Category Archives: Design

A case for business philosophy

I just found a post from a baker’s dozen years ago that does a good job of articulating my views on radical creativity, perplexity and philosophy. Confusingly, I called it “pro-lifer” probably a pun on being a lifer in the professional world. It is a bad title.

I like it, but I want to edit it and use some of it in this damn book I’ve been wanting to write. I’m trying again in April. So here it is in slightly edited form.


Sometimes, when we press ourselves to think through difficult problems, we come to a point where how we think imposes limits on what we can think.

A problem is recognized — felt — but when we try to think it out, we arrive at the edge of thinkability. We cannot resolve this problem with the intellectual moves that ordinarily work to resolve our problems.

If we are precise and honest with ourselves, we will realize something disturbing: at this point what we most painfully lack is not an answer, but a clear question. We cannot even articulate the problem.

Our minds do not know what to do with such a situation. We don’t even know how to talk about this experience. We are completely oriented by metaphors of objects existing positively in a negative space that’s given: and this space is reality itself.

But here, the very space for the problem is lacking. Our minds boggle at this, just as it boggles when we try to contemplate what stands beyond the limits of space, or what occurs beyond the limits of time. It is literally inconceivable.

Such situations are not uncommon, even in the intellectual flatlands of business. It might be helpful to develop some vocabulary for such situations:

  • An inarticulate problem that remains inarticulate because it stands outside the current limits of thinkability is a perplexity.
  • When we intuit that something problematic might conceal a perplexity and if we attempt to comprehend it we might get sucked into a perplexity and trapped there we feel apprehension. We are tempted to hold the problem at arm’s length, or ignore it, or treat it as a more familiar problem that we do know how to think and respond to.
  • The distinctive, painful feeling we are caught inside a perplexity is anxiety. This feeling is always intensely uncomfortable, but when it is accepted as the birth pangs of genuinely new idea it becomes a far more acceptable part of the labor and delivery of innovations.
  • The limits of thinkability in a particular approach to a problem is an intellectual horizon.
  • Perplexities are resolvable by the peculiar and perpetually misunderstood activity known as philosophy.

*

What? Philosophy useful in business?

Ask a dozen people to list the ten most useless things any person can do, and philosophy will top the list. When an exasperated project manager exclaims “We don’t have time to philosophize!” nobody questions the wisdom of such practical thinking.

However, it is precisely here, when a group faces situations it does not know how to think out — where people become most anxious and most impatient and most inclined to just pick something and go with it — that philosophy is most useful and is in fact the very cornerstone of eventual success.

According to Wittgenstein: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’” Is this not exactly when a company goes outside and hires someone to help it find its way out of a problem it doesn’t understand? When it doesn’t know its way about?

Yet, even consultancies — companies whose very purpose is to help other companies in this situation — are stuffed with anti-philosophical “pragmatists” whose life purpose is to simply get things done. Under the stress of anxiety such people reject the very thing that will bring them success. They stop thinking, stop listening and put their noses to the millstone.

This is how most of their projects go. Most of their projects turn out pretty unspectacular, but since they’ve never experienced a spectacular outcome, and because spectacular outcomes are uncommon, anyway, nobody blames them, nobody blames their client for their unspectacular, unlovable, unexceptional non-success, and nobody gets fired — so good enough. And emails go out calling the bunt a home run, and an assemblage of best practices an innovation, etc., etc. etc. and this is what makes corporations so damn corporate. They didn’t confront anxiety, and, so, realistically, this is the most that can be hoped for.

“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.” — Wittgenstein

*

The reason few companies innovate is not that they lack intelligence or ingenuity or ideas — it’s that they are organizationally unprepared to face the perplexities and the anxiety intrinsic to innovation.

They misdiagnose the painful feelings of things going right as something going dreadfully wrong, and inadvertently abort the innovation process.

*

Most people, most of the time will try to make the absence of a clear question go away by making up things that resemble answers, that seem more or less related to what the question could be or ought to be. As long as the answer fits the standards of the culture to which it is addressed (that is, it has a truthy mouth-feel) and does not offend or impinge on anyone (inconsequentiality is the surest strategy for accomplishing this), it is generally accepted as an answer.

Learning service design backwards and forwards

I’ve found two ways of helping people understand service design.

The first way, which I began developing almost two years ago and described on this blog late last year, is helping people learn to notice the kinds of problems service design is good at solving. I’m calling this “Six Sensibilities of Service Design”.

The second way is to show the typical final deliverables of a service design project. These deliverables comprise both comprehensive surveys of the service as a whole as well as specific itineraries documenting key paths through the service.

Surveys include:

  • Service flows — Service flows map all primary paths through a service, from one touchpoint to the next. Normally the perspective mapped is that of the receiver of the service, but ideally those delivering and supporting the service would also be mapped.
  • Value exchanges — Every service can be described as a value exchange between different participants (actors), each investing things of value (time, effort, money, information, etc.) in order to get something of value in return. This exchange is conducted in smaller installments that take place over a span of time, and each installment must motivate the next installment if the service is to progress toward its fulfillment.
  • Experience strategy — The experience strategy answers the question of “What should it be like to participate in this service?” One popular way to express the experience strategy is experience principles, a list of characteristics of the service that will experientially differentiate the service from its alternatives.

Itineraries include:

  • Service stories — Service stories convey an ideal service experience, usually, but not necessarily, from the perspective of the receiver of the service. Each experience story traces out one path through the service flow, and relates what one service actor (and other actors who appear in their story) experience along the way, investing and receiving value. These stories are the backbone of service design, because they put, in the most concrete and universally-relatable terms, what all development efforts across all disciplines are contributing to bring to actuality. Service design, unlike other disciplines, operationalizes omnichannel, multi-actor experiences, starting from the experience itself. Other approaches, if they consider experience at all, often do so after most operational work was done (normally with no consideration of experience) and with exclusive focus on “the customer” receiving the service.
  • Service blueprints — Service blueprints are outlines of operationalization of one service story. It outlines what happens in the “front stage” of the service, experienced by the receiver of the service, as well as processes that occur in the “back stage” to support the service.

In an ideal world, every possible itinerary in a service flow would be related as a service story and blueprinted. In reality, designers must prioritize paths, with the understanding that the work will continue in perpetuity.


I am aware this is incomplete and still pretty inadequate. Nobody unfamiliar with service design will understand service design from what I have just outlined. However, I believe once the outline is fleshed-out with more description and examples, it will be quite effective — especially if it is supplemented with “Six Sensibilities of Service Design”.

Once this foundation is established, the approaches of service design will make much more sense. That is my hole and aspiration, anyway.

Design is the supersystem

This article is incomplete, and likely significantly incorrect. But I’m posting it, anyway, just to spur me to keep working on it. It is flawed but there is important truth in it. If you are an engineer, please pay especially close attention to my reckless claims about regression testing, because I suspect I may be speaking about obsolete ideas that I never adequately understood. Let’s fight.


Once you understand that design is concerned with the development of hybrid systems comprising both voluntary participants (humans) and automatic components (nonhumans), and that such systems are incomplete until the human participants are actually participating several truths become obvious:

  • The human participants must be taken as one of the essential parts of the system. Designers seek understanding of how human participants will behave within a system for exactly the same reason engineer seek understanding of how material or technological components will behave in an engineered system: To the degree a part of a system is poorly understood, it is likely to behave unpredictably and cause the system to perform poorly or fail.
  • When we view systems that people are eventually expected to use or to participate in, as already complete without the people using it — when we try to evaluate that as-yet humanless system, without including the users or participants, we are mistaking a mere part for the whole. Almost all engineered systems are mere subsystems of larger designed supersystems, and the superstystem is the proper unit of evaluation.
  • When we make changes to engineered systems, we are often making changes to the larger design system and how humans will participate in it. No competent engineer would dream of releasing a change to a system without performing regression testing, to ensure no unintended effects emerge from the system, but, because they misconceive design systems as mere engineered systems that will eventually be used by people, they fail to include usability testing in their protocols.

UXers and HCDers have always known it was foolish to speculate on how people will use or participate in a system. But few actually thought of people as voluntary participants in a supersystem that could be treated as a testable unit. Service design — our first human-nonhuman hybrid system development methodology — has made the advantages of this conception of design more obvious, but it was actually true from the start.

Annual disorientation

Every year around this time I lose my curriculum. I pick up books and abandon them.

This year I’ve picked up and dropped several books about the formation of worldviews. I started at Worldview and Mind by Eugene Webb. Then I switched over to Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking. Then I spent a few days in Cassirer revivalist Sebastian Luft’s The Space of Culture. Now I am tentatively rereading Bruno Latour’s weird and semi-neglected magnum opus, An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence.

All this came after a half-year dive into hermeticist literature, focusing on Kabbalah and Tarot, and approached from my own heretically practical angle.

Susan has booked a mountain cabin for a week-long writing retreat in early spring. I’ve noticed that everything I am doing is now preparation for that week.

My project is the same as it has been for the last decade, and both the hermeticist and the worldview investigations are components of it, and, of course, design remains at the heart of it as well. The project is enworldment. If we are displeased with the world as we experience it, what do we have at our disposal to change our experience of the world — by materially changing the world, by changing own being-in-the-world, by changing our own social participation? My prescription is to approach things as a designer — always as a designer — and most of all when we think we should approach them as a political or “ethical” actor.

How to close the theory-practice gap

I have never once just thought up a truly new practice and then executed it afterwards.

Every new thing I’ve ever conceived emerged from intuitive, nonverbal doing — from groping in the dark, from muddling through, usually under conditions of considerable perplexity and stress.

Only after, if it worked, can I go back and reflect on what made it work, and produce a theory.

I’ve never seen things go the opposite direction.

As far as I know, the only way to close the theory-practice gap is to theorize from practice. And it is less like a closing of a gap than it is paving something substantial but rough and poorly lit.

There is only a gap if theory has been sketched into a vacuum. I don’t think those gaps ever close.

And trying to practice from theory leads to mechanical sterility. It leads to execution of memorized dance steps, or the recitation of syllables from an alien language.

Every important thing I’ve ever conceived has come came to me this way. And every important thing I’ve ever learned has come to me first as a new practical capacity, a new ability to perceive or respond first — tacit know-how — and only much later has it become something I can actually explain.

Maybe a Sartrean formula would be helpful: Practice precedes theory.

What emerges from practice-forged theory is praxis — articulate practice.


I am excited about design as an alternative mode of practical life.

It is a new living tradition, a way of working, self-consciously developed by many diverse practitioners, solving a vast and growing array of real-world problems in every conceivable material (matter, space, time, information, imagination, feeling), for (arguably) the last 60-so years.

It is a tradition that must be appropriated and internalized before it becomes productive in the head, hearts and hands of a participant.

It is the appropriate mode of practice for anyone who works in systems in which humans participate. If you think about it at any depth at all, this category embraces just about all human activity, most of all the governing of people at every scale.

Design is the way we should be approaching life together, but its methods and even more, its core sensibilities, its conceptive capacities, are still largely confined to specialists. In my own life, I’ve found that disciplining myself to behave as a designer has made intractable, incorrigible problems soluble.

Almost anything I do, I do better if I do it in a designerly way.

But what is this designerly way? It is not methods. It is what animates these methods. It is a faith.


More and more, I am realizing that the purpose of my life is to illuminate and activate the esoteric underpinnings of design practice.

Like all faiths, design has a visible outward form that can be looked at — an exoteric expression — and an inward, esoteric being that cannot be looked at, but rather is seen from.

The reason I have been so quiet lately is I am returning to the sophia perennis. I want to do for design what esoterists have done with traditional religions — illuminate their transcendent unity. To this end, I am focusing on the esoteric depths of my own faith, and studying Kabbalah.

But just to preemptively address on obvious and important objection:  I am not in the slightest interested in making design into a religion. I am just trying to invest our practical lives with religious energy. We cannot continue on with this vacuous, stressful, tedious slogging. Our oil-dependent economy depends even more on another rapidly depleting fuel source, will-power. Our will-power tanks have been sucked dry are emptied even of vapors.

We sit before our screens, commanding our hands to move and type out words, but they refuse to do what we say.

We need an alternative, renewable psychic energy source. But we cannot tap into this source as long as we continue to insist that all new sources conform to our current sacred theories of power. These theories possess us and will not release us until we pay the price of our redemption.

Six sensibilities of service

I’ve decided to experiment with making my course “Introduction to Service Design” an exercise in hermetics. I am going to re-title the course “Initiation Into Service Design”, and I am going to re-title the central module of the course “Six Sensibilities of Service”.

I’m using “hermetics” to mean applications of esoteric insights in the domain of mundane life — applied hermeticism. I’ve been working this way for decades, and have struggled for language to explain my approach to design and how it differs from the technique-driven approach of most professional designers.

The esoteric language, including the designation “hermetic”, however, is not for the public. It is just for me and my own clarity, and for the handful of weirdos who also respond to this kind of thing and find it clarifying, rather than mystifying. At this point, I do not plan to run around billing myself as a “hermetic designer”. My outward practice and language will and must stay compatible and cooperative with the exoteric practices and norms of the design industry and the business world to which it belongs.

This kind of skillful selective semi-concealment, by the way, is part and parcel of esoterism, which always remains in communion with the exoteric facets of its tradition — while serving it by investing it with life, or “vivifying” it, to use Valentin Tomberg’s words.

I’ve intuited this idea often, but I think it is time to say it explicitly: Design is a tradition equipped with exoteric theories and practices, rooted in esoteric understandings into which designers are initiated, or of which they are oblivious.

Merely learning the lingo, theory and methods of design does not fully equip a would-be practitioner to actually design. Nor does expertise in executing the techniques designers use. There is something else required if one hopes to “really know what they’re doing” as designers, or even “knowing where designers are coming from”.

The new goal of the course is to accelerate the acquision of this “something else”, which consists of activating a set of enceptions — what hermeticists call arcana — each a different capacity to perceive, recognize and interact with a certain species of given, without which the given is missed. The given is either not noticed, submerged in oblivion, or it is meaningless, or perplexing.

For the sake of sounding minimally sane, sober and non-exotic, I will call these enceptions “sensibilities”. After all, each is an ability to make sense of some particular species of given. Also, the word “sensibilities” is common in the world of art and design, and my use of it is, though novel, completely compatible with current usage. It is a very gentle repurposing of the word.

The six sensibilities are what one must activate and cultivate in oneself, in order to recognize, understand and resolve problems with services.

Think of the six sensibilities as parts of a mental hand — five fingers and a palm. All six are needed to grasp the complexity of any service as a simple whole. All six are needed to articulate this clear understanding of service and communicate it to others. All six are used to grip the tools of service design in shaping new services or reshaping existing ones. They are the background of any clear understanding, any effective communication or any skillful response to a service design problem.

These six sensibilities differentiate  inspired, insightful service designers who work naturally and intuitively from designers who work formulaically and mechanically with tools and techniques they understand mostly theoretically. Before the sensibilities are active, a designer is like an aspiring dancer who must recall and execute each step of the dance they are performing. After the sensibilities are developed, the dance moves the dancer’s body with spontaneous, musical grace.

But this course is not only — or even primarily — for designers. It is for people who might hire and/or collaborate with service designers. But why would they need a course? After all, don’t we hire professionals to spare us the need to become experts?

Here is why: One of the challenging peculiarities of service design is that an organization cannot hire service designers to do service design work for them. They must hire service designers to work with them.

Service design work changes the way organizations operate, and even how they organize themselves around the delivery of services.

Every design discipline works with a particular material, and with service design the material is the organization.

For service design to work, an organization itself must, and cannot avoid, participating directly in the service design process.

That participation requires a significant degree of understanding of service design, and that understanding is hollow, ineffective and overwhelming without the six sensibilities.

That is why this course is needed.


So what are the sensibilities and how do we activate them?

I will list the sensibilities, and offer a quick and barely adequate description for each one:

  • Temporal sensibility – Services are experienced in a series of Now points, each with a past and future. At each point in the experience, one remembers what happened before and tries to anticipate what comes next, and this shapes and colors what is happening in the present. When the service experience ends, it is remembered as a story with memorable ups and downs, and an overall impression of how it went. Designing an experience that unfolds over a significant duration of time requires a different mentality from designing an object experienced momentarily — it requires a temporal sensibility.
  • Omnichannel sensibility – Services happen across multiple touchpoints delivered through different service channels. A typical service zigzags across locations (home, car, store, service centers) and physical objects (computer, phone, product packaging, product interfaces) and virtual objects (websites, apps, messages, social media platforms). But they are perceived as part of something, and that is a service. Designing an experience that unfolds across multiple channels of a person’s free choosing requires a different mentality than designing an experience confined to a single channel — it requires an omnichannel sensibility.
  • Polycentric sensibility – Services are experienced by different actors playing different roles in the service, often interacting with one another. For instance in a retail scenario, a customer is an actor who receives the service, a cashier is an actor who helps delivers the service, while backstage in the stockroom another actor supports the service. Service design tries to make each actor’s experience a good one. Each actor is considered a different center of a common experience with multiple centers. Designing for multiple actors simultaneously requires a different mentality from designing for one actor at a time — it requires a polycentric sensibility.
  • Reciprocity sensibility – At every point in a service, in order for the service to unfold as intended, one or more actors must be motivated to participate in the service. The actor wishes to get some kind of value from their participation, and if they see no value they are unlikely to play their part. They invest something valuable — effort, time, information, money, comfort, etc. — in order to get something valuable in return. This is as true for those delivering and supporting services as those receiving them. And it becomes exponentially true when participation is voluntary and non-hierarchical, for instance when partners cooperate to provide jointly-delivered services to shared customers. To the degree that a service provides a win-win value exchange for all who participate in it at every point, the service will flourish. Wherever it does not, the service will be weak or even broken, and actors will opt out (refuse to buy; quit their job) or choose services with a value exchange (buy from a competitor; find a better job somewhere else). Designing win-wins for everyone who participates in a service requires a different mentality from designing around the needs of only one actor — it requires a reciprocity sensibility.
  • Operational sensibility – In the practical world, ideas are worthless unless they can be implemented and made real. Service design is radically practical, and to ensure ideas can work in practice enlists experts from throughout the organization to contribute their knowledge and disciplinary know-how, and to collaborate with other experts to push the boundaries of what is concretely possible. To guide collaboration among diverse experts each of whom has insights and knowledge required to ensure practicability of innovative ideas requires a different mentality from pie-in-the-sky “big idea” concepting — it requires an operational sensibility.
  • Staging sensibility – It is a truism that some of the best designs are invisible. But at the same time it is also true that some of the best designs are delightful and memorable. The best services are an orchestration of both. Services design pays close attention to what elements or moments of a service should be unobtrusive or even concealed backstage, and which elements should be brought frontstage to be experienced, appreciated or remembered. To coordinate a service that appears the right way at the right time and conceals what should not be noticed requires a different mentality from something designed to only be invisible or only to delight: it requires a staging sensibility.

In the course itself, I will introduce each sensibility with a more extensive description, provide some examples to be viewed through the lens of the sensibility and outline some criteria and earmarks to keep in mind when.

After we have been introduced to each sensibility individually, and learn to exercise the sensibility to detect the kind of service problem that sensibility perceives, we will use all six sensibilities together to assess real services and clearly communicate our assessment.

Redrawing the knitbone

I’ve been playing around with the knitbone image again.

In case you’ve never been subjected to one of my rhapsodies on this topic, “knitbone” is a folk name for comfrey, a plant remarkable for the depth of its taproot.

A comfrey taproot can burrow a ten feet or more into the soil deep under the ground draws nutrients up to the surface.

Gardeners traditionally plant comfrey throughout their gardens. When comfrey drops its lush depth-nourished leaves into the soil, it fertilizes all the surrounding shallower-rooted plants.

The name “knitbone” comes from comfrey’s medicinal application. When pulverized and applied to a wound, it helps the body heal. It can help a bone knit itself back together.

I have emotional history with this plant. When Susan was pregnant with Zoe, we had an herb garden in our back yard. Our midwife was excited to learn that we were growing comfrey. She used it to make a knitbone poultice to help Susan recover from labor. We cared for this plant and received care from it.

Symbolically, knitbone attests to the nourishing power at the depths of understanding, and to the duty of those of us who work at the depths to bring what we find up to the light of everyday practicality.

Remedial phenomenology

For the last couple of months I have been re-grounding myself in Husserl’s phenomenology. The work I am interested in doing is phenomenological, but it is not, itself, phenomenology. By returning to Husserl, I hope to arrive at the point of departure for my project. I am interested in approaching philosophy as a design discipline, both in the form of the philosophy (writing, visuals, practices designed to impart a particular faith) and in its substance (the life afforded by adoption of the faith). To make matters weirder, the faith itself is designerly. Obviously, it is a synthesis of philosophy, design and religion that profoundly scrambles the current meanings of philosophy, design and religion.

Course outline: “What is service design?”

I’ve been taking an online course on designing online courses. If that isn’t meta enough the online course I am learning to design is on design.

My course will be an introduction to service design, meant to introduce people who are contemplating or preparing to participate in a service design project how to think about and talk about service design, so they can feel comfortable with the idea of embarking on a service design project and participating in the process.

I’m putting the tentative outline of the course here, just in case anyone is interested:

Lesson 1: What is design?

  • What we mean by design
  • What we do not not mean by design (making functional things more appealing)
  • What we also do not mean by design (planning out an engineered thing)
  • Design produces dynamic systems of parts and participants
  • Successful design motivates participants to participate
  • Design is concerned with understanding and involving participants

Lesson 2: What is a service?

  • What we mean by service
  • What we do not mean by service (service as opposed to product)
  • Service design’s much broader conception of service
  • Some services don’t look like services
  • Service generates, exchanges and distributes value of myriad forms

Lesson 3: What is the value of design?

  • Quantitative value
  • Qualitative value
  • A business that fails to deliver qualitative value will not make money
  • Experience is about qualitative value
  • Design motivates participants to participate by offering good experience

Lesson 4: Good experiences in general

  • Good experience is useful, usable and desirable
  • Human-centered design (HCD) is a method for producing good experiences
  • Overview of HCD (universal methodology for producing good experiences)
  • Altitudes and granularity of experiences
  • Beyond touchpoints

Lesson 5: Good service experiences

  • Service experiences are a complex special case
  • Service experiences have six characteristics, all of which must be addressed in a good service experience.
  • 1. Services comprise multiple experiences occurring over a span of time
  • 2. Services comprise experiences occurring across multiple delivery channels
  • 3. Services comprise experiences interacting with other people
  • 4. Services comprise experiences of aligned and misaligned interests
  • 5. Services are experienced as partly exposed and partly concealed
  • 6. Services experience is the result of how the organization operates

Lesson 6: The six dimensions of service

  • Reflection on service experiences, good and bad
  • Introduction to six dimensions of service (6DS)
  • 1. Sequential
  • 2. Omnichannel
  • 3. Polycentric
  • 4. Aligned
  • 5. Semivisible
  • 6. Operationalized
  • Sorting good and bad experiences into the 6DS

Lesson 7: A typical service design project

  • Introduction: from current to future state
  • Understand internal perspectives
  • Understand current service delivery
  • Understand the current actor experiences
  • Identify and prioritize opportunities to improve current experiences
  • Envision alternative future experiences
  • Evaluate and revise alternative future experiences
  • Blueprint future service delivery
  • Plan phased development of future service

Lesson 8: Some core tools of service design

  • Introduction: current state, future state versions
  • Current state ecosystem map
  • Current state service blueprint
  • Current state experience map
  • Opportunity statements
  • Concept sheets
  • Future state experience (“story from the future”)
  • Future state moment architecture
  • Future state service blueprint
  • Future state evolution map

Lesson 9: What it is like to participate in a service design project

  • It is participatory
  • It is collaborative
  • It is multidisciplinary
  • It is radically democratic
  • It is anthropological
  • It demands empathy
  • It demands different modes of thinking
  • It will demand different ways of working
  • It changes everything

Lesson 10: How service design can help you

  • Apply six dimensions of service to your own service
  • Define a project

What the actual hell is service design? Part 1

People often ask what I do for a living. I dread this question. Because I answer “service design.” To which they very reasonably ask “What is service design?” To which I find myself unable to give a succinct, clear answer.

My succinct unclear answer is “I am a sort of win-win engineer.”

While this doesn’t come close to answering the question, it does get things rolling in the right direction.

If the person seems sincerely interested I might continue with some un-succinct clarification. “I try to help organizations set conditions where anyone who deals with that organization, whether as a customer, or employee, or leader, or partner, or whatever — anyone who participates in the activities of the organization — benefits from their interactions, while also benefitting others.”

Years ago, a friend and I had big plans to start a “But what is it?” blog in order to showcase companies who explain the benefits of some offering of theirs, but who completely fail to give any sense at all of what the offering actually is. I bring this up because I am painfully aware of the fact that, so far, my explanation of service design is exactly the kind of thing that butwhatisit.com existed to ridicule.

So let’s put some nouns under the lovely benefits. What is service design?

Service design is a design discipline that focuses on improving how organizations create and deliver value, both internally and externally.

Besides committing the sin of circular definition, there are few nouns shakier than “design”. Half the world is confused by the word, and the other unconfused half misunderstand it. The matter of what design actually is will be dealt with later. For now, I will make things even worse by elaborating on the “create and deliver value” part.

The word “value” might be even shakier than “design”. It is certainly very general, and vague. But it is general and vague for the very best of reasons: value exists in myriad forms, and only a word as general and vague as “value” can cover them all.

Obviously, one form of value is money. When value takes the form of money  it becomes easy to quantify, track and manage. Service designers definitely want to help organizations make money, but in this respect, we are no different from any other vendor a company might hire.

The difference comes from the other forms of value that service design helps organizations create and deliver — the more qualitative forms of value — and how many of these forms of value service design seeks to create coordinate and deliver.

Qualitative value can be in the usefulness or desirability of a product, those qualities that motivate someone to buy it.

Qualitative value can be the convenient or timely availability of products.

Qualitative value can be a helpful act of assistance that saves time or effort or stress.

Qualitative value can be useful information, or clarity on some murky or complicated matter, or a mind-blowing epiphany that makes you rethink everything.

Qualitative value can be feeling nourished or refreshed by beauty or elegance, or charmed by humor.

Qualitative value can be reassurance, or a kind word, or a sincere smile.

Qualitative value can be combinations of these various good things all at once, adding up to a good experience.

Qualitative value can be consistently good experiences over durations of time, resulting in a deepened, warmed or strengthened relationship that is valuable in itself. It feels good to have strong loyalty to a brand who has always done you right, and that is valuable.

It also feels good to work for an organization that does its customers right. This kind of organization is often also the kind of place that does its employees and partners right — and encourages employees and partners to do each other right, while doing right for their customers.

Even though these qualitative forms of value can be harder to quantify, track and manage than money is, they are the human reality that is the very root of value. Without these qualitative values, money will not be made.

And without qualitative value money would have no value at all. What good would even the largest quantity of money be, if there were no qualitatively good things to purchase with it? This was the hard lesson King Midas learned when he discovered that his magical touch that turned every qualitative reality into a quantum of gold, was not a blessing, but a curse.

This a paradox: What feels most real, concrete and factual from a management perspective is actually an abstraction of what seems vague, squishy, intuitive and arbitrary — but which are the realest realities of any organization. The hardest facts of business are the least concretely real. The softest, vaguest, touchy-feeliest aspects of business are what drive the behaviors that help a business flourish or make them fail.

So how do you manage these unmanageable factors that make or break your business?

By now it should be clearer what service design exists to do. Service design helps organizations coordinate to produce and deliver all these various kinds of qualitative value as effectively and efficiently as possible.

But how? This brings us to design. But I’ll have to go into that later.


What I’ve written above might end up part of a course I am working on. Please give me feedback if you have any. Thanks!

Reflections on service design

Last week I realized several important things about service design.

First, the modus operandi of service design is to create conditions for summoning and sustaining benevolent collective being (a.k.a. egregores). We arrange the roles, the rules and the material artifacts required to receive a collective animating spirit in which those receiving, delivering and supporting services participate. I cannot talk this way in a professional setting, but knowing this helps me feel the full importance of my work.

Second, I am realizing that one effective way for me to explain what service design does it do point out the contagiousness of feeling. The best strategy for ensuring any one person has a good experience is to ensure that every person has a good experience. A miserable clerk will darken a customer’s experience. And too many miserable customers will sour a clerk’s experience, and over time, it will sour their life, and that clerk will darken the experience even of cheerful customers. Only by baking mutual benefit into our social systems can we ensure that the primary contagion passed in our interactions is good moods.

Third, in any organization, the less direct control it has over the behaviors of its customers, employees and partners, the more it can benefit from service design.

All design is an appeal to freedom. Design assumes choice — the choice to attend or ignore, the choice to select or reject, the choice to cooperate or rebel, the choice to invest or divest, the choice to advocate or denigrate, and so on. Only organizations with coercive power over people do not need design.

Wherever an organization must persuade, design can help. Design helps organizations understand what is persuasive to those people it wishes to persuade, helps it produce the most persuasive options, and helps it ensure that these options stays the persuasive option available.

The design industry has gotten pretty good at producing persuasive options for particular types of people. Witness the prevalence of X disciplines. UX (user experience), CX (customer experience), PX (patient experience) are established industries. Employee experience and citizen experience are becoming more common.

But now, increasingly, organizations face the challenge of designing for multiple types of people. To make it even more complicated, these types of people often interact with each other, on behalf of the organization, but not under its control. Think about platforms like Uber or AirBnB who mediate services exchanged between providers and receivers, but whose brand depends on the quality of these service exchanges. The organization cannot directly control what happens, but must instead create conditions where each participant in the service benefits by benefitting the other.

Organizations who must compete for employees, motivate them and retain them, while simultaneously competing for customers, are also in this boat.

Organizations who produce a product that is a component in a partner’s service, whose product is experienced in the context of this service are in this boat.

Organizations who produce a product but who depend upon partners to present, recommend, distribute, deliver, install, customize or support that product are in this boat.

Organizations who coordinate networks of partners to achieve some greater good are in this boat.

Elected officials who oversee public services, whose careers depend on the votes of an alert, informed, critically-engaged public should be in this boat, at least in theory.

When an organization finds itself in this general position, where it must persuade multiple kinds of people to interact with one another in mutually beneficial ways that support the goals of the organization — that is when service design is most valuable.


I’m thinking about all these things because I am working on designing an online course called “What the Actual Hell Is Service Design?”

Palindromic structure of service design

I am desperately trying to find much simpler ways to convey how service design works. Here is one of my recent simplifications. And it is a simplification that intentionally errs toward over-simplification. It not precisely, exactly accurate, but it is directionally true and helps illuminate the logic of the methodology. It is a helpful heuristic.

The structure of service design is palindromic. That is, it has a mirror structure. It goes 1-2-3-4, then 4-3-2-1.

The first motion is understanding what the current state of the service is.

The second, reversed motion is one of instaurating what the future state of the service ought to be.

First understand:

  • 1. Understand the current organizational capabilities.
  • 2. Understand the deployment of these capabilities in the current service delivery.
  • 3. Understand the current experience of those who receive, deliver and support the experience.
  • 4. Understand where the opportunities are: what should and can change.

Then, in reverse order:

  • 4. Prioritize the opportunities: what should and can change.
  • 3. Envision a better future experience of those who receive, deliver and support the experience.
  • 2. Design a future service delivery capable of actualizing the better service experience.
  • 1. Develop the capabilities required to support the better service.

Above, I linked to an old post, a lengthy excerpt from Bruno Laour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. As apt a term as “instauration” (discovery-creation) is in any truly creative act, it is even more true in service design, where an organization providing a service is dependent on voluntary actors choosing to participate in a way that sustains the service — as opposed to refusing to participate in the service, or participating in a way that undermines the service.

…we find ourselves in a strange type of doubling or splitting during which the precise source of action is lost. This is what the French expression faire faire — to make (something) happen, to make (someone) do (something) — preserves so preciously. If you make your children do their vacation homework assignments, you do not do them yourselves…

As any leader knows, even employees must be persuaded to participate in their employment. But in service design, often much of the service is delivered by partners, many of whom are not under the control of the organization. Participating in the service must be valuable to them or they will opt out or lame out.

Service design wins participation in service systems by designing for mutual benefit. It instaurates conditions where win-win interactions spontaneously occur between service actors.

And this is the single biggest difference between service design and other experience design disciplines, for example, user experience and customer experience. Service design is like them, in that those people who receive the service (whether we call them users, or customers, or consumers or patients, etc) are supposed to find that experience a good experience. That is, the design is functionally helpful, easy to understand and interact with and, hopefully, resonates with their aesthetic and moral ideals. But service design is just as concerned with the experiences of those people on the front lines, actually delivering the service. And it is also concerned with the experiences of people behind the front lines who support that service.

Services are optimally effective when they serve everyone who participates in the service — receiving the service, delivering the service and supporting the service. And, I should add: They must also work for those sponsoring the service. That is, the service must help the sponsoring organization flourish.


In the near future I’ll be posting more and more on service design. I am taking a class on designing online courses, and my project will be to design an actual course, “What is Service Design, and What Does It Do?”

I am absolutely convinced that the praxis of service design is a path to a much better way to work, live and experience life. I would love to see service design become mainstream and become our next collective enworldment, at least for everyday life.

WordPress, R.I.P.

WordPress has completed its long pivot and has finally fully transformed itself into a website design tool. It is no longer optimized for writing. It is designed to assemble media elements into engaging, immersive digital experiences, or something.

The upshot is I can no use it and absorb myself in my writing. The legacy text editor has been fully retired. The block editor is now non-optional, at least if you use the WordPress app. And the online editor is extremely broken. The block editor layout causes weird typos (for instance, I constantly hit underline when I mean to hit delete). When you tap on a word in a different text block, the whole thing lurches upward, and instead of the word you were trying to select, the word below it is selected. And it is now entirely impossible to cut multiple paragraphs. Everything conspires to distract and frustrate.

WordPress is no longer a tool I can use. Even right now, writing this little diatribe, I am having one problem after another. I can hardly get this out. It is depressing.


I loved WordPress.

I also loved Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop.

I loved MacOS, iOS and I loved Apple.


A new alienated generation of designers now dominates UX. One by one these alienated incompetents are destroying designs that I once loved and relied upon. These tools were part of me — extensions of my own being. My intuitive bond with these tools has been severed. I experience it as amputation. It is deeply personal. It is betrayal.


Alienated people cannot design intuitive systems, because alienated people do not even know what intuition is. To them intuition is just arbitrary mental habit, which can be retrained. With enough repetition and drill, just about anything can be made familiar, intuitive and true.

When one is fully alienated, this seems absolutely true, and, without any contrasting experience of intuition with which this alienation can be compared, it is impossible to know or even conceive otherwise. Where conception ends, imagination ends.


Things can be better. Things will be better. Whether we live to experience it, or die from alienation is the real question.

Service design initiation

I am starting a class on online course creation this month. The class is project-based, centering around the design and implementation of an actual online course.

My class project will be an initiation into the enworldment of service design.

By enworldment, I mean the practical-experiential manifestation of an understanding, which causes a person to approach, perceive, understand, respond to and attempt to change the world in some distinct way. (Enworldment is close enough in meaning to “worldview” or “lifeworld” that for most purposes it can be used interchangeably.) *

The course is not meant to be a philosophy of service design, but a series of exercises to effect a shift that causes service design problems to become conspicuously visible as what they are: service design problems.

Currently, under the mainstream corporate enworldment, most service design problems, if noticed at all, are understood in other terms (such as technology problems or management challenges) and are addressed in ways that fail to resolve them, or make them worse.

For a variety of reasons, I have it in for the corporate enworldment, and its failure to detect and respond to service design problems is the least of them. The main problem with the corporate enworldment is the alienating, intuition-paralyzing, depressive effect it has on the majority of people who subscribe to it.

People who believe they hate capitalism don’t really hate capitalism as an economic system, but rather this corporate enworldment’s mode of capitalism. Frankly, if we were to establish socialism today, we would establish it under this same hellish enworldment, while losing many of the tempering effects of the market, and end up with something at least as soulless, oppressive and violent as the Stalinist or Maoist systems. Today’s youth are some of the most thoroughly alienated people I have ever met, and they suffer from political Dunning-Kruger of the profoundest kind that makes them believe they have the answer when they can’t even hear the question. If they do not grow out of their social childishness before they take full control of our society, mass suffering is inevitable. I am sorry, but this is the truth.

I despise the corporate enworldment, too. The only thing I despise more is the anticapitalist two-in-one political enworldment that opposes it — proggism and its complement, alt-rightism. They each think they are the opposite of the other, but they are just the vessels and veins of a single bad-blood pumping circulatory system.

I know that commerce can be conducted in myriad ways within a capitalist system, and one of the better ways is service design. I would like it to become the universal enworldment in the domain of business, and to see all the bean-counters, systems engineers, product managers, perception manipulators, strategic planners and so on, to find their proper places within it, not over it, as they are today.

There is a lot of interest in service design right now. Most people try to do service design within the corporate enworldment, which causes it to be far more complicated and ugly than it could be if it were practiced under a more suitable enworldment. I hope this online course might inspire people to approach business — and life — in a radically different, much better way.


NOTE * : Here is an outtake from an earlier version of this post, where I was attempting to shed more light on enworldment:

“I’ll restate this same idea religiously. Why not? : An enworldment is the way the world manifests to us when we approach it in some particular faith. So when employees of corporations experience their work lives in that dull, weary, anxious, workaday way we describe as “corporate”, that is an enworldment. And any product of corporate life also belongs to that enworldment and it bears a corporate aura — more like a smell — of phoniness, impersonality or insincerity and artificiality. Art aspires to the opposite. An artist with his own enworldment produces artifacts experienced as art, ideally bearing a genuine, intensely personal, otherworldly aura — also known as a halo. Most aspiring artists have absolutely no idea of enworldment, and just try to craft interesting-looking stuff that seems to suggest something provocative or mysterious. Most art does not even manage to be bad art. It is just the idle play of people who’d like to bear an artist’s aura, but who are too timid, pain-averse and unimaginative to diverge from the popular enworldment with its moral norms of norming the abnormal and conventional wisdom of deconstructing convention, playing around with materials in hopes something novel will emerge.)”

 

 

Herbert Simon’s first book

I’m finally getting around to reading Herbert Simon.

I wonder how many service designers are aware that before writing Sciences of the Artificial, Simon wrote another book called Administrative Behavior, which according to Wikipedia, “was based on Simon’s doctoral dissertation” and “served as the foundation for his life’s work.”

I haven’t experienced this precise species of excitement since I learned that Adam’s Smith’s other book was all about empathy.

Prying open the hand of thought

I’ve begun to notice where other people’s own original “pet theories” harm their overall understandings and ability to communicate their ideas. The noticing is spontaneous and intuitive, too. It is not an intention or an analysis. I just see it as given.

This matters to me because I have become aware that I am guilty of the same thing. The idea that I was going to write a book to mark my intellectual property, and my intense anxiety of getting scooped has corrupted my thinking. Now my philosophy is scarred with neologisms and mangled with argumentative entrenchments.

For this reason, I am doing some strange things to loosen my own grip on “my” ideas.

I feel that if I can stop caring, or at least suspend caring about the source of the ideas I use and care about — if I can “open the hand of thought” and let my precious, old, complicated ideas fall out — maybe some simpler ideas might land on my palm.

I am focusing on learning to teach — prioritizing what is most readily learnable over what is mine — as a mindset to gently pry my fingers open.

And what I am going to learn to teach is service design. I want to get service design dead simple, so it can do its transformative magic on our everyday dealings with others.

When done in the right spirit, service design invests us with a new practical faith — one that guides our participation in the transcendent, mysterious, glorious drudgery of life. This drudgery — ours and others — deserves our love and respect. Service design operationalizes that love and that respect within an organization.

It is important!

Hope

I spent most of this week at Greenville Memorial Hospital. My dad had a Type A aortic dissection, and had to undergo emergency open heart surgery. So far, he has beaten some terrifyingly slim odds, largely thanks to his heart surgeon, Dr. Bhatia, who worked on him literally all Sunday night through Monday morning, and the incredible nurses and support staff at the CVICU.

*

These days it is easy to lapse into pessimism regarding our species.

But it is important to remember that the people who give us this dark impression is a small and specialized segment of the population, who spend their days reading about and writing about one small corner of human experience.

Meanwhile, another, much larger group of people show up to work each day to give care and comfort to a perpetually rotating set of hurting, terrified people. They serve with skill, professionalism, compassion and humor. We don’t often hear their perspectives on things because they are incredibly busy. Their communications are mostly practical and specific and directed to one person or a few.

When I focus on people like this, and recognize them as representative of humanity I feel much, much better about everything.

Rambling on about gundams

A friend of mine invited me over to his house to assemble a model gundam with him. I’ve done it twice now, and it’s got me thinking.

As a young kid, for a few years I got way passionately into building model airplanes and cars.

I can pinpoint exactly when I got into it — July of 1981 — because I associate the smell of the citrus safety glue with Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding which was going on at the same time. I’d picked up a model F-104 Starfighter at an Eckerd Drugs en route to SUUSI, a Unitarian-Universalist family summer camp thing. At SUUSI that year I learned the word “lesbian”, and, simultaneously, I found out that gay people were not mythical beings, but actually existed, were attending this camp, and wanted to hang out with each other. Who knew? Also at this session, they showed a film called “Beatlemania”, where I discovered that the Beatles were not an obscure musical act that only I knew about. Not only did a large number of UU adults show up to see the film, but other kids my age did, too. But here’s the real kicker: according to this film, the Beatles were a very popular band — bigger, even, than KISS, the Spinners and Ray Stevens.

Don’t judge me. I did not ask to grow up in rural South Carolina, and I definitely did not ask to be the socially awkward nerd child of yankee pinkos who decided to save money by living in an extra-backwards town neighboring the university where my dad worked — a town that detested yankee pinkos and their awkward offspring. And in the 80s, no less: the golden age of nerd persecution. The theme of every other movie that came out was how dorky, impotently horny and hopeless nerds were, and how they deserve the abuse they naturally receive from their social superiors, but maybe they can use computers or science to get revenge or catch a glimpse of gratuitous boobery. It was not a good time. So fuck off. I had to figure everything thing out myself. That included, most of all, how to generate self-respect in a respect vacuum — a skill that, more than anything else, has made me who I am.

But I’m digressing.

So, model-making takes me way back into by biographical prehistory, and the idea of trying it again was intriguing.

But it wasn’t the same at all. There is no citrus glue. The pieces fit together perfectly — like, weirdly perfectly. When I made my F-104 Starfighter the parts were crude — obviously molded out of plastic magma, probably poured by hand from cast iron vats, in some dark factory lit only by coal fire and arc welders, by some worker who looked like a sooty Mario from Donkey Kong. The parts were attached to trees, and had to be twisted and wrenched free before they could be stuck together.

Half the time the part broke at the wrong point, and the other half of the time the part got all mangled. Later, I learned to gouge the parts off the tree with a blunt X-Acto blade. I wasn’t clear on the concept of disposable blades. I thought of changing the blade as repairing the knife if it broke, and as long as it kept sort of cutting stuff, it wasn’t broken, yet. So I’m pretty sure the blade I plunged into the palm of my left hand, while attempting to carve a T-Top into the roof of a silver 1978 Trans-Am Firebird, had a broken-off tip, and was was also covered with rust and paint. Sadly, that hand-stab was likely the cleanest cut of my model-making career.

But I’m digressing, again.

These gundam molds are miracles of precision fabrication. We snip the pieces with an instrument called the GodHand Nipper. But snip is the wrong word. The plastic just politely and perfectly separates along the cutline.

Then we sand the imperceptible mark where the cut allegedly occurred, until it is as if that part is a material manifestation beamed to Earth from Plato’s plane of pure form. The parts are then snapped together, effortlessly, without any need of glue. They fit with a perfection that gives me goosebumps. Half of the experience is marveling at the ingenuity of the kit’s designer, and at the quality of the fabrication.

Reflecting on this experience, I realize I’ve misconceived the activity.

A long time ago a friend of mine explained to me the difference between popular art and fine art as one of effort, or — as we say in the service design racket, of “value exchange”. In popular art we expend little effort, and in return passively receive the modest pleasures of entertainment. With fine art, we invest serious effort in meeting the work half-way, and through active participation receive sometime life-transforming rewards.

In saying all this, I am not claiming that gundam models are fine art — (but I’m also not denying it) — but if I were to think of it that way, I would see the assembly of these kits less as an act of creativity, and more in terms of that kind of cocreativity demanded of the listener of classical music — or maybe, better, of the performer of a scored piece of music. Here there is a lovely blending of connoisseurship and artistry, of consumption and production, of a kind that was more available back in the day when, if you wanted to hear your favorite Beethoven sonata, you had to go play it for yourself with your own two hands on a piano.