Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.



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Trans-Atlantic Service Design Thinking: An Interview with Jeff Howard of Design for Service

Jeff Howard writes probably the most popular (and one of the longest running) service design focussed blogs, Design for Service.



He's also the curator of the most comprehensive and well organised service design reference library on the internet. Over the past few days we've been discussing service designing, service design education and service design blogging:

Nick: Hi Jeff, thanks for taking the time to do this. So, before we get into it, can you fill me in on your background a bit? I understand you're a graduate from the Carnegie Mellon University interaction design master's course? Could you tell us a bit about what you were doing prior to CMU, and what made you want to study there?"

Jeff: Thanks Nick. In terms of education, my background is as a graphic designer for print. Paper and ink. X-Acto knives. But I graduated right around the time the web hit, and so almost immediately got drafted as a web designer working in Kansas City. I worked mainly in web design and web application design before going back to grad school. I also taught Design for a bit at my alma mater while I was researching schools.

There weren't very many Masters programs in interaction design at the time and I really wasn't sure about the distinctions between interface/interactive/interaction design or between all the different degrees so I toured a handful of programs and Carnegie Mellon instantly resonated with me. I visited the School of Design and saw work they were doing on a massive project for the United States Postal Service. On the drive home I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Nick: Was that where you first became aware of service design as a discipline?

Jeff: Yes. Shelley Evenson started a class in service design back in 2004. It was a studio/lecture course that introduced the discipline. It really fit in with the expansive view of interaction design at CMU. People interacting with systems, environments and with other people. Not just people interacting with artifacts.

It was a great class, but I suspected there was more to service design than a single course could cover, so after I graduated from Carnegie Mellon I started studying the discipline on my own and looking for ways to incorporate it into my work.

No one else was talking much about service design at the time, and I wanted to help change that. Design for Service is my way of sharing what I discover.

Nick: And it's a great resource, one that inspired me to start blogging regularly myself. Before we get into your more general thoughts on service design and service thinking, could you fill me in with a bit more detail about the course and what you've been doing since then?

Jeff: The course was fairly brief. It was a seven week mini; though I understand it's been promoted to a full semester course since then. On such a short schedule we only had time to learn some basic service design techniques before jumping into project work. Blueprints, bodystorming, moment concepts, touchpoints, that sort of thing. We started with basic customer journey mapping and then worked in teams of four to redesign the parking service at CMU, and later in teams of two to take on a service of our choice. I worked with one of my classmates to examine how prospective students come into contact with the School of Design at CMU.

Nick: I understand that one of Shelley's big ideas is that 'you can't design experiences', only create the conditions for them. Has this had an impact on your view of how to design a great service?

Jeff: I think so. I try to stay away from the term experience, unless I'm talking about the difference between a service and an experience in the Pine and Gilmore sense. Instead, I've adopted the term "service encounter," from the service marketing literature. Encounter makes it clear that there are two sides; the customer and the business. We're facilitating that interaction. Choreographing it. But the experience is internal.

Shelley's example of trying to control the experience too tightly is a haunted house. They're not really scary even though they're trying to control every aspect of your experience. It feels manipulative and annoying. Old movies are guilty of this to some extent; using musical cues to tell you exactly how you're supposed to feel.

Nick: To add to that, what were the main lessons you took away from the CMU service design classes and in your work since?

Jeff: Well, the most important lesson was: "service design exists." It seems like a simple thing but it helped me recognize that there was another path for designers to consider. Shelley was responsible for some cross-pollination between Ivrea and CMU, and exposed us to some of the work that was coming out of that program. She brought in Mark Jones from IDEO and introduced us to concepts from the fledgling live|work. Really inspirational; the fact that designers were already working this way. That it was possible.

Nick: You mentioned 'interactions' as a way of thinking about services earlier and I'm interested to develop that idea a bit further too - what is the connection between interaction design and service design in your mind and how do you use your interaction design skills when designing services?

Jeff: I'm not going to try to put either discipline in a box, but there are some common characteristics. For instance, both service design and interaction design deal with actions and behaviors bounded by environments. And a lot of service design methods have evolved from interaction design. I think there's a kinship, not so much with interface design, but with interaction design.

Here's an example. One of the core texts for interaction design is by the sociologist Erving Goffman. He maps out an arc of typical human interaction: initiation, maintenance and leave-taking. That arc can be applied to any kind of interaction, but it makes perfect sense to apply it to services (particularly human to human services) since that type of interaction is what Goffman was concerned with in the first place. I wrote a post a while back exploring how that arc applies to service; looking at the structure of service encounters. I didn't reference Goffman by name, but aspects of his work are always in the back of my mind.

Nick: That's an interesting idea, it's almost like Goffman's three stage arc describes the basic building blocks of all service designs. To over extend and mangle a metaphor then, if Goffman's arc is the atom of a service design universe, what is its periodic table of elements? What are the frameworks that support great services, and how are they different when seen from a design-led perspective?

One of the things that keeps me excited about my practice is how service design creates such an expansive view of the activity of design, and enables such a wide variety of design materials to be manipulated by designers (touchpoints, processes, strategy) and such a wide variety of people to be involved in the design process. I guess what I'm getting at is, what are necessary organisational conditions for good service design to take place? What cultures, processes, people and skills should be in place to deliver great services, and for innovation to happen?

Jeff: In terms of framework, the right culture is incredibly important, both on the client side and for designers. One of the keys for the client organization is a strong internal champion for design. This is true for all kinds of projects, but especially for service design. Participatory design processes can be much more time- and labor-intensive for the client than traditional design engagements. Most clients are used to being consulted up front; sitting in for a brief series of stakeholder interviews and maybe popping back in for an update or two during the project before a final design presentation. I don't think that's sufficient for service design. There has to be an internal commitment to free up the resources to make a co-design engagement really click.

When I worked on the USPS project that I mentioned earlier, subject matter experts would come out to Pittsburgh from Washington D.C. and work with our design team for weeks at a time, helping to rewrite the mailing standards and redesign pathways through the material. We still did the same song and dance where we go out and present work formally, but we simply couldn't have made a dent in the project without that type of tight collaboration.

Designers need to be willing to embrace a cultural change to support this kind of integration. Historically, especially in the United States we've cast the designer in the role of the expert. Someone like Paul Rand who could hand down solutions from on high. Shifting design to more of a collaborative, facilitative role isn't easy and there are a lot of designers who rail against the idea of participatory design.

As for people and skills, it's important to embrace a multi-disciplinary approach; designers working with input from many different fields. At CMU, Shelley has done a lot to build bridges between design and business, and her service design courses always include students from majors beyond the School of Design. In addition to business, off the top of my head I think that architecture, anthropology and operations can all make valuable contributions to service design. I'm also interested in the role of theater, especially as it relates to ideation.

The anthropology angle is something that I think is vital. Much of the design research and what passes for "ethnography" in the US is terribly superficial. A one-hour interview with someone in a sterile boardroom; if you're lucky it's at their desk or in their home for some context while they answer your questions. Maybe you can get by with that for product design, but designers need to be able to draw on a much deeper toolkit for service design problems.

Nick: I absolutely agree about the central role of collaboration between client and designer. In other design disciplines, in a crude sense, the design is something you do at the end of a marketing or engineering process to give form to a business specification or whatever. When you're designing a service however, the design is the process of getting to the end result (wether or not you use an art school trained designer or not). This brings me onto two related questions: Firstly, if service design is the ongoing process of running, innovating and optimizing a service organisation (generally by running user centred design projects), what do Designers with a capital D bring to service design practice that, say, marketeers an engineers don't? And secondly, how should we teach service design service design, if, presumably, it should stay rooted in the art/design faculty? Indeed, should it?

Jeff: Dick Buchanan talked about this during his closing keynote for Emergence 2007. He identified a few key skills that designers brings to the table. The first is our ability to see the wholeness of an experience; to grasp the arc of the customer journey. Closely related is our ability to visualize information and use it to tell a compelling story. Finally, our ability to give tangible form to conceptual ideas; embodiment.

These tend to focus on our skill at form-making, and I do think that craft is important; our attention to the aesthetics of an encounter. But designers also contribute a valuable mindset to business problems. Abductive reasoning. Our design methods, our ethnographic methods. Business students are trained to make decisions; to choose between existing options. Designers help to expand the range of choices by creating new options.

We do need to be sensitive to the limitations of our skillset and do all we can to become familiar with the language of business. It helps to follow the business press; Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, BusinessWeek, Inc., as well as McKinsey Quarterly and Bain. But we're never going to really speak that language well enough. The solution is that service designers shouldn't presume to design for business, but to design with them. Again, it's about collaboration. And that gets into the design education question.

I've been following the development of service design education here in the US and it's clear that programs are coming at this thing from many different directions. But across the board what seems to be missing is an awareness of co-design, or really any mention of facilitation skills. All of the service projects I've seen at CMU and the Institute of Design seem to embrace the perspective that the user should be consulted in an exploratory or evaluative context; but not really engaged in a generative design process.

Part of that is a question of resources. Students are generally working with no budget for recruiting, so they're dependent on the goodwill of others. Time is an even bigger factor. Participants are a lot more likely to humor a design student for an hour-long interview than an intensive design workshop. But another issue is the culture of design that I mentioned earlier. The conditions that contributed to the emergence of a participatory design culture in Scandinavia don't exist here in the states, so we're at a bit of a disadvantage on that front.

A while back John Thackara proposed simply disbanding all the design schools. That might be a little extreme, but I see what he's getting at. The University of Cincinnati has an interesting program that addresses his "get out into the world" prescription. Their Design curriculum is based on a quarter system in which undergraduates alternate between schoolwork and internships, cycling back and forth between the university and various design firms and corporations for a few months at a time. They don't have a service design program that I'm aware of, but it might be an interesting model for service design education.

Nick: Ok, so finally, could we just end with a few of your favourite examples of service designs done well. I always find examples the most instructive form of teaching, behind actually learning from experience, so who and what should we learn from? I guess either from the perspective of the end user's service experience, or perhaps in terms of an elegant back of house solution?

Jeff: I don't have first-hand experience with many of the services that are the darlings of the service design community. And unfortunately, most of the services I use on a daily or weekly basis are pretty mediocre. But one of my favorite examples of a service done right is Enterprise car rental. In fact, it was the subject of one of my first posts on Design for Service.

Car rental is practically a commodity here in the United States, but I still go out of my way to choose Enterprise even when they're a little more expensive. They get all the basics right (which unfortunately doesn't go without saying), but beyond that they add a lot of little things to make the service really sparkle. Last time I flew into LA they had a canopy in the parking lot so I could wait in the shade while they fetched my car, and when I fly into St. Louis they always have an ice chest full of bottles of water on the shuttle from the airport. When it's freezing in Pittsburgh my car is already warmed up and waiting for me before I even exit the terminal.

These little bits of business aren't consistent from location to location. In that respect it's not like a McDonalds. But what I think it reveals is that each location is allowed to do what it can to improve things. To innovate around their core service.

Giving your employees the freedom to solve problems can be incredibly powerful. I've come across that resourcefulness a number of times when dealing with Enterprise and it keeps me coming back.

Nick: At the end of the day, it's all about people. A nice message to end on. Thanks for taking the time Jeff. For those few amongst you who don't read Jeff's blog, head on over there now to continue the conversation.
February 12th, 2009 / Tags: servicedesign, interview, jeffhoward / Trackback / Comments