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  • Jesse Grimes

The Service Design 'Skills Star'

Three times in the last two weeks I've been confronted by the fact that the growth and evolution of our discipline has led to myriad 'flavors' of service designer, and some related confusion about skills expectations. To delve into the issue a bit, I decided to create a new visualization, to present our skills in a more uniform way.

Client confusion

One week ago, I was in discussion with a potential new client in my hometown. They explained that they were looking to hire a service designer with advanced interaction design skills. Not only should the candidate be able to carry out the strategic activities characteristic of service design, but they want them to move into an interaction design role later on, and provide all the deliverables expected from a UX'er to an implementation team.

As the discussion progressed, it became clear to me that they had things somewhat back-to-front; they were actually looking for an interaction designer who also fulfilled some of the role of a service designer.

While it's tempting for me to critique their approach - trying to kill two proverbial birds with one stone, yet risking that the role gets stretched by such differing demands that the person filling it doesn't function effectively - that's not what I'm here to do. Rather, the discussion made me realize that the client's understanding of the focus, skills and perspective of a service designer seemed a bit off-kilter.

Now I know there are plenty of service designers out there with interaction design skills. I myself worked as a UX'er for about a decade, before switching to service design 12 years ago (and while I can get by, I tend to avoid ever using InVision or Sketch!). But a service designer's interaction design capability is just one variable amongst many. And their skill level as an interaction designer sheds light on just one facet of their total service design skill-set.

More confusion across the Atlantic

Two days ago I had a call with a service designer I met in New York City, who had heard me give a talk on trends in service design. In it, I touch on the fact that our roles are becoming more and more specialized. (In my presentation, I cite the work of Marzia Aricò of Livework, whose talk at the SDN's 2017 conference touched on this topic, which I found very interesting.)

The person I spoke to was also struggling with how to position herself as a service designer amongst differing expectations, and was looking for some advice. In her case, she wasn't sure what aspects of her very broad set of experiences she should highlight to potential hirers, and she wasn't sure which ones would make her more - or less - attractive as a service designer.

Livework's four types of service designer

In her 2017 presentation, Marzia hypothesized that the future of service design would see our discipline splinter into four unique specialisms: The "Translator", "Relationship Designer", "Behaviour Designer" and "Visualiser".

The "Translator", "Relationship Designer", "Behaviour Designer" and "Visualiser" (Credit: Marzia Aricò, Livework)

Those two conversation, as well as an additional one, kept reminding me of Marzia's talk. I bought into this concept of skills differentiation, and the recognizable distinctions between these four "flavors", but I was looking to have a little more tangible detail: How could I refer to specific, complex mix of skills which differentiates service designers, yet have them be quickly recognizeable?

Wrangling together the skills we share, and what makes us unique

Putting on my "Translator" hat, I started by listing lots of common elements of typical service designer job descriptions, plus some that appear less frequently. It was a bit of a skills soup, but I stuck with it and kept refining it.

Customer research... prototyping... visualizing... facilitating... synthesizing... And oh yes, interaction design.

A visual model

Then I decided to plot it visually - my "Visualiser" trait clearly coming through!

I arrived at something that looks like this:

A blank "skills star"

After some tweaking, I had come up with 12 skills which service designers typically possess, to some extent or other: "Research", "Synthesis", "Systems thinking", "Ideation", "Prototyping", "Interaction design", "Facilitation", "Visualization", "Storytelling", "Business design", "Design strategy" and "Coaching".

A little more analysis, and I was able to cluster them into four overarching groupings: "Conclude", "Create", "Communicate" and "Coordinate".

Creating the 'star'

For someone to plot their own unique set of skills, it's simply a matter of - pretty subjectively - determining themselves how skilled they are for each of the 12 variables. Unable - or only to the most basic level - to carry out an activity? It's a "0" or "1". An acknowledged expert? That'd be a "5". And so forth.

The resulting "skills star" communicates a wealth of detail about what kind of service designer they are, in a very simple manner.

Some shortcomings?

Now I know this visualization doesn't fully communicate what someone is capable of. For example, it doesn't really consider years of experience. Someone with three years of applicable experience who thinks they'd score a "5" for "Systems thinking" would really not be comparable to someone who's done the same work for ten years.

Similarly, whether someone has the ability and experience of managing teams doesn't come across.

Nonetheless, I think this "skill star" can deliver two main benefits. Service designers can apply it to themselves, and present the result when they're seeking work, to better communicate their capabilities. And forward-thinking (and service design-mature!) employers could even plot the desired skills configuration for a job opening they have, to assist job-seekers in qualifying themselves.

Plotting myself

Of course this whole exercise called for me to be a guinea pig (or a test rabbit, as the Dutch charmingly say), and apply what I created to myself. So I took a look in the self-critiquing mirror and came up with the following:

A 'skills star' plot for myself

The exercise of creating it laid bare where I know some skills of mine come short, and reminded me to be proud of things that I know I excel in.

It also made me realize that there must be some hidden interdependencies or relationships within the many axes as well. I'd guess someone skilled at "Coaching" probably scores highly for "Facilitation". Conversely, I'd doubt you'd find someone who gives themselves a "5" for both "Systems thinking" and "Ideation". But who knows?

An answer to those questions?

What I hope this "skills star" does do is provide - at a glance - where someone's strengths (and weaknesses) lay, in a structured and quantifiable manner. It certainly helped me better understand myself as a service designer, and I think it would assist those people I've spoken with in the last weeks.

In conclusion

I'm interested to hear your feedback on the model. Is there a glaring omission? How might you apply it? Or did you apply it to yourself and learn something new?

I'm pleased to be opening the programme of this year's Service Design Global Conference in Toronto with a keynote on trends in the world of service design. Based on the traction this "skills star" receives, it might well make an appearance.

And the potential client I was speaking to in Amsterdam? I decided to not pursue it. It wasn't in my star(s)!



Jesse Grimes

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