Services and Systems

The Heathrow Terminal 5 meltdown is a good example of the interplay between service design and system design. It illustrates how services are built on top of systems and how people perceive process and outcome characteristics differently.

To characterize this as “not their finest hour” would be an understatement, but no one is complaining about the limited seating or the fact that Terminal 5 lacks plug-ins for laptop computers. Likewise, no one is praising T5’s fresh, contemporary decor or its innovative information zones. Why? Because people have much larger systemic problems to worry about.

They say that victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan, and some are calling for service designers to take responsibility, but I see the Heathrow situation as a failure of system design rather than service design. There are some service problems to be sure, for example: the £100 cap for stranded passengers to stay in hotels, but by and large people are complaining about the loss of 15,000 bags and the cancellation of one-fifth of the flights.

It’s a little like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The system problems need to be ironed out before people are in a position to care about service process.

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