Patti Hunt
Author - Patti Hunt

Patti Hunt is the founder and director of MAKE Studios, a service innovation company based in Hong Kong. For this edition of the Touchpoint Profile, she had a chat with Jesse Grimes, the journal’s Editor-in-Chief, about her work with multi-national corporations, NGOs and start-ups in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the unique challenges posed by practicing service design in Hong Kong.

This interview is part of Touchpoint Vol. 11 No. 3 - Service Design and Change Management. Discover the full list of articles of this Touchpoint issue to get a sneak peek at more fascinating articles! Touchpoint is available to purchase in print and PDF format.

For this edition of the Touchpoint Profile, Editor-in-Chief Jesse Grimes speaks to Patti Hunt, founder and director of MAKE Studios, a service innovation company based in Hong Kong, about her work with multi-national corporations, NGOs and start-ups in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the unique challenges posed by practicing service design in Hong Kong.

 

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Jesse Grimes: Your location in Hong Kong must offer a unique and exciting dynamic, with China on the doorstep, yet having a very different business environment from the mainland. How have you been working to further establish an awareness of service design and Design Thinking there, and what have been the successes and challenges?

Patti Hunt: As one of the world’s most well-known cities, Hong Kong has a dynamic that is attractive and exciting. It’s like a hybrid mash-up of the rest of the world, anchored by a strong local identity, ethic and culture. It has a lively and energetic personality, but it can also be quite challenging, especially from a business point of view.

As we have seen from recent events in the news, the people of Hong Kong are very determined and resilient. They gain a strong sense of identity from working hard and overcoming adversity. Hong Kong is a harsh teacher – it forces you into the same dynamic and stretches you in ways you can’t anticipate. There are many reasons to love Hong Kong but being sweet and nurturing is definitely not one of them. When I arrived in 2012, I was quite shocked by the hierarchical ways of working and the risk-averse nature of many people tasked with driving innovation and change in organisations. I had to quickly figure out ways to navigate these situations, understand the prevailing mindsets and adapt the way I worked as a service designer. Working in mainland China can be even more complex; the way business gets done and the logistics of organising interviews or doing research is not as easy as you’d expect. We have found local partners and ‘fixers’ who can help us navigate and problem-solve whenever we need to work in China. There can also be a big difference between how a company does things in Hong Kong and how it does things in mainland China.

Prototyping gets underway at Service Design Hong Kong
Prototyping gets underway at Service Design Hong Kong

While everyone may be aligned on a desire to do things differently, the expectations and interpretation of what that means can differ greatly. When I arrived in Hong Kong, Design Thinking as a concept was starting to be known, but service design was still basically unheard of. There were a couple of pioneers in the space (such as Elaine Ann) with whom we collaborated to help raise the profile of service design. We got a bunch of student volunteers from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and mentored them over a period of eight weeks to improve the local taxi experience and build a local case study. Around seven years ago, I started a local community group called Design Thinking Hong Kong which now has around 3,500 members. We run events each month where the focus is on having fun, learning something new and getting inspired. There is a lot of interest, especially from younger people, who want to change from more traditional career pathways (such as legal, medical or financial), to ones where they can be more creative and experimental. The social aspects of design help people to explore their curiosity and tap into what inspires them. We also run an annual conference called Service Design Hong Kong where we showcase examples of service design and innovation from the Asian region. Now in our fifth year, we examine how the practice is evolving in this part of the world and what unique opportunities it offers for businesses, governments and communities. We encourage people to get inspired by what others are doing and adapt the practices to work in their own context.

The Service Design Hong Kong conference planning team
The Service Design Hong Kong conference planning team

To touch on geography again, I'm interested to hear more about what perspectives shape the local awareness of service design, and what value it can deliver. To what extent are local businesses and organisations aware of our practice, and from whom are they learning?

The Hong Kong government has a Design Thinking programme called UNLEASH that has been running for the last couple of years. The programme is building awareness about the value of human centred design methodologies such as service design. They have started to collect local case studies and are running events, trainings and workshops. MAKE Studios and other local companies are working in collaboration to support these objectives as the practices mature. While service design has become quite well known in Hong Kong’s English-speaking corporate sector, it hasn’t entered Hong Kong much beyond that. Ninety-eight percent of all businesses in Hong Kong are local SMEs for whom service design is a completely unfamiliar concept. Even when attached to more familiar terms such as customer or user experience, the value remains unclear. This is not something that can be addressed simply by English-to-Cantonese translation. The whole idea of service design has to be disassembled, reframed, re-built and localised in order to be understood. The workshops that we deliver in Cantonese often have little resemblance to the English equivalent. Common frameworks such as the double diamond are difficult to translate and communicate, so we have to adapt and find new ways to convey meaning and intent.

Community-building is another important part of creating sustainable learning systems and structures and nurturing talent. At Service Design Hong Kong last year, we launched a programme called ‘Design for Impact’ which modelled a systemic approach to solving social issues. We combined NGOs, social enterprises, corporates, subject matter experts, customers, suppliers and stakeholders to explore different perspectives of the same problem. The programme encouraged people to explore the ‘white spaces’ between organisations, people and perspectives to find opportunities for mutual value. This sparked a number of spin-off projects to build on the solution ideas generated.

Masterclass collaboration between MAKE Studios and Work.Play.Experience
Masterclass collaboration between MAKE Studios and Work.Play.Experience

For those in your practice that have moved from Australia, Europe or North America, what adaptions have they had to make to practice service design in Hong Kong? Are there cultural or business dynamics that are unique to the territory and influence how you run your day-to-day work? If so, what are they?

Everyone who moves to Hong Kong from another country has to adapt the way they apply the practice of service design in a fundamental way. It’s not just the practice, we need to re-examine the philosophy that underpins it and understand the context from which it emerged. We need to be aware of any assumptions and nuances that may not have a local equivalent.

Many people say that the most difficult part of doing business in Hong Kong is an unwillingness to accept the role of ambiguity in business. The belief that there are solutions out there that will fix the problem is reflected in the pressure to prove that something will work before it can be started. We are seeing the language of service design and Design Thinking being used to help people to have different conversations about ambiguity and reframe traditional beliefs about doing business.

Other dynamics at play are the culture of hierarchy. There is the sense that it has to come from the top in order for it to work. This also reinforces a silo mentality across and between organisations. There is no sense of urgency or obvious reasons to collaborate. This is gradually changing but many grass roots or bottom-up efforts currently fail because of this. There is also a lack of local text books and case studies – many international case studies do not resonate with local people and companies, or use examples that are not relatable. Service Design Hong Kong and our work with the UNLEASH programme is addressing this and we are currently building a substantial library of stories and examples to share more widely in the coming months.

Service enactments offer a new perspective for clients --
Service enactments offer a new perspective for clients

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