Archive for March, 2010

The Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts is sponsoring an online collaborative research project exploring service design for higher education:

Over a period of seven weeks participants of COTEN will explore two key questions through both conversation and practice:

1. How can we re-imagine the structure and experience of higher education using service design techniques?

2. Can service design methodologies be used in a purely online, collaborative environment?

It looks like around fifty teachers, students and creative professionals will be collaborating online to explore the topic. I like their honesty about the method because that was my first question: “How is it possible to do service design online — don’t you need to be there? The simple answer is, we don’t know. This is an experiment to find out what methods work and what don’t and we invite you along for the ride.”

Update: Now that I think about it, the service design class at CMU encountered a similar problem a couple years ago working remotely with the Mayo Clinic. Different domain, but it might be worth looking into for some insight.

Update: More on the Omnium platform [PDF 1.2MB] the project will be utilizing for collaboration.

While we’re on the topic of rock stars, I wanted to highlight another interesting term that came across my radar the other day over at the Harvard Business blogs.

In the comments to User-centered Innovation is Not Sustainable someone named Marko tossed out the term design monarchy (“the kings and queens of design will lead the masses to the promise land”) as a pejorative reference.

I have no idea where that phrase came from or whether he coined it himself but the imperialistic and religious overtones are an over-the-top reminder of what co-design seeks to avoid.

Strikes me as a good addition to the lexicon.

On my first day of work at Cooper I walked into the office to find a tall can of Rockstar energy drink sitting squarely in the middle of my desk. All the designers had one tucked away somewhere in their office and it wasn’t for sustenance. It was a symbol that I instinctively recoiled against. And unfortunately it seems to be growing more prevalent in the US design community.

Jesse James Garrett betrays this attitude in his interview with the magazine Johnny Holland. At the end of the conversation he casually declares that he considers everyone working at Adaptive Path to be UX rock stars, by definition.

Besides the shear lack of modesty revealed by that type of comment it’s simply antithetical to the values at the heart of service design practice.

That’s what makes his notion of the overlap between service design and UX so difficult to reconcile:

I think any distinction that you could draw between service design and user experience is purely academic. In practical terms, the overlap in the problems being solved, the methods applied to solving them, and the philosophy of practice is so huge that anything you could say was purely a service design issue or purely a user experience design issue would be an extreme edgecase. They may persist as separate areas of intellectual inquiry, but as fields of practice I think they’ll inevitably converge.

Our values help set service design apart. And it’s something we don’t talk about enough. That may be because most service designers intuitively grasp the distinction. But with the increased attention to service design in the US and the widespread skepticism (see, for example, the comments from the Interaction 10 conference, below) it’s worth defending.

There’s never been a more important time to be good at this. The world needs talented, passionate service designers but it can do without rock stars. Service designers are humble. They embrace participatory values, particularly the idea that we should be designing with people rather than designing for them. The practical upshot is an evolutionary divergence in approach to research, sketching, design and prototyping. And the development of a few techniques that are entirely bespoke.

It’s not that rock stars aren’t capable of taking part in co-design workshops. It’s that they’re reflexively hostile to the idea of shared agency in design. That disconnect in values stands in the way of convergence more than any lack of ability.

But beyond differences in method, the shear scope of the problems service designers choose to engage helps distinguish the practice because the vast majority of UX designers have no interest in working outside the digital realm where the most important service design problems exist.

Even for those lucky few who manage to move into these new domains user experience only represents a partial perspective. Service design is about more than the user. It’s just as important to consider the needs of the employees and other backstage personnel who form the core of a service.

From a practical perspective this can involve designing new organizational roles and incentives, new pathways for internal communication and new ways to socialize a holistic view of the system for management.

When fully half of service design’s mandate lies outside the scope of UX design you can hardly call it an edge case.

Finally, there are differences in history. User experience traces its roots to the artifacts surrounding product design (industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual). Whereas service design has been concerned from the beginning with the intangible. People have been writing about the design of services for well over thirty years.

That’s worth mentioning every now and then for those who think service design just fell off the turnip truck.

The most tragic comments at Interaction 10 regarding service design were not those that involved outright hostility (“when I hear the term service design I reach for my gun”). That’s to be expected in the face of perceived hype. What was heartbreaking were the people who were making an effort to understand the practice but came away empty-handed:

Two talks later and I’m still confused about why service design differs from interaction design.

Nothing new here — why the hype?

Aargh. So service design is interaction design (same process) with an explicitly holistic view of the problem space and deliverables tailored to the situation.

I’m not a fan of evangelizing to interaction designers or user experience designers but the next time the question comes up, consider mentioning a few differences in history, values, process, methods, techniques, deliverables or scope.

I’m a little mortified to be a year late discovering Can You Design a Service? [PDF 4.8MB] by the Danish agency 1508. It’s easily the best publication on service design I’ve seen for evangelizing the practice. Just top-notch work.

The whole thing is designed to be skimmed but the content also repays a closer read. Six brief case studies showcase service design’s range while examples for Aarhus citizen services and a kindergarten in Cophenhagen provide a closer look at the process. The publication ends with a bit about methods and approach but nothing too deep. This isn’t really a book for service designers; it’s a book for people who might never have thought to ask the question posed by the title.

One note on the format: the publication is designed to be read with facing pages like a magazine (it’s available as an option in both Acrobat and Preview). The online presentation is nice to browse, but I’d encourage you to actually print out a copy, spiral bind it and give it away when you’re done.

Service Design supplement in the Guardian
Over the weekend the UK Guardian released a preview of their service design supplement online. The paper hits newsstands today but for anyone who doesn’t live on that side of the Atlantic the service design network has a copy of the print edition [PDF 2.1MB] available on their website.

I’m not very familiar with the Guardian or with the UK press in general so I’m not sure how to feel about a ten-page advertisement for service design masquerading as a newspaper. On the one hand, this is absolutely the best promotion for service design anyone could ask for. It’s the perfect balance of high-level overview and easy-to-understand examples, and it gives service designers something to evangelize. In that regard it far surpasses any of Alice Rawsthorn’s writeups in the Tribune.

But on the other hand, it’s embarrassing to see such glowing reports about the global service design community juxtaposed against half-page ads for those same companies. And the hagiographic pitch for McDonald’s is a little much.

Still, what’s done is done. And there are some legitimately good articles in the mix. Nick Marsh’s essay on silent designers is a succinct argument for co-design. I’m also happy to see social innovation getting some attention. And despite IDEO’s needlessly snarky ad (“designing services in the days before it had a special name”) their banking case studies are timely examples.

Last but not least the sidebar on service design jargon makes a nice addition to help further the dialog.

My next bit of insight into how to sketch a service comes from the intersection of ethnography and cinema.

The French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch pioneered the art of ciné-ethnography in the mid-twentieth century to explore the potential for collectively improvised narratives. This obviously has some parallels to the theatrical techniques we’ll cover at the end of this series but Rouch’s filmmaking approach used non-actors in explicitly contrived scenarios that he called “ethnofiction.” His work moved away from the use of film in anthropology as a mere note-taking tool.

He describes this point-of-view in The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology:

“For me as an ethnographer and filmmaker, there is almost no boundary between documentary film and films of fiction. The cinema, the art of the double, is already a transition from the real world to the imaginary world, and ethnography, the science of the thought systems of others, is a permanent crossing point from one conceptual universe to another; acrobatic gymnastics where losing one’s footing is the least of the risks.”

Rouch made half a dozen films centered around ethnofiction during the 1950s and 60s. Generally he recruited non-actors who had never met in order to act out a topic he felt worth exploring. For example, in La Pyramide Humaine he gathered two sets of high school students from West Africa, one group white and the other group black. Rouch proposed that they collectively act out a story on the topic of what would happen if they all met each other and decided to be friends and overcome racial prejudices. The filmmaking process had three ground rules:

  • Films composed of first-take, non-staged, non-theatrical, non-scripted material.
  • Featuring non-actors doing what they do in natural, spontaneous settings.
  • Handheld on-the-go interactive filming and recording techniques with little or no artificial lighting.

What’s interesting to me about this approach is that Rouch made no attempt to mask the fictional nature of these documentaries. Indeed, he began his films with himself on-camera explaining the scenario. The filmmaker acted as a catalyst for exploration; he provoked a situation and then intervened when necessary according to how he felt the group was progressing.

After filming, Rouch would gather the participants to screen the footage and record an audio track about the experience in a reflective mix of narration and actor commentary.

Rouch’s one-take filmmaking process can’t really be called sketching, but the narration and commentary and the contrived nature of the scenarios is the genesis for a service design sketching technique that I call a “service commentary.”

The basic idea is to start with a short video clip representing some aspect of a service. A group of designers watch the clip on a loop and use it as a catalyst for thinking about the service encounter. The “sketch” is embodied in the discussion itself and each loop through the footage represents a new sketch offering the opportunity for iteration or branching into new insights.

As the brainstorming continues, it’s helpful to assign a focus to each pass through the scenario. This is similar to how DVDs sometimes offer several different commentaries for a particular film, each focusing on a different aspect of the production. In a service commentary, as one theme is exhausted the group moves on to a different focus. Each sketching session might move through a number of different loops, exploring aspects of the customer journey or the backstage process.

Like the group bodystorming sessions I mentioned during the earlier segment on choreography it’s important to assign someone whose sole responsibility is to jot down ideas as they bubble out of the conversation so that the other participants can focus on generating ideas. After a number of passes through the material the group could stop to reflect on their progress and switch someone new into the role of the scribe.

Each loop of the service commentary should be short enough to keep the entire sketch in mind but long enough to thoughtfully describe an idea and iterate on previous concepts. Probably no more than a few minutes per loop. This ensures a sketching process that is quick, timely, plentiful and disposable.

Of course, this approach requires that a film be shot and edited beforehand, and that can be expensive. Luckily the filmmaking is a one-time expense that can be incorporated into primary research. The footage could be documentary style and unscripted and might leverage the participation of front-line employees for interviews about critical incidents. I’m also intrigued by the possibility of handing out Flip cameras to employees to document their own perspective of the service on an ongoing basis. Service commentaries could easily leverage ad-hoc clips from design probes along with more general footage.

For this technique to work the films need a focus but not necessarily a point-of-view. Remember, sketches should seek to invite, suggest, question and explore rather than show, tell, explain or convince. In this case the footage should act as a catalyst, but it shouldn’t be limited to a collection of pain-points. It’s equally helpful to focus attention on the daily interactions between employees. For example, following a memo as it makes its way through an organization. Or documenting the reservation process for a particular conference room.

Rouch believed that “you can film anything anywhere” and he was dealing with archaic filmmaking equipment. With advances in technology service designers have every opportunity to embrace film as a tool for sketching.

. . .

This article is part of a series on how to sketch a service based on techniques from the performing arts.

How to Sketch a Service
Sketching in Choreography
• Sketching in Music
Sketching in Screenwriting
• Sketching in Theater

Music always seemed like a natural place to continue my investigation of the performing arts and sketching. I’ve played the saxophone since I was ten years old and I love jazz. But after some false starts, I’m not sure it’s the best way to explore the act of sketching. Improvisation in musical performance is based on extensive practice and a deep understanding of the nature of music. As a sketching technique it’s inexpensive, plentiful and disposable, all important qualities, but it isn’t quick or timely and there just isn’t much for service designers to glean beyond the importance of the work ethic.

For a while I abandoned music and explored other facets of sketching, but then I stumbled across information about how Mozart and Beethoven approached composition. I realized that there might be something for service designers to learn from classical music rather than jazz.

Contemporaries of Mozart held the romantic notion that he composed “automatically, intuitively, and without conscious effort.” They saw the writing as a simple mechanical process that channeled the music from his head onto paper, ready for the symphony. But over three-hundred sketches and drafts have survived to the present day to cast a different light on Mozart’s compositional approach.

The historian Ulrich Konrad has written extensively on these techniques in Mozart’s Sketches [PDF 1.1MB]:

Mozart noted down his sketches almost exclusively on separate sheets of paper, using ink. He had no use for “sketchbooks” and almost never sketched in pencil. […] The reliable report that Mozart also used a wax tablet or slate when producing his sketches is one we should do well to bear in mind, for, even if it does not extend our knowledge of the sketches themselves, it reminds us that sketches could be erased after they had been written down. If Mozart worked in this way, it means that he had little sense of any need to keep a sheet of paper once it was filled with sketches.

This suggests that the sketches were tools for thought, rather than a conscious effort to document ideas. Konrad categorizes the sketches into four major types, all written in a special handwriting Mozart kept for private use:

  • Sammelblätter – pages containing a variety of apparently related sketches for possible later use.
  • Werkblätter – pages with sketches for a single identifiable work in progress.
  • Zufallsblätter – pages with diverse and apparently unrelated sketches not connected with identifiable work in progress or a specific finished work.
  • Skizzenpartituren – more or less completed scores but written in Mozart’s “private” hand.

According to Konrad, these sketches rarely represent the final form of a theme but indicate various levels of development in the creative process. Far from a straightforward transcription of Mozart’s musical genius, scholars have followed the development of ideas from barely decipherable individual notes and snippits to several bars of a melody to completely fixed passages with several parts in a rough score. The sketches are a means for developing these ideas, not simply recording them.

Service designers can learn from this approach. First of all, sketching works at several scales and at several different points in the design process. A sketch could encompass something as small as a moment concept or an individual touchpoint, all the way up to a complex service encounter. Designers should always be prepared to capture ideas, and that means never being without a notebook and something to write with. If we were to follow Mozart’s example, service designers would keep one notebook for raw, incohate sketches and a second for more developed versions of those ideas. For me the front and back halves of a Moleskine notebook might serve the purpose.

Designers should also consider keeping a larger notebook for more refined sketches as threads make their way from the smaller notebooks. For example, Mozart often focused on the formative lines of one particular voice or instrument in the larger composition. These “sketches-in-extract” were designed to explore a particularly striking musical element — the harmony or a counterpoint for example. For me this recalls Twyla Tharp’s focus on the “spine” of a choreographic performance; the central motivating element behind her compositions.

We can follow this idea into the work of Ludwig van Beethoven who sketched more than any other major composer. His sketches mainly consist of simple melodic lines, or feature them prominently. The composer sang or hummed as he took his daily walks and sketched on loose pieces of paper.

In Beethoven’s Compositional Process, William Kinderman classifies these sketches into four major types:

  1. Movement plans – Beethoven’s overviews of entire works or movements, in outline. Incipits of movements often appear, sometimes connected by words showing briefly what the intended order of sections or movements is to be.
  2. Continuity drafts – Single-stave drafts for entire sections of works, for example, expositions, development sections, or codas. The obvious purpose of such drafts is to lay out the material of a section over a large formal span and to work out both the continuity of the content and the length and proportions of its subsections.
  3. Sketches of intermediate length – Sketches serving a variety of elaborative purposes. Sometimes these supplement continuity drafts; sometimes they are independent entries designed to try out solutions to a multitude of types of compositional problems.
  4. Small-scale sketches – Either for works in progress or those to be worked out in the future, for example, motifs, fragments, jottings, “concept sketches,” and similar entries. Some of these entries may turn out to supplement other sketches and even composing scores or autographs representing fairly late stages of a given work.

What interests me about Beethoven’s sketches are the larger scale explorations of movement plans and continuity drafts. As Kinderman puts it, “in many cases, the apparent purpose of sketchbook entries is to work out the larger proportions of a given section, its thematic and motivic content, its harmonic direction, and its larger phrase rhythms.” Here the compositions are being sketched at a macro level. This goes far beyond sketching moment concepts or touchpoints. Beethoven shows the potential for sketching entire ecosystems.

Later in this series I’ll explain some sketching techniques that service designers can adopt to do exactly that.

. . .

This article is part of a series on how to sketch a service based on techniques from the performing arts.

How to Sketch a Service
Sketching in Choreography
Sketching in Film
Sketching in Screenwriting
• Sketching in Theater