Habitare must listen to its users

Habitare 2019 is an interesting convention, but overall it could be so much more. A convention is a service and I approached this furniture, interiors, and product design event with a service design perspective. I was actively looking out for mentions of service design and observing what the experience of being a participant at the convention was like. I must note: I myself am not specifically a connoisseur of interior design. From a partially foreign perspective, when one thinks about Finnish design it is furniture and interior design which come to mind first and foremost. Finland is one of the leaders of elegant, minimal, and functional interiors. Whichever Finnish design field comes after interior design is surely a more distant second place. However, within the much smaller world of service design, Finland also shines. Finnish governmental, health and digital services are known within the inner circle of the service design community. Knowing this, I was keen to see if there was any possible overlap of service and interior design at Habitare 2019.

Admittedly, as I had predicted, there wasn’t much overlap between the fields. Or at least, the overlap was below the surface and one that if elevated could make the convention an overall better experience. There were interesting moments which could’ve been improved through the use of service design: through adding more interactivity into the convention and perhaps researching their potential convention attendees to see what exactly they would like from such a convention.

Upon first walking into the main convention I was greeted by a pleasant surprise: a slide going downstairs! What a wonderfully playful way to begin! In service journeys, just like job interviews or dates, first impressions really matter. There were other such moments of playful interaction occasionally scattered through the experience and they broke the overall passive experience joyously. My favorite example was the small table which allowed the creation of moodboards using different textures, props, materials and fauna. Moodboards are used by some designers to literally set or depict a rough atmosphere they are striving towards when creating a piece of furniture or an interior. This moodboard table allowed participants to experience a fun glimpse of a designer’s work in an accessible and (importantly for today’s Instagram generation) shareable fashion.

Personally, I would’ve liked to see even more of these moments. Habitare should strive to be more than just a large version of a Finnish design shop – it should involve its participants more. Many participants come to browse the beautiful interiors, yet fully knowing that the life on display in front of them is if not out-of-reach then at least overpriced. Assuming this, they should be provided a means to attain at least a hint of redesigning their own interiors through, for example, active co-learning of what a designer does or how to design.

There was one specific mention of service design, which took place at a talk given on Friday. Unfortunately, due to it being a talk in the middle of the day, I was not able to attend. It was a talk given by Virve Penttilä and Sini Ala-Nikula, who work at Rune & Berg. After a little research I was able to find Virve’s thesis from 2016 discussing the design of physical service environments and its effects on service delivery. Having looked at Rune & Berg’s work on their website, the thesis, and the title of the talk I can assume that service design was represented at Habitare – albeit for a very brief moment.

The talk’s title, Have you listened to your user? The importance of service design in the design of environments is a good generalism on my thoughts about Habitare. I was also surprised to see what I would call a lack of understanding of the participants of Habitare. To describe what I mean I’ll take sitting as an example. As is to be expected with Nordic design, there were plenty of elegant chairs with minimal lines and ergonomic curves in naturally reserved colours. These seats were pleasing to both my eyes and (from having walked around the convention so long) my feet. As I sat, I pondered: Who are these convention attendees who browse pricey furniture? What do they do? Well, the ones who can occasionally afford to buy into this lifestyle are most likely office workers of some kind who want to come home to a beautiful and comfortable home and rest. If that is the case, where do they spend much of their day sitting? Many do not work from home – most work at the office. And yet, at Habitare I barely saw any office chairs – or much office furniture in general. Where were the beautiful desks or elegant workstations? Where were the office chairs or where was the Nordic designed version of those big bouncy ball seats which your colleague persuades you will solve all your problems but you never end up using? Where, in short, was the office?

Perhaps the lack of a dedicated “office” furniture section should not come as a surprise, the name Habitare is derived from habitat or a place where one calls home and where one lives. Work, however, is an integral part of life. Working life was simply ignored at the convention. This omission underlines my fundamental issue with Habitare. For a convention dedicated to designing the interiors of our lives it takes a too narrow approach to what interiors, and perhaps even our lives, can be.

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