For the past several months I’ve been researching co-design practices around the world. Participatory methods don’t have much of a track record in the United States apart from the work of Liz Sanders at MakeTools. I’m interested in understanding the circumstances behind that gap.

There are plenty of good examples of co-design overseas so I’ve been reaching out to contacts in the UK, Australia and New Zealand for brief interviews about designing with groups and incorporating non-designers into the design process. Aside from the crazy logistics of interviewing people with a 19 hour time offset things are going well. I’ve spoken with designers from consultancies as well as within industry. My focus has been less on the “how” and more on the “why.” I’m exploring the culture surrounding participatory design as a first step in understanding how to catalyze those processes closer to home.

If you’re wrangling with co-design methods in your own organization I’d love to hear about your perspective. This could be as part of a design consultancy, an internal design team or as a component of design education. My interviews have been directed overseas for the most part but if you’ve found a pocket of co-design stateside then I’d definitely like to get in touch.

Service Design: From Insight to Implementation, by Andy Polaine, Lavrans Løvlie and Ben Reason is the book I’ve been waiting nearly a decade for someone to write. There aren’t many books that focus on services from a design perspective and the few that do exist have always seemed too expensive or too academic to make the case to a wider audience.

This book goes a long way toward solving that problem. Two of the founders from live|work, along with Andy Polaine from the Design and Art School at Lucerne have written a concise guide to the practice that seems perfectly suited for traditional design teams new to the concept of service design.

Like other books from Rosenfeld Media this one is available as a PDF or in electronic formats for Kindle and e-Readers, but I opted for the paperback version. It’s easy to flip through the text in an afternoon and at only 216 pages there’s no danger of it becoming a doorstop. The small format means that it might not be as comprehensive as other books on service design but it’s by far the most accessible I’ve found.

There’s a nod toward Lynn Shostack’s pioneering work on service design in the early 1980s and a bit about SERVQUAL and RATER but mostly the book picks up about a decade ago when live|work opened their doors. It highlights important tools such as blueprints, ecologies and customer journey maps and introduces distinctions such as designing with people rather than designing for them. There’s just enough theory to ground the argument without causing clients to roll their eyes.

This is primarily a book about practice, filled with photos of research in progress and illustrations of key deliverables. Most of the examples fall short of proper case studies and many involve only a screenshot or a synopsis, but together they cover a range of service sectors. A quick scan turns up over a dozen examples from Gjensidige Insurance, Hafslund Utilities, Orange Mobile, HourSchool, the National Maritime Museum, Garlands, Riversimple, Oslo University Hospital, FIAT Future Design Group, Rail Europe, Norway Transport, Zopa, Streetcar, Whipcar, Surebox and an unnamed airport in New York.

Topics such as design research, experience prototyping and service metrics each get their own chapter, along with a couple pointers to other (Rosenfeld) titles for more information on the particulars of recruiting or certain prototyping methods. The level of detail is perfect for quickly getting a sense of the process and for offering a foothold to design teams who may already be familiar with some of the techniques.

The one criticism I have of the book is political. The case studies (such as they are) are heavily weighted toward projects from live|work. The authors try to defuse this objection, and the fact that one co-author comes from outside the company makes it less of an issue but the book feels a bit insular. There are plenty of other books on design that are unapologetically self-promotional and this one is much more reserved, but it’s the same political issue that undermined the now-defunct wiki years ago. A handful of cases from Australia and Asia (and a little more from the US) would help the book to resonate with a wider audience.

There’s still room out there for someone to write the equivalent of a Little Golden Book for non-designers that spends two pages explaining service design and then showcases a few dozen examples across hospitality, banking, transportation, healthcare and entertainment along with some public sector case studies to round out the pamphlet. It would include huge photos of process, methods and outcome, and take about three minutes to browse. Mostly it would be inexpensive enough to give away.

I can see myself giving away copies of this particular book too and, cost aside, it’s the first one I’d actually be comfortable leaving with the client as an overview. All things considered the book makes a compelling argument for service design.

From Insight to Implementation deserves to be a cornerstone of the service design canon. If you own a copy, take a moment to contribute some feedback on their Amazon page or head over to Service Design Books to rate the book, add your comments and vote on it as a recommendation.

Service design faces an important obstacle when it comes to education. Every design problem is a negotiation between a designer, their client and the intended audience but for service designers that interaction is the medium. It’s the object of design. Service design embodies the literal interaction between all three parties much moreso than for first- and second-order design disciplines. That makes it almost impossible to tinker around the edges of a service without buy-in from an actual client, which defeats the point of tinkering in the first place.

My background is in graphic design and it’s hard to overstate the benefit of simply playing around with color and typography and other elements of the medium for the fun of it. Logos, posters, books, t-shirts and packaging offer a hypothetical vehicle for designer to experiment without the need for an actual client. To initiate what Donald Schön called “design games” with a situation in order to learn. There’s obviously a gulf between speculative design and the constraints of an actual project but tinkering on your own is what gets you across that gulf.

Web design is the same way. I’ve been exploring the boundaries between design and code for almost as long as I’ve been a designer. The barriers to entry are so incredibly low that anyone with a computer and a text editor can dive in and start making things. You don’t even need an internet connection, strictly speaking. Anyone with the proper hardware can tinker around with the medium. An entire generation of web designers have bootstrapped themselves into the profession without the need for an actual client or project, or anyone else’s involvement or permission. That experimentation is how we learn.

But for a service designer, not only is such an arrangement less than ideal; it’s completely unworkable. Clients and the interactions they embody are the medium of a service. Designing without a client is like cooking without food. I’ve made this mistake myself and the results help to illuminate the nature of service design. You simply can’t credibly explore beyond the line of visibility without access; or prototype without the cooperation of the people and systems involved. Speculative service design requires buy-in from the client (or at least acquiescence) on a scale that dwarfs the first-order disciplines.

Cobbling together that access is one of the core responsibilities of design schools. Many of the best service design programs are working to provide students with first-hand exposure to hotels and banks and other touchstones of the service industry as sponsors for actual project work. It’s essentially a subsidized platform for tinkering that provides access for students and minimizes risk for the client.

But outside of returning to school, how do you find ways to tinker? Chris Downs of live|work spoke about this challenge at the second Emergence conference five years ago. Short of launching your own service, as they did, one of the best ways to gain experience with the medium is to work in the service industry yourself. Think of it as participatory research.

I worked at a bank for several summers during college and the experience was integral to my understanding of both the front stage and back stage of a service operation. And although my 18-year-old self had no aspirations to service design at the time, and certainly no authority to implement change, I had access to plenty of what I now recognize as service design problems.

But that’s a pretty daunting way to tinker because it requires a commitment out of proportion to the simple curiosity that draws designers to other disciplines. Most people aren’t willing to quit their job to go work at Starbucks as an undercover anthropologist. Graphic designers can pick up a copy of Illustrator and a subscription to Print but until service designers find a better way to tinker we’ll have problems growing the discipline.

Only 1,368 unread posts to sort though in my RSS reader. I’m a little rusty, but I supposed that’s to be expected. At first glance there are a dozen or more defunct weblogs in my list. Even the sidebar at Design for Service is out of date. A couple weblogs seem to have migrated to Twitter, two others are quickly becoming dormant and one Australian blog was evidently hacked in the past year and never repaired.

David mentioned some new service design activity in the comments earlier today. Any other interesting voices from the past year who should be on my radar?


This morning I woke to the end of a year-long sabbatical from Design for Service. Five years after starting this weblog, the service design landscape has barely changed here in the United States. Interest has waxed and waned among several academic institutions and Continuum is making good progress but service design is still largely an afterthought.

Looking back, I was able to hold that reality at bay until the SDN conference in Berlin two year ago. Faced with so much fantastic work it was hard not to wonder about the lack of enthusiasm on this side of the pond. The trip was inspiring but, in retrospect, a little demoralizing. The followup last fall here in San Francisco made it even more obvious that service design isn’t on the local radar. I couldn’t even be bothered to blog about it.

In the face of apparent apathy, it’s easy to retreat into what you know. For the past year I’ve been immersed in the life of an interaction designer. That head space is full of engaging problems and complex systems but interaction design is still widely assumed to be digital and that’s simply too limiting. Service design keeps calling me back.

I’m not exactly sure where to go from here, but today is the first day in reviving Design for Service.

Today it’s been four years since I began writing Design for Service. Things have been a little quiet around here over the past six months while I’ve had my head in a few interaction design projects but I’d like to turn that around.

So I’ve set a new challenge for myself. About a year ago I started working on an initiative called Service Design Books. It’s a co-created library of recommended reading for service designers. The collection has been gradually expanding with 80 books from nearly three-dozen contributors. Over the next six months I plan to add at least one new book to the collection every week. That’ll help me to focus a bit more on service design and whittle down the stack of reading beside my bed.

I’ve added a new RSS feed to the website to keep track of the reviews. Subscribe to be notified of new picks.

This week’s book is Bill Buxton’s classic Sketching User Experiences from 2007. It helped lay the foundation for my series on sketching in the performing arts.

Via Twitter, Joel Bailey points to a fantastically detailed post on the Qantas check-in process from earlier this month over at Dan Hill’s City of Sound weblog.

I’ve been reading Dan’s blog off and on since grad school and the posts are typically sprawling with content. In this case what he downplays as “quick notes” actually amounts to a richer account than most service design case studies. Through 31 photos and a series of diagrams Dan recounts his check-in at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport.

This type of post is interesting because of the gulf between what it captures and what it leaves out. Dan focuses on the touchpoints of the encounter as individual design elements, recounting the physicality of the RFID tags and the build quality of the check-in columns and then following the thread across touchpoints to the flimsy paper boarding receipt. These are the physical manifestations but like an iceberg they only hint at the larger system beneath the surface.

Apparently the new RFID check-in columns are less than reliable and this leads to a critical observation midway through the piece that the “service design aspects of systems are perhaps the most important, well beyond local interaction design issues.” I get the feeling that he’s talking about computer systems but the observation also holds true for the service itself on a systemic level. That is, the orchestration between touchpoints trumps an evaluation of any particular touchpoint.

Indeed, the individual elements don’t qualify as service design by themselves. The columns are examples of industrial design. The LCDs are examples of interface design. The boarding receipts and the new identity are examples of graphic design. They can each be critiqued as design solutions, as Dan has in his post. But the service only exists in their coordination.

Dan moves on to discuss the environmental aspects of the service later in the post. Here he focuses on the spatial organization and its expression over time. The flow between touchpoints and the integration of other human beings within the encounter is harder to capture with photographs. The diagrams help with this but I’m not sure we have the graphic language to really communicate this type of flow at a visceral level.

The final photos in Dan’s sequence focus on interactions with touchpoints rather than on the touchpoints themselves and taken as a whole this approach starts to shade more toward the service design end of the spectrum.

But the gulf I wrote about at the beginning of this post involves the parts of the service that aren’t possible to photograph. There’s an amazing amount of detail in Dan’s post. It’s difficult to imagine collecting 24 photographs of anything in an airport these days but no matter what type of camera you use or how much detail it captures a customer journey misses what goes on beyond the line of visibility. I think this starts to get at what Dick Buchanan meant last year when he observed that it’s impossible for human beings to experience a system.

Dan’s post isn’t meant to be an exemplar of service design. It’s filed under experience design and interaction design and he’s focusing mainly on the physicality of the interactions. But there’s power in that approach. As an exemplar for communicating the customer journey it’s worth considering the tangibility of this sort of treatment as an alternative to more traditional customer journey maps and blueprints.

The Matching Supply and Demand blog highlights an interesting article from The Economist on Delta Airlines. They’ve been experimenting with allowing passengers to bid on the privilege of being bumped from overbooked flights.

Airlines typically offer flight vouchers at the gate to encourage passengers to delay their travel to account for overbookings. The gate agents increase the value of the offer until they recruit enough volunteers or until the flight boards, at which point they begin bumping passengers involuntarily.

Delta’s scheme is to have passengers bid against each other during check-in, driving down the cost of the vouchers. The Wall Street Journal has more on the program.

The New York Times has an interesting article about queue management at Walt Disney World. They use a combination of methods to subtly nudge people away from crowded attractions and to entertain those waiting in line.

Employees watch flat-screen televisions that depict various attractions in green, yellow and red outlines, with the colors representing wait-time gradations. If Pirates of the Caribbean … suddenly blinks from green to yellow, the center might respond by alerting managers to launch more boats. Another option involves dispatching Captain Jack Sparrow or Goofy or one of their pals to the queue to entertain people as they wait. … Disney has also been adding video games to wait areas.

For more on queues, Don Norman spoke about how Disney approaches the problem during his lecture at the Institute of Design back in 2008. More here, here and here.

Sorry about letting things go dormant around here over the past couple of months. I’ll try to pick up the slack in the new year. What have I missed?

Last weekend Richard Buchanan from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western gave a terrific keynote at the Savannah College of Art and Design to close out the COINs and Design Ethos conferences.

I’ve transcribed the keynote and posted MP3s of the lecture and the question and answer section at the end. There’s also a full video of the event if you’ve got an hour or so to watch.

I’ll have more of a summary later this week. Quite a few topics of interest for service designers (and CMU alumni too).

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