Design challenges SOK

Kuvassa vasemmalta: Palvelumuotoilija Sini Sohlberg, Product Designer Jangbae Lee ja Principal Product Designer Linda Luymes. Kuva: Vesa Tyni

S-Group has a long history of co-op ownership, and relies on the professionalism of their designers. The company’s rapidly developing business areas require multidisciplinary expertise and an innovative approach on how to drive change through design.

The number of designers at S Group has increased tenfold in four years. In 2019, there were five designers on S Group’s payroll, and now they are almost fifty. In addition, almost twenty external partners participate in the design work. Growth is driven by a desire to understand customers and their needs and to boldly offer solutions to customers.

In their work, the designers focus especially on digital services, on promoting growth projects and on refining the employee experience. The design maturity, or design thinking, of the organisation, is a significant part of the work. This ensures that development teams create value by solving problems that are important to both customers and users, as well as to the business. The design team strives to get colleagues to adopt a design mindset that can be used by non-designers as well.

Maria Uhari-Pakkalin, Director of Design at S Group, has made her career in international companies, and over the years, she’s also lived abroad. Before starting to work at S Group, she directed Fortum’s design unit. The business operations of S Group surprised her with its versatility.

“The design team strives to get colleagues to adopt a design mindset that can be used by non-designers as well.

“We have truly comprehensive business operations. We have a bank, the ABC chain, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. We have both employee experience of internal services and trade experience in the shops. Our S-Card loyalty programme is huge as well.” Other business areas include S-Business for corporate customers, as well as logistics companies Meira Nova and Inex Partners.

Work is organised into functional teams that include business representatives, product developers, software developers, designers, data scientists, analysts, marketing experts, and content designers. “We already have more than 40 different agile teams, many of which involve designers”, Uhari-Pakkalin adds.

The Design Director was originally going to become a French interpreter. However, she finished her degree in communication first, and immediately after that, in design. She consider communication skills to be crucial for any designer. If a designer wants to bring about change in an organisation, the designer must be able to distill messages and to inspire others around them to strive for change.

In 2019, designer Irina Rousu was only the third designer to start working for S Group. ”That’s when we launched S Group’s online grocery project for grocery stores, and in addition, we had two designers working with the hotel and restaurant business. At that time, the focus was on individual projects.”

Now she’s Design Lead of S Group’s online grocery. Rousu’s team includes service designers, content designers and product designers. The team of several international professionals works in English. Rousu is an international expert herself – she came to Finland from Russia almost twenty years ago and speaks Finnish fluently. Rousu is Master of Science in Economics and Business Administration.

However, the majority of S Group’s designers are currently Finnish.

According to Uhari-Pakkalin, many service design tasks require Finnish language skills, because the customers are Finnish-speaking. For example, it would be difficult to make observations in corner shops without solid knowledge of the Finnish language. Demand for online groceries is growing rapidly in Finland. Designers working with S Group’s online grocery are developing the S-kaupat online service and mobile app. In addition, they work on the user experience of the app used by the staff, the collection system and the dashboard.

In addition to the familiar pick-up and home delivery options, S-kaupat recently launched a robot delivery service. Sympathetic little robots roll out purchases to customers in Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Tampere, Turku, Pori and Jyväskylä.  The designers have also worked on making this service more user-friendly. For instance, customers ordering robot services want to pin the exact delivery location on the map themselves, and as a result, this matter was corrected.

Next year, automation-assisted warehouses will be available, and the designers will try to anticipate customer aspects related to them.

The work of S Group’s designers is reflected in many ways in S-kaupat’s customers’ lives even outside the digital realm. An example of this is the redesign of the home delivery boxes. Even before the boxes were redesigned, young children loved to play with the recyclable boxes. Now our designers’ design makes it easy to craft a play store for children out of the boxes.

“It’s really fun to see us being a part of people’s everyday lives”

– Irina Rousu

Designers do internships in different parts of S Group to see what everyday work comprises.

Uhari-Pakkalin has, for example, been selling clothes in Sokos, collecting products at Inex and worked as a barista at Coffee House for one day.

“It’s important to get acquainted with the work from several different perspectives. However, it’s good to remember that we can’t start changing all existing processes based on one encounter or experiment, and that we need to study matters comprehensively”, Uhari-Pakkalin reminds.

Both Uhari-Pakkalin and Rousu think that designers shouldn’t fall in love with their own plans, but instead, be able to change them on the go, should the business environment or customer needs change. At the same time, the designer has to keep up the dialogue and persistently bring new ideas forward.

“The role of a designer is definitely to challenge the organisation. But the question is whether the challenging is done with an all-knowing attitude or with a mindset where experimenting together is desirable, ” Uhari-Pakkalin explains.

Uhari-Pakkalin is also a part-time yoga teacher. She draws a parallell between mindfulness and the mindset of a designer. “It’s important to be able to let go of the end result and to take the journey in the right direction as a guiding experience.”