Insights from Ten First Dates with SDN-SF Community Members

Our chapter leadership often debates how we might best cultivate and contribute to our community as a professional network. A recent co-creation event was a reality check.

10 People | 10 Coffees | 5 Ideas
10 People | 10 Coffees | 5 Ideas - Laura Blumenthal

Since our start over four years ago, the San Francisco chapter of SDN has garnered a community of 1,000 wonderful people who practice, evangelize, or are curious about service design. Our chapter leadership often debates how we might best cultivate and contribute to our community as a professional network.

In spring 2018, we held a co-creation event with a few dozen members to explore potential directions for the Network. There, we learned how diverse our membership was -- in terms of their sectors, levels of expertise, and interests. We attempted to create strawman community personas, but realized we didn’t have the information to build them with any useful fidelity.

It was a reality check: We needed to take a page from service design 101 and dive head first into some community research. 

So from fall 2018 through winter 2019, I spent my free time splicing and dicing SDN-SF’s community databases, our newsletter listserv, and LinkedIN group to ask a representative cross-section of SDNers on friend dates.

Between coffees, teas, sunny strolls around Lake Merritt, and video chats, I met some fabulous and thoughtful people who are helping inform where we take the San Francisco Chapter of SDN moving forward.

From ten friend dates arose five key themes on how we can support the community better.

Many thanks to the these SDNers for sharing their time and intellect with me: Dan Shilov, Grace Lee, Gretchen Kish, Janet Covey, Mark Byrne, Meredith Lorch, Priyanka Marawar, Ricardo Marquez, Shasta Garcia, and Vinita Israni.

1. Working On and Learning From Real Problems

By nature, service designers are systems thinkers who strive to make an imprint on the world -- not just the field of design. So the problems we tackle at SDN are just as important as theory and the techniques we practice. This point resonated with people regardless of their tenure in the field.

  • What we’re doing: We recently launched the Climate Working Group and hosted a few events on service design in the social sector. In these sessions, we apply techniques to social problems and discuss how service design could better address them. We’ve also talked about hosting “service design clinics,” where practitioners come with either live problems or retrospective stories and receive reflective feedback and support on their approach.
“I want to see how certain tools are being used in the context of real work. Learning about tools in abstract is different than seeing it applied in context.”

2. Building Service Design ‘Street Cred’

SDN members come to events to pick up vocabulary, practice techniques, and build a portfolio so they can integrate the service design mindset into their careers. Some have also asked for mentorship support. These kinds of requests were more important for folks seeking to transition into service design work.

  • What we’re doing: There’s much more we could do here. We’ve held workshops on journey mapping for social impact and service blueprinting, but we don’t do them with regularity or have a core curriculum. We’ve also toyed with the idea of organizing a weekend residency for people to work on their portfolios together and coach each other. If this appeals to you, let us know.

“I want the service design practices to feel more automatic.” “I feel pretty confident in doing the methods, but I don’t have a way to communicate and show what I know.”

3. Pushing Boundaries and Exploring Parts Unknown

Our community is intellectual and loves thinking beyond the fringes of our own field. Whether it’s biomimicry, politics, machine learning, or psychology, there is something we can learn from other disciplines and apply to service design challenges. Given service design’s multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder lens, exploring other disciplines feels critical. People who were more established professionally were more excited by this avenue of learning.

  • What we’re doing: Not a ton yet, but we hear you! We deliver content that covers a variety of industries -- from 3D engineering, to wellness and economic development nonprofits, to government services, but most speakers are still designers by training. Are there particular questions or fields we should explore? Know anyone who might be interested in talking about their work with our community? Let us know.

“When I go to a machine learning talk with designers and data scientists, I learn more from the data scientist than the designer. I like hearing from diverse perspectives.”

4. Creating Experiences to Match Your Mood and Appetite

Whether you want to soak up knowledge like a sponge or access a venue to share your perspective, there should be something for you. One month, you might want to listen to a VIP speaker; the next, participate in an intense maker activity; the next, meet people for drinks after work. Program diversity is crucial for attracting professionals with all levels of experience.

  • What we’re doing: We host everything from intimate, foodie reading clubs, to come-and-go happy hours, to partnering on the multi-day Global Goals Jam with Y Corps this fall. We know the Global Service Jam is a draw for many, and we are in need of leadership hands if that is something you’d be interested in facilitating. Let us know!

“Sometimes after work I’m tired, and all I want to do is sit and listen.” “I love events with a theme, where people get to build something together and it’s more interactive.”

5. Connecting You with Good People

We’re not called a “network” for nothing! You may be new to the Bay Area, going through a life change, or just seeking some fresh perspective. SDN offers a low stakes way to meet like-minded people who share your professional curiosity. Without a dynamic community, nothing else we do really works. Everyone I spoke to, regardless of their experience level, was looking for social connection from SDN.

  • What we’re doing: From our experience, being in-person is the best way to form real connections. Our tireless volunteer leadership team does work to incorporate informal networking during our events, but we know that we can only organize so many events with existing volunteer capacity. How might we help promote community member and partner-run events to expand the number of in-person touchpoints? Do you have events you’d like our help in promoting? Let us know!
“I’m trying to connect with new people and ‘get out there’ more in the new year.” “I was new to San Francisco and looking to meet new people.” “I want a community that wants to learn and grow and isn’t just a social group.”

Laura Blumenthal



We feel grateful to be part of such a thoughtful and activated community, and we want to keep hearing your ideas! If you want to propose ideas for future content, have an event you’d like us to cross-promote, or want to lead an activity, please reach out






For the research junkies, here were our research questions and process.


We wanted to hear from SDN members about:



  • Their relationship with service design
  • Their experience to date with SDN
  • What brings them to SDN programming
  • What they want from a service design professional network
  • How experience level impacts what SDN should provide



We asked 22 community members representing a spectrum of demographics, professional experience, and engagement with the Network to share their perspective. Of those...



  • 10 were willing and eligible (currently lived in Bay Area)
  • 6 declined or did not respond
  • 6 were ineligible because they no longer lived in Bay Area



The ten people I spoke with mirrored our membership in the following ways:



  • The interviewees spanned being new to service design to having up to 30 years of experience. They also worked in a variety of sectors, from financial services to nonprofits.
  • The majority had been to only one SDN event in the past year (which mirrors the majority of our membership). The others were regulars, having attended 3 or more events. 
  • They were a mix of SDN Global professional members, community members, those who subscribe to our newsletter and LinkedIN groups, and who had attended SDN’s capstone Service Design Jam event. 


I met in person with five people, and chatted with five via phone or video.

Laura Blumenthal

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