Self-service & Shadow Work In Service Design

What is it, how to use it, and how to mitigate some ethical issues.

Self-service & Shadow Work In Service Design

What is it, how to use it, and how to mitigate some ethical issues.

What is it, how to use it, and how to mitigate some ethical issues.

Hi, Kevin here.

I recently had a great conversation with Daniele Catalanotto  about the notions of Self-service and Shadow Work. Here is a short summary of this conversation.👇👇

🎙 See listening options here!

This conversation is part of a series of Podcasts for Design & Critical Thinking with Daniele (hold in French). Daniele is a Service Designer in Switzerland and is the founder of the Swiss Innovation Academy and the Service Design Magazine.

For those of you who don't speak French –or just don't want to listen to us thinking out loud– here's the summary of this conversation in English. Also, find below a video version, available on YouTube with automatic-translation subtitles.

🌟 Subscribe on YouTube to be notified when new episodes are out!


What do we mean by “self-service” and “shadow work”?

👉 Self-service is the idea that the user does the work without needing any interaction with a staff worker. For example, when you go buy groceries, you are the person going in the shop. You are the person who searches and carries that frozen pizza. And you are the person who scans the product and pays at the cashless counter where there is no worker.

👉 Shadow work is is a term coined by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich. Shadow work is basically unpaid labour that benefits someone else.

Obituary: Ivan Illich
A polymath and polemicist, his greatest contribution was as an archaeologist of ideas, rather than an ideologue.

Is all self-service shadow work?

We would say that the difference between self-service and shadow work is the notion of “win-win”. If both parties, the company & the user, get something out of those experiences, then we can say it’s “good” self-service: a mutual exchange.

But on the other side, when as a user I don’t get anything in return (it’s not cheaper, nor quicker, nor easier for me) or that the tradeoff is not clear (i.e. I'm not really sure what I got in the exchange), then we can consider that it’s shadow work because it mainly benefits the company and not the user.

Make the tradeoff visible to avoid shadow work

How can you avoid that your self-service experience becomes shadow work that hurts the customer? The quick answer: show the tradeoff.

This is transparency in its most basic form.

Display what the person gains as it is a self-service experience, and also what she looses: as it’s a self-service experience, it’s cheaper but you have to invest more of your own time.

When it starts to become interesting is when we can quantify that tradeoff: i.e. “it will take you 20 minutes of your time, but you’ll save 100 bucks.”


Explore and be critical!

If you are interested in  the  topic of self-service and shadow work, Daniele compiled a list of links and resources that might help you explore this topic by yourself and build your own opinion about it 👇👇

Notion – The all-in-one workspace for your notes, tasks, wikis, and databases.
A new tool that blends your everyday work apps into one. It’s the all-in-one workspace for you and your team

Kevin Richard

Senior Designer and UX Strategist in the Swiss🇨🇭FinTech industry. ❤️Science, Psychology, Critical Thinking, UX & Design Thinking for innovation.

More posts from this author

Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.