Service design and the Mario complex

Mario jumping on the Earth to collect double diamonds

In March I attended the fantastic Service Design in Government conference. Each year it brings together service design practitioners from across the public sector and beyond, from across the UK and beyond.

Remember those days, when you could go to a conference? At the time, coronavirus was looming on the horizon, but the true scale of the crisis to come wasn’t clear to many. Handshakes were few and far between, but the buffet food was still in abundant supply.

Much of this post was written in the week or two after the conference, before lockdown began. (The existing draft literally ended mid-sentence.) The escalating situation placed the completion of this post firmly on the back burner. There were more pressing things to worry about.

As you read the post below, you may also understand why the advent of a massive global pandemic may not have been the best time to grapple with some of these thoughts. But hopefully you will also see why I still want to publish them.

This is my third blog post about the Service Design in Government conference. The other two are more straightforward overviews of the talks I got the most value out of:

This third post is a reflection on some bigger questions I have been asking myself about service design, which SDinGov prompted further thinking about.

Context: exaggerated differences between service design and user experience

View of Arthur's Seat from the conference venue

I arrived at the conference feeling a strange mixture of excitement and wariness. I am fascinated by service design. But I think of myself primarily as a user experience practitioner. As such, my relationship with service design is complicated.

Over the past few years, I have invested a lot of time and energy into learning about service design. Beyond the time spent reading about it in my spare time, I’ve worked with self-described service designers, earned a PDA in service design with the Service Design Academy, and applied a lot of the practices and thinking to my work.

But what precisely service design is supposed to be remains elusive. For example, many (though not all) service designers seem adamant that it is an absolutely different discipline to user experience.

I don’t buy into that. Service design benefits by borrowing more from other established practices like lean, organisational design and change management. But in essence, the principles and approaches of service design are the same as user experience.

I’ve also come across a few service designers exhibiting a desire to assert themselves as being more important than user experience practitioners. For them, user experience is seen as a “smaller” discipline concerned only with user interfaces.

I often find myself having to explain that I don’t just work on the interfaces of websites. These service designers seem unaware that the term user experience was pioneered by Don Norman in the 1990s specifically to differentiate it from user interface design:

“User experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

That definition even contains the word services. If you understand user experience, it’s not really different to service design.

But some would also have you believe that service design is a radical new approach. It has certainly gained focus and momentum recently. But people were designing services long before even Lynn Shostack first wrote about service blueprints in 1984 (even if they weren’t yet calling it service design).

Large display of the word "user"

User experience as a discipline can be traced back via human–computer interaction, through human factors and ergonomics, to scientific management. In the same way, service design is an evolution of existing established practices. So what — if anything — makes service design more than Taylorism with Sharpies?

Searching for answers

I came to the Service Design in Government conference still grappling with these questions. For the first half of the conference, I felt no closer to the answers. Towards the end, I began to see clear common themes emerge from many of the sessions.

Yet there were also some major contradictions in some of the points made by many of the speakers. These contradictions do not seem to be openly discussed (although I did come across some people murmuring about them during the social evening).

Disagreements are a healthy fact of life. A conference for any discipline wouldn’t be interesting if everyone blandly agreed with each other and promoted the status quo. So I don’t think these apparent contradictions are a problem for service design.

But many of these apparent chasms in the thinking are not presented as an open debate. While I understand the value of “yes, and” thinking, I feel it would be healthier if these questions were confronted more openly.

I wanted to explore this further, to help me understand exactly what a service design approach is, or what I think it should be.

Mario and a plate of spaghetti

So forgive me while I borrow this metaphor from Emily Bazalgette’s excellent session. I’m going to tug on some strands of spaghetti from this messy bowl I see in front of me.

As the spaghetti unravels, we’ll discover why service designers see themselves as Mario — and why that is an unrealistic model for what service design should be.

Contradictory themes at Service Design in Government

Sweat the small stuff, or change the world?

There was lots to admire from Carrie Bishop’s opening keynote about doing the unsexy work of local government. She advocated for the pragmatism of starting small, arguing that we can make more impact by “fixing the plumbing” than waiting for the perfect opportunity for radical transformation.

(Incidentally, this brought to mind the excellent Freaknomics episode, In Praise of Maintenance, which I can recommend if you’re looking for inspiration as a fixer.)

Later that morning, Emily Bazalgette also talked about the value of tiny actions that are doable for everyone. She highlighted the example of a team with flexible working patterns that wanted to improve its work–life balance. One person began with an experiment — an email signature apologising for the out-of-hours message. The idea was popular, and spread to others.

Other speakers implored us to think big. Really big. Some see design as having a duty to change society. More than one session even asked designers to focus on perhaps the biggest problem of all: climate change.

That ambition could hardly be further away from fixing the plumbing.

Be humble, or be saviours?

For some designers, no problem is too big (although apparently some problems are too small). For people who think like this, the only thing preventing service designers from actually saving the world is a lack of respect for the discipline.

But there are some practitioners talking about the need for designers to be humble. Some people, like Audree Fletcher, are noting that our egos will prevent us saving the world.

I was struck in particular by the points made by Alastair Somerville in his session about power in design. He noted how disciplines design research borrows heavily from — anthropology and psychology — are linked to colonialism and eugenics.

He also pointed out that co-design in particular has a problematic power dynamic. “Go in, take their knowledge, then leave.”

Be experts, or be facilitators?

There’s a tension in our role as designers. Should we push to be seen as experts — as problem solvers supreme? Or is our role to be neutral facilitators — to give seldom-heard people a voice and empower people to find their own solutions?

Some talk about having “design gatekeepers”. Others want to include everyone in design activities.

I was struck by Audree Fletcher’s description of three types of designer, all of which end up projecting their own experience onto other people’s stories:

  • Designer as artist — eager to be seen as the solo genius
  • Designer as scientist — looking to validate ideas, but not to invalidate them
  • Designer as saviour — imposing solutions on other people, unable to see the potential and opportunity those people have

Do many designers really want to amplify those seldom-heard voices, as opposed to paying lip service to doing so? Or are designers more comfortable in their quest to “find my tribe”?

Ditch the journey maps, or trust the process?

There were also differing views on the importance of things like following design processes or creating journey maps.

Some called on designers to “ditch the double diamond” and “lose the jargon”. Others used a slogan often used by service designers — “trust the process” — invoking the importance of doing design the right way. Or, perhaps more realistically, being seen to be doing it the right way.

On journey maps, a similar divide could be detected. Some felt that journey maps are an unimportant distraction. Others spoke about how journey mapping was the thing that made their project succeed.

Surely it isn’t the artefacts themselves that are important. Making a journey map (or any artefact) just for the sake of it is never going to go well. Why and how you use it is more likely to determine whether it’s relevant or useful.

Another set of people say the double diamond should be used not as a process to follow, but as a means of sharing, communicating, and educating colleagues about human-centred approaches.

But some people use double diamonds and process maps as an attempt at asserting their design expertise. Others say such processes are shields to hide behind. Emily Bazalgette described process charts as “an artefact to soothe uncertainty”. She said: “A process chart is there because someone senior is scared.”

Unattainable utopias, or flawed futures?

Many delegates seemed to be particularly inspired by Cassie Robinson’s “social dreaming” activity, where we were guided to imagine a utopian future in 2030. As I wrote in my previous post, my lack of imagination meant I struggled with the activity. But a lot of people seemed to be moved by it.

The following day, Cennydd Bowles warned against “seductive utopias”, noting that unrealistic future visions are a common tool of authoritarian regimes. He also pointed out that one person’s utopia can be someone else’s dystopia.

He said that instead, “We need realistic, flawed, compelling future visions.”

User-centred for today, or planet-centred for the future?

In the same session, Cennydd Bowles talked compellingly about how user-centred design drives us towards a narrow view of our potential.

The way user-centred design activities are often framed inevitably leads us to optimise for individuals. We lose sight of negative impacts on communities, societies and the planet as a whole — what economists call externalities.

Slide from Cennydd Bowles's talk - A chart showing time on the x-axis (now, months, years, decades); actors on the y-axis (users, other people, society, non-humans, the planet), with UCD occupying a small square in the bottom-right (now, users)

Cennydd Bowles has identified actors at five different levels:

  • Individual users
  • Other people
  • Society
  • Non-humans
  • The planet

He also noted a time dimension. We can optimise a solution for now, for the following months, or for years and decades in advance.

For Cennydd Bowles, user-centred design is boxed in to a narrow view of what is possible. It focuses only on individuals now, rather than the planet in several decades’ time.

Products, services, systems or society?

In the closing keynote, Shanti Mathew successfully summarised the themes of the conference. She said that in just four years service designers have shifted their focus:

Products → Services → Systems → Society

Shanti Mathews's slide: "Products > Services > Systems > Society"

That one slide neatly crystallised what was going on with all of those apparently contradictory pieces of advice from the conference. Different people are looking at different types of problems, and they are calling it all service design.

Problem definition escalation

When I saw that slide, I was reminded of a section of a workshop I attended at UX Scotland in 2018. In Let’s Talk About Strategy, Sophie Dennis introduced the concept of problem definition escalation, citing Michael Beirut.

Problem definition escalation describes the following scenario.

A designer is asked to design a business card. The designer responds, “The real problem isn’t your business card, it’s your logo.”

So the designer is asked to design a logo, and they respond: “The real problem isn’t your logo, it’s your brand identity system.”

Then, when the designer is asked to design a brand identity system, they will respond: “The real problem isn’t your brand identity, it’s your business plan.”

Keep going, and before you know it, the real problem is world hunger. Or, perhaps, climate change?

According to Michael Beirut, this tendency comes from an hang-up that some designers have. Michael Beirut didn’t use these words directly, but it is implied that a mixture of insecurity and ego drives designers to constantly talk about wanting “a seat at the table”. More than anything else, designers want respect. They want to be told: “You’re so intelligent.”

In pursuit of that respect, designers climb the ladder of problem spaces.

They move from business cards via identity systems to business plans.

They go from designing products via designing services to trying to fix society.

They progress from considering individual users now, to wanting to transform the planet for decades to come.

And yet, someone still needs to design the business cards!

(OK, maybe not business cards any more — Michael Beirut’s article was written in 2007 — but you get the point.)

Designing at different scales

Designers have been aware of these tensions for some time. In their short film Powers of Ten (first made in 1968, and based on a book from 1957), the designers Charles and Ray Eames demonstrated how different things are significant at different scales.

No chosen scale is more or less important than any other. Without the quarks found at 10⁻¹⁶ metres, we couldn’t have the universe seen at 10²⁴ metres, and we couldn’t have the couple having a picnic seen from 1 metre away.

This can be used as an analogy for different types of design, as my colleague Nicola Dobiecka once pointed out, citing Jared Spool.

We need people considering how designs affect things at a societal or global level. But we also need people designing services and products to improve users’ experiences. We also need people to design single interfaces that form part of those experiences.

And just as the film Powers of Ten zooms into the hand to reveal previously imperceptible details at progressively smaller scales, we often can’t design experiences without interfaces, and we can’t design interfaces without the necessary sub-elements. These are the templates, organisms, molecules and atoms as described in the methodology of atomic design.

But our designers’ egos often draw us to the “higher” levels of design problem. Hence service design’s apparent journey — from products to planet.

Keeping your ego in check

I remember the first time I read an article describing systems thinking. As I read it, I felt myself thinking I was unlocking a new superpower — one weird trick that would elevate me as a designer and a thinker.

And then I caught myself. I’m not a systems thinker, and I can’t just pick this up from reading a few Medium articles. I realised it had been my ego taking over.

If scientists thought like this, particle physicists would try to become biologists as a stepping stone to become cosmologists.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to consider the higher levels of problem. Other times, it’s scope creep.

Finding the right level

I laud efforts to be aware at all times of our impact on the environment. And 2020 has certainly been the year to remind us that humanity faces some very major problems — climate change, pandemics, racism.

But it is hubristic to believe that design can solve these problems. To be frank, this is the saviour complex. It’s the sort of thing that gives design a bad name.

Climate change is one of the world’s biggest problems. A great many of the world’s smartest people have been dedicated to solving it for more than 50 years. Those people are experts in their fields:

  • Scientists who are experts in the climate system.
  • Politicians and diplomats who understand international relations.
  • Economists who know about resource allocation and incentives.
  • Social scientists who understand human behaviour and how it can be influenced.

What can designers really bring to the table here? Design thinking will not move the needle in the face of this expertise. It’s a distraction.

The politics of service design

Amid the contradictions in multiple dimensions I sensed at Service Design in Government, I sense that there are two broad schools of thought. I actually summarised those two camps in my previous post:

Start small, pick your battles, watch your ego, forget your process map, be wary of utopias and do the unsexy work of fixing the plumbing?

Or demand respect, reshape society, imagine utopian futures, and focus on solving climate change?

Lots of talk, too, about the balance and tension between designing for individuals versus designing for society. Now that is a political debate that goes way beyond design, and back thousands of years.

Shanti Mathew’s closing session concluded with a conversation on the phrase: “Design is a political act”.

As the discussion went on, I thought mainly of Aristotle. We are political animals. Everything we do as people is inherently political. In this, design is no different. But it isn’t special either.

In essence, the differing camps in service design are an expression of different political stances.

  • You can be a pragmatic, humble plumber. Forget the bigger issues. These people see a small problem that can be solved now, and they want to fix it. They want to involve other people in that work to fix it too.

  • Or you can be a big-thinking future-and-planet transformer. Fixing small problems is pointless. These people are only interested in saving the world. But it’s complex, so this is the domain of experts. They think designers are just the saviours the world needs, if only other people would give them the respect they deserve.

Mario jumping

The only way to reconcile these two camps is to think of service designers as being like Mario, who is both a plumber and a saviour.

But there is only one Mario. And while plumbers do great and important work, they are not trying to save the world. The plumber as saviour is about as realistic as a supersonic hedgehog.

Fix the plumbing, or save the world? As usual, the truth is somewhere in between the two. We need people looking at both ends of that scale. And, as the Powers of Ten idea demonstrates, “big” problems are not necessarily more important than “small” problems. We could do without the egos and gatekeepers.

Unease and insecurity

So, I think I’ve come to understand what my unease around service design is all about. And it isn’t to do with the discipline itself, because we surely need service designers.

I value a great deal of what I’ve learnt about service design over the years. That includes (but is not limited to) my experience learning at the Service Design Academy, the highly thought-provoking sessions at Service Design in Government, and the most recent book I’ve read — the brilliant Good Services by Lou Downe. All of this has demonstrated to me to purpose and value of service design.

The unease I feel in fact goes back to that vibe of superiority I mentioned in the introduction to this post. The contradictions I sensed throughout the conference in fact seem to be a symptom of the same issues that drive problem definition escalation.

I can’t escape the nagging feeling that some people are drawn towards service design out of a desire to assert themselves over other types of designer, who they imagine being confined to considering “smaller” problems. Hence service designers’ transition towards looking at society and planet rather than mere services.

Be a lumper, not a splitter

The book This is Service Design Doing (on page 20) talks about lumpers and splitters:

The splitters will talk about the differences between service design, experience design, design thinking, holistic UX, user-centred design, human-centred design, new marketing, and even more.

The lumpers will point out that these approaches have far more in common than they have differences…

Perhaps designers are almost naturally driven to be splitters, like left-wing political ideologies.

But I want to be a lumper. I’ve found myself talking less about user experience, service design, or even design at all. Instead, I want to talk more about human-centred approaches. Because no matter what level of problem we’re looking at, we’re all here to improve the lives of humans.

Many thanks to Lauren Tormey who helped fix my bad words before this post was published.


  1. Very much enjoyed reading this, Duncan. You echo many of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had for some time. A very well expressed exploration of the area, and much food for thought, thanks.

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