Reflections and Lessons Learned from SDNC11

I gave my very first talk at the Service Design Conference 11 in San Francisco last week. It was a really good experience and I wanted to share some of my reflections and lessons learned.

1. Biggest takeaway from the conference

This is my first exposure to the “service designers”, and it’s very different than the Interaction Conference in Boulder. As a gross over-generalization, the field often associates interaction designers with software developers, service designers with business analysts, and product designers with mechanical and electrical engineers. Interaction designers speak in the language of user interface and usability; service designers speak about customer journey map and touchpoints. At the moment, while interaction designers are asking if they should learn to how to code; service designers are asking how to show the business value of their existence to management.

One of my favorite talks was by Brandon Schauer from Adaptive Path, on how to “capture lost revenues from the Service Anticipation Gap by applying just a portion of the overwhelming ad spends on the optimization and creation of services”. He defined Service Anticipation Gap as the gap between customers’ expectations and perceptions vs. what they are actually getting. While ad spend creates promises, service design is what actually deliver those promises. His arguments are compelling and illustrated by great examples. Presentation can be downloaded here.

Richard Buchanan was the closing keynote with the conference. AC4D students should all be familiar with his definition of “wicked problems” and the four degrees of design – signs, things, actions, environment. After two days of talks focusing a lot on the tactical of how to make a case for service design to management, Buchanan reframed the discussion to why management itself should become a design discipline. He left Carnegie Mellon and went to Weatherhead School of Management (note: management school, not business school), because he envisions management as design activities and is currently working with organizations at all levels – corporate, government, foundations, community, to look at how we should build our future organizations. Going back to management literature in the past, Buchanan reminded us that the purpose of an organization is not to make a profit. Profit is the means that allow the organization to fulfill its purpose. The purpose of an organization is to provide goods and services to citizens. We, as designers, are at the heart of what makes an organization valuable. He concluded his talk by saying that design is a very humble profession, and suggest that as designers, we should let go of trying to be the star, but instead, the facilitator of the world around us.

Relating back to my own personal reservations about starting companies, calling myself an entrepreneur, and the general hype in the start-up world; Buchanan’s perspective on design continues to give me a strong ground to plant my feet on when I think about how this is not as much about “starting a company”, as it is about designing at the 4th degree – the environment and the organization, in which will hold and deliver the products and service I’m designing, in order to create the impact I want to make. As AC4D aims to turn students into founders and projects into companies, there are different tactical skills required for design (ex. making) and business (ex. marketing). However, I think it’s helpful for us to remember that it’s a similar creation process: how do we design at an organization/environment level to create an impact? what activities and interactions need to happen, collectively, to achieve the original vision?

2. Personal step forward in public speaking

I had 10 minutes for my talk. As I was preparing, looking for photos, and trying to put together powerpoint slides, it just didn’t feel right. It felt like I was forcing the limited amount of photos I have on my computer to tell a very powerful and emotional story. So in the end, I decided to go with one slide. It had one photo on it: the photo from Church under the Bridge.

I explained Church under the Bridge to the rest of the conference by saying that was where everything started, and is what keeps us grounded in everything that we do. So I wanted that to set the context of my talk. From there, I shared the leap of thinking and the journey of going from a homelessness project to an education startup. Finally, I concluded by stating that at HourSchool, we measure our success by the number of people we are able to turn from a student to a teacher. Overall, I think the talk was well received. It was short and not in-depth. But I didn’t think it was meant to be.

Personally, this is a huge step forward for me. For those that started ac4d with me last year could attest that I hated speaking in public, I was bad at it, and I would do anything to get out of it. But here I am, a year later, signing up to speak in front of over 300 people. I can pinpoint a very specific moment of this turning point. It was when I had to go present to the staff at ARCH with Ryan and Kat because Alex couldn’t make it. After that, I wrote about how rewarding it was, and how it was different – because it mattered. Since then, I have been willing, and wanting, to talk in front of crowds, because the story matters. And I want as many people to hear it as possible.

One of these nights I was working late at Thinktiv and overheard some conversations from Jon’s class. He said something along the lines of needing to get used to presenting our work and being confident in what we’re able to do. I share many of the same sentiments with the other students – it’s intimidating, it’s scary, it’s hard, to put yourselves out there, to be judged, criticized, and compared. I understand. But next time when you’re unsure of yourselves, just remember that this isn’t about us. Your stories need to be told, your work needs to be presented. Because it matters.

4 thoughts on “Reflections and Lessons Learned from SDNC11”


Congratulations on your talk. I know you were nervous before you started, and I know that some colleagues suggested it might not hold the audience without more “visuals”…

Well, you proved that an authentic story told from the heart beats any Powerpoint wizardry. You were completely right to keep it visually simple and let us concentrate on your voice and message. Thanks!

Global Service Jam and some other stuff


Thanks so much for the note and encouragement. I learned a lot from the experience and other speakers like you. Looking forward to meet again in future events and conferences. Thanks again!


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