Generative Service Design Futures

Dr John Knight
14 min readJan 3, 2016

Despite peaking fears for Service Design, it’s the design discipline that’s gone large to reach global critical mass and underpin digital transformation across mobile, tablet, desktop and the wave of new ui technologies such as conversational bots and RPA. Today the Service Design (SD) family stands to be the biggest single design discipline on the globe and probably in history heretofore. That’s quite an achievement from its roots in Human-computer Interaction, Participatory Design and Service Operations. This heralds the new wave of digital design. UX/UI desire paths die and we move to Service Realisation.

In this article, I look at the seismic shifts that are happening in digital design right now; these changes will move the focus from consumer to co-creator and from metropolitan chic to global reach, thus realising the true value of open design. Here, design is democratised and operationalised through new, open platforms and methods such as card-based design. Find out how applied creativity can mature to reach its full potential, to become an indispensable business critical function that balances, human needs to technology in a sustainable business context.


‘A little less blueprinting and a bit more real world action’ Elvis – an original service design mojo!

Pretty much every Service Design conference, publication and community has been awash with discussions on the ‘implementation’ question. The growing demand to move on from futurist like blueprints to more incremental, continuous service releases. Rather than Service Design, we need to focus on design, delivery and operating services, along with our peers in tech and ops. Not only is this a more frugal, less wasteful approach but it also delivers value quicker. I’ve elaborated this new approach in a case study that maps out an agile ‘story-card’ design process that delivers lean style service increments consisting of:

Minimal Viable Service
Minimum Viable Minimum Living Service
Minimum Sustainable Service

If you want to read more about this and how Service Design must shift from abstraction (blueprints, journeys etc) then read this paper on Service Operations. If you want to get involved in this discussion and future evolution of service design try this #RealWorldServiceDesign


Smart machines start to replace humans requiring a back to basics Human-centred Design approach

Expect more and deeper disruption in traditionally non-digital industries (e.g. law, accounting, health etc.) as digital transformation, automation and robotics change work and the workplace; replacing human workers with machines. This will shift focus in little old UX from consumers to HELLO SD them darn people as co-creators. Incidentally human activity/practice will become the domain with most potential and interest for SD as a discipline.

As smart machines start to replace human actors, SD will need to move from delivering simple usability on single interactions (e.g. UX) to dealing with more complex domains that blend human and technological agency. Human-computer interaction (HCI) issues including previously niche topics, such as ethics will be dusted down and Mumford, Tavistock and UTOPIA correctly remembered and credited. The potential is huge and only good old HCI has the answers.

Guess what? The pace of this change just got quicker too. What was cold war science fiction that took ages to build just got spiked into Agile Digital Transformation. Need a new app? new Website? even need a new business function? Last year, the answer might have been solutions that took some time to deliver, but now: AI, Robotics, AR etc are becoming quicker to deliver than relatively recent but latent legacy technologies such as web and apps. As smaller and faster applications of these new smarter technologies accrue, some of the cornerstones of digital will be transformed out of existence too.


Tiny moments of value rather than big wow delight as SD tackles profit and value

Companies will find it harder to protect and grow revenue as new and disruptive newcomers, anti-competitive technologies and cross border competitors erode their core propositions and more importantly the size of individual transactions. Less will be sold in shops and more online and post crash economics will drive smaller faster rather than bigger slower; especially as the digital divide dissipates and global markets mature digitally.

Beyond removing barriers to conversion, UX will need to be even more tightly coupled with customer facing operations and ‘Business Thinking’. This means not just making technology usable but building value creation into all touchpoints and weaving it in as a design element. It will no longer suffice to make check-outs easy but instead UX will need to deliver sustainable engagement in order to safeguard the small returns companies will be making in the short term. Expect to see more ‘Business Designers’ as John Oswald calls them — the more globally local UX value propositions can be made the better too.

As organisations design capabilities mature, so the work will evolve from innovation oriented concepting to incremental tweaking. Here, multidisciplinary teams will combine dev, design and research into service wide and stepwise improvements. When that approach stalls then we can dust of the sticky notes and inject some good ole, design thinking led innovation too.


Moving beyond Hipsters and Hoxton to the diverse world of digital design and truly meeting the promise of Open Design

Service Design reaches global critical mass — the biggest design discipline on the planet; if you add UX + SD together as a single, humanistic, digital design discipline.

Just like the eponymous DJ, everyone is a designer nowadays. That’s great and with more doers and better platforms to create and showcase work and design patterns there’s never been an easier time to do user experience. For the more seasoned practitioner, it should all get easier-cheaper and those pesky design tools actually become mass usable. As this growth continues (before the bubble bursts) there will be a gravitational shift from the centres of metropolitan cool to bottom of the pyramid glocal version power. What’s hip in ui will suddenly look like a first world problem as the global masses represent themselves at the interface.

This has many repercussions for SD as a discipline, practice and job. In the longer term, everyone doing SD will require a tighter, more focused and stronger core discipline. Indeed, the key issue is ensuring the long-term sustainability of the field is better professional standards and accreditation that recognises practice based experience. Lets hope that changes while at the same time embracing all of the energy and innovation that will stream out of a distributed global design practice. If you want to get involved in this discussion and future evolution of service design try this #DribbbleCulture


Twixting existing systems is where innovation lies with the big SI pardners as we get to really work on real world problems and opportunities

As technology platforms mature, customer expectations grow and Service Design makes inroads into business and even government; the job will be to join existing sub-services into holistic offerings, rather than designing new ones from scratch. All from scratch stuff will go as increased commoditisation — resuable assets, code libraries, design systems (the list goes on…)replaces what I call ‘archetypal design’ with what Christoper Alexander called ‘design patterns and language’.

Quick wins to reduce gaps between legacy systems, will win out over big projects with little or no existing infrastructure. And in house teams, augmented by targeted external input will lead the way, as they have the domain knowledge but not always continuous demand for niche skills such as Data Science. This shift is also reflected in the big platforms acceleration into the usability of their own stuff, where enterprise users start to have consumer expectations of technology.

For practitioners that means working closely with technology providers to focus on reducing pain points, integrating existing systems and driving standardization before then moving to optimize them. All of those creaky productivity systems will start to look Hoxton cool too. Service design will mirror this shift, maturing from design thinking to design doing and delivery; gone are the days of fluffy blue sky thinking and hello hard design in the real world.


New ui paradigms incubate in the outside of the traditional commercial arenas, reach traction and support change

Enterprises will drive internal adoption of innovative technology, mobility and innovative interfaces such as wearables as workforce enablers; at the same time as consumer goods and services plateau in terms of ui, quality and functionality. The exception is voice (no not VR except for entertainment) which has user value beyond novelty. You’ll start to see people talk to do on phones rather than push and touch interaction on the high streets; it’ll start getting noisy out there and what stuff looks like will decline in importance. Generally, though anything new will get matured in a work environment rather than in a domestic one before being productised for the consuming masses.

Because of the new work front for innovation, enterprise will be where the cool kids are and the behemoths of productivity software will need to revolutionise their offerings to become the new digital darlings. SD will grow into and back to its socio-technical roots, making work better, more enjoyable and hopefully steering those integrators in the right direction and doing generally useful good stuff with new ui.


Safe and boring will overtake cool as driver for adoption and use spawning a new design field

The robustness, clarity and visibility of organisations trustworthiness and security will become a primary part of the customer proposition and a constant draw on organisations resources. Unlike performance, which is a non-designed part of the user experience, security and trust will become part of the digital designers domain and a brand value.

Indeed, security will become its own design domain with discrete practices, language and practitioner based community e.g. User Security Designer. SD will need to support this shift by seamlessly integrating security and safety features, cues and signposts to help users build trust and know how to deal with risks. If security is the bottom of Maslow’s experience pyramid then brand trust is probably on the next tier. We can already see the mild backlash against short-shelf life products and services and the wish for stuff that lasts beyond the next sales cycle; that will continue and morph into digital ecology in the mid-term.


Huge growth in adoption outside of the trendy fringe(s) changes the demographic and the experience, no more shiny shiny?

The biggest driver in consumer digital transformation will be from growth in current platforms and technologies by the so far less connected masses currently not using top of the range smart devices; rather than from the cool early to mid adopter segments. It’s the Clapham omnibus connected rather than Minority Report. In fact, it’s more correctly the Lagos omnibus, as SD reaches global presence and smart takes over the world with cheaper cheaper.

For digital design, that means tackling the full range of platforms and devices to not just deliver omni-channel experience for the few but reach for the masses. Localisation will re-emerge as a delivery capability, this time done locally rather than centrally. Expect to see more middling SD too as mass adoption becomes more important than design awards. Lastly, Android will go big and go wide globally.


Design gets automated, personal and ahem…a bit boring giving designers a big challenge and opportunity to go beyond bootstrap

As previously discussed, the integration of design, marketing and optimisation tools will reduce human aided design and automate the process. SD Agencies will need to focus on their craft, to deliver niche, focussed design propositions as their customers adopt better and more integrated automated design and delivery solutions from new providers such ad agencies. Everything will start to look the same too except where the craft of SD is being done well.

For SD this will see the emergence of the Design Scientist:

‘Design Scientists will tweak the values, select the parameters and apply relevant aesthetics models for the system to work with rather than working up stuff and passing over to developers. They’ll probably build generative experiential programmes based on gestalt principles rather than rendering. Design Thinking will be a filter to apply just as Monochrome, Novelty and Complexity will be. Anything transient like fashion will go to the way of machines and stuff will move and change at clock speed rather than good old seasons.’


Data enables every experience to be personalised and with an ethical design perspective a chance to do it for good

Aggregated data has enabled single customer views and will go on to enable SD to deliver truly personalized content, interactions and services. In reality, SD will be a secondary partner in personalisation as it will be pretty much an automated process. However, this shift will require a much more agile approach to design where rather than single solutions there will be multiple segmented and highly tailored interaction patterns. SD will need to be the true voice of the user in the world of data-driven engagement and atomic personalisation to survive against the data and optimisation providers; to do that requires focussing on SD’s unique combination of design, delivery and research.


Integration, integration, integration…

Forget UCD or for that matter traditional market research. Understanding tomorrows co-creating service encounter requires a new research toolkit. Organisations will integrate the range of research methods into a set of cross functional enablers that draw on the benefits of market research, UCD and optimisation as a single end-to-end in house service. SD practitioners will need to be open to and with their research peers and drive quality in user research through robust methods and qual-feel feedback loops into design. The three strongest research methods for digital design? Well that would good old usability testing, co-design and those dusted off formal HCI methods such as GOMS/KLM.


It’s not a figma — ent of our imagination, design platforms are here to stay and are transforming the way we do research, design and delivery

Wow how are tools are getting easier to use and better in supporting end-to-end delivery. Now we can run workshop online to a quality that, while still different, enables data collection and efficiencies we could only dream about in the past. Design and development tools, likewise. These tools will start to have a big impact on how we deliver stuff and potentially start to cannibalise some skill sets and disciplinary boundaries. In the future, service design will be easier to do from a co-design perspective and also in reducing time from idea to production. Get ready for card-based design too.

© John Knight, 2016 to 2021

And there’s more…

We’ve all seen the elaborate blueprints that are popular in our practice. The forest of fluorescent post-it™ notes every emotional peak or trough in a current experience. These can be things of beauty or resemble the ramblings for a Beautiful Mind. We’re at a point where more than ever before we need to give social value of design not through potential but through service design realisation.
Cool to dream but affecting positive change through producing services is where designers can make real (and even more) difference.

Ever since, I commissioned experience map I became cynical and that has only grown for a number of reasons. The biggest doubt comes from relying on documentation. This seems completely at odds with the hegemony of agile and lean in service production. Rather than documentation this approach (agile/lean) focuses on continuous, incremental and frugal upgrades from Minimal Viable Service to Sustainable Living Service.

In other words, polished, complex and appealing ‘Pixel Pushing’ produced ‘maps’, blueprints’ and schemas demonstrate ‘Deliverables Bloat’ rather than leanness and implementation readiness. Then there is the cool and trendy notion of the ‘speculative’, ‘design fiction’ of the future. It’s a promised land of milk and honey that we need to build in the here and now. Not through stickys but through graft.

Then there is the technology gap where the focus of much service design is abstracting surface-level signs of a service into ‘Journeys’ (Shostack, 1982). If you’re on a journey in a service encounter it’s maybe not good — you just wanna get the task done, quick. As static snapshots of activity these abstractions of what could be to some extent undermine the primacy of Living Services. Of course services are co-produced by the people living them but with technology we’re stuck in middle ages. Technology is not the implementation problem but the social good opportunity. It’s the material and energy of service realisation.

The notion of dynamically created and evolving services is to some extent counter to the orthodoxy too — which focuses on mapping extant to future prescribed services. While blueprints may exemplify design craft (they look good and useful) they don’t map to service architectures and platforms that are integral to service delivery and operations. Service design artefacts don’t integrate well with the needs of service engineers, producers and developers — get into those lower level backstage operations and you’ll find a plethora of manual work and automation possibilities.

The dynamic nature of living services is one reason why another plank in the orthodoxy is broke. Instead of legions of researchers immersing themselves in limitless ethnographies — make and test services from paper to real world. Evidence based blueprints good — but living service data on real usage (service flow) even better. The kind of waterfall orthodoxy on how to deliver Human-centred services goes against everything we know from Steve Jobs to err’ Human-centred Design. Design Anthropology is an exception and maybe Ethnography too, but the point is moving from understanding to intervention which is where the rubber hits the road.

There is a deeper question on service design deliverables. Why do we need them at all? If the goal is to improve an existing service (i.e. not Green Field Design) then practitioners should operate ‘In Service’ rather than separate from it or via any form of abstracted knowledge. This would mean truly participatory design (with service agents) not before production but within it. There is a risk is that short, incremental change may not build to strategic positive service transformation. A structured framework for delivering agile service design, would help. This would begin with founding projects on the basis of a Minimum Viable Service (MVS). An MVS focuses on enabling access to a simplified, stripped down version of the service.

Such a proposition is by nature basic and supports a few use cases, but is built to ensure it enables core functions and proves the viability of the service. An MVS is, however, more than a conceptual proof of concept. Its adoption and use enables early data collection that can help develop richer features, but more importantly enables mapping service supply and demand data. In this sense, a simple digitalised entry point for healthcare becomes the first manifestation of a Living Service, where data is used to enrich the experience and start to build a critical mass of users. Having established a strong and sustainable user community, the next phase of Minimum Living Service (MLS). This is focused on delivering an optimised experience that can drive broad adoption. Finally, a Living Sustainable Service focuses on facilitating value co-creation and operational excellence.

In conclusion, moving to service design realisation is the next stage in maturing our discipline. It means taking a more open-minded view on technology and reverse engineering tweaky services from the north star. We shall never lose Polaris or we ain’t doing service. Likewise, we need just enough research to get that minimum viable service so we can get actual data from use. These tweaks will maybe go some way to move from service design to service design realisation — a slight semantic shift that could help amplify our contribution to nicer world.

© John Knight, 2023, Aalto University of Arts, Architecture and Design



Dr John Knight

Entirely personal views on #DesignScience #Ergonomie #NewWaveUX Making sketchy futurstic stuff with paper, pencils, humans and binary since 1964 PhD @aaltoARTS