5 Things Nathan Barley Taught Us About Service Design

6 min read
Ben Logan
Service Design
Design Research

There are a lot of things we have learned about Service Design from the cult TV show ‘Nathan Barley’, and we would challenge anyone to make a TV show that still holds cultural relevance that far into the future. Here we highlight 5 things we have learned about Service Design from watching Nathan Barley.

What is Nathan Barley?

For those not familiar with Nathan Barley, this was a Channel 4 sitcom written by Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris in 2005, that parodied what it was like being a fashion-obsessed hipster working in Shoreditch (the trendy part of East London). This show covered the highs and lows of working in creative agencies, attending impromptu warehouse raves, and the hazards of operating at the cutting edge of fashion.

Ten years on and the show is still as relevant as it ever was, and it is uncanny how accurate some of the material they featured has gone on to become almost entirely true! Whilst we did try and introduce this as mandatory viewing for all of our staff, it’s safe to say that this show, and its style of humour, is not for everyone.

What is Service Design?

According to the definition from the Service Design Network – ‘Service design is the activity of planning and organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers. The purpose of service design methodologies is to design according to the needs of customers or participants, so that the service is user-friendly, competitive and relevant to the customers.’  Here at Spotless we use a whole host of different methods and techniques when running projects for our clients. But how does this relate to Nathan Barley?

Nathan Barley

Nathan Barley and Service Design

So without further delay lets get into some of the inspiration and findings we have taken from this cult TV show:

People have become “self-facilitating media nodes”

Nathan (played by Nicholas Burns) runs his own media empire from a Shoreditch loft, with the help of his personal assistant Pingu (played by Ben Whishaw). Nathan’s business has a website –, video production capibilities, animation capibilities, scriptwriting and DJ-ing all under one roof.

Most customers today have now ironically become this very same thing with the proliferation of mobile devices and the ability to write content and shoot and edit video on the move, broadcasting this instantaneously on Twitter, SnapChat and Facebook. Clients now need to manage direct feedback across multiple channels, all of which can be accessed and interacted with at the press of a button. As this article points out: ‘Twitter wasn’t even an idea until 2006 and Facebook was still a niche interest (especially in the UK) back in 2005’ . This show was introducing ideas that have now become mainstream e.g. video selfies for shameless promotion.

Choose appropriate games in workshops for stakeholder engagement

Many of the Service Design techniques we use involve stakeholder workshops.  These often include playful activities for service innovation, for instance LEGO and explorative play as a way of inquiry-based learning with stakeholders. In the agency where Dan Ashcroft works (played by Julian Barratt), they play a game called ‘C*ck, m*ff, b*mhole’…

Whilst we won’t explain the exact rules to this particular game in this article, in essence the show teaches us that for these kind of games to work, stakeholders need to be clear on the rules, and the game or activity needs to be something they feel comfortable taking part in. Make sure your ideas for creative play are tasteful and authentic to the stakeholders you are trying to engage with.

Your service needs to talk your customers’ language

The show is literally built on amusing irony and stupid phrases that sees one of the main characters Dan Ashcroft struggling to fit in and understand his colleagues and surrounding environment. Nathan is the biggest culprit when it comes to using his own unique language, one of his phrases being – “You should come doll snatch, it’s gonna be f****** Mexico!!”. Another example being from Jonatton Yeah? (played by Charlie Condou) the chief editor of the magazine that Dan Ashcroft works at: “Actually, I think we should make this the cover feature. It’s pretty, you know…meooow…”

As a business your service needs to talk the language of the customers you are aiming as the critical moments of interaction, or touch points, between businesses and customers are increasingly spread across different parts of the organisation.

Jonatton Yeah

Service Safaris can help you uncover valuable insight

Service Safaris help team members tune into service touchpoints and experiences, and interrogate these in new ways. A day in Nathan Barley’s life takes into account everything from a bus journey carrying his BMX, his use of dual bluetooth earpieces with his wasp DJ Phone (Wasp T12 Speechtool), pranks with Pingu at the Shoreditch loft office and creating low end documentaries about abstract topics.

We encourage our clients to get out of the lab and go and see real customers interacting with their products and services in the wild! This often generates valuable insight and opportunities that a one to one interview in a lab will never be able to reach.

Role playing can help you identify if a service is going to work

Whilst some might think that roleplaying is best left to teenage gamers, this technique can help you find out if an idea is potentially going to work or not before committing time and budget. Roleplaying is a design activity that helps stakeholders understand (visualise) certain situations, parts of the service or the entire service.

There is a famous scene where Nathan sees Dan in a local cafe and Dan (who is increasingly irritated by what he refers to as the ‘Idiots’ throughout the series, and Nathan’s continuous imitation of all things cool) amends his order for his coffee several times, so that it ends up being a black coffee with one sugar, scrambled egg and smoked salmon. Nathan copies his order, much to the bewilderment of the lady serving behind the counter and to the amusement of Dan. In essence Dan is having the last laugh as he is playing a game on Nathan, and this is not something he would actually order and drink.

Roleplaying in Service Design allows stakeholders and actors to take part in interactive experiences to improve a service experience. It is most effective when observed by others as a source of new idea generation. We are fairly certain that black coffee with one sugar, scrambled egg and smoked salmon is one that there is little demand for, and we can confirm has not taken off in Shoreditch.

Service Design is still a relatively new industry and a lot of the techniques it involves are similar to those used in areas such as User Experience and ‘Design Thinking’.  Designing or redesigning a service requires a lot of effort from the business and being equipped with the right techniques and methods to get stakeholder buy-in is key.

Whilst Nathan Barley is a cultural gem of a TV show, it has also taught us a lot about Service Design, an industry that barely existed at the time of the show’s inception. It reminds us to bring fun to the table when designing services,  increasing the potential to overcome hurdles and enable big ideas to become successes.

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