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How to make a Service Designer’s Portfolio

What are recruiters looking for when hiring a service designer? How can you showcase your skills in your portfolio? These questions were discussed at Service Design Network Finland’s Portfolio Evening on 9 March at Haaga-Helia. The event kicked off with a panel discussion with recruiters. After that, mentors offered feedback about participants’ portfolios in small groups. I compiled some tips from the event to help you make your portfolio stand out from the crowd.

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Lab8 is Haaga-Helia’s Service Experience Laboratory. Here’s a slogan on the wall of Lab8. photo: Raija Kaljunen

1. Show what you can do

Your portfolio is your sales presentation. It amounts to pitching material about yourself and is a summary of your main skills. It’s important to tell the recruiter about your experience in service design. You can, for example, depict your projects from various angles: the creative process, project results and your roles in them. You can also describe your failed projects and what you did at the point of failure and what you learned from it.

2. Show who you are

Hiring a new service designer is not just about the skills and knowledge of the job applicant. The recruiter is also hiring a new member to an existing team and wants to know something about you as a person: What do you like? What else can I talk with you about apart from work? So pay attention to what else you can say about yourself in your portfolio in addition to showcasing your projects.

3. Keep it short and simple

The recruiter is usually very busy: there are dozens of portfolios to go through. It is important to create a portfolio that is easy and fast to consume. The average time the recruiter spends on your portfolio is about three minutes at most. If your portfolio is unclear or has too much information in it, the recruiters won’t read it at all. So less really is more, as one of the panellists said.

When designing your portfolio, it’s a good idea to think about the wider context relevant to the likely recruiters. What is essential for them to know about you? Often several persons will look at your portfolio in the course of the recruitment process. They will check whether you are a cultural fit, team fit and supervisor fit.

portfolio evening photo Martti Asikainen Service Design Network Finland
Eliisa Sarkkinen from Haaga-Helia was the host of the portfolio evening. The panellists were (from left to right): Teija Hakaoja from Silver Planet, Zeynep Falay von Flittner from Hellon, Emma Laiho from Frantic, Viivi Lehtonen from HSL and Teemu Moilanen from Haaga-Helia. Photo: Martti Asikainen, published with permission by Service Design Network

There is no single right way to make a portfolio. I think one of the best tips from the panel was this:

“Treat the recruiting process as a service design process: think of the recruiter as a customer!”

First of all, you should do your research: check out the company you’re applying to and the job profile specified. When you’ve gathered the information you need and know what they are looking for, it’s time to think about the content and the form of your portfolio. Show both your experience and what’s unique in you. Find a balance between quality and quantity in your portfolio. And remember: your portfolio can also be minimalist if you are not a visual designer.

author: Raija Kaljunen, Master’s Degree student in Service Design at Laurea

Journey maps and facilitation: my take-aways from Marc Stickdorn’s workshop

What a way to spend Friday evening it was: about 70 people hungry for Marc Stickdorn’s facilitation exercise and presentation on journey map operations! Futurice hosted this Service Design Network Finland’s event on 31 January. I’ll share with you in this blog post two insights about journey maps and three points from the facilitation exercise that I found most interesting.

Zooming in and out the journey maps

Journey maps on different levels

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Zooming in and out. photo: Raija Kaljunen

Marc Stickdorn states that for agile teams you need journey maps that contain all levels: these are high-level, detailed and micro journey maps. You can zoom in and out on these levels to get into the details of a certain touchpoint. In this way you can map the whole experience of the customer. It is also important to map the touchpoints not provided by your organization. As Marc Stickdorn put it: “The customers have a life outside of being your customer!”

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It’s the whole experience that matters. photo: Raija Kaljunen

You have to take into account the whole ecosystem where the customer interacts with your service. Finding all these touchpoints really requires careful work when creating the journey maps!

Service design as a management approach

“When an agile organization or team shifts to customer-centric management system, it actually brings design into management. For instance, journey map operations can serve as a dashboard for management including real-time KPIs and data”, said Marc Stickdorn.

I found the new roles needed in organizations using service design as a management approach particularly interesting. You always need to have someone at management level responsible for customer experience. Marc Stickdorn introduced a new role needed in organizations: journey map coordinators. These coordinators lead specialized teams who are in charge of different levels of journey maps across the departments. The teams meet in journey map councils weekly, monthly and quarterly and ask this important question:

“Has someone in our organization something that has an impact on customer experience?”

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Building bridges between silos. photo: Raija Kaljunen

This is how you prevent people working in silos and make all projects visible for all. Up-to-date journey maps also serve as a tool to visualize processes and align all ongoing initiatives.

“You get the same language, same tools and same perspective for everyone. This is how you build bridges between silos”, said Marc Stickdorn.

Insights from facilitation exercise

1. Warm-up creates a safe space

Marc Stickdorn gave us hands-on experience on co-creating journey maps for different touchpoints. But before kicking off the workshop, we did a warm-up with a hilarious Danish clapping game.

Danish Clapping, a video by Copenhagen Game Collective

“You need to make people move around and make the room their own. Also make sure that nobody sees from outside to your workshop room – it may be difficult to be relaxed if your boss is staring into the room! And get people to laugh in warm-up – positivity helps always to create a safe space!”

2. Time is the tool for the facilitator

Marc Stickdorn recommends giving precise timings in workshops: 7, 16, 19 minutes and not 5, 10 or 15 minutes – the latter only makes people relax and do nothing first. He also hides the time in the room: “Time is the tool for the facilitator, not for participants! This is called liquid timing.”

3. Three ways of working

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From one pen to many pens and from one page to many pages. photo: Raija Kaljunen

  • You get speed and diversity when you have all participants working individually with many pens and many pages.
  • At the other end of the line you get more completeness and shared understanding with one pen and one page.
  • Between these two you work with many pens on one page.

Hands-on experience is a great way to learn, especially when it comes to facilitation. I learned a lot just by watching how Marc Stickdorn facilitated the evening: how he gave instructions, what kind of materials we had and how he guided us through different phases of the workshop – not easy when you have 70 people in the room!

Thank you Marc Stickdorn, Futurice and Service Design Network Finland for a great and productive event!

author: Raija Kaljunen
Master’s Degree student in Service Design at Laurea University of Applied Sciences

Further reading

Stickdorn, M., Lawrence, A., Hormess, M. & Schneider, J. 2018. This is Service Design Doing. California: O’Reilly Media Inc.

This is Service Design Doing Methods’ library

 

The Design Possibilities in Redefinition

By: Johanna Johnson

Futurice recently hosted an event at their downtown Helsinki headquarters titled “Futurice Design Presents: Redefining Meanings”.  During the opening speech given by one of the employees of Futurice, they encouraged us to redefine the meanings of things we think we already know and carefully curated the themes of the evening to illustrate this concept.  This event featured four different speakers exploring four very different topics converging around the central idea of design as a driver for transformation. 

Redefining a Library

“Oodi was designed together with customers for a long period of time. We received more than 2,000 ideas from customers to serve as the basis of the architectural competition. ALA Architects designed an amazing and unique building that takes all the elements most desired by customers into account. The customers immediately made Oodi their own, which is our greatest success.”

-Anna-Maria Soininvaara (Director of Oodi)

The first talk was by Antti Nousjoki of ALA Architects.  He was part of the team that designed the new Helsinki Central Library Oodi, which has recently won the award for 2019 Public Library of the Year.  I have visited Oodi many times since it has opened this past year, but I did not know the full history of how this space came to be.  I found this talk to be very interesting.  The main goal of this project was to give Helsinki residents what they have long desired and dreamed from a combination of a public space and a library.  In creating this new “urban living room” as Nousjoki affectionately referred to this space, the aim was to create a public area that incorporated as many of the public wishes for the new library (that had been collected since the 90’s) into this project as possible.

This project redefined what a library is by creating a space that challenged the traditional idea of what a library should encompass.  In an increasingly digital society that does not rely on colossal volumes of literature as the sole source of information, it was time for the modern library to get a facelift in order to remain relevant in today’s society.  This space was co-created by the community of Helsinki and has caught the attention of the world in its ingenious redefinition of what it means to be a “library”.  It has greatly widened the parameters of what a community library can contain, and with this project as the first of its kind, I look forward to how the public libraries of the future will continue to evolve.  

Check out this clip to see some of the other technological innovations and re-definitions happening at Oodi:

Redefining Artificial Intelligence for Designers

The next section was a closer look at the future of artificial intelligence (AI), specifically in the world of service designers.  This section was a talk by Annina Antinranta and Eeva Nikkari of Futurice.  In this talk we got a crash course about the history of AI and a glimpse into the future possibilities and implications of this rapidly evolving technology.  

At this moment in time, AI has come a very long way, but it is still somewhat limited.  The modern AI is currently capable of astonishing feats, and the sheer computational power has unarguably far surpassed that of the average human.  During this talk there was an example given of a computer that could create something like over a hundred (or hundreds) of visual banners in a matter of moments.  We are all aware of the new AI that is slowly replacing jobs in the form of assembly line jobs, self-driving cars, and other applications made to streamline various processes. In this current AI boom, we will eventually see this ubiquitous technology everywhere:

As exciting or scary as this advancement may seem, there are still limitations as to what AI can currently do.  I remember when I was in elementary school my first computer science teacher would repeatedly say “A computer is only as smart as it’s user”.  There are certain things that AI can not currently do:

This talk encouraged the designer to be aware of the advancement of AI and its place in the future society.  We were encouraged to re-think the designers’ position as sole designer in the process and think about the role of AI as an aid in the creative process.  This reminds me of the debate between quantitative and qualitative data.  A computer is 100% quantitative data.  It is up to the designer to insert the soul and human factor of qualitative data in the AI output in order to be able in tandem to create new concepts and ideas.

In the TED talk below given by Garry Kasparaov (the chess grandmaster who was beaten by the computer program Deep Blue in 1998), titled “Don’t Fear Intelligent Machines.  Work with Them” he says that “There’s only one thing a human can do, dream.  So dream big.” 

For now AI can’t dream.  Whenever it starts to be able to dream, I suppose we will be having a different type of conversation. 🤖 Until then, enjoy this TED Talk:

Redefining Complexity and Wellbeing

The next talk by Timo Hämäläinen was a deep dive into the history of civilization and the current state of our society.  In this talk he said that economic and social development is the main driver behind the development of civilizations and explored the theory that when society becomes too complex to be governed from the top it will collapse.  We have seen this in the past for example in the rise and ultimate fall of ancient Mayan civilization and the Roman Empire.

According to this lecture, before societal implosion occurs there is a bifurcation point that each civilization or society reaches where they can either achieve a breakthrough and continue to exist, moving forward by re-creating their existing institutions, or continue down the road of compounding complexity induced chaos that is riddled with conflict, polarization, and violence that ultimately leads to the previously mentioned societal or civilizational collapse.  He states that our current worldwide civilization is at such a bifurcation point. 

Over the course of this talk he talks about the challenges of this modern society and suggests that a possible solution to this complexity crisis could be found in the realm of cybernetic laws with William Ross Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety.  Applied to this type of situation, it implies that societal collapse happens when you have an insufficient variety of responses to deal with a variety of problems.  He proposes that the two main strategies to deal with our modern complexity issues are through complexity reduction and complexity absorption.

It was interesting to note that the speaker pointed out that currently in Finland mental illness is the number 1 reason of sickness pension in people under the age of 55.  This rise of anxiety and other mental illnesses in modern society could be a direct result of the current level of continually evolving complexity in modern civilization.  In order to combat this issue, we must look more deeply at our current ecosystems and their multitude of connections and deviations.  This talk challenged us to redefine what it means to approach problem solving and wellbeing in modern society. 

Redefining the Future

The final talk by Mia Muurimäki and Annika Hamann, they proposed the idea that every designer should be a futures thinker.  They challenged us to think about what it would be to not design just for today, but to expand our ideas and to think what could be possible 5 or 10 years down the line.  One way to do this is through provotyping:

“A provotype is a provocative prototype.  It is introduced in the early exploratory phases of the design development process to cause a reaction- to provoke and engage people to imagine possible futures.”

-Stratos Innovation Group

During this talk they described a case study from their organization that highlighted how provotyping can be a way for people to “feel the future” and for them to gather good insights and feedback about potential future solutions.   They also raised the debate as to whether or not our current design solutions are too short sighted and suggested that we could use futures planning to stretch our ideas into the future and beyond.

You can read more about the provotyping concept in the article here: https://medium.com/@thestratosgroup/moving-from-prototyping-to-provotyping-cedf42a48e90

Conclusion

This was an interesting evening of talks aimed at getting us as designers to think further outside the box, more critically, and imaginatively about the world around us.  As designers we can create new ideas and we can also choose to redefine paradigms.  We are limited only by our imagination. 

Sources

Helsinki Central Library Oodi chosen as the best new public library in the world. 2019.  Accessed 26 December 2019. https://www.sttinfo.fi/tiedote/helsinki-central-library-oodi-chosen-as-the-best-new-public-library-in-the-world?publisherId=60579873&releaseId=69863829

Stratos Innovation Group. Moving from Prototyping to “Provotyping”.  Posted 24 August 2016.  Accessed 26 December 2019.  https://medium.com/@thestratosgroup/moving-from-prototyping-to-provotyping-cedf42a48e90

You’ve Been Nudged!

What do you mean by “I’ve been nudged”? (Picture by @designwilde)

Whether you realize it nor not you have most likely been nudged if you have ever done e.g. some online shopping. Of course, you can be nudged in other environments too but in this blog I will for the most part concentrate on nudging in the digital environment. This is because I took part in the Digital Nudging Workshop hosted by Riina Salmivalli at the Central Library Oodi on the 9th of December 2019 and I wish to share some of the learnings I got from there. The workshop was part of events organized by Ompeluseuran palvelumuotoilijat which is a women’s service design networking group.

What Is a Nudge?

Okay I realize I have said the word nudge already quite a few times yet have not given any explanation on what it actually means. So here we go, according to Thaler and Sustein (2009, 12) a nudge: “… is any aspect of the choice architecture that alerts people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” Still confused? Let me give you some concrete examples.  

Picture by GETTY CREATIVE featured in BBC News online article “Have you been nudged?”

One of the most famous examples of a nudge is the picture of a fly added to the urinals in Amsterdam Schiphol airport. The spillage on the men’s washroom floors decreased by 80% helping to save on cleaning costs as users of the urinals were now aiming at the picture of the fly placed near the urinal drains. Thaler describes this as harmless engineering that captures peoples’ attention and alters their behavior in a positive way (Sommer 2009). Another typical example of a nudge is making citizens automatically registered as organ donors unless they choose otherwise. Spain has implemented this nudge in their healthcare system and thus it is a world leader in organ donations (Govan 2017).

Nudging in the Digital Context

By now you have probably gotten a better sense of what nudging is, so let’s see what it looks like in the digital context. I am going to give three examples of nudges used in the digital environment: default settings, social references and warnings. Obviously, there are more than just these three but I think that calls for a separate blog post. Without further ado, let’s get to it:

Default Settings:

This is to do with the status quo bias where individuals tend to stay with the current status as changing is seen to have more disadvantages than remaining with the current status quo (Mirsch, Lehrer & Jung 2017).  Take the example of Posti’s parcel service pictured below that instantly gives as a default setting the option “Postal Parcel International” (Posti 2019), which will make it the most likely option the customer will continue with.

Posti’s online parcel service

Social References:

This is about taking into account the factor that social norms influence human behavior. Social norms are described as rules and standards which are understood by members of a group that direct and restrict them in social behavior but are not enforced by laws (Cialdini & Trost 1998). At the Fenty Beauty by Rihanna website (2019) the customer can see the reviews of their desired products. The reviews show the reviewers age, region, skin type and tone (Fenty Beauty 2019) so that customer can be influenced in making a purchasing decision if a similar type of person has liked the product as well.

Product reviews for Fenty Beauty by Rihanna

Warnings:

This refers to the psychological theory of loss aversion where losses and disadvantages are presumed to have bigger effect on preferences than possible gains (Kahneman, Knetsch & Thaler 1991). When booking for tickets at the online service ebookers.com (2019), the website notifies how many people are currently searching for flights to the same destination. The site also gives a warning that there are only three tickets available for that particular price, creating an urge for the customer to want to avoid the risk of loosing the cheap tickets.

ebookers warning the customer that there are only three tickets left at £823

Next time you go browsing on a website, see if you can spot any of the three digital nudges being used. It is quite interesting to notice how much nudging is happening without you even realizing it.

Written by Lyydia Pertovaara

References:

Cialdini, R.B. & Trost, M.R. 1998. Social Influence: Social Norms, Conformity, and Compliance. In: The Handbook of Social Psychology, vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp.151–192.

Ebookers.com. 2019. Holiday Deals, Hotels & Cheap Flights | ebookers.com. [online] Available at: https://www.ebookers.com/ [Accessed 15 Dec. 2019].

Fenty Beauty. 2019. Fenty Beauty – GLOSSY POSSE MINI GLOSS BOMB COLLECTION. [online] Available at: https://www.fentybeauty.com/glossy-posse-mini-gloss-bomb-collection/40282.html [Accessed 15 Dec. 2019].

Govan, F. (2017). How Spain became the world leader in organ transplants. [online] Thelocal.es. Available at: https://www.thelocal.es/20170915/how-spain-became-world-leader-at-organ-transplants.

Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J.L. & Thaler, R.H. 1991. Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(1), pp.193–206.

Mirsch, T., Lehrer, C. & Jung, R. 2017. Digital Nudging: Altering User Behavior in Digital Environments,

in Leimeister, J.M.; Brenner, W. (Hrsg.): Proceedings der 13. Internationalen Tagung Wirtschaftsinformatik (WI 2017), St. Gallen, S. 634-648

Sommer, J. 2009. When Humans Need a Nudge Toward Rationality. The New York Times. [online] 7 Feb. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/business/08nudge.html [Accessed 15 Dec. 2019].

Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. 2009. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. London: Penguin Books.

The growing role of design in government

Last week the city of Rotterdam (NL) hosted the latest edition of the International Design in Government Conference

Previously hosted in London (UK), Oakland (USA), and Edinburgh (Scotland), last week’s edition was already the third happening in 2019, suggesting that the interest in the topic is growing world-wide.  

Hosted officially by Gebruiker Centraal (User Needs First), a Dutch knowledge community for professionals working on digital government services, the conference took place between November 18th and 20th and its participation was completely open to anyone. 

The International Design in Government Conference aims at sharing best practices, takeaways and discussing common challenges so that they can be tackled through a collaborative approach. In facts, established by Government Digital Service in 2017 as an opportunity to bring together design-minded people that work in, for or with the government all over the world, in the last two years the international design in government community has grown to over 1500 members from 66 countries. In addition to participating to face-to-face meeting occasions such at the conference, community members engage every month in sharing knowledge through calls and other collaborative digital tools, contributing to keep the discussions alive and make some steps further. 

 

Keynote speeches

 

I attended the conference on Tuesday, November 19th, where the morning was entirely dedicated to keynote speeches, whereas the afternoon had a more dynamic connotation as participants could choose to attend a wide range of talks, workshops and breakout sessions. 

Below a summary of the morning keynote speeches and their related visual notes I made on the spot:

 

  • Measuring service quality – Willem Pieterson

 

Willem Pieterson is a researcher focusing on the intersection of data, technology and their orchestration with the aim of helping organisations become more innovative and data-driven. Presenting his work on how to better assess the quality of governmental services, he introduced a quality model based on 20 dimensions of quality, which helped defining a service evaluation model that suggests “satisfaction” as the biggest predictor of quality. 

 

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  • Designing digital to meet user needs – Francis Maude

 

Francis Maude is the former Minister for the UK Cabinet Office. He was responsible for the establishment of the Government Digital Service, with the aim of reinforcing internal IT and bringing all government services onto a single web hub: GOV.UK. By telling the story on how the UK moved from having its digital services spread across more than 2000 government websites to winning the award as “world leader for online and digital public services”, Maude suggested that leadership, capability, and mandate are the three elements to implement a functional reform. Additionally,  the implementation of horizontal, cross-silo functions (by ensuring the commitment of several Departments to redesigning all existing Government services) as well as building a critical mass of technical capabilities were pointed out as the key to execution of such an ambitious strategy. 

Maude’s office estimated that moving services from offline to digital channels could save approximately £1.8 billion a year. 

 

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  • Digital social innovation – Audrey Tang

 

Audrey Tang is listed number 3 in the World’s 100 Most Influential People in Digital Government in 2019. She took office in Taiwan as the “Digital Minister” on October 1, 2016,  and was assigned the role of helping government agencies communicate policy goals and managing information published by the government, both via digital means.

Through her talk, Tang stressed the importance of implementing “radical transparency” in all governmental processes, and highlighted how Taiwan is promoting presidential hackathons as a means to co-create solutions around several topics related to the SDGs.  

 
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Key takeaways

 

Although I could only attend one day, my brief participation to the International Design in Government was very interesting and it triggered a few considerations that I summarise below:

 

  • The understanding and recognition of (service) design is skyrocketing

 

If only five years ago it would have been unimaginable to have designers in a municipality, now designers working in Government are thousands and, based on the networking I did, most of attendees either knew what service design is or had service designers in their teams. In this landscape, the NL and UK are commonly acknowledged as the two countries in Europe who are the forefront of design and innovation in their governments. 

 

  • Inclusion and diversity are not an optional in government services

 

Although public and private sectors are facing similar challenges (such as defeating a siloed mindset), the public sector must deserve some extra attention to designing for diversity and inclusion: in facts, governmental services need to be used by all citizens and therefore must be accessible to all kind of users. Of course, diversity and inclusion should not be considered as an optional in the private sector. However, they often are shadowed by other commercial priorities. 

 

  • What is designed for some users might be very well received by other users

 

The story of Gemeente (Municipality) Rotterdam, who prototyped and tested visual letters for citizens with learning disabilities in the attempt of delivering a more engaging way for these users to read important communications, tells how this solution turned out to be a success for other citizens too. What we can learn from it is that at times what is designed for a specific target of users might very well apply to other kinds of users too. 

AI and Service Design

Picture by Franki Chamaki

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of AI?

Robots? Data breach? Self-driving cars?

There are as many thoughts about AI as there are definitions. It really depends on who you ask. However, in this blog I won’t go over what it is or isn’t but rather how we as designers can influence its use for better or worse.

So is AI an opportunity or a threat?

I’d like to think it’s more of an opportunity but with that comes great responsibility. How so? I will get to that a bit later…

How to Service Design AI

On Thursday 21st of November I took part in the Ompeluseuran palvelumuotoilijat event on “How to Service Design AI” hosted by Solita x Palmu where I got a lot of food for thought about AI. Anna Metsäranta, Data-Driven Business Designer, talked about why 85% of the AI projects fail business wise and Anni Ojajärvi, Ethnographer, Business Design and Strategy, discussed the ethics of AI and how AI can influence human behavior and everyday life. Here are my key take a ways from the event:

The Recipe for a Successful AI Project

Picture from Solita x Palmu “How to Service Design AI” event
  1. AI is just a tool. Humans must define the problem as well as the outcome. The more concrete the better.
  2. We as designers need to be part of AI development projects in order to bring the human aspect to the equation. It is important that we validate along the way that the project is going towards the right direction.
  3. Your solution is only as good as your data. Case in point Amazon’s now scrapped recruiting tool that showed bias against women. The recruiting tool used application data from a 10 year period, mostly made up of male applicants’ resumes due to the male dominance in the technology industry.  “In effect, Amazon’s system taught itself that male candidates were preferable.” (Dastin, 2018).
  4. Developing AI is not just a one of thing. AI needs to be constantly trained and the results validated.

WEIRD People Define the Ethics of AI

Picture from Solita x Palmu “How to Service Design AI” event

AI is for the most part developed by WEIRD people. That is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic people that make up only 10 to 15% of the world population. Thus, as my final question I leave you this: How can we make this WEIRD situation into a GREAT one? That is Global, Representative, Equal, Accurate and Tolerant.  As I mentioned earlier with opportunity comes great responsibility and it is up to us designers to think of the direct and indirect impact that our design and solutions have on the customer, context, community, employee/process, society and environment.

Written by Lyydia Pertovaara

Links:

https://www.solita.fi/en/

https://unsplash.com/@franki

References:

Dastin, J. (2018). Amazon scraps secret AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women. [online] U.S. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-amazon-com-jobs-automation-insight/amazon-scraps-secret-ai-recruiting-tool-that-showed-bias-against-women-idUSKCN1MK08G.

Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Empathy?

Disclaimer:  These thoughts, opinions, and observations are mine, and mine alone.  They are not the thoughts of my fellow Dash team members, only myself. 

I recently had the immense pleasure of participating in the 2019 Dash Hackathon in Helsinki (organized by the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society – “Aaltoes”) which is the largest design hackathon in Europe.  In this hackathon there were over 220 participants from 40+ different nationalities that came together specifically for this event. 

https://www.dash.design

I knew that this hackathon was going to be a gigantic time commitment to squeeze into my fulltime work and student schedule.  I imagined that I would meet countless new people and possibly make a new friend or two.  As time crept closer to the event, I ruminated about the design process and wondered how the actual process of designing would unfold over the course of the event.

This was the schedule for the Dash Hackathon (there were two additional prep events the week prior to this main event)

Now that the event is over, I can reflect that the element of this hackathon which took me completely utterly by surprise was the profoundly visceral and emotional rollercoaster of a ride this journey took me on. 

For this post I do not want to focus on the specifics of the design process or what my team ultimately created.  What I am taking away from this experience is different than what I had initially imagined.  What I am left with is a list of existential questions for myself about who I am as a person, and what kind of service designer I want to be. 

As we all know, the cornerstone of service design is empathy (I realized this weekend this crucial element could be what drew me to service design in the first place).  The ability to put yourself in the shoes of others, see the world through their eyes and then walk a mile in those shoes.  All while keeping this perspective in mind as you create whatever amazing user-centered design solutions we service designers will ultimately come up with.

I think that empathizing with the user is an integral part of service design and it is very important to lay this as the foundation of everything we as service designers will do, however after this weekend I have come to realize that everything has a limit; empathy included. 

It is not possible to design a solution that suits everyone.  That is a fact of service design every designer must accept, and it is also how I am approaching this post.  This post is not for everyone.  This post is written for those of you who may have a propensity to over empathize.  For those of you who can relate, please read on.  For those of you who can’t relate, if you read on anyway, maybe you will notice this trait in a fellow designer and send them this post.

I decided when I signed up for Dash that I really wanted to be part of the challenge for Startup Refugees.  This is a Finnish NGO that has made it their mission to match refugees and immigrants with jobs here in Finland.  They were only founded three years ago, but they are already having a significantly positive impact on the employment situation of refugees and immigrants in Finland.  They currently have two offices; one in Helsinki and one in Oulu. 

If you would like to read more about them check out this link: https://startuprefugees.com/

I really wanted to be a part of this challenge more than any of the other challenges because this issue really speaks to me on a personal level.  I am a black American immigrant who has lived in Finland for the past six years.  I am very happy with where I am now in life both personally and professionally, but it was not an easy journey.  I know how hard I had to work to be where I am now, and that I did not get to where I am now on my own.  Sure, I have a good work ethic, but I also had a great network, a bit of luck, and people who were willing to take a chance on me.  I was really excited to see if I could somehow find a way to help other immigrants and refugees (whose situations coming to Finland were/are infinitely harder and more complicated than mine) find a way to become employed in Finland. 

I believe that through gainful employment an immigrant or refugee can have dignity, community, and a purpose for life in their new country of residence.  This feeling of comfort and belonging is something I genuinely wish I could give to anyone and everyone who wants it.

As I mentioned at the top of this blog, I do not want to go into specific details of the design challenge because I want to focus on my emotional journey and findings related to that.  For the sake of brevity let’s just say the challenge was related to Startup Refugees’ larger focus of helping to find refugees and immigrants employment in Finland.  This is what we in the realm of service design call a wicked problem.

In Richard Buchanan’s report “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”, he refers to a report by Rittel (1967) that defines a wicked problem as:

“A class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.” (1992, 15)

Wicked problems are manifested in the major issues and systemic failures of our society today.  Issues such as climate change, poverty, multicultural integration, healthcare, and so forth are problems so prolific in nature that there are no single solutions or tangible ends to their plight.

Source: https://transitiondesignseminarcmu.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Wicked-problems-flower.png

That being said, with this challenge being quintessentially wicked, there was no way we would possibly be able to fix this challenge in a 48-hour hackathon session.  To be fair and very clear, this is not what the challenge was asking of us.  It was asking for ways to help improve a small part of the issue so that they could more successfully match their clients with work or help immigrants and refugees better understand the foreign job market in which they are attempting to enter. 

However, with an issue this complex where do you even begin?

As a team, on that first day (Friday) we began the hackathon creative, upbeat, and ready to tackle the world.  On the second day (Saturday) that emotional rollercoaster shot full speed out of the launch bay.  The day started well, but by the middle of the day that upbeat and playful attitude was all but dead.  Our mentor repeatedly asked us where our playful attitude had gone and eventually encouraged us to go get some air together outside the venue to try to regain the spirit from the day before.  We got a bit more playful after that, but something personally inside me had shifted that I never could quite reset.  By later that night we had a working solution concept, and after starting again early Sunday morning we were able to finalize our idea and proudly present it later that afternoon as a possible solution to their challenge. 

I was very proud of the solution we came up with as a team and although some people may have thought that my closing lines of the pitch were sappy and maybe just for show, I honestly meant every word I wrote, rehearsed, and delivered as a closing.  The event ended later that night and I went home feeling happy, physically tired (this I understood- the hackathon was long), but also incredibly emotionally exhausted.  I felt like my inner child had just run an ultra-marathon through a mine field.  I felt acutely emotional and I wanted to figure out why.  I had been emotional since the second day of the challenge and those feelings just kept compounding until the challenge was over and I could finally go home.  Would I have felt this way if I worked on any of the other non-wicked problem challenges? Was I too close to the subject? Probably.

I began a search where all great internet searches begin (google) and stumbled across a blog that pretty much summed up the personal issue I faced during this challenge.  It is post is titled “The Dilemma of Designers’ Empathy Delusions” by Jason Mesut (2018).  In it he states:

“I have three challenges to the importance of empathy. To strengthen designer performance by battling what I feel is an ideal that is often delusional and misguided.

Two of my challenges are likely to be unpopular, and the third will probably be appreciated by many:

1.Most designers are not actually that empathic to end users

2.Empathy isn’t that valuable and unique a quality for designers

3.We should care more about people beyond users”

I will link the entire article because I think it is a really good read. However, I would like to focus on the 2nd and 3rd points he makes in this article.  In his second point that questions the value of empathy, and he gives a good example of the dangers of over empathizing with the following example:

“Imagine a doctor.  Imagine if she had high empathy.  She would struggle to make decisions for the population she helps.  If one of her patient(s) suffered, she would suffer.  The pain would impede the process of resolution.  It’s why many healthcare professionals build up barriers to the emotions and the pain of the patients they serve.  It helps them make better judgement calls. 

I’m not saying a designer shouldn’t care.  Often, they should.  But I’m not sure that empathizing over every user they meet can really be that productive or helpful.”

Now I know this for some people may sound a little over the top, but I think that this is a real danger for some designers that work specifically with wicked problems, or any other issues that are highly emotional, in which putting yourself into the shoes of others may elicit extremely deep feelings of empathy and compassion that are much deeper than what is productively necessary for the purposes of service design.

The article goes on to talk about what happens when your over empathizing can cause you to lose sight of the larger picture.  In your compassion driven quest to create real change for the end user you run the risk of losing empathy and sight of the other players in the game; the other clients and stakeholders in the relevant network who are all a part of the challenge you are hoping to solve.

The author proposes a framework for an empathy map where you consciously adjust your feelings up or down as necessary while also keeping in mind other players besides the end user:

Source: Jason Mesut https://medium.com/shapingdesign/the-dilemma-of-designers-empathy-delusions-a61f0663deaf
Source: Jason Mesut https://medium.com/shapingdesign/the-dilemma-of-designers-empathy-delusions-a61f0663deaf

You can read the whole post here: https://medium.com/shapingdesign/the-dilemma-of-designers-empathy-delusions-a61f0663deaf

I wholeheartedly believe that empathy must exist for great service design.  However, I now believe there is a spectrum.  A spectrum of levels of conscious empathy every designer must have, and this spectrum should be personally re-evaluated during all phases of the design process to ensure it is evenly distributed across all people the new design will affect; users, clients, and stakeholders alike. 

I could not imagine being as deeply emotionally connected to an issue that I would be working with for a prolonged period of time without emotionally burning myself out.  Though I did not appear to be overly emotional or stressed during the event (and I did have a lot of fun too), I took mental note of how exhausting this challenge was, and wondered how I would deal with this kind of problem if it was my everyday job.  That is what lead me on this introspective journey and critical evaluation of the weight of empathy in service design.

I am fully aware that had I done a different challenge, I would not have had the emotional response I did. However, I am glad I experienced everything exactly as I did.  It gave me time to reflect on my emotions and myself.    

I had an amazing time at Dash and would like to thank the organizers for the opportunity to be a part of this great event.  I would also like to give my deepest thanks to Startup Refugees for all of the great work they do and wish them nothing but the best in the future.  Most of all, I would like to thank my amazing team members for all of their hard work, and I am very happy for the new friendships I have made. 

Dash Hackathon 2019 Team #39!!!

 By: Johanna Johnson

Sources

Buchanan, Richard 1996. Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. In Margolin, V. & Buchanan, R. The Idea of Design. A Design Issues Reader. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 

Mesut, J. 2018. The Dilemma of Designers Empathy Delusions. Posted 9 December. https://medium.com/shapingdesign/the-dilemma-of-designers-empathy-delusions-a61f0663deaf