Happy Birthday Spotless! 15 years of Service Design and UX - what have we learned?

10 min read
Ben Logan
Inside Spotless

Spotless turns 15 this week, not quite a responsible adult yet, no longer a teething toddler, more a rebellious teenager (who still knows when to say please and thank you and will hug their parents on occasions). We’re taking a look back on the journey so far and sharing where we’re headed next.

Where did it all begin?

We self identify as a User Experience (UX) agency that has moved into Service Design, and whilst we have not always referred to ourselves as a pure play Service Design agency, we recognise a lot of the activities we were doing over the 15 years have led up to this. 

I use ‘I’ a lot at the beginning of this article because for several years Spotless was a one-man band without full-time staff. I used a lot of freelancers from around 2007 onwards and our first official full-time employee was Adam Smith back in 2012!

Adam Smith - Employee Number One!

I was working at KPMG (1999-2004) within the Knowledge Management, and subsequently Web Services department before I left to start Spotless. There were some great people at KPMG, and whilst I learned a lot, I realised that there had to be a better way of improving digital products and services for diverse audiences. Spotless was incorporated on the 12th July 2004, which sounds very official, but basically meant I purchased a limited company via companies house and started out with a £5k loan, no clients or an office and took a bit of a leap into the unknown. The mission at the time was to provide Accessibility testing and evaluation against the Web Content and Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) targeting FTSE100 clients. Friends and family at the time thought this was a pretty stupid move, going from a reasonably well-paid job with ‘good prospects’ to essentially nothing, but the reality was that the job was no longer satisfying me in any way, and I needed a change.

What was the industry like when Spotless began?

I first came across user-centred design (UCD) from my time at KPMG through an agency called Rare Medium, who was based in Canary Wharf in the early 2000s, and I immediately knew that was the direction of travel I wanted to head in. The idea that you could use research and talking to real users of a service to generate and validate ideas made perfect sense.  

There were a lot of bigger consultancies like IDEO, who had been doing really interesting work in the 1990s, but I had little exposure to them and their approach back then. As far as I knew at the time ‘Service Design’ as a discipline was not really in existence or fully formed and I had not come across companies such as Livework, who were early pioneers in this space from 2001 onwards.  

Digital Marketing agencies in London were overusing technologies like Macromedia Flash (who remembers clicking ‘skip intro’?) and making often incorrect assumptions about the context of use and how information was really being consumed. With these loud intro movies taking over everyone’s screen, this ‘Flashturbation’ phase, as it was referred to then, helped some companies make the case for UCD and Accessibility as a more common sense approach to getting results with a wider reach. 

Early attempts at selling Accessibility testing work was very difficult back in 2004. I had some really good conversations with senior decision makers at the time, but some that cannot be repeated or written down. Let's just say that not everyone shared our passion for improving digital services for people with disabilities.

We had a big break with a large Insurance firm, who wanted to see our accessibility test lab and this forced our hand to commit to office space, rather than me operating from my flat at the time.  We very quickly found a small office unit in Putney Bridge, ordered some furniture and testing PCs and prepared for the visit, which was the following week. Whilst we didn’t get the work (I think the lack of staff and no waste paper bins was the giveaway),  it was the catalyst in moving from the bedroom to an office, forcing us to get real fast! Services like WeWork and collaborative tech spaces that you can rent per desk didn’t really exist yet. 

Hurlingham Studios in Putney Bridge right on the River Thames 2008

By the time we were up and running with the selling of accessibility, the financial crash of 2007-2008 hit, which meant budgets were paired back even further, particularly in this area, often perceived to be ‘nice to have’, despite wide-reaching benefits for lots of users.

Mobile started to take off in a big way, and suddenly the context of use changed again, but this time massively so, and suddenly those shiny Flash intro movies became redundant. It became apparent that the existing design tools and processes were no longer up to the job in this multichannel world.

From 2009, we started getting more traction with UX work with clients were requesting user research and prototyping. We realised we needed to be based nearer to the research labs we were using (anyone who has experience in lugging a large case of testing kit from one side of London to the other in rush hour will empathise with this). 

In 2010 we moved to an office in Shoreditch in a building called Zetland House.  

Nour and Kayleigh in Zetland House Office 2015

We rented user research labs next door to us called ‘All Global Viewing’ (which is sadly no longer going) and this was run by a lovely lady called Kate Grady and her fantastic team. Incidentally, these labs were above another agency’s old office, Foolproof (working in a similar space) when they were based in Paul Street, before they moved to Harella House. Despite the lingering pain of the financial crash, clients realised they still had a job to do and business had to continue. We saw a lot of client’s put more emphasis on optimising what they already had, which involved testing and evaluating their current digital services. 

By 2011 clients wanted to differentiate and realised that they had to understand the problem space and what the customer actually needed in order to deliver a "best-in-class" experience. This gave rise to assets such as customer journey maps, empathy maps and service blueprints being used on projects as artefacts during the design process.

What has come and gone in the industry?

Things have changed a lot as Spotless has grown up (well we are still learning and growing). We previously ran public training courses for clients from 2006-2013 in areas such as UX, Accessibility and Prototyping as well as in-house and via intermediaries such as Econsultancy, but decided to exit out of training and focus more on our core proposition. We are still very engaged in sharing and giving back through our work with organisations such as Glasgow School of Art, General Assembly, University Arts London, Central Saint Martins and UCL. 

What's interesting to see is how many organisations in the Service Design field are offering to upskill people via training courses that were not previously operating in this space. The focus here is more on upskilling stakeholders helping to build the capability for Service Design. Top down will need to become bottom-up in order for Service Design to scale, so this move in part makes sense. Since 2014, we have seen a growing desire amongst organisations that ‘understand’ Service Design to embed it into their businesses. Our role as Service Designers is to empower and facilitate the change in businesses and bring talented people together. A lot of job titles have come and gone as roles have been redefined, but the underlying concepts of involving ‘users’, ‘humans’, ‘people’ (use anyone that feels the best for you!) is still at the core of the work we do. 

We empower people to deliver innovation that matters

Prototyping tools seem to get released every few months now, and a lot of the tools started out being stateless for screen-based interactions e.g. Omnigraffle and Visio. Eventually, Axure came along, which was the tool of choice for a lot of people building interactive prototypes, which at the time was a game changer for most. Many more tools have come along since then, too many to list, and these will eventually become outdated as new modes of interactions apply.

Fast forward to 2019 and we are a fantastic team of 21 people, working with our clients to empower people to deliver innovation that matters. We think that Service Design is the most critical capability that companies must build as digital technology and services move from screens to physical spaces and objects around us.

What has been the biggest/most memorable moment in Spotless’s history?

There have been a lot of them and too many to list! A lot of new client wins or project firsts stand out for me. We did a project for a drink and drugs charity called Turning Point back in 2009, which was one of the first accessible Microsoft SharePoint implementations, where we re-wrote large parts of the Sharepoint code in order to make the end front-end HTML and CSS templates accessible. I think one of the big internal projects for us that stands out was the design and build of our research labs called The Insight Rooms in Old Street, which we did back in 2016.

The Insight Rooms Labs 2016

We still get compliments each day from new and existing clients about how impressed they are with the design aesthetic and technical setup, which is really great to hear even three years on! A lot of blood sweat and tears went into the project (thanks to Nour for all her help with the decor and working her socks off on this project!) by the team and the results really speak for themselves. The optics and makeshift bar from our second office survived the move to Old Street, so it's good to see some of this history carried through! 

Our team activities such as the away days and Christmas parties, where everyone gets together are a lot of fun. One year when we were around five staff we all went to Paris for the day and ate dinner on a boat on the river Seine, which some of the team nearly didn’t make in time, due to one too many glasses of mulled wine at the Christmas market and some questionable orienteering!

We have been lucky to take part in some excellent conferences and UXPA2014 was a great event in London and we got a shout out in the Keynote speech from the awesome Anna Kirah, who loved our conference stand and the interactive Lego and Twitter game.

In 2016 we conducted a Service Safari event at SXSW in Austin Texas, which was a really fun interactive session with Marianne, Emeline, John and we partnered with the guys at DScout.

Another really great event we took part in was called the Service Design Fringe Festival in 2017. It was a lot of fun and Hannah, Kayleigh, Erin and Andre ran Service Design sprints with a really engaged group of participants, who wowed us with their creative ideas! We ran two different days: 

1. Mocha Methods: Applying service design methods to enhance the experience of a coffee shop

2. Underground games: Using service design methods to identify future opportunities in transport

What do the next 5 years look like?

One thing’s for sure - Things don’t seem to be slowing down!  We want to focus on building up our London practice and our amazing team and supporting up and coming talent in the industry. One day it would be great to open offices in key design hubs of the world such as Amsterdam, San Francisco, Berlin and Oslo. On reflection, that's maybe a longer trajectory than five years but we are open to how we will get there!  There are lots of exciting things on the horizon and what’s key for us is delivering great design work and exceptional services with our clients and the awesome team at Spotless. As we have grown we’ve tried really hard to keep the same buzz in culture, which is not always easy with changing offices and changes in the team. We always try to invest in keeping the culture alive and will continue to do so. My gut feeling is that Service Design will definitely evolve in five years, and may even be relabelled or split into further sub-disciplines. Customer journey maps or service blueprints will be superseded by something else entirely. There seems to be a greater focus on designing the right things for society and the circular economy. It was interesting to read recently various agencies declaring they were not prepared to work with companies with fossil fuel briefs. Perhaps we will see more agencies focus on partnerships that prioritise these kinds of values. I think work around smart cities and robotics and automation will continue to evolve in the next five years as the tech available in cities becomes more pervasive. I think regulation will potentially slow down some of the bigger tech firms, which could be a really good thing! Just because you can build something, doesn’t mean you should!

More companies will need to take responsibility for how long people are using their digital services and regulation will help put the onus on them to design responsible services and force users to unplug and detox. There will be a much bigger emphasis on systems thinking and organisational redesign over the next five years as more companies reach a level of service design maturity. Funding by department or silo will need to change within the organisation to encourage businesses to spend 'outside of their silo' and organise around customer journeys, which many large organisations are already doing. The role of agencies may be to help advise on how to structure organisations in order to deliver the best possible service. I see Service Design agencies (or whatever we call ourselves next) playing a key role in supporting in facilitating some of these fascinating challenges ahead.

Thank you

We have had an awesome Birthday and this is only possible through all the great work from the team both past and present, as well as our partners in crime and collaborators (our clients!). Thank you and here is to the next five! We will let you know what 20 feels like! This amazing cake below was made by Nour, who spoils us regularly with her next level baking skills!

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