Services Are Arguments About How We Should Live Our Lives

On my first day of graduate school, one of my professors declared that products are arguments about how we should live our lives. None of us quite understood what he was talking about at the time but he was describing the rhetoric of design. The rationale for why a product exists and our stategies for persuading an audience. The product itself embodies our argument. For example, Tivo argues that we should be able to watch television without commercials and on our own schedule. Many people buy into that argument and change the way they live their lives.

This phenomenon is even more apparent for services. Like products, services are offered with the hope that a particular audience will recognize the merits of a design and shape their lives around that point of view. The motto: we are what we do… not what we own illustrates this proposition. Services embody arguments about what we do; about how we live our lives.

Eventually, once enough people accept an argument, it becomes a commonplace. Putting money into 401ks. Putting loved ones into nursing homes. Paying others to watch our children. Enrolling in college. Riding the train to work. Joining a gym. Subscribing to broadband. Buying organic.

Some arguments become so successful that not participating becomes a stigma in and of itself. A commenter on a new eco-friendly moving service recently argued that not recycling cardbord boxes was a sin. Is that a good thing?

How long until you look askance at someone for not carrying a cellphone? Twenty years ago, only doctors adhered to the argument that they should be available wherever they went; today even homeless people carry a cellphone.

With the availability of surgical services like Lasik, how long until blurry vision joins crooked teeth or obesity as the sign of a character defect?

Back to Tivo for a moment. Their argument not only addresses when you should watch TV, it also implictly suggests that you should be watching more of it than before. It gives us the tools to record hour after hour of our favorite programming until it reaches capacity, prompting us to relieve its burden. Is Tivo any less culpable for supersizing our television viewing habits than McDonalds for offering access to cheap, high-calorie junk? What kind of argument are they making?

Service designers bear a measure of responsibility for the services we bring into the world. We’re constantly making arguments about how people should live their lives. Ultimately the public evaluates the strength of our arguments, but it’s important to reflect on our role in the process.

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