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Interview // MDes Service Design Innovation students meet designer Lior Smith

lior smith portrait
lior smith portrait
Written by
Helen Carney
Published date
29 February 2016

Designer Lior Smith, who works with social enterprises, the public sector and charities to help them develop user-centred services, recently gave a guest lecture to LCC’s MDes Service Design Innovation students. She has worked at the UKTI Ideas Lab and with FutureGov, and is organising a service design fringe festival alongside the London Design Festival in September 2016.

The students caught up with Lior to hear more about the importance of emotional reactions, what homelessness really means, and what happens when we have enough chairs.

Service design, business, education and more and more fields apply design thinking. So could design thinking be a new way of understanding all realms of life? A new lifestyle?

New to who? I started cultivating my design practice when I was 14 or 15, so it’s all I know. I reckon working as a designer has indeed affected how I approach problems in my life. I make diagrams to map possibilities, or get my head around complex things that are happening, from how I’m spending my time, to unpicking a conflict in a relationship. I make long lists of divergent ideas to test if I’m unsure about where to start in tackling a new big project.

As the ‘user’, I sometimes even write myself requirements specs, whether that’s for a new place to live, or deciding whether to take a particular new job. So, indeed I do use methods I’ve used in my work to understand and problem-solve in my personal life. Is that a ‘design thinking’ lifestyle? What else could that mean?

What is your process for identifying a problem? How do you ‘read between the lines’ in order to discover the real problem?

I ask open questions and listen carefully. I look for emotional reactions. I probe for deeper understanding of answers, and open the way for ideas. ‘How do you think we could make that happen?’ I like the ‘5 Whys’ interview method, but I don’t always say the word ‘why’ since that can occasionally be too confrontational.

I don’t accept it when interviewees speculate on what other people might think – I want to know how they think. If they start talking about what other people probably think, we’re not going to find the ‘real’ problem.

After speaking to several people, I break down what I’ve learnt into small pieces, and map similarities and differences in what people have said. Commonalities have a truth in them. Perspectives of outliers have a truth in them too. Put them all together to make the picture.

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Presentation slide, October 2015

What is your perspective on the future of service design in the public sector? Does government see advantages to develop projects utilising the service design methodology?

Government certainly does see advantages to using service design methodology. There’s a Government Service Design Manual by the Government Digital Service. Government is developing digital services, and they all have to use service design methods.

I’d like to see service design principles being implemented at a more strategic level, not just at the point of designing services. I’d like to see designers in all government departments who could facilitate creative collaboration across teams, and who could be called on to conduct co-design regularly, and generally help government culture to value understanding user needs and ever-improving (‘iterated’) services.

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Presentation slide, October 2015

In your opinion, what is the most significant difference between service design for the public sector/government and private sector/corporations?

I haven’t worked for a big corporation so I don’t know. I only take jobs where I feel I will be helping to benefit society according to my personal criteria.

Apart from government, I’ve worked for small social enterprises. The main difference between those two is the speed at which work happens. In a small organisation, I can decide that we need to do more research and just go and do it. In government, we have to have forms filled out and sent to the right people to approve and it can take ages.

I’ve heard through my research that big corporations aren’t too different from government. They can be just as bureaucratic.

During your lecture at LCC, your motivation and project on ‘making people happy’ was really inspiring. Indeed, over the past few decades, design has been applied in every corner of our society. It has contributed to improving people’s quality of life, however, many disadvantaged members of society haven’t enjoyed the benefits of design due to a disparity in wealth (e.g. the digital divide). It seems that design is considered the exclusive property of the rich. As service designers, how can we deal with this problem?

Maybe I don’t know enough about the digital divide, but I have heard that people on low incomes usually access the internet through smartphones instead of laptops? And that the digital divide is more to do with age than wealth? I’d love to see some statistics on that. There are big successful drives going on in councils to spread broadband access. Action is being taken to improve digital access.

I really don’t see design as an exclusive property of the rich – though that’s influenced by where I’m coming from. Service design is big in the public sector – and that’s for everyone, often with a special focus on inclusiveness. What design are you looking at, to make you think that design is the exclusive property of the rich?

That’s not to say that we don’t need to do a great deal more work to design well for people on lower incomes. We haven’t got good systems in place to prevent problems that lead to being unhoused. Homelessness is a symptom of an unhealthy society in my opinion. If you particularly feel passionate about improving quality of life for everyone, researching homelessness is a good place to start.

As service designers, we can question the challenges that our society is facing, and make them into opportunities for design. I went to a Christopher Dresser exhibition at the V&A as a student. He designed products for the emerging middle class in the 1870s. He found ways of scaling up production and making it affordable for people to buy. He helped create the middle class identity. As designers, we have the power to decide for ourselves what change we want to see in the world, and use design to take action accordingly.

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Presentation slide, October 2015

What’s your opinion on the service designer’s social responsibility?

A good service designer will take in the needs of a diverse range of stakeholders, and try to fulfil those needs as best they can. Social responsibility requires understanding societal problems and doing something about them. Through the process of thorough user research, co-design and testing prototypes, societal issues and solutions will be revealed in each project. Design methodology is more socially responsible than simply coming up with an idea by yourself and implementing it without testing or user research.

I also find that many great service designers have come from a product design background, and got interested in human interactions and how services affect quality of life. These kinds of service designers have gone through a personal journey of questioning the impact they are having on the world, so I imagine they take their social responsibility seriously. I moved away from furniture design because I felt guilty about the negative impact I could be having on the environment. There are enough chairs in the world already – I’d much rather use my design skills to address how we can be healthier and happier as a society.

In your practice as a service designer, how do the issues of innovation and emerging technologies fit in?

The future’s here, it’s just unevenly distributed, right? (That’s a misquote of William Gibson.) What seems innovative to some people is pretty normal to others. Practising design is my normal. Applying design principles in government is somewhat revolutionary. Sometimes when I explain what I do to designers, they are surprised that many organisations don’t do qualitative user research and testing in the way that designers do – it seems like the obvious way to do things to us, but it’s ‘innovation’ to others.

The innovative bit for me is taking design methods and applying them in a non-design context. Design principles can clash with cultures that I’m coming into, so there’s always a process of finding how it’s possible to practise design in this new context. It can be tricky – lots of trial and error, and barriers to overcome. Innovation for me is experimental creative activity that you’re not sure is going to work, and the occasional unexpected useful new results you get out of that process.

People with money often don’t like the idea that they won’t necessarily come out with an ‘innovative’ result just by applying an innovative process. Innovation is hit and miss – occasional failure is inevitable. There are lots of places to work where risk taking is just not the done thing, so innovation can’t happen. Designers like me that are going into these non-design spaces usually have to do lots of explanation about the value of design thinking to be allowed to practise.

I’m not working with the cutting edge of new tech, but I happily use newer tools such as Slack and Trello and encourage making working methods transparent through blogging and Twitter. That’s just about the level of new tech that many big organisations can take at the moment.

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Presentation slide, October 2015

Can you give us a preview of the next Service Design Fringe Festival that you’re organising for the coming London Design Festival?

It’s going to be similar to last year, but bigger and with more beer. Service design agencies will again hold events in their own studio spaces, and the main hub will be in the Oxo Tower again. There is potential to make more of an exhibition of service design in the space in 2016, on top of having talks, workshops and film screenings again, so I’m on the lookout for collaborators to help put together an exhibition.

Cynics out there doubt that service design can be exhibited – there is nothing shiny to put on a plinth – but it won’t be hard to prove them wrong. There are lots of tangible outputs of service design processes and outcomes.

I’m keen to continue to facilitate critical dialogue about what service design is, and how it borders on other disciplines such as UX design and user research. I hope this will help drive the quality standards of our work, and help us be more articulate about how we all work together.

I very much welcome other people’s experimental ideas for the festival – a fringe festival is the ideal opportunity for testing out concepts with potential. So if you’ve got an idea that you’d like to try out – an interactive exhibit, a workshop, a new service you want to test, a cool way of applying tech, an area for action that you want to rally people around – get in touch and let’s make it happen. Otherwise, see you at the festival!

By students Ignacia Orellana Drago, Rodrigo Maia Goncalves, Yujeong Jo, Stefania Parousi, Viviney Muwei Wang and Justin Sangjin Woo.

Read Lior’s blog post about her LCC guest lecture

Read more about MDes Service Design Innovation