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Bid to boost design research in service industries

Research to improve the economic performance of companies in the service industries—by designing better methods for interacting with customers—could be about to receive better support from two UK research councils.

This follows the publication last month of a report jointly commissioned by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Design Council which argued that research to improve our understanding of the role and importance of design can create both economic and social benefits.

Prepared by a London-based consultancy, the Mandano Partnership, the study says that healthcare and urban planning are the only areas of industrial activity where there has been any worthwhile effort to measure the impact of different approaches to design. Research collaborations between industry and academic groups can potentially boost the performance of companies producing a huge range of products. But it is the service sector, responsible for three-quarters of UK economic activity, which has most to gain, says the report’s main author Ruth Flood.

Service design covers a wide range of activities surrounding the planning and organising of people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers. This has been a growing area of research in Germany and other European countries, but has yet to develop significant momentum in the UK.

“Research work that can better understand, communicate and promote the nature of this developing sector would be hugely useful and of interest to a wide range of stakeholders,” Flood says.

The ‘scoping study’ was commissioned to look at the literature on design research and gather opinions from participants in industry and academe. The AHRC and the Economic and Social Research Council have now agreed to support a second phase which plans to identify some of the specific actions needed to address the problems identified in the preliminary study and will focus particularly on service design.

“The research councils need to find ways to bring design to the table as an equal discipline and design researchers need to build the skills to lead bids…and…research projects that may not focus solely on design but rather be about demonstrating what design can do within a team of disciplines,” Flood says.