Initiation, Maintenance and Leave-taking

Last week I had a chance to talk with Nick Marsh of choosenick.com in an e-mail interview about service design, blogging and design education.

During that conversation I brought up the work of the sociologist Erving Goffman. His writings provide an important lens for viewing service design. In Goffman’s book Behavior in Public Places, he identifies an arc of typical human interaction. Initiation, maintenance and leave-taking.

Telephone calls provide a good example of this arc. You initiate the conversation with a “Hello!” and a bit of small talk. While the other person is talking, you maintain your side of the conversation by verbally nodding (“um, hum”). Finally, you start to hint about wrapping things up; “well, I’ve got to get ready for dinner…” That’s leave-taking.

To bring this back around to service design, each service has a similar arc. Initiation, maintenance and leave-taking. That arc provides an underlying structure for the service encounter. I noticed this pattern the other day while I was in Starbucks because of a breakdown in leave-taking behavior.

In this case, I placed my order, paid and then put my card back in my wallet while I waited to sign the receipt. I looked up when the barista asked if I wanted my copy. I didn’t. A few seconds passed while I put my wallet away, waiting for the machine to spit out the store copy of the receipt for me to sign. But nothing happened. We both stood there, looking at one another for a moment, quizzically. Finally I asked about signing the receipt, which didn’t seem to be forthcoming. He belatedly realized what was going on and reassured me that this wasn’t necessary.

It’s becoming more and more common for businesses to forego debit card signatures for small purchases. This speeds things along, but the exchange of the signed receipt is a strong cue that the interaction is over. In its absence, the interaction simply trails off without explicit leave-taking.

There are other interesting concepts in Goffman’s work. If you check out Behavior in Public Places be sure to read the chapter on Facial Engagements. Also the bits about fully focused, partially focused and unfocused interactions.


  1. Jeff

    It’s not exactly service design, but for a spectacularly bad example that highlights a complete lack of maintenance, be sure to watch this interview with Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman.




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