The hardest thing a service designer can do

How do you explain the role of a service designer to 90 eight-year-olds? Like any good service designer, it starts with audience research.
Neil Collman

Neil Collman

Neil is a design leader, speaker and foresight practitioner, who cares about making an impact for people and profit through insight and design.


About 6 months ago I stumbled across a great video that explains blockchain in 5 levels of complexity. This week, I was frantically rewatching it and trying to understand how the presenter broke down a complicated topic for kids.

My son is 8, and his year group are enthusiastically studying the “world of work”. Lucky them. The past year or two I’ve been on a mission to get my public speaking game together, so of course I said yes when I was asked to explain my job to 90 kids under the age of 10. What tougher crowd could there be?

There’s no doubt, whether automation cuts a swathe through the job market, or creates a whole new world of work that never existed before, that things are going to change over the next 10 years. And these guys are going to be in the eye of the storm. What should they be good at to do something they love and make a positive impact? Learn to code? Problem solving? Critical thinking? Emotional intelligence? Coaching? Or god forbid, service design?

It’s been a long standing problem for service designers to explain what we do to clients (usually grown-ups) in a way that is easy to understand.

“So you design websites?”

“Well yes but…”

“Ah so you do market research?”

“In a way but not quite…”

But kids?

So, like any good service designer, I did my audience research and co-designed my way to the answer. I quizzed kids on the way to school. I asked my fellow Nilers to help. Alexa, our design research guru, used the analogy of buying an ice cream, Gavin, our video guy, suggested Netflix would get a forest of hands up in agreement. I road tested it at home. A couple of tweaks and it was there.

What do we do? We design services. Services help you get stuff done. Like Netflix (helps you entertain and relax), or buying an ice cream (helps you feel cooler and enjoy the sunshine). A service is like a journey, and someone has to decide what the journey is like. That’s where we come in.

So what did I learn? A simpler way to explain what I do (through the medium of movies and dessert)? Tick. How smart 8 year olds are? Tick. A new father son bonding activity (getting him to help me with my presentations)? Tick.

But the most important and difficult thing? Our role to inspire the next generation of creators, agitators, shaker-upperers and inventors for the next decade of wicked problems. Cheesy? Maybe. But also true.