist; in the first approach the designers see the participants as inspiration for the designers’ upcoming design work and thus aim at achieving empathy with them. In the second the designers see the participants as co-creators of ideas, with the designers acting as facilitators of the participants’ ideation. As the research develops the service designers will find areas of interest which they did not plan for, as well as some areas they expected to be of interest not being as interesting as expected. This makes it important to have a plan for the stakeholder interactions which allows for changes without lowering the quality of the research. The aim of the research is to find insights which can be acted upon in the design stage, and the service designers need to be able and willing to adapt their approach to identify as many good insights as possible. Analysis is the process in which information is transformed into insights. The initial analysis is done based on the gut feeling of the service designers, and happens in-between the stakeholder interaction-sessions during the research phase. The changes to the research plan are in most cases made based on this gut feeling, which underlines the importance of service designers honing their analysis skills from early on in their careers. When the stakeholder interactions have finished, the structured analysis starts. The structured analysis takes the initial analysis as its  starting point, scrutinising it by making sure that all available data fits the analysis. If all data does not fit the initial analysis, new perspectives on the data are investigated. Exactly how the structured analysis is done depends on the nature of the project, but it includes a lot of sorting and resorting of notes and going through various recordings (audio, video, photo, notes). Clusters of information lead to the identification of insights. Visualizations are the most common way of communicating the insights. This means making the insights more easily accessible by transforming pages of text into visual representations of the same information. As well as making the insights more accessible, the process of representing them visually can lead to new insights being identified or the respective importance of already found ones becoming clearer. To visualize can thus be seen as a third stage in the analysis process as well as a communicative effort. Depending on the intended audience (clients or within the project) the visualizations need various degrees of refinement. If the visualization is done for the client, it is important to remember that a successful visualization is likely to be seen by many more in the client organisation than are present when it is first presented to the client. Presenting research results is however not the only time when it is important to consider the client during the stakeholder research. The studies showed that the client is a constant factor which influences what service designers can do when. An important take-away for educators from this thesis should be to consider how they can prepare their students for interacting with clients and manage the clients’ expectations. This includes understanding what in service design practice clients see value in. One such example is that service designers could sell the visualizations of the stakeholder research as a main deliverable, as they provide a unique image of a service from the customer’s perspective which most organisations miss. Having briefly re-iterated the main findings of the studies for this thesis, it is time to focus on the challenges identified for stakeholder engagement for service design as the discipline continues to mature.
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Challenges ahead

As the service design discipline continues to mature, it is bound to meet new challenges. This section highlights some of the (potential) future challenges identified through the research. Three main challenges have been identified; the quality of stakeholder interactions, that many of the standard visualization tools are ill-equipped to communicate all aspects of services according to current thinking and finally that there is greater diversity in practice than language use portrays. The first challenge identified is to ensure the quality of the stakeholder engagement. Criticism against the rigor of (service) designers’ use of various qualitative tools for research is plentiful in the literature. The research showed that the designers constantly needed to balance time and money pressure against all their actions during the stakeholder engagement. This means that parts of the criticism can be solved by finding ways to get clients to pay for more research (such as making the research outcomes more prominent deliverables). The other part of the criticism can however only be answered by improving the quality of stakeholder interactions. Here educators have an important role to play, as they need to remember to not only focus on introducing the tools of service design to students but also to make sure that they understand the rationale behind the various tools. To be able to appropriate the tools for their needs in a good way, service designers need to understand why the tools were designed as they were. Knowing the thinking behind the tools available also helps in understanding when they are not appropriate and a new approach needs to be found to achieve the intended outcome. The second challenge emerges as service designers’ visualization practices meet a changing image of the service concept. The importance of visualization practice is highlighted throughout the thesis, and is seen as one of the unique and distinguishing features of service design. However, it seems that many of the most common visualization techniques are constructed along the view of services as something that is different from products (that is, services are defined based on how they are different from products – the IHIP-model is the most famous example of this). At the same time, influential scholars have been propagating the idea of two forms of service design, one which views services as not-products and a second one in which service is seen as the basis for all economic transactions. The latter of these forms is seen as the desirable by the same scholars, and service design according to this (service dominant logic) mind-set is dubbed design for service. If the design for service-perspective on service design takes a widespread hold in practice as well, many of the current visualization techniques are ill suited to portray all aspects of a service. This means that the change to a design for service-perspective on service design will lead to a need for new visualization techniques being developed (or vice-versa, the move to design for service can possibly be sped up by new visualization techniques which better support the service dominant logic view on services). The third main challenge for service design as it matures is for competing agencies to find a way to differentiate themselves from one another. It was found that the three participating agencies in the participatory observation study all had distinct signature approaches to their stakeholder engagements. These differences were much larger in practice than could be expected by how they communicated outwards. This led to the suggestion of a model with two axes which capture the main differences between the agencies. One axis focuses on which perspective is taken on the stakeholders participating in the research sessions; are they inspiration for or co-creators of design suggestions? The second axis deals with the balance between making design suggestions which are oriented towards the implementation or vision. As the choices made along theses axes can differ from project to project as well, the model can also be used internally within different projects.
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