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Visualizing Service Design

Roberta Tassi is a senior design researcher and interaction designer at frog Milan, with a deep background in information visualization and communication design.
While working on her graduation thesis—exploring the interconnections between Communication and Service Design—Tassi developed Service Design Tools, a website that gathers visualizations used to support design processes. The collection was created with the idea of sharing her research within the design community, and so far it has caught the attention of both academic and industry insiders. Yet, Tassi warns these tools are meant to inspire, not act as one-size-fits-all solution.  
Tell us a little bit about Service Design Tools.
I put together this web platform called Service Design Tools in 2009, and I still manage it today. After published, it has immediately become a sort of reference point within the service design community, it's an organized catalogue of tools and examples that professionals can use to support their design activities day-by-day. It can be browsed in different ways, according to specific communication purposes, and it's conceived as an open platform: I still receive a lot of examples of new tools, keeping the collection growing in time.
Why are visualizations specifically crucial in service design?
When we speak about a service or a system, an ecosystem or concept, they are a lot of times abstract things. Visual representation is a way to make them more tangible, and so, sharable.
The same is when we deal with research outcomes, usually there is the need to translate them into meaningful insights and frameworks to inform the design process, establishing a foundation for all the following activities. And visualization again can be really helpful, to turn information and data into usable materials.

In which sense can visualization support design research?
On one side it's a matter of facilitating the interaction with people: visuals can help establishing the right platform to discuss, and help eliciting hidden behaviors, attitudes or feelings, especially when the subject is sensible. On the other side there's the whole issue of synthesizing and translating the research insights: making complex information manageable and sharable is one of the most important skills of a design researcher. You've to humbly read between the data collected, recognize patterns and shape data in a way that is meaningful for the client and that can really feed the project—otherwise the value of that information gets lost.
You’ve worked with people with diabetes on a few projects. How did you use visualizations in your research?
Well, we had to find a way to talk about their emotions to understand the history of their disease, challenges and needs—and it’s really difficult to achieve that point in a normal conversation.
We created a special tool with mood cards and proposed it to the participants as an exercise to describe their journey across the different stages of the disease. 'It's like a game' -one of them said at the beginning of the interview- looking at all those puppets representing possible feelings. But at the end it really became a powerful way to let people express their emotions and start a conversation about them.
We discovered that every time people with diabetes need to switch to a new therapy, they go through a critical moment that is called 'transition': it's a moment of uncertainty in which they are asked to change habits and learn a lot of new tasks, without knowing exactly if, when and how that phase will end. It's painful, and nobody really wants to talk about it.
I think that one of the most important things that represent my way of working is that I always try to do things differently. Even when a method or a tool has worked perfectly in a previous experience, I try to find a new way. The funny thing is that at the same time I've spent a lot of energies in putting together a library of tools, and that often people ask me to reuse my models and visual frameworks, but when it comes to me.. I simply hate templates. Aren't we creatives? 
Elizabeth Wood is a copywriter at frog's New York studio.