Reflections SDD 22: How can we all overcome ambiguous futures and design better services

Daniel Tuitt
10 min readSep 29, 2022


Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of attending Service Design Days in Barcelona. This was two full days of listening to great minds of the Design and Futurist space. This year’s theme was ‘Shifting the paradigm-tackle short-termism and create value for the long run’. Although it was ambitious from the start, by the end of the conference, everyone felt confident about the future and the role they could play by choosing the right strategies for change. Fitting with this concept, most of the discussions were focused on future-based design.

Some of the talks that grabbed my attention discussed the dangers of short-termism, designing for underserved and hard-to-reach populations, applying futurism in design, and using our work to shape social systems. These are some of my takeaways from the conference:

Doing a better job of thinking about the future

Thinking and creating beyond the long term is a key component of success for any organisation or individual. Similarly, it’s the key to effective design. With the pandemic, the argument for developing a capacity to think about things that haven’t happened yet has become self-evident.

The design process involves creating a fragment of the future. Thus, the design decisions you make today reflect your thoughtfulness, or lack thereof, about the future. Stuart Candy, Director at Situation Lab, recommends thinking about the things that can be created in the present to instantiate, evoke, or catalyze deeper engagement with the future.

We’re moving from a vague realm of ideas and more specific scenarios to crossing the experiential. While Futures has traditionally been good at the former, design has traditionally been good at the latter part. Hence, the two fields complement each other so well. This correlation between design and futurism was another common theme during the conference.

Several different strategies are required for taking futures out of the realm of the abstract and bringing it more into the concrete. Thinking about futures needs to be grounded well in a strong understanding of history. Stuart suggests three strategies for making those futures more accessible for grounding foresight.

Experiential futures — This essentially involves turning an ultimately abstract reality into a bodily experience. It allows us to bring our ideas to life experientially to better interrogate their implications. It’s a way of asking “what if?” in four dimensions, not just as a verbal probe.

Participatory futures — This refers to social sense-making around possible futures in their formulation and growth as they are shared with people. An effort to make sense of futures allows people to articulate their feelings about the future and their agency by moving in space.

Place-based futures — This tactic refers to futures work pertaining to particular locations on the surface of the planet. These are not necessarily experiential or participatory.

This is a whole array of strategies that bring to life various possible hypothesized futures to make them easier to think about without just articulating them verbally.

A critical look into shaping social systems

One of the most eye-opening moments of Service Design Days was Josina Vink’s reminders that we tend to see social structures as externalities of design. We often see ourselves as separate from the systems we design. But societal norms, rules, and values are not outside the work we do. These roles and structures are fundamentally part of the design process. In fact, they are fundamental materials of design.

Josina reminds us that we are entangled in the systems we design. Understanding this will improve how we conduct our work and encourage more collaboration in the process. Josina encourages a shift from seeing the value of design as being an output. The value of design is in its process. It’s in the prototyping and co-design work. The teams working on the design get to learn from each other, which encourages a positive mindset shift

As designers, we’re generally working to improve the customer experience. However, only focusing on the user experience is a disservice to everyone, especially those who are on the front-end of providing that experience. Service design is a process of shaping social structures and using lived experience to challenge the idea of ignoring the customer. But we need to know more about those social structures to adequately work with them.

Design is when we start to get intentional about shaping social structures. And so, it’s crucial to make invisible social structures visible, building this awareness, and then using what’s visible to transform these invisible social structures. Reformation then uses the data obtained in the reflexivity to transform your environment.

Design is not just outside of the box; we’re actually operating in ongoing systems. There’s the idea of creating new social structures, norms, roles, and values. But that’s not enough. You also need to disrupt some of the social structures that are getting in the way. Part of design is also maintenance work. It is repairing some of the broken things we want to continue on with.

Designing for underserved and hard-to-reach populations

One talk that embodied working with different social structures was that of Ich Gichuki, the Design Lead for IDEO. Typically, modern service design focuses on tech-savvy users who can easily operate what we’d consider day-to-day tech devices. And so, people in rural and remote areas are often excluded from the design process.

Even more concerning is the fact that current technology (e.g., phones) does not cater to users who are unfamiliar with the icons. Some people around the world have never used a magnifying glass. Making the search icon meaningless for many users trying to find something.

Ich and his team helped include these users in a financial system that the rest of the world already enjoys. Even better, they did so in a way that’s accessible and understandable to communities who are not part of the digital world in rural Kenya. They developed a service experience for millions of users who are underserved, non-tech savvy, have limited literacy and numeracy skills, and are hard to reach.

These are less commonly encountered or considered users in the design process because they have less exposure to the digital world. The design by Ich and his team has made it easier, cheaper, and safer for mobile money agents to move money. The project has also connected rural women to digital financial systems.

Mobile money offers a lot of financial inclusion for the unbanked because it lets people access bank accounts through their phone, even using text messages. It allows users to send money with a few commands. Users can cash out their money from a designated agent.

Kenya had about 305,000 agents last year. These agents constantly run out of cash or eMoney during the day and have to turn away up to 20% of transactions that people want to have in their shops. So, Ich’s team analysed the processes, relationships, and other systems that were broken in serving the agents. They found that the agents had their own informal ways, mostly through SMS, where they share the floats (the total amount of eMoney and cash). However, this was not very efficient. They ended up losing business every time they tried to fix their float.

Their solution was a peer-to-peer marketplace that was cheaper, easier, and safer for everybody. This was important in enabling agents to rebalance their liquidity.

What did they do to understand the users’ objectives?

Agents use sim toolkits, USSD, and SMS, all of which are low-tech solutions in feature forms. Would they be comfortable using an app? Will they fight each other to come into this marketplace? What do buyers gain. What to sellers earn? How to run a sale? What makes buyers feel secure? And how far away should buy and sellers go?

They built user context cards for HKit users, especially for edgeless users. These cards allow users to find out everything they need without using something.

When designing, we must understand the unique context of the next wave of digital users. They kept empathy at the forefront of their process.

Thinking about network connectivity of your user. Mobile networks are slow, intermittent, or unreliable. This means the next wave of Internet users are interrupted, or unable to access the internet while using your products. If we’re designing for people in the city, we don’t really need to care about this. If we’re designing for edgeless populations, this is something we need to consider.

For users with low confidence in simple interactions like swiping, navigating screens, something happens. This leads to uncertainty and frustration. For the kind of users we’re talking about, swiping doesn’t come naturally. Neither does moving between screens.

To solve for this? Transitioning from informal financial instruments, from getting a loan from your friends to getting it from one institution to an app, can be daunting. The terminology they use to fit for money moving, not digital money, and so on. So again, a few questions to ask yourself.

Device sharing — Our users often share devices; “I’ve worked in communities where four wives share one phone.” So, think of how to design content for people like this. To reduce hardware costs, shared or repeated use, and of course, possible privacy and security concerns.

The next wave of internet for digital users are often coming online, though older, expensive devices with small, little resolution screens, and limited battery. Storage is also an issue and is also concerning struggle for space. So, how do we make sure our systems work on their performance?

Cultural contexts — the cultural norms that surround the user…. So, the product must align with local customs, values, and preferences. Learn about the culture of the user

Gender norms — In many parts of the world societal expectations of the way we manage time and money. Make them financially reliant on men for big purchases. This means women’s access to smartphones is often influenced by men. This is something that might not be the case in a modern world.

Budget — Purchasing a smartphone requires significant sums of money for some populations. It’s important to consider how much a user spends on the internet versus other priorities, like food, housing, or security. So, these are the questions to ask ourselves.

Our mobile money agent has to close his shop and travel to the bank each time he needs to access float. As the bank is far, he has to incur transportation charges. He turns away customers when he doesn’t have enough float. He makes multiple phone calls and sends multiple texts each time a customer is on the counter, and he doesn’t have enough float. When he can’t find money, he has to borrow with higher interest rates. He has limited internet access at different parts of the day. He uses a feature phone but is currently saving up for a smartphone. He rarely uses new apps or new features, even in USSD applications. He’s used the same things for years.

In designing for agents, they designed Rebalance to celebrate small steps that one takes when onboarding to prepare him for more complex steps in the future. The app uses call to action in simple language to ensure he knows what to view at every stage. This involves the use of non-busy, single-function screens.

Then we allow them to get a glimpse of how to buy and sell floats, before onboarding as a buyer or a seller.

Our user context has let us know what to do for this user. The app is designed to work with and without internet access. It uses simple images and that he understands, and he gets to see float sources immediately and compute the balance in five to 15 minutes from neighboring shops.

Case study 2 — more edge-based than a mobile money agent

Connecting rural women to digital financial systems.

Step 1 — Understanding your user

In spite of the wider use of M-Pesa in many parts of Kenya, some communities in rural Kenya do not have access to digital financial systems. These communities are typically very remote, and they lack access to amenities like roads. But they still want to be included. People still want to be able to send and receive money.

Step 2 — evaluate the user context

Learn about your user. In this case, our user did not attend formal schooling, she only understands some new language, she’s married and depends on her husband for all her financial needs. She makes multicolored beads and sells them to large towns, hundreds of kilometers away. She holds a feature phone, which she uses to receive M-Pesa but has to be assisted by a trusted community link. When it comes to digital money, she’s not sure if she trusts that her the money will actually be received because she’s used to physical money. She only uses her feature phone to make calls to three contacts, whom she identifies by their position in the contact list, and not by reading their names. So, that component is important. So, how do you design for this person to use financial systems as they exist right now?

So, she needs a community link to initiate a transaction. Their communities have these trusted people they use for everything else, and they have some level of education.

Some of these locations have security issues because there are intertribal wars going on. So sometimes the agent is even in safety. So how does he cancel that transaction?

They created an app that allows villagers to send their requests for withdrawals and deposits to a trusted community link. The link then uses a more complex app to communicate with a mobile money agent. Agent comes. Everyone transacts.

They used spring forecast cards to find out or to tell us what to unpack, what to design, what to test. So Ich’s team used this to figure out what obstacles are facing stop users. They started with conversations and force alignment before the environment.

Navigation conventions don’t make much sense for users who haven’t been exposed to these patterns over time.

Accounts make it possible for people to have their own private and personalised experience. But it can be confusing to provide possible information during account setup, if you feel unsure about how it will be used or who will see it.

In summary, the more confident someone is, the more likely they will explore and discover products and features. obstacles to overcome.

The contents are not immediately apparent.

Users don’t feel confident enough to experiment on their own within the time. So, you really have to guide them.

Proactively helping users complete key interactions can build confidence and lead to increased engagement.

Voice interactions are an acceptable alternative for users who have lower levels of textual literacy.

Language — Fonts are not currently designed to support multiple language. So we have some parameters to allow.

Designing solutions for them to be as offline as possible. and you’re using minimum data.

If you want to stay connected and learn more about service design. Join the Service Design College or read my posts from last year from Service Design Days Conference 2021, part 1 and part 2.



Daniel Tuitt

Innovation | Strategy | Making a difference through writing, listening, talking and doing