Service Design

The Power of Reading the Room: A Service Designer's Unique Skill Set

Yahya Aftab

Sometimes I question my profession and the skills I have acquired through practicing it. What do I have to show for it? Can I run regressions? Code APIs? Or make forecasts? No chance - I’m pretty below average in the conventional marketable skills column. Consultants make prettier presentations than I do. Data scientists have the numbers on their side. Policy analysts know their capacity-building frameworks better than me. So where do service designers like me stand? What is our unique selling proposition? 

I say we are experts at reading the room.

Imagine saying that in a job interview. Lol. 

But really what does reading the room mean? Is it a skill or am I just making myself feel better and salvaging my company’s image which has taken a hit since you started reading this? 

It simply means knowing what to say, when to say it, and to whom. In other words, it means knowing where the line of discomfort lies in a conversation and how not to let the conversation go there. We’re trained negotiators. We negotiate a level of comfort with someone we have met for the first time so that they can give us a peek into their lives and not feel unpleasant while doing so. 

Why is that useful? Or a unique selling proposition at all you may ask? It helps us understand individuals; uncover their unsaid assumptions1, notice muscle memories2, recognize fears, and discover what excites them. This oft-underrated skill of holding genuine conversations helps us identify connections individuals have with their communities and delineate spheres of influence and trust around them. 

How do we hold genuine conversations? Am I saying we know how to talk to people? Yes but it's more complicated than that. 

Accessible language is one of the most important tools in our arsenal including a variety of others, like reading behavioral cues or navigating cultural norms,. A service designer has to gauge the respondent's comfort level with certain words and accents and enunciate them so that the respondents understand and do not feel alienated by them. For example, if I am talking to an individual from an underserved community who might have heard the word university but might not have heard a pronunciation that fluent English speakers employ - the perfect rolling of the R and whatnot - I will go with a colloquial pronunciation of the word. I would pronounce university as yooniiversity and not as yuneversity, the former being a common pronunciation of the word amongst Punjabi speakers. 

Capturing and recording information while conducting ethnographies (through note-taking, card sorting, sacrificial concept testing, etc) is another set of skills vital for service designers. These skills are learned through hours of sitting through interviews and we did just that for 1908 hours last year. That's a whole work year of talking to people, all over Pakistan!  

So we have a deep understanding of people and the world they live in. What next?

We apply these learnings and build services with an intricate understanding of the users and their needs. This may look like a loan application form that is easy for low tech users to scan and fill or a vaccine roll-out that helps change opinions about immunization.

In other parts of the world, a human-centered service may be experienced as a breath of fresh air; an added convenience, but in Pakistan, it can bring populations left out of the development agenda back into the fold of welfare 

It may seem a little far-fetched to imagine that a better user experience can make a difference in the face of age-old structural problems. However, it does make it easier for vulnerable individuals to somewhat circumvent structural inequities if not completely dismantle them. For example, better-designed ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF, prescribed to pregnant women in areas hit by famine) does not break down patriarchal norms prioritizing a man’s nutritional needs over a woman’s. But, it does make it easier for women to get necessary nutrients at a fraction of the prior cost and in a manner that is more attuned to women’s bodily needs.

So if you are a fellow service designer or researcher and have trouble keeping the imposter syndrome at bay as I do, please remember that understanding humans and unearthing the often imperceptible social reality around them is a crucial skill set in itself. While it may not involve the use of the newest software, the act of talking to people can still have a reverberating impact on the lives of underserved individuals. 


1. In a recent project on female reproductive health we discovered commonly held assumptions about menstruation amongst rural women which will eventually enable us to make sanitary products more inclusive
2. People do everyday things almost subconsciously by merely going through the motions of learnt behaviour. While designing better experiences we explore habits and muscle memories to figure out ways to design around these habits rather than disrupt them. Have you ever noticed how a mobile money agent uses a feature phone to carry out transactions without even looking at it? We design menus that take inspiration from these habits!