Thoughts on a conversation with design research pioneers around the globe | A Festival Story by Sofia Reimchen


Sofia Reimchen is a service design and customer experience geek. She volunteered with the festival this year. Here she shares her thoughts on STBY’s festival event, A Conversation with Pioneers on Global Design Research.  

Follow her on Twitter @sofiareimchen or Instagram @sofiareimchen. You can also contact her on

At the Service Design Fringe Festival 2017, people gathered in STBY’s studio in Shoreditch for A Conversation with Pioneers on Global Design Research.  

Recognised as a one of the leaders in design research and service design, STBY took to their global network Reach to introduce us to pioneering design researchers across the globe. Via Skype, we were joined by practitioners in the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines, India and South Africa - to hear about their experiences of delivering design research in different cultures and environments.

The power of a network


One of the distinguishing factors of STBY is their Reach Network. Founded in 2008, the network enables international partners to team up and deliver global projects. A core message was that within a network you don’t just share experiences, you also share problems and knowledge.

“Thinking about the future of global collaborations amongst agencies, people now like it as a way of working. But back in 2008, it was quite experimental and a gamble”, Dr Geke van Dijk, co-founder of STBY in Amsterdam told us. Previously a premise of large international marketing agencies, many clients were sceptics at first. “Now, global research collaboration is almost expected of everyone. It’s collaborative and co-creative. It’s been made into a philosophy”.

But how do establish such a network?

“Building trust in each other’s expertise and learning to rely on each other. This approach fits well with service design methodology” said van Dijk.

“It’s about understanding global as well as the local through respect and listening”, added Daniel Szuc from Apogee in Hong Kong.

How does this network-type approach benefit a client?

Working with a network as opposed to an agency or institution helps circumnavigate the traditional problems of an agency’s often ‘templated’ approach. A network allows a group of researchers and service designers, all experts in their own field and culture, to help devise a bespoke methodology for a project. This, in turn, yields more in-depth, precise results and insights.

When our speakers first began talking to clients about user-centred design and research a while ago, most were met with puzzlement. In the past, similar research was known as marketing research, and some were unsure how this was different. It took some time to help businesses understand the true value of service design, and the education continues as service design itself is still evolving.

“It’s still challenging to know what to call ourselves these days,” said Daniel Szuc, “But in essence, it’s about understanding people, be they customers or stakeholders and how they relate to a business and to each other”. Design research also helps create and harness empathy.


Our speakers also spoke about clients’ growing awareness of the importance of gaining local insights before delivering a product or service from different parts of the world. Ayush Chauhan, Co-Founder of Quicksand, spoke about clients turning to India, a vast and fast-growing market and source of innovation. Global brands looking to create or contextualise products for the Indian market must understand cultural nuances and look to places like Goa which is quickly becoming the creative hub of India.

In South Africa, Cal Bruns founded Matchboxology, the first agency to apply design thinking methods in the region. Mainly working with the third sector, Bruns soon found that citizens and customers are no longer separate, realising that businesses needed to change their approach.

Making a social impact

The stories told at this event were truly inspiring, highlighting the importance of using research to reach a complete understanding of a culture or audience.

In the Philippines, where Birdie Salva co-founded Curiosity, one of their most memorable projects was to create a new business model for a low-cost health clinic. In a country where healthcare is free but patients are accustomed to waiting 4 hours for a 2-minute appointment, Salva and his team used design research to understand why locals were reluctant to go to a private clinic and at which point they would be willing to spend money. They wrote that “typical approaches to healthcare foreground the individual when in reality, health is a social practice. We helped a chain of low-cost clinics create a range of services based on health-seeking strategies within family, gender, and community dynamics.”

In another example, Quicksand helped create and deliver services to the unbanked population who possessed the most basic technology. The most important work was to understand the users themselves and their general distrust of technology. You can find the case study here.

In South Africa, Matchboxology brought together two unlikely partners to address a major social issue. Levi’s and the medical community of South Africa worked together on a campaign to speak to the generation growing up amidst an HIV epidemic who were reluctant to tackle the issue and get tested.

Matchboxology ran immersion sessions with medical experts and helped harness Levi’s ‘cool factor’. The co-branded campaign encouraged young people to get tested and start a different conversation about HIV. They began offering HIV tests in public places such as train stations and shopping malls. People said it would never work. It did. You can read about the outcomes here.

The success of such a project lay in the fact that this wasn’t just about brand and product development. This was about understanding the targeted audience and the language they responded to.

So what did we learn?

  • There’s much room for growth within service design: “If we think about the ‘maturity’ within this discipline, be it the maturity of an individual, team or business - there’s still some way to go,” said Daniel Szuc. “We give a lot of importance to stories and narrative to help the client gain understanding. Narrative is emerging as a vital tool for meaningful work for us”. As service design now faces the challenge of scaling, working with larger organisations can bring up the obstacle of structure - either too complex or lack thereof. Narrative will help land structure throughout an organisation.

  • Innovation is starting to come from different, less familiar places: Quicksand reminded us that we need to be ready to understand them and speak their language of innovation, and learn from them. Wherever you choose to work, it’s vital to understand the local terminology for design.

  • Service design needs to be open for newcomers: The success of a design research agency seems to be based on drawing strength from their diversity, proving yet again that a discipline such as service design should remain open to newcomers from different backgrounds. They also choose a diversity of partners, as shown by being a member of the Reach network. In the Philippines, Curiosity’s co-founders came from a research as well as operations and business background, thus complementing each other. In India, Quicksand was founded by a group of friends who came from design, business and art. Quicksand also shares a studio with an urban design agency and a public policy think tank.

  • Service design needs to be human: When asking people for their stories, asking them questions, it should feel less like a thinly-veiled interrogation. Service designers have the advantage of being able to control their environment and can take their subject to wherever they feel most comfortable to talk. A human approach will yield better results and insights.

  • Selling and delivering service design: To successfully sell Service Design, it is vital to practice what you preach – understand beforehand who your client is, what they need and how to build trust. Many of them already have great ideas, and service designers are there to help kick-start those. Understand the culture into which you will be delivering a piece of work – for example, some cultures are best approached as a community rather than as individuals. Birdie Salva also reminded us that as service designers, it’s difficult to deliver a project end-to-end. Clients who want to enter a new space usually have their own agencies in place, and instead, they turn to service design for validation. And many more still don’t quite understand how this could benefit them.

Cal Bruns, Founder of Matchboxology, sums it up perfectly when he said:

“Service design is built on humility - you don’t assume that you can use a previous approach, you don’t assume you know the answer, you don’t even assume you know the question and the concrete problems. We help clients answer the questions they didn’t realise needed to be asked.”