Archive by Author | Olli Vainamo

Lessons on language and inclusivity

Held annually in Stockholm, Nordic Design 2019 is a conference focused on the design within the range of user experience, user interface, technology and graphic design. The speakers were varied and did much more than simply show their impressive portfolios of work. They actively outlined certain manifestos or values inherent in their work. Topics ranged from design sprint methodologies to how to the design language learning app Duolingo; from design of systems to the usage of eye-tracking.There were a few key points which stuck with me from a few of the speakers, the first of which discussed the importance of names.

How to name

Like many who work in design nowadays, Sophie Tahran inhabits multiple roles already in her job title: she is a UX Writer. This unique and new role has her creating copy and naming systems for various services and products. Much like the visual side of design, the linguistic side must not only carry the brand’s unique voice but also serve its functional purpose. Language, she pointed out, is important. Much of Sophie’s eloquent talk described the structured process which she has crafted in order to find suitable names for brands or wording systems within brands. Overall, there are seven main categories of possible brand names, each with their own pros and cons:

  1. Descriptive names which describe what the service offers
  2. Evocative brands which try to stir a certain emotion
  3. Invented words which don’t exist in the dictionary
  4. Lexical names are those which play with language or spelling
  5. Acronymic names of individual words
  6. Geographic names of places
  7. Founder of company names.

Sophie outlined her process of creating a name for a new brand and this process is similar to the divergent and convergent phases of the design thinking double diamond. The process of starting the naming a certain brand begins with laying the foundation through looking at the context in which the name is intended to be used, the scope of the brand, competitors and the stakeholders involved. After this a brainstorming workshop is organised. Sophie was quite vague as to how exactly to brainstorm, but there are a near infinite methods available at this ideation stage. The key is to generate an over-abundance of ideas. Once it is deemed sufficient ideas have been generated a move into the refinement stage is needed. Names need to be clustered and researched into whether they fit certain requirements for literacy, universality, SEO or size (meaning whether the name fits the scope of the brief or the forecast growth of the company).  Additionally, legal teams need to be consulted in case of copyright issues. Once a name or shortlist has been made, you need to find approval from the rest of the stakeholders. A new name is easier to approve through being transparent about the whole process by showing an overview of the steps taken to get to the final result. Finally, once a name has been approved the driving of adoption is needed in order to fully execute the naming process correctly.

Sophie’s talk was interesting not only in its content, but also in the way it highlighted an oft overlooked element of design: language. In design it is understood that not only what is being communicated is important, but also how. This is especially important when you are literally discussing the usage of language in design. For example, the way specific navigational signage in a building may guide you around matters: it must not only be succinct, but ideally also carry some of the brand’s values as it provides the important service of showing you where to go.

Accessibility and inclusivity

Speaking of traversing through a service, another speaker Laura Kalbag, highlighted the needs of making services not only accessible but inclusive. It was not a distinction which I had previously made. In fact, in my ignorance I may have used the terms interchangeably.

The difference is wonderfully simply illustrated in these two shopfronts she showed. In the accessibility image, the shop has tried to accommodate for wheelchair users by building a ramp. However, the ramp is on the side of the building and accesses the back of the shop. In inclusive design, as shown in the image on the right, the ramp is built into the front of the shop. This may seem like a small difference to those without special needs, but it represents a fundamental shift in how we think about the provision of services for everybody. It is simply not enough to make services accessible; we must make include those with special needs in our society as fully equal members. This comes from designing products and services which do not simply have augmentations which accommodate special needs, but are intrinsically – from the shopfront onwards – geared towards giving everyone an equal footing.

Designing in collaboration

A final insight which I would highlight came from the introductory speaker, Prem Krishnamurthy. He gave an inspiring and conceptual talk about how his team goes about their graphic design practice. His talk had many good takeaways, but I will focus on one overarching theme: collaboration. Prem seems to have really understood that combined we make more than the sum of our parts. One project stood out which highlights this point well: his co-creation of the “Ministry of Graphic Design” for the Fikra graphic design biennale.  Hired to create an identity for the biennale, Prem’s studio instead decided to collaborate with other designers and create fake bureaucratic entities such as the dept. of optimism or the dept. of non-binaries and curate the work according to their subdivisions. This level of collaboration, in which a design studio will actively involve others and even split their allocated budget in order to raise the level of work being completed is significant. It shows how important collaboration and co-creation truly are in the design field. Working together in order to raise the bar of what is possible as a designer shows a deep understanding that design is a co-creative process and that by making it ever-more collaborative can only make even better work.

Overall, Nordic Design 2019 proved an inspiring and well-designed conference. Service design, despite its closeness to may of the fields at the conference, was not mentioned. However, despite this it was completely worth attending in order to further my service design practice. The lessons of mindful usage of language and inclusive collaboration will serve me well in the future. I look forward to attending in 2020!

What is Data-driven design?

Researching and understanding the user and their environment is the first, and arguably most important, stage in the service design process. Service design purists will insist on the usage of interviews, observation, shadowing, and other ethnographic research methods in order to acquire this understanding. These methods work well, but do they work when trying to understand the organisations with users who number in the millions? The service design event “Data-Driven Design” argued, that qualitative data alone cannot provide large organisations with the necessary knowledge. These organisations rely heavily on quantitative data.

This Service Design Network event consisted of speakers from two large companies answering the question: What is data-driven design? The first speaker, Iiris Lahti from the media conglomerate Sanoma, discussed how design can be data-driven in the current media landscape. The second talk was held by Jussi Mantere and Hanna-Reetta Lukkainen of K-Ryhmä, which together with S-Group controls practically the entire food retail industry in Finland and has branches abroad as well.

What is Data-driven design at Sanoma

Sanoma tracks their users in a variety of ways: from the ways they navigate their news website and the popular Vauva.fi forums; to their media consumption on the Ruutu app and physical subscriptions to their publications. It goes without saying, that Sanoma has a lot of data on its users. The key question is: what do they do with this data and how to they provide ever-more value with this acquired knowledge?

Iiris described perpetually trying to find the sweet spot between service design, data analytics and customer surveys. She mentioned how when these three areas work well together, then their users (and Sanoma) thrive. An interesting example mentioned was through qualitative interviews concerning the Ruutu media streaming app. Briefly: A user stated her need for being passively entertained after work whilst simultaneously wanting to be surprised and not wanting to watch the same familiar shows repeatedly. Out of this small insight, Ruutu created a “suggest something else” button, which essentially acts like a shuffle button after an episode or film has ended. This is exactly the kind of out-of-the-blue concept which can only come from qualitative insights and not from tracking data. Iiris summed it up as finding the unknown unknowns. To elaborate on this, quantitative data can be used to discover known unknows such as the likelihood that someone who likes Downton Abby will also like the The Simpsons. However, this kind of research cannot be used for unkown unkowns. Unknown unknowns would be more open-ended questions such as “How can Ruutu provide more value to user X”. Quantitative data can rarely be used to satisfactorily answer these deeper questions.

Iiris, herself a data scientist, has a slide which described an obstacle I am trying to overcome at work: How to integrate the working processes of Designers, Analysts, and Developers. These three groups operate with similar, but not quite the same, working processes. To solve this Sanoma uses the “Sanoma Development Framework” which Iiris admitted is still work in progress.

What is Data-driven design at K-Ryhmä

Jussi and Hanna used the analogy of the compass to describe how they use data at K-Ryhmä. They summarised their thinking as “data gives insights, design gives solutions”. Despite one speaker being a designer and one speaker being a data scientist, they considered quantitative and qualitative data as being just data. Only when asked at the end did they distinguish between the two and mentioned the benefits of combining them.

Perhaps the most interesting specific cases both of them mentioned had to do with how they use data to empower their customers. Rather than simply utilising tracking and other data points to accumulate information and insights on their customers they have created many ways in which the data can be put to use for the direct benefit of their customers and partners. The cases they mentioned related to the creation of a new drink, making their retailers more independent, and a customer-facing app.

They mentioned co-creating a new sugarfree drink with a leading drinks company. Using their data and knowledge of their customers they had spotted a need and used to it to co-develop an exclusive new drink sold only in K-Ryhmä stores. It is not uncommon for a new product or service to be created through the using of finding needs or holes in the market, in fact this is the basics of service design. What is unusual in this case is that K-Ryhmä was willing to share data on its customers for the mutual benefit of K-Ryhmä and the drinks company (and presumably the customers desiring the new drink).

K-Ryhmä operates what is essentially a franchise. Each store owner operates more-or-less independently but licenses the K brand and operating systems. This implies that the K-Ryhmä itself is an intriguing service ecosystem with many layers of co-dependent stakeholders all under one brand. As a brand it is of utmost importance for K-Ryhmä to keep its retail owning partners profitable and satisfied. Because of this the brand offers each retailer a dashboard of its own data and trains them in its usage. This empowers each retailer discover what makes their specific customers unique. At a deeper level it gives them even more freedom to take ownership of their slice of the K brand and to act on it for mutual benefit.

K-Ostokset is an app released in the last half year. It provides a dashboard to customers with a K loyalty card to see what they’ve bought, how much they’ve spent, and when. With this initial description it struck me as a quite standard customer-facing dashboard app. However, they have added additional functionality which I find truly interesting. Customers can use their personal shopping habits and set specific targets. This goes beyond simply spend X amount of money on food next month. Customers can set targets based on their personal values. For example, they can track and set goals to purchase more Finnish products and (before the end of the year we were promised) to reduce their impact on climate change. The speakers did confess to being initially hesitant, as data privacy is an understandable concern amongst many consumers nowadays and displaying how much they have been tracked may scare customers. However, I feel this is a brave move by K-Ryhmä as it displays a fundamentally deep understanding of their customers: people no longer shop based merely on price, flavour, or health. Today customers are values-based shoppers: morality, locality, niche-diets, politics, convenience and other factors all play a large role in why customers buy what they do. Considering the size of K-Ryhmä, this app has the potential to change the way a large portion of the Finnish population shops hopefully for the better.

The event as a whole tried to inspire new ways of seeing how data and design can not only coexist but thrive in large companies. The heavy usage of quantitative data at these organisations does not replace service design’s usage of qualitative research. Instead, companies the size of Sanoma and K-Ryhmä have learned to use the strengths of both research gathering processes in a manner which enhances the value they can provide to their users.

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.

Design Thinking has made me realise there is definitely a conspiracy going on

I went in to learn about Design Thinking… but left having realised I was involved in a massive social experiment!
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It all started innocently enough. It was a rainy autumn day, in southern Finland. We were told this would be a design thinking workshop. That’s right, Design Thinking. Nothing more, nothing less. But what happened on those two fateful days proved so, so much more.
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We were guided through the workshop by Katja Tschimmel, a well-spoken and experienced workshop facilitator. Immediately I was suspicious – what was she hiding? What are her motives? I eyed everyone in the room, but they all seemed immediately captivated by her process.

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