Crazy Pose

Two weeks ago, I was on the island of Madeira, Portugal, for the second annual Service Design Network conference. Like last year, I was part of the planning board. My main role was to review content submissions and help put together the conference program. I also served as a judge for the service design competition sponsored by Volkswagen, ran a workshop on building the SDN community platform, co-facilitated a workshop call “Learning from Failure” with Stefan Holmlid, and I again held the microphone and played the role of master of ceremony.

This was the fourth service design conference I had attended in as many years, and the third that I had helped put together. Overall, I thought it turned out well. But there was a lot of discussion on how to do things differently in the future. With so many great designers in one place, there was bound to be analysis and ideation on how to redesign the conference. After the conference, the planning team mulled over what we heard, what we through went well, what didn’t, and what to do in the coming year. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections.



Madeira will be hard to beat as a conference backdrop. But its remoteness meant fewer attendees and students. The network is hoping to decide on a location for next year’s conference soon. I know Birgit Mager (network co-founder) got a lot of feedback on possible locations. My money is on the UK, though not necessarily London.

We also talked about venturing into the US, perhaps as a second conference next year.


It seemed everyone I talked to was in agreement that the format of the conference felt too traditional and rigid. More breaks, more time for ad hoc conversation, more workshops (more doing), were all things I heard desired. I shared my experience with unconference formats with the planning team and I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes part of the structure in the future. Personally, I would like to see the conference be more of a facilitator of conversation and action rather than a speaker platform.


Learning from Failure workshop

While the content was good, it didn’t knock my socks off. I thought it was an improvement over last year. Still, it seemed like a lot of the same territory and ideas were covered (maybe I’ve been to too many of these). I’m hoping that with some format changes and some speakers from outside the community (someone mentioned Richard Branson), things will get shaken up a bit. The best content seemed to exist in the conversations that took place within the conference white space.


“We should do this more often,” seemed to be the sentiment about having conversations and sharing ideas. The problem: the current SDN website does not make this easy. We got a lot of good insights into the needs of the community during the workshop I ran, and now the network is deciding on a course of action. I agreed to advise this activity, so if you have ideas what and how the network communicates with the larger community as well as its role in facilitating conversation and growth, let me know.

The Challenge

There is no shortage of good ideas for next year’s conference and what happens in between. The challenge is making it happen with limited resources and getting input from the service design community. It’s great to see that the momentum the network and conference have gained over the past two years inspired good debate on Twitter and a site to capture ideas for the 2010 conference. During the next year, the network needs to harness this energy and provide leadership while also facilitating grass roots activity.