SDN Team
Author - SDN Team

In this interview, the Sony in-house service design team shares an insightful look into their challenges and small victories within the global company, and reveals why service design is so important for their business.

The Sony Creative Center has integrated Service Design aiming at a holistic approach towards product-service systems and to gain a better understanding of stakeholder needs within service ecologies. This interview is exploring the opportunities and obstacles of integrating service design at Sony – and how the Japanese culture relates to the service design approach. The interview was conducted by Birgit Mager on June 26th at the Sony HQ in Tokyo in the context of a collaborative service design project between Sony, Chiba University and the Köln International School of Design (KISD).

Birgit Mager: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. It was a big pleasure for me and for the students to work with Sony and Chiba University on service design over the last few weeks. For me, it is really interesting to understand how you got into service design at the Creative Center, and why you think service design is important for Sony now and in the future.

Matthew Forrest: I have been working in the Sony Creative Center after my graduation from Carnegie Mellon School of Design in 2008. I am an interaction- and user interface designer, but my approach is definitely a service design approach. I think it is clear for just about everyone at the Creative Center that this is no longer a time when industrial design sells products. That the way in which you use the products and how the products work as a system to create new value is something that everyone recognizes. The problem is that it is very difficult for us to make that leap from designing hardware and interfaces to designing systems. And that is why we are investigating service design. And why the design antennas are pointed towards service design.

You were one of the organizers of the Service Design Emergence Conference at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006 – at that time: did you really think that service design would stick?

MF: (laughs) I came in wide-eyed and innocent to the world of design then. To that point I had been a technical writer and information designer. I knew that I was at the forefront of design thinking at CMU and so when I saw that not just a few students but everyone in the graduate design department was looking towards service design as the future of design – I knew this had to be taken seriously.

Matthew Forrest --
Matthew Forrest

Kunitake Saso: I am Kunitake Saso. I work in the strategy department as a design researcher in the Creative Center. I have a different angle from Matt, because my role is incubating the new business model: I have more of a business-creation perspective and I think service design is really important here.  I use service design when we work with a group. We ask them to consider the business ecosystem and we let them work with the business-model canvas. And we try to integrate the knowledge of the eco-system into the service design and synthesize into the overall customer experience. And we use the service design method to synthesize the ideas into an experience.

So do you really work interdisciplinary with the departments, do you involve them, or do you do the design?

KS: I am a facilitator. I integrate the perspectives. But it is not always interdisciplinary: sometimes, it is just one business group. I try to invite other disciplines at least temporarily into the discussion, to create the one experience, the journey or the blueprint together.

How did you learn about SD?

KS: Before I went to US I read the book Service Design Thinking. When I went to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 2012 I knew the Service Design Network and I went to the Service Design Network conference in Paris. I joined the workshop run by IDEO at IIT.

Kunitake Saso --
Kunitake Saso

Kentaro Hori: I heard about service design in 2011 – but I did not know much about the details of service design before I joined the national Service Design Network Conference in Japan in 2013. I had a feeling that we need this kind of theory to change the business style of Sony.

In what way?

KH: Usually Sony is making single hardware. It is quite easy to give a direction to the features and the concept of a product. But these products are connected to a network and we need to create the total system. A company like Sony is a quite large company – so when we create this kind of system. Many kind of organizations will be included into the project. This doesn’t really work well because each division thinks about their function – so when we combine the pieces of the system the experience will be collapse for the user. To solve these problems service design will be one of the ways to do it.

Have you been able to bring together these different silos within Sony for better collaboration?

KH: Honestly, not yet. We have just started using service design for the business.

So you are starting out. And it is really important to convince all the partners you need to contribute. It is a big challenge!

MF: We are in need of successful examples of service design. And what makes it difficult for us in Japan is that many of the examples of good service design in the West are taken for granted here in Japan. Now, that’s not to say that there are no opportunities. I agree fully with your comment this week about hospitality: the person who is your first touchpoint within the ecosystem, that person probably doesn’t have all the information and they have to get up the chain of command to get answers. From a Western perspective that would be a good service-design opportunity. But, in order to sell the service design idea here in Japan, we have to show successful examples of service design and I have difficulty finding good examples of well thought-out service design examples in the West that can be immediately applied in Japan.

So you have to create your own history of service design.

MF: Yes, we have to create a successful service design project unique to Japan , which really solves our problem. I have been trying to find it, but I don’t see anything that Japanese people would find in a Western example and say ‘Wow! That’s a good idea’.

Do you see any specific Japanese cultural challenges to applying service design successfully in Japan?


KH: It is a very small thing. Japanese people are quite afraid to try… I mean prototype things. And prototype makes the things quickly. And we turn to the research…

It has to be perfect before you do it!

KH: I was talking to the students yesterday. They were prototyping a vending machine. But they didn’t have any confidence that it would work at the tennis court. So they didn’t want to try. It’s the typical Japanese way.

Do you see any additional aspects that might be special for service design in Japan?

KS: I see two points. When we mention service design, Japanese people think ‘Service in Japan is good’. And service is free. Service design doesn’t sound like it could make money. We can increase the quality of service by any means, but how to make it sustainable, how does it make money? An increase in quality without an increase in revenue is not sustainable.

Improving the quality is one domain of SD, but very often it is about innovation. How strong is Japan in the innovation of services?

KS: This is an important point. If we talk about innovation or new ecosystem, Japanese business people are interested: ‘This is for me!’, they’ll think. If we conduct service design workshops outside the company, it works well, quick prototypes of ideas, they get the idea. Sometimes it involves the whole system of the department – and that is huge, especially in terms of communication costs – and what gives the incentive to come to the workshop? Workshops tend to take time, so we need to have more incentives: why spend three or more hours for that purpose? We need to be very concrete and precise!

So the culture is a lot about efficiency and return of investment? ‘What do I get out of it?’

KS: Right, right…!

And since service design is a very result-open process, you don’t know what you get in the end. That makes it very difficult to sell, not only in Japan by the way, but also in Japan. Matt, you, as a non-native, what do you think might make it more difficult in Japan to apply service design?

MF: To comment on what Saso-San just said: innovation in service might be an area where service design could be more successful because that is where you can create new ways of monetizing service. Using service design to improve service is tricky, because it is usually pretty good already and, again, in Japan, change comes very hard. In the US we love to amend our constitution but, in Japan, the constitution is pretty much the same as it was when it was borrowed in the eighteen-hundreds from Germany (laughter).

Yes, it is very hard, once a system is in place, to have it changed, especially when it is considered to be working well. I think it has a lot to do a lot with the history of the country; it has a lot to do with craftsmanship, the teacher-student relationships. There is a standard way of doing things and the teacher teaches the pupils and then it gets fixed and it’s not easy to change. However, if we talk about absolutely new innovation, for example when the Olympics come, there are a lot of great areas where service design can be used to create a new service that is not yet in existence.

By the way, for the London Olympics, they had a specific service design team that applied service design to the experience of the Olympic Games. So if you give me the telephone number of the right person to talk to in Japan I would be happy to sell … (laughter … KS: I can give you one…) but my impression was also that in Japanese culture there is a great need for control and a great need for knowing how to do things, and my experience with service design is that it has tools but no rules!

KS: I am always fighting, trying to make it loose and more flexible, but people ask me what is the process, what is the next output? So I try to clarify the process first and then I try to be flexible as much as possible… that’s the only way. But still there is a lot of pressure, especially from the management people, who try to clarify the process as much as possible.

Matt, where do you see the difference between UX and service design?

MF: I think there is no difference. What I am creating is a touchpoint that is part of the service. And the people sitting next to me are maybe industrial designers and they are creating just another touchpoint as part of the service.

Our [Matt and Kentaro] business cards declare that we are service designers, but there is no such thing as a service designer: we are all service designers, we contribute, as you say, it is a collaborative cooperation.

That is an interesting point. You know my definition of service design is that we choreograph technologies, processes and people in order to create and co-create value for different stakeholders. So I do believe that service design is different because it has to be able to choreograph material evidence like products and digital evidence like interfaces and interactive evidence like people to people interaction and, in that way, I would probably claim that it is different, even though I agree that, in specific aspects, everybody is creating a part of the service system.

MF: And everyone should have that mindset. That they are creating, first and foremost, a service and that their individual responsibilities are to create the tangible touchpoints and, yes, it is a dance, but I am not sure who the choreographer is: is it one person who says I am the choreographer, I am the service designer? However, two years ago, at the service design conference in Japan, I gave a presentation on what I consider to be service design that I worked on here at Sony and it was an example of service design that really did not work too well. But there is an example at Sony: it comes from a video camera from the 80′s. There was a concept behind that camera: they were not just making hardware, they were making a broader experience of going out in the world and recording what you see. And that was expressed in the marketing: the whole point was that the whole video system was no bigger than your passport and you would go out into the world and discover new things and take the camera with you as a touchpoint to this bigger experience.

In line with the story, the instruction manual would use the same paper as a passport and, if you looked at the first page you read: “You are now about to embark on a journey and here is a checklist of what you might need… did you bring your socks…and, by the way, don’t forget to charge the camera and this is how you do it!” An instruction manual, but all encased in a very coherent story. And this was when communication design, marketing, interface design, they all were working together and, at that time, there was a person, the merchandiser, and, when I look back, it may be that that person, the merchandiser, was really the forerunner of service design.

I would still challenge that, because that is very much a marketing approach to storytelling. I would probably zoom out and ask ‘Where is the service experience?’ When you need to store the videos and the capacity of your card is full, where is the service when there is an incident and you lose it on your journey? So my challenge would be to go beyond the marketing and the storytelling to a more substantial service concept, an experience of being taken care of as a customer. But that is another story.

I would like to ask one last question: if you hire a service designer, what do you expect that they bring to the team?

KH: A person who has working experience. It is important. Graduating from the University and coming directly to the company… they don’t see the problems that the company has with the real business. We need to have some experiences.

KS: First, obviously, design research experience, getting the insight from it and also the facilitation skill to involve several functions: two critical points.

MF: I am thinking more along the line of a major design firm: one of their job requirements is to be good presenters and to be very passionate, especially at a place like Sony, which is very manufacture-and-technology oriented. That passion is going to get the story across.

I would like to add courage, because, in such a big organisation, it takes courage to break the rules instead of obeying them. Thank you very much for your time. It was very interesting and insightful for me personally and, I trust, for our readers, too!

Find more about Sony Design on their website!

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