Rock Stars Need Not Apply

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.

  1. “So it is philosophical?” I ask/declare to press you harder at what is the important point of your message. Which is to say that SD is a paradigm shift away from user-centeredness, but even your description as others I have heard in the past, still feels akin to speaking to an industrial designer about User Experience Design who would declare, “Oh! it’s just a philosophy of inclusion of the human perspective towards the creation of the same artifacts that are being created either way.”

    Let me be more clear, I hope. As someone who really enjoys interaction design but someone who loves the prospect of designing services, I REALLY want to understand service design and here is where I landed.

    a) “Service Design” is mis labeled, b/c it is not the “design of services” as the name would suggest at all. it is more than services. It is more than experiences. It is holistic systems design. But b/c it is framed around “services”, everyone listening is really confused.

    b) co-creation is important for sure. But the way it is framed can easily be translated to the notions of “participatory design” that are already very prevalent, but done completely differently in user centered design practices.

    c) components vs. systems or forests from trees. service designers are the opposite of user-centered designers b/c UCDs for the most part come from the world of either artifact design or engineering. Both of these worlds design trees which at best are put together to build forests. Service Designers imagine the forest first, and then through deconstruction and abduction grow (not build) the right trees, and more importantly lay the foundational labor that affords the possibility if not probability that the desired trees WILL grow in this new environment.

    When I was pushed as an interaction designer to understand these differences, it really started to cick home. But the real issue is that like interaction design to say industrial design, the overlaps are so huge, and the differences are in such low contrast, that the semantics really need to be re-written. Because if you can’t make understand a group of designers on the crux of what it is you do already, how are you really supposed to communicate to anyone else?

    — dave

    ps. am I close?

  2. Jeff, your attempt at rhetoric is pathetic and misguided. For one thing, Jesse was simply responding to the question asked, “Who are the new UX rock stars?” For another, god forbid a company’s founder and president stating something in support of his team.

    Separately, you demonstrate no awareness at all of current UX practice, at least at a company like Adaptive Path. As stated in our charter, “We help companies create products and services that deliver great experiences that improve people’s lives,” UX is not about the glory of our designers. UX is all about engaging with the person on the other end of the experience, and swallowing your own ego in the process.

    And, anyone practicing UX in any meaningful way knows that it’s about more than the user. We spend a lot of time coaching and mentoring our client organizations, and as we do more work that crosses channels, we’re increasingly helping our clients improve their front-line team’s ability to succeed.

    Your claim of humility is laughable, as evidenced simply by what you’ve written here. By setting up a bizarre and false dichotomy of the preening UX designer and the humble service designer, you a) demonstrate your own narrow-minded bias and b) potentially do harm in advancing the practice of both those who call themselves UX designers and those who call themselves service designers.

    Frankly, it’s a little sad to see you blow out of proportion Cooper’s offering of an energy drink or Jesse’s innocent response to a question. It’s grasping at straws in an attempt to make an association, akin to saying Barack Obama palled around with terrorists, or is a socialist because he’d like to do something about income inequality.

    There’s so much opportunity to do great work, and we need collaboration among people with as diverse a range of skills, interests, perspectives, and backgrounds. In this complex world, turf battles don’t do any of us any good.

  3. Ever since having worked on Oracle e-business Suite in 2001, I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully since it’s still bit abstract and academic to most folks) to encourage a service design POV into software design, since much of what is being designed really concerns systems of human behavior mediated by massively interconnected tool systems, that provide tons of multi-point services (financials? creative suite? online comm/web conf? cloud computing?). So I for one would love to see humanistic service design attitudes/perspectives brought into the digital world…I find much of digital problems are beyond the UI but deal with business and customer “journeys” and “ecosystems” of touchpoints which are either misunderstood or not at all.

    As for “rockstars”, I use that term casually and half jokingly to refer to someone who is a supreme master of their craft/profession, highly esteemed by peers, a valued leader in the field, and willing/able to command a vision for design goodness (product/service/system, etc.). I personally don’t see a problem with that…They become exemplars and mentors, role models to aspire to and help elevate team morale, IMHO. Unless they’re cocky and arrogant 😉 which is an attitude problem, not a label issue i think…

  4. Jeff

    Hi Dave,

    This is really a couple posts in one.

    The first part is arguing that differences in domain and working methods aren’t the biggest obstacle to working as a service designer. Anyone *could* work that way, but most designers don’t want to.

    The second part is more a reaction to the disconnect demonstrated by the presentations at Interaction 10 and trying to put down some points of comparison.

    As for your points, the first is probably true, but that ship sailed long ago. User-focused system design might be one way to say it, but that’s a little unwieldy. The term service design carries the same kind of historical baggage as industrial design and graphic design, in the sense that they’re not completely accurate ways to describe their modern incarnations. But at this point it’s a useful boundary object for the community to coalesce around.

    As for point B, I’d encourage you to check out Liz Sander’s map comparing participatory design and user-centered design. There’s a gulf between the two. One views the user as a reference point while the other views the user as an active partner in design. One other note on participatory design: it has its roots in the design of digital systems but service designers have put their spin on it to deal with the intangible.

    Your last point seems like a great metaphor to me.

  5. Jeff

    Hey Uday, with service design the non-designers should be the rock stars, if anyone. In IxD and elsewhere I find it off-putting but not quite as destructive.

  6. Re: participatory design
    if you are going to appropriate terminology you can’t expect people to go reading some article that spins it your way and agree w/ it. I get it. I understand the differences culturally btw reference pt and partner. But even then, look at the argument and then think of classic Contextual Inquiry and its call for partnership and apprenticeship. it is not that far off. yes, it is different, but so subtle as to not really be a differentiator other than in spirit.

    To me the biggest difference is really my last point and I think it be well served that Service Designers look there. IxDs and SDs are both holistic designers, but that shift in point of view from building components to filling in systems to me is much more important than then the notion of co-creation.

    why? b/c you are saying you can’t design a system/service w/o co-creation? That’s akin to an IxD saying you can’t design a product without research. it’s a fool’s errand indeed. Any artifact regardless of level of zoom or tangibility can be designed w/o inclusion of inputs and they can be designed well in fact. We have seen it. They may require consideration, but never absolute inclusion.

    But by differentiating the medium(s), that is where you get something tangibly easier to articulate.

    — dave

  7. Jeff

    Hi Peter, I’m sorry you didn’t agree with my post, but I don’t think that was in the cards this time around.

    What little I do know about Adaptive Path suggests that your company is a bit of an outlier in the field of UX. In some ways you’re in the same position as many of the interaction design graduates from CMU. Evangelizing such an expansive and uncharacteristic view of design is like pushing molasses uphill.

    Service design is a pretty good analog with a built-in community that already shares many of those same goals and values.

  8. Jeff

    Dave, the point of emphasizing co-creation, at least in this post, is that it influences the shape of the tools in the service design arsenal and the way service designers use them. And it speaks to JJG’s points on philosophy and methods.

    Regarding the Liz Sanders article, just trying to establish common ground. It didn’t strike me as spin; nothing else I’ve seen even addresses the comparison. Sorry about that.

    Anyway, it’s true that you can design services without participatory methods. But that’s what got us into this mess. I think it’s a reaction to the complexity of the problems that service designers want all the help they can get. I can’t imagine taking on a service design problem solo the way I sometimes have to approach interaction design.

    The argument about mediums is probably the easiest to grasp but ultimately I don’t think it’s the most important. And for anyone who argues that practices like IxD, industrial design and visual design are also medium-agnostic it starts to lose its power as a differentiator.

    By the way, I don’t really see interaction design as a holistic discipline in practice. The way CMU (and maybe SCAD?) frames it, sure. But that’s currently the minority position.

  9. Just wanted to add two cents to the whole participatory / ucd thing, mostly addressing Dave’s accusation of Jeff using one article as a crutch to spin his views: “One views the user as a reference point while the other views the user as an active partner in design” is possibly the most accurate depiction of the differences between the two approaches in a few words. There’s plenty of literature on this, not just Liz Sander’s piece.

    One final note: “it has its roots in the design of digital systems” might be correct for the US (don’t know), but it sure is not correct for participatory design in general, which has a long history in Scandinavia that goes back to the 60s-70s and predates ‘digital’. Look for co-design.


  10. Jeff

    Hi Andrea, you’re absolutely right. I was referring to office technology systems and substituted the term “digital” without thinking.

    Most of what I’ve read on the subject when it comes to methods dates to 1993 when the ACM published a special issue on PD and although it covers the history it mainly dealt with techniques that seemed more akin to HCI. I’d be interested in any older sources if you’ve got some recommendations.

    There isn’t much of a tradition of participatory design in the United States outside of architecture and urban planning. So US designers are at a disadvantage from that point of view.

  11. The distinction between Service Design and User eXperience design is fundamental because it’s the unit of analysis. In SD, you have people doing things with people and things; the number of entities involved and their configuration can vary. In UX, your unit of analysis is always a human being having an experience of something. There’s a big overlap in the domain of problems that designers get involved in, but UX is always at the edge, while SD goes from the centre to the edge and back again.

    I wouldn’t agree that SD is really holistic systems design. Sociotechnical systems are platforms on top of which you design services and operate them. This is readily apparent when you look at something like child protection, which involves multiple government departments, families, schools, doctors and the media.

    Neither UX or SD has the monopoloy on co-creation, and both can be conducted with or without it. Co-creation is an epistemological position at heart, and people who are into Activity Theory tell me that in Scandinavia, it’s also an ethical and political stance, to do with the way civil society developed in Northern Europe.

  12. Re: “When I hear service design I reach for my gun”

    I tweeted this. Jamin quoted it. You used it in a misguided attempt to show “hostility” towards the idea of Service Design (without attribution, I might add).

    The quote above was used to express frustration with the ongoing and seemingly endless debate about the boundaries and definitions of professional practice that seem… well, squishy. The constant need of academics and evangelists to redraw the map and divide up talented people seems odd to those of us in the trenches. The admittedly provocative (but also funny!) quote was meant as a comment on the divisive nature of conversations (just like this one!) rather than to the existent of the SD practice.

    What you’ve successfully proven with this bizarre straw-man attack on Adaptive Path and others within the UX community is that the debate is still raging, and still largely semantic. That alone won’t convince me that UX and SD are the same, any more than your over-reach and obtuse interpretation of what other people say is proof that all SD practitioners are utterly humorless. That’s just you, and here’s hoping your next attempt to advocate on behalf of your practice is more well-reasoned.

  13. Jeff

    Hi Ryan, fair enough. I misinterpreted the “OH” at the beginning of your tweet as “overheard.” I didn’t realize it was your sentiment.

    Thanks for your feedback.

  14. I’m pro rock star, a term I wasn’t familiar with until I went to CMU. Once I realized there were such things as design rock stars, I wanted to be one. I think that’s a good thing for design.

    The overheard (OH) tweet posted by Ryan (which was not his sentiment, but indeed overheard) was amusing and made for a good joke at the beginning of my presentation. But it also helped me think about how to communicate service design without having it seem overused and irrelevant, which is how I interpreted the original comment.

    Finally, I’m not surprised that so many people don’t get service design, even after my presentation and Shelley Evenson’s at Interation10. It’s difficult gain a new perspective simply by listening to a conference talk. They make for good conversation starters and provoke thinking and exploration that will continue far beyond the talk. And I had many positive conversations after the talk, during which people did seem to reach some clarity (sometimes, that person was me). That said, I’m not sure I get service design all of the time. As I said in my talk, it’s something I’ve been pondering for four good years now and still struggle to understand and articulate.

    But what I should have said more clearly is that interaction design is not service design. They have a similar process because they are both human-centered design processes. My point is interaction designers can move into a service design process without too much difficulty. Interaction designers can play a part in service design. But they do not own the form.

  15. A few thoughts here:

    I was not saying that Jeff was using a single article as a crutch. What I was saying is that participatory design and co-design are frames that have existed as Andreas points out for quite some time actually well before UCD and SD were ever uttered. My point was about communication. I was not accusing Jeff of anything, but trying to help Jeff with what he wants to take on, which is communicate outside the SD fold and especially to UX practitioners.

    This idea of reference vs. co-creation to me is not distinctive enough. I am familiar with it. It speaks to me of Contextual Design of Holtzblat and the apprenticeship approach steeped in the UCD movement through her organization’s work.

    Further a discipline cannot have but a single method to make it distinct. This makes no sense to me. To use the rough terminology of Saffer IxD is not limited to only UCD, but also had “genius design”. Services as a medium (for lack of a better term) do not have to be designed by co-design. They can be considerate of the totality of the conversations that exist with these systems without going through the processes. Otherwise, Service Design is not a design discipline like any other, but rather a methodology, which in my mind would be a bad direction for any community to form itself around. It is way too specific.

    I’m not sure that SD is anything other than good design which has evolved methods to tackle the new peculiarities of the medium(s) those who choose to tackle them have discovered, defined, and refined. Much like IxD has emerged as a design discipline struggling with managing the complexity of technology, SD seems to be emerging to struggle to manage the complexity of culture (due to the complexity of technology).

    — dave

  16. Jeff

    Hi Jamin, I’m not totally clear on the alchemy at Adaptive Path but I suppose you are a rock star now. Or soon will be.

    I agree that interaction designers can move into service design. There are plenty of examples of that. But contra Dave’s point, above, I absolutely don’t want to take on the goal of evangelizing outside the SD fold to UX practitioners (or interaction designers.)

    The ones who are a good fit for service design will find it without having to be told. The rest will just be annoyed.

  17. Sorry. Didn’t mean to put words in your mouth. I thought I read that as one of the goals of this piece. I do think it is in the interest of all design communities regardless of “theater” (a term that Marc Rettig used w/ me in a conversation that I really like) to help each other get our ducks in a row. we are all valuable and viable contributors to design practice as a whole and while boundaries aren’t important to practitioners, they do help our clients and other stakeholders understand at least our gravitational affinities within our practices.

    But yes, this isn’t necessarily a job you have taken on (yet). 😉

  18. I dropped a brain dump on this subject over at Kicker and subsequently cleaned it up.

    Executive summary: there exist potentially more appropriate archetypes for designers than rock stars.

  19. Hi Jeff,

    I appreciate your attempt here to highlight the historical roots of Service Design, and I’ll be looking for opportunities to learn more about it with less skepticism. 😉 As one of the folks who tried and failed to learn more about it at Interaction10 whose tweets you quoted, I do believe that those who are evangelizing the field are not doing a good job at illuminating its distinct nature—especially compared to the broad definition of IxD & UX that I subscribe to.

    Some other responses come to mind. I also worked at Cooper, before your time, and I’m shocked that you got such a welcome there. I too would have been put off by the Rockstar thing, and I find it curious that such an attitude would have been manifested because I didn’t feel it to be in the air during my 3-year tenure there. Although we were all proud to work at Cooper, it was for the greater good we could do for our clients and was not about achieving some kind of personal glory.

    In fact, one thing about the practice of interaction design that has always been one of its most attractive qualities to me is that one must LEAVE EGO BEHIND. I believe that somebody with a massive ego simply cannot be a stellar IxD practitioner, because IxD is fundamentally about delivering the right solution to people who are not necessarily like yourself. Unlike other traditional fields of design (industrial & graphic, mainly), being a maverick, ego-driven IxD is almost oxymoronic.

    For this reason, the term “rock star” is certainly problematic because real rock stars are some of the most egoistic types of people in the universe. However, I’ve been at peace with that term as Dan Saffer used it, because I understood him to mean that we need more stellar (etymology: star!) practitioners who can shed light on the profession and elevate the discipline to greater prominence in industry & the world at large. For both IxD and Service Design, I would think that the outcomes of such visible, admirable evangelism by individual “rock stars” would deliver greater professional satisfaction to all practitioners and further improve the world by resulting in more people being served by our well-designed, humanistic solutions.


  20. There is a difference between a “rock star” and a “diva”.

    Rock star: someone who is incredibly good at what they do, who demonstrates leadership and guides people to the best design

    Diva: someone who takes all the credit and attention, is hard to work with and is an egotistical, who may or may not have the chops to get the job done but insists they do anyway.

  21. Jeff

    Hi Liz, thanks for stopping by. I wasn’t sure about the “rockstar” symbol at first. Could have been some random leftover junk so I tossed it in a drawer. I didn’t put two and two together until I started seeing them on display around the office. It’s not a culture where people actually need to drink that kind of stimulant to work around the clock or anything.

    I checked the archives of Cooper’s old website and they used to say it directly on the recruiting page. (stars, rather than rock stars). Other than that it was largely tacit. The JJG quote just sparked the memory.

    As to your other comments, I completely agree. The important point about service design is that it’s almost always a group endeavor that in practice involves non-designers. The cult of the individual just doesn’t fit. It occurred to me that people’s reaction to the term “rock star” could be a useful shibboleth.

    I’m honestly not trying to convert any interaction designers or UXers (luckily, I don’t think there’s any danger of that). If people are happy doing UX or IxD I think that’s fantastic. But I’d like to see those who do try to evangelize be more fruitful.

    The audience for this blog is mostly service designers. I try to leave UX to go its own way when I can. But it’s getting harder to avoid crossing paths.

  22. Jeff

    Hi Marcus, I think that first list is pretty good — the whole “guide people to the best design” thing isn’t really orthodox co-design but it’s not the worst thing in the world. I don’t mind designers demonstrating talent and leadership, but I don’t think they need to embrace self-aggrandizing labels.

    As for “diva” let’s not even open up that can of semantics.