A Year On

Studying the MA Service Design during the pandemic

As lockdown restrictions begin easing across the UK, the staff and students from the MA Service Design course are looking forward to seeing each other in real life soon.
(this is a re-share from Veron WK Lai’s blog on https://norev517.medium.com/a-year-on-7b0fabb07e4)

Where is everyone from — Google Map view on our 2020–2021 cohort

The course started six months ago: a day after the regional tier system was introduced, and a few weeks before the country went into another national lockdown. Every year, the cohort is made up of students from various countries: this year, we have 32 students from 8 different countries, most of whom arrived in the UK ready to get to know a new city after the mandatory 14-day quarantine period upon arrival. This posed a new challenge: trying to learn service design and get familiar with London, all while confined to their rooms. Apart from a few weeks of hybrid teaching and limited access to the campus between the second and third national lockdown, the students studied and did all their projects remotely during the past six months.

Remote Serious Play workshop

Through lots of trial and error, thousands of “can you see my screen?” and millions of “sorry, I was on mute!”, we have completed three full collaborative service design projects. Two of these projects included working closely with Camden Council, firstly on Meanwhile (a Community Regeneration project) and secondly on Early Help Family Services, exploring the future of community services.

Collaboration and involving users in the research and design process are fundamental for service design. The lockdown limited communication and collaboration to online platforms. Many research and design processes, such as focus groups, service safari, and in-person workshops became impossible. Instead, we were forced to learn and adapt to new learning and collaboration methods.

We quickly shifted from ‘figuring out what is happening’ towards ‘problem-solving mode’ over a few weeks, constantly exploring what could be done safely within the restrictions, from Tier 3 to national lockdown. We learnt how to research, design, and collaborate on the fly; seeing challenges as part of the process, not the problem.

At the beginning of the course, we were introduced to Miro and a few other online collaboration tools, which were mainly used in class and as a way to facilitate team collaboration. Depending on the project, we had to adjust our ways of working to suit our users. For example, during the discovery research phase of the Camden Early Help project, many of the families we were working with were less familiar with these latest digital tools, so we went low tech; most of our engagements were one to one phone calls, or video calls wherever possible. We appreciated that sometimes less is more, and were determined not to take any opportunity for granted. After all, we understood that the people we engaged with were likely juggling homeschooling and work, or some might have even been in difficult financial or health situations. These realities taught us the importance of being well prepared and organised ahead of every interaction, we also became flexible in approaching every person, and the way we work.

The process was not easy, but upon reflection, we are all very proud of what we have achieved. In hindsight, we have all learnt and grown; we have also become more creative in adapting and creating our design tools and processes. Being flexible became our second nature, as we improved how we responded to every new situation before us. On a personal level, we became more patient with each other, we learnt how to build empathy, and how to build a connection with one another during the crisis.

As we approached the end of term 2; we asked ourselves the following question: if we could go back to the beginning of the programme in 2020, what advice would we give to our pre-lockdown selves? Here are some of the answers that came up from this reflection:

Advice I would give to my pre-lockdown self

  • Time stops for no one — should a virus define your plan?
  • Try to see the steps you have taken in the past months. Although you have not moved away from the screen, you did develop yourself!
  • Appreciate the micro happy moments! They are the most valuable
  • Be open-minded — don’t come prepared.
  • Participate every chance you get to feel like you are getting the whole school experience
  • Prioritise your mental health. Work will never end.
  • “Trust the process” will be the most annoying but also the most helpful sentence.
Digital thank you cards to all industry experts who offered their time and expertise to collaborate with us.

While in-person interviews were impossible, we had the opportunity of connecting with users and industry experts through video calls here in the UK and abroad. We are incredibly fortunate to have their time and support to develop our service design skills and contribute their knowledge and expertise to our projects. We have seen the possibility of remote working with these collaborations can bring into our design and learning process.

Student-led session — A self-organised session where students get together to discuss a design topic. In this session, they explored the relationship between culture and design

If you are reading this article because you are thinking or planning to study service design for a career change, you should know that our class is primarily made up of professionals who worked in creative industries for years before doing this MA. Here is some of the advice our students would give themselves before signing up for this programme:

Advice I would give to myself a year ago when I was a professional planning to study this MA

  • Take the leap. You will be happy you did.
  • Don’t let yourself be bogged down by the client’s realism. Keep thinking out of the box.
  • Share knowledge with everyone, but also don’t assume all your classmates need to learn from you.
  • Unlearn and Relearn — Some things you learned will not work here — it’s okay
  • Having the ability to collaborate with people from a different background is important
  • No one is a leader. But everyone has “leadership.”
Maru Filiba, Freddie Ye, Giselle Dsouza and Gina Wang testing their new service concept.

Perhaps you are reading this article because you are planning to come to the UK to study; our international students have these insights to share:

Advice I would give myself a year ago as an international student

  • There is a brave new world out there waiting to be discovered. Best way to discover it is with an education.
  • London is the most multicultural city I have been in — explore as much as possible.
  • Embrace the culture of the place you are studying in.
  • Read the news and get to know the city, society and culture.
  • Talk to everyone, not just people that are like you or from your country.
  • Your language won’t be the barrier, but your mindset might be.

Studying (or teaching) during the pandemic has been difficult. A year on, we still forget to unmute; we are still asking, “can you see my screen?”. We are now used to seeing each other in pyjamas and bad hair days.

The pandemic has also helped us realise we get excited about little things, we appreciate every little help we get. It has shown us the importance and power of connections and has helped us learn more about resilience.

Through this experience, we have come to understand we are all human, we all have our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. At the same time, however, we have the ability to navigate through these difficulties, not alone, but together. The biggest lesson through it all is this: we can show each other it is ok to be not ok, and in the end, we will all be ok.

A sincere thank you to Maru Filiba for her contribution to this article.