Szymborska, “A Word on Statistics”

“A Word on Statistics”
by Wislawa Szymborska

Out of every hundred people,
those who always know better:

Unsure of every step:
almost all the rest.

Ready to help,
if it doesn’t take long:

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four – well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

when forced by circumstances:
it’s better not to know,
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life except things:
thirty (though I would like to be wrong).

Balled up in pain
and without a flashlight in the dark:
eighty-three, sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few, thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:

Worthy of empathy:

one hundred out of one hundred
a figure that has never varied yet.

Moral meta-judgments

I have (in agonistic dialogue with Nick Gall) found a way to distinguish a relative value from a universal moral principle in pragmatic terms. What, precisely, is the difference that makes a difference if we believe in universal moral principles?

My short answer is that if we believe a universal moral principle applies to a judgment, we assign moral value to agreeing with the judgment.

If we believe our judgment is a relative value judgment, we do not assign moral value to agreeing with it.


I initially framed this as a thought experiment. Imagine Witness A who witnesses an act committed by Actor B, and later reflects on the act with Co-witness C.

Witness A judges Actor B’s act as abhorrent. Co-witness C judges it as okay.

If Witness A understands her judgment as one of relative value, she will still see actor B’s behavior as bad, but will view Co-witness C’s judgment as merely different from her own.

However, if Witness A understands her judgment as one of universal morality, she will judge actor B’s behavior as bad, and meta-judge Co-witness C’s judgment as also bad.


The universality of a universal moral principle applies less to the object of judgment than to the judging subject. What is universal is the meta-judgment, the belief that here all competent judges should agree.


Now, of course, what I am saying sets up an infinite regression. But now I’ll get all tricky and say that willingness to keep regressing is also a sign of holding universal moral principles, and refusal to even begin, makes one a value relativist.

We can also do the Rortian move and break apart our naive moral realist reaction from our account of why we are having the reaction. (“I, for one, will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice, even though I know they are just socially-contingent feelings.”) This move seems aimed primarily at weakening our meta-judgments. (“Because my emotions are socially contingent, it is acceptable for you to not share them.”)

The move could be made to work not only on our judgments, but also our meta-judgments (and our meta-meta-judgments). (“I will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice and also tolerance of injustice, even though they just my socially-contingent feelings.”) But now what does this line of thought do?

So far, I cannot see any pragmatic consequence for this move unless it nullifies our meta-judgments. All I can come up with we might adopt this strategy for the sake of conceptual coherence — keeping our understanding of how things hang together hanging together better.

For me, this move is an unacceptable tradeoff — of sincerity for theoretical coherence. I am unable to avoid having negative judgments of nonjudgmental attitudes toward certain clear cut cases of viciousness. However much I call them epiphenomenal, I believe these judgments and meta-judgments are valid, and act on their validity.

I can’t say way — not yet, anyway —but this prioritization of sincerity over coherence strikes me as being a matter of relative values, of philosophical taste. I do not expect everyone to prioritize sincerity over coherence, and I do not meta-judge those with different priorities.

Philosophy adoption

Susan asked: how is the philosophy design you envision different from Kuhnian paradigm shifts? The answer she extracted from me gets to the heart of my project, and I will need to emphasize this point in Second Natural: The physical sciences, and the attitude toward truth inspired by the physical sciences places all emphasis on epistemic and practical knowing (“what” and “how”) and trades off moral (valuative) knowing (“why”), which becomes a sort of ethic of scientificality. “The truth hurts” and being scientific means embracing the pain of sacrificing all other values.

But if we accept that we live in a truly pluralistic reality, and embrace the consequence that no single philosophy is capable of accounting for reality without strategically excluding, distorting or underemphasizing some realities in favor of others, we are freed question this tradeoff. A new scientific paradigm may give physicists a new way to conceptualize some stubbornly puzzling corner of their field, but these advantages might not be worth what is given up for ordinary people whose conceptual needs differ from those of physicists.

Once we see concepts as tools for selective perception, categorization and reasoning which permit some kinds of response and suppress others, we are freed (to a degree) to think of philosophies, components of philosophies and philosophical implications as matters of adoption. We can say physics theories what the best atheists say of God: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” If our concerns do later come in contact with theological or scientific problems, we might have to rework our personal philosophies in order to faithfully contend with their claims. This is especially true if we wish to win the respect of those communities and persuade them to accept our own beliefs. But this is not all that different from the adoption of any other technology that integrates with its design context.

Approaching the designerly

In the 20th Century everyone aspired to be scientific. Unfortunately, the image of science and scientific knowledge was distorted by rationalist fantasies, and attempts at scientific practice were encumbered — and, in fact, sterilized — by misnorms.

In the 21st Century we we are off to a good start, aspiring to be designerly. However the image of design is also distorted and many key design practices are either omitted or falsified. Too much emphasis is placed on “creativity” and too little on the social conditions productive of (and produced by) effective design collaboration. Design practice is still a romantic antithesis to 20th Century misconceptions of science and engineering — which bog design down with the same sterilizing burdens that has plagued scientism.

What is needed is a better synthesis of science/technology/engineering and design that supports a more productive (or should I say “serviceable”?) redrawing of the definitional boundaries, divisions of labor and collaboration, and organizational relationships between the disciplines associated with deploying technology for human purposes.

My primary tradeoffs

To me, preserving fidelity to reality (as I experience it) is more important than coherence, consistency or completeness of any explanation. I will make pronounced tradeoffs, and leave explanations in extreme states of disrepair to preserve this fidelity, especially to the subtle signals of my genuine conviction.

Three quotes form a chord that reinforces this commitment.

The two principles of the new life. — First principle: life should be ordered on the basis of what is most certain and most demonstrable, not as hitherto on that of what is most remote, indefinite and no more than a cloud on the horizon. Second principle: the order of succession of what is closest and most immediate, less close and less immediate, certain and less certain, should be firmly established before one orders one’s life and gives it a definitive direction.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” – Charles Peirce

What… are the characteristics of a good scientific theory? Among a number of quite usual answers I select five, not because they are exhaustive, but because they are individually important and collectively sufficiently varied to indicate what is at stake. First, a theory should be accurate: within its domain, that is, consequences deducible from a theory should be in demonstrated agreement with the results of existing experiments and observations. Second, a theory should be consistent, not only internally or with itself, but also with other currently accepted theories applicable to related aspects of nature. Third, it should have broad scope: in particular, a theory’s consequences should extend far beyond the particular observations, laws, or subtheories it was initially designed to explain. Fourth, and closely related, it should be simple, bringing order to phenomena that in its absence would be individually isolated and, as a set, confused. Fifth — a somewhat less standard item, but one of special importance to actual scientific decisions — a theory should be fruitful of new research findings: it should, that is, disclose new phenomena or previously unnoted relationships among those already known. These five characteristics — accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness — are all standard criteria for evaluating the adequacy of a theory.” – Thomas Kuhn

Service design research FAQ

When you work on a project with Harmonic it is very likely you will have the opportunity to participate in design research. This is something many people have never done before. We find that some people are either curious or anxious about what they can expect.

The following is a list of questions I’ve been asked more than a few times, and the answers I’ve given that seem to help people new to service design research feel informed and prepared, expressed in my own voice. Some of my fellow Harmonicas have expressed concern over how some of my answers are worded, so please know that anything here that strikes you as overstated or impolitic has likely been left in despite the advice of my colleagues.

Why are we doing so much research?

Short answer: Understanding the people involved in the service is, by far, the most important thing a team can do to ensure the success of a service.

Services are provided by people, for people. If you understand the people who receive the service, provide the service, and support the service behind the scenes (what we call in general terms the “actors” in a service) our chances of designing a service people value is far more likely. Our goal is to design services that people find useful, convenient and emotionally satisfying — the kinds of experiences that generate brand loyalty.

But people are surprising. Often what we think we know about them (even what we think we know about people in general) is wrong, and in ways that obscure real opportunities to improve their lives. Having a unique understanding of people gives a team access to new perspectives, new ways of thinking about serving them and can drive innovation and differentiation that is not only different but remarkable and relevant. (We call this “precision inspiration”.)

What kinds of research do you do?

To put it in the simplest terms, we think of our research in terms of foundational research (which helps us understand the actors who receive the service and those who provide and support it, which includes their needs, attitudes, behavior, contexts and worldviews), generative research (which helps us discover opportunities and conceive new ideas for improving service experiences), and evaluative research (which helps us see what ideas are most valuable to actors and how they can be made even more valuable). All these methods are qualitative, which means they are conducted with small numbers of people with a goal of gaining deep insights into not only what they do, and how they do it, but why they think, feel and behave the way they do. Most of the research we do contains elements of foundational, generative and evaluative research, but toward the beginning of most projects, the emphasis is on foundational and generative research, so most of what will be discussed here will focus on these.

Why do we need to do research with our own front-line employees?

Often when a company’s services fall short, it has little to do with the competence or attitudes of the employees who deliver the service. It has much more to do with how employees are evaluated or compensated, policies that limit what they can do for customers, or require them to do things customers don’t want. Or employees lack information needed to help. Or the systems they use get in their ways. Or employees are starting from behind, trying to salvage an already damaged experience, and (in extreme cases) numbed from constant exposure to customer anger. In other words, often a bad experience is not the employees’ fault, or anyone’s fault. The service has just organically evolved into something that isn’t working out for everyone.

And more often than not, no one person understands every factor that is contributing to the problem. The people on the front line who know the problems well are not always in a position to change the situation. And the people with the power to make changes are often far from the sites where the service is delivered and are operating with incomplete and sometimes incorrect information.

We do research with employees to help understand the big service delivery system, so we can find ways to make everyones’ lives easier. And we try to talk with them in ways that encourage them to tell us the full, unfiltered truth as they experience it, which is why we favor individual sessions, or sessions with small teams who collaborate together, especially when we are talking with front-line employees. We can only get the full truth if they are relaxed enough to speak freely and naturally.

How do we decide who we are going to talk with?

In order to ensure we are designing a service that works for everyone, we talk with a representative cross-section of people who use or might use the service we are designing. We are interested in both what they have in common, but also any important differences that might need to be considered.

Using what we learn from members of the client team, stakeholders we interview and available existing research we study, we list all the factors that might change the needs or attitudes or use contexts of the people involved in the service. These are developed into criteria we will use to determine the kinds of people we need to talk to.

Then we develop quotas for each of the criteria. We try to get at least three participants who have each of the criteria we identify, so we can get a sense of how that factor might affect the service. We try to get three because this is the minimum number where we can tell the difference between idiosyncratic answers and typical ones.

These quotas are used to recruit our research participants.

Why do we call them “participants”?

We call the people we invite to our sessions “participants” because they play such an active role in the session. Participant might even be an understatement. Effectively, we are asking them to play the role of teacher, and to help us understand who they are, what their life is like, and what they need and want in a service. We do design activities meant to help them do this teaching, but these are tools to aid the collaborative process of generating understanding.

Aren’t your sample sizes awfully small?

Typically, we will talk with twelve to twenty-four customers and with the same number of employees. To a person accustomed to marketing research, yes, this looks like a puny sample. The small samples make more sense, though, when you realize that what we are after is not only answers to questions — questions we think are the right ones to ask — but an understanding of how people see the world. This can sometimes help us see new non-obvious questions or even help us see that we have been asking the wrong questions!

The kind of research we do, especially early in the process, is designed to help people teach us about their lives, their needs, their way seeing the world, the significance of the service and its context to what they care about. This is very different from surveying them or asking them a list of questions. Imagine if you were learning a new subject at school, but instead of allowing the teacher to explain the subject to you, trying instead to survey the teacher to get the factual data you think you need to pass your tests. To allow someone to teach it is important to allow them to present information in their own way to convey the material in its own terms. (I like to believe we use the word “subject” to refer both to academic subjects and human subjects because we come to understand them by allowing ourselves to be taught.)

Instead of asking our participants a long list of question invite people to tell us stories, to help us understand how they see the world, to help them communicate what is most relevant to them, and in general to help us understand what questions we should ask them to learn what we need to know to design the best service for them.

By the time we are done with the first round of research, we have the information needed to design much better quantitative research. If you start with quantitative research, you’ll have a bigger sample, but you risk having statistically significant answers to insignificant, irrelevant questions.

How do we decide what we will do in the sessions?

We start our process by identifying the research objective: what does the research need to do in order to support the design? This is often mostly a re-statement of the project goal. We need to inform the design of the service by understanding all the people involved in it, their lives and how they might engage the service.

Then we identify areas of inquiry. In order to achieve the research objective, what will we need to learn about. Areas of inquiry are not questions — they are topics the team will ask to be taught about in various ways.

Once the areas of inquiry are defined and agreed upon, the team designs the research approach. It will include interview questions and interactive exercises designed to give the research participant opportunities to learn about the areas of opportunity.

The team then writes up a research protocol (sometimes called a “research guide”) and designs the materials used in the session.

It is important to note that the protocol is not a script. Some parts of it might be read like a script at some points, but the facilitator will use the protocol loosely to pace the session and to ensure the areas of inquiry are covered. But it is only a guide, and facilitators will often deviate from it. The goal of a session is to get the participant to teach, and that means keeping it conversational and giving the participant enough space to tell us things we might not have anticipated. Our sessions are designed for uncovering the unexpected — because this is where the biggest opportunities come to light.

Who from my organization should attend sessions?

Ideally, everyone would attend. Realistically, at least one person from any department or role that will be involved in shaping or delivering the service based on the research should be involved in the research.

We recommend this for two reasons. First, different roles notices different things in the sessions, and interprets them in different ways. Having a wide range of disciplinary lenses present in the sessions enriches the team’s understanding of what it hears.

Second, service design touches many roles throughout the organization. We believe people have a right to help shape their own futures. But pragmatically, it is a great way to build alignment, credibility, ownership and enthusiasm for initiatives if respected members of the teams who will contribute to the service were directly involved in shaping the service, and can explain why the service was designed the way it is.

What do I need to do to prepare for a session?

Generally, very little preparation work is needed. If you are observing a session the team will give you everything you need to know before the session. Often the team will schedule an orientation session to help everyone understand the purpose of the research and the flow of the session. Anyone who is playing an active support role will get additional training. Prior to each session the facilitator will remind everyone of what they need to know.

Generally, for in-person field research, everyone involved in a session will be given all the equipment they need. If the session is remote, you’ll want to bring a notebook and something to write with. We ask that you do not use your laptop for note-taking when conducting an in-person session.

What are the sessions like?

Typically sessions last ninety minutes, and are followed by a debrief that lasts between thirty minutes to an hour. Please plan to attend the debrief for your session, because this is a very important part of our process.

Normally, the session starts with an overview. The facilitator thanks the participant and explains the purpose of the session. The people attending the session are quickly introduced. Then the facilitator gives an overview of the session and sets the participant at ease by telling them that we are here to learn from them, that there are no wrong answers, that it is okay if they don’t remember everything and most of all to please tell us the full unfiltered truth about their experiences, and to not worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. We will sometimes joke with them and generally do whatever it takes to make them feel comfortable and ready to converse naturally with us. We answer whatever questions they have and make sure they have filled in the required release forms, understand the compensation and give us permission to record.

Then we usually start with an interview, leading with some easy warm up questions. We learn about who they are. We will sometimes ask them their opinion on something tangential and fun to answer. Where do they like to eat, or what is their current favorite service? Then we get background on how they use the service, what they value about it, how it compares to other services, etc. We also sometimes touch on their current brand perceptions.

Then we shift into a more interactive mode, and do some collaboration. Almost always will ask them to tell us stories that help us understand their needs, while we visually capture the story, step by step. We are interested in hearing about their whole experiences, not only the part where they might use the service. And we ask them to tell us not only what they did, but how they felt, what they were expecting, what they were thinking about, what they wanted to accomplish. We also might visualize their service ecosystem, inventorying the people, places, tools, and related services that make up their lives. Frequently the team will design other interactive exercises to help us get at needs, behaviors, attitudes and preferences.

Another activity we often do is show prototypes to participants and ask them to respond. By prototype, we mean any kind of artifact that allows the participant to imagine what it would be like to engage the service. It might be storyboards or screens, or we might ask them to act out service scenarios with us.

If all goes well, the facilitator will build enough rapport with the participant loosens up and feels free to express their feelings in their natural voice. We like to get these moments on video so we can show them to people who were not in the session. We want to help everyone in an organization relate to the humanity of their customers and the people who serve them, and to see the human impacts of decisions.

How do these sessions differ from pre-Covid times?

Online sessions are very similar to in-person. The big difference is how the activities are done. In-person, we are handing our participants the pen and asking them to interact with the materials. This is more difficult remotely. We are often using virtual surfaces, electronic sticky notes, and doing some of the interactions for the participants under their direction.

The dynamics are also a little different, especially for customers. When we do in-person session we often visit them in their homes, offices — in their spaces. We work hard to make them comfortable, but sometimes it takes a few minutes for them to get used to us being there. It seems to be a little easier to adjust to a video conference. The downside is there is a connection made in person, and insight you get from being in their space that doesn’t happen with the same intensity in a remote session.

The biggest positive tradeoffs are probably geographic flexibility and the simplification of logistics. With remote sessions it becomes affordable to recruit participants from many diverse regions instead of limiting sessions to a small set of locations. In-person sessions require a lot of coordination of people traveling to the market where the research is being conducted and ensuring they have transportation to and from the session location. Remote sessions remove most of this complexity.

Once Covid is overcome we return to relative normalcy, some of the methods developed to cope with the pandemic will stay in our toolbox and continue to be used to fit client needs and make optimal tradeoffs.

What am I supposed to do in a session?

There are multiple roles in a session. Generally, one person facilitates and one or more people assist. When we do sessions in-person we normally limit the number of people in the session to three, not counting the participant. Participants are not used to research, and they can get stage-fright if too many people are staring at them. With remote sessions it is possible, though not desirable, to have more attendees.

If you are assisting with the research, you will get special instructions and training from the team on how to use the research tools. With remote sessions we sometimes ask for help operating our virtual whiteboards. With in-person sessions we sometimes need assistance with organizing materials or operating cameras. It is never terribly complicated, and you will never be put in any situations for which you were not prepared.

The primary thing to keep in mind is that we are trying to create a conversational dynamic. This requires some conditions that we do our best to set up and maintain. What we do not want to happen is for the session to feel or look like a meeting where multiple people are talking together, and this tends to be the default unless steps are taken to prevent it. When the session is in-person, we usually try to arrange ourselves so the facilitator and participant are facing each other and others present sit to the side out of the direct line of sight. With remote sessions, we often ask everyone to turn off their cameras and microphones except the facilitator, until it is time to open the session up for questions.

Taking notes is very important. Write down anything that speaks to the areas of inquiry, strikes you as relevant to how the service should be designed, or surprises you. And if the participant says any great quotes, capture as much of it as you can, or at least jot down some of the key words and roughly what time it was said so we can find it in the transcript later.

Your notes will be useful during the debrief.

What should I know about asking questions?

During the session, try to hold your questions or comments until the facilitator prompts participants. It can be helpful to write questions down as they occur to you.

Sometimes the facilitator has a specific way to ask the question in mind. And sometimes the facilitator will leave more silence after a question than is comfortable. Trust the facilitator, and resist the urge to jump in and clarify questions, or to try to help the participant answer or break awkward silences. It’s hard to do, but it is important.

When the floor is opened for questions, try to ask open-ended questions. The trick is to start the questions the right way. Starting with “Can you talk to us about…” or “Please tell us about when…” almost always finish well. Sentences that start with “Do you…” or “Would you…” are risky. If you notice your question has devolved into a multiple-choice and you are finding yourself stringing together a bunch of “or” options, your question is on the wrong track.

The good news is you can always interrupt yourself and say “Actually, let me try asking this question another way.”

What am I supposed to do in a debrief?

After the session ends, the team will reconvene for a debrief. This is one of the most important activities we do during field research. The purpose is to capture what was learned in the session while it is fresh in everyones’ mind.

The debrief facilitator interviews the team on each area of inquiry, documenting what was learned in a format that makes it easy to compare findings between different participants.

Often there are disagreements or differing interpretations of what was said, and this is good. The discussions around differing understandings are central to the process and helps the extended team align on what has been learned.

One thing to keep in mind: A debrief is not meant to be an exhaustive compiling of everyone’s notes in a single document. The debrief is meant to be a summary of what the group learned. Someone not in the session should be able to pick up a debrief and learn who was interviewed and how much was learned from that participant about each of the areas of inquiry. The debriefs are a powerful tool the team will use during analysis.

How do we make sense of what we hear?

When the field research is done, the team analyzes the debrief forms and the outputs from the activities, supported by video footage and/or transcripts of the session.

The analysis is done partly in collaboration with the people who helped do the research. Sometimes we will conduct an internal team interview to outline the high level findings of the research. We then use the debriefs and transcripts to guide discussions and exercises to find patterns and themes in what we learned.

We will also compare the stories we heard and look for commonalities and variants which are documented in an experience map which visually documents the experience customers and others are having receiving and delivering the experience.

When possible somewhere toward the middle of research analysis the team will invite employees of the organization into the analysis process. We call this Research Open Studio. We show people our raw research materials, including the stories we gathered, and selected footage from the sessions. We share the findings in their current rough state, along with the questions we are asking ourselves, and bring them into our conversation so they can share the thought process and the excitement of discovery.

When do we get a readout?

Often within a few days of completing the research the team will send out an informal top-line summary of findings, and sometimes will include links to the debriefs. But the full presentation of what the team has learned usually comes at the beginning of the next workshop, when the research is digested and interpreted to identify opportunities to improve or even reinvent the service and to generate new ideas.

What do we do with what we learn?

The research outputs are designed for multiple purposes. First, they are designed to communicate what was learned as clearly and compellingly as possible, and to help the organization align around a single version of the truth created by the extended team.

The second purpose of the research outputs is to serve as workshop tools, to help with opportunity identification and prioritization, idea generation, concept assessment and concept prioritization. The experience maps, the themes we identify and the other artifacts generated during research analysis become ideation canvases workshop participants use to think about experiences from a customer’s or front-liner’s perspective.

Am I going to love research and want to be involved in it as much as possible in the future?


Ingredients of political evil

  1. The incapacity to reason from any perspective but my own is ideological narrowness.
  2. The need to explain the complexity of life by reducing them to simple concepts is intellectual stuntedness.
  3. To undermine beliefs, judgments, feelings or actions of others using theories which I do not accept when used to cast doubt on my own beliefs, judgments, feelings or actions is intellectual hypocrisy.
  4. To judge others by different standards than those by which I judge myself is moral hypocrisy.
  5. Indifference to pain except that which I and my kind feel is empathy failure.
  6. The desire to make myself feel better by making another person feel worse is sadism.
  7. To listen only to those who agree with me, and to revile anyone who disagrees with me is tribalism.
  8. To attribute concealed malevolent motives to others despite their claims to believe and intend the opposite is paranoia.
  9. To see myself as exceptional, endowed with exceptional abilities, and entitled to exceptional treatment is hubris.
  10. To believe my own faith is ultimate and that there is nothing I can learn from my enemies is spiritual blindness.

These are all the ingredients of political evil I can think of.

My cultural assimilation

When I entered the work world, I had to abandon many of the cultural habits I’d acquired as a youth growing up weird in rural and semi-urban South Carolina.

Many of us in my social circle had developed a sort of subversive irony and had woven it into our personal styles, manners and subcultural customs. In everything we did and said, we signaled “I only work here.” If we were made to put on a suit and act straight, we wanted our act to be unconvincing: “This not me.”

We saw everyone who tried to assimilate and achieve as sell-out phonies, and any adoption of any externally imposed etiquette or shared efforts was beneath our dignity. We were proud to not belong.

After years of professional cultural assimilation, looking back I realize most of this worldview was just a punk-mutated form of standard working class attitudes — devices used to insulate and protect an individual’s dignity from the degradation of low-paying, low-autonomy jobs. My own family history straddles classes, and I believe a got a pretty strong dose of working class attitude as a kid, enough that I found well-adjusted, classier kids uninteresting and unfit for friendship.

Basically, in becoming professional, first through incredibly awkward attempts at code-switching, then later through genuine internalization I learned a couple of really important things I never could have learned without undergoing this incredibly uncomfortable, occasionally depressing, ordeal.

1) We cannot thrive in institutions we secretly despise. If we withhold ourselves, preserve our alienation, participate with reluctance and wear our membership like a mask, instead of figuring out some mode where we can be who we really are within the necessary constraints of social existence, our withholding is palpable to peers and leaders. If you are half-in and half-out, whether you know it or not, everyone around you feels it and knows it with immediate, intuitive certainty. And committed members of an organization will not — and should not — give you responsibility they know you will not own.

2) There is profound wisdom in professionalism. What seems like arbitrary etiquette that only signals in-group from out-group is in fact an organic social technology that permits members of organizations to function effectively and gracefully as collaborators, while protecting everyone from potentially conflicting personal idiosyncrasies. We suppress at work whatever is not needed to get the job done, not because it is essentially unacceptable and unworthy, but because it is sacred, unique and vulnerable and requiring the protection of privacy. Those things we keep to ourselves at work — or at least, in wiser times, used to keep to ourselves — politics, religion, controversial opinions — are the very things that might conflict, cause friction and drive unnecessary wedges between people who need to get along and work together.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be at least somewhat initiated into the professional world. If I’d chosen a counter-cultural life outside of business I may have clung to my romantic ideal of proud and principled alienation from the superficialities of professional life.

I am even more grateful I was not indoctrinated to believe that my childhood culture determined my essential identity  and defined who I am and who I must forever commit to being, lest I become a sell-out phony and a betrayer of my culture.

If I had been taught this, and learned to believe it with all my heart, I would have been left on the margins, locked out by my own refusal just to open the door and walk in. This would have been a disservice, a miseducation — a passing down of a self-defeating tradition.

We are not who we are because of culture, nor are we who we are despite culture. We discover who we are by collaborating with culture, experimenting with who we can be, and maturing into well-socialized but authentic individuals.

Genre Trouble

Thank you Richard Rorty:

“The more original a book or a kind of writing is, the more unprecedented, the less likely we are to have criteria in hand, and the less point there is in trying to assign it to a genre. We have to see whether we can find a use for it. If we can, then there will be time enough to stretch the borders of some genre or other far enough to slip it in, and to draw up criteria according to which it is a good kind of writing to have invented. Only metaphysicians think that our present genres and criteria exhaust the realm of possibility. Ironists continue to expand that realm.”

1) I love this quote. I have extreme trouble coloring inside the lines of preexisting genres, given the fact that my worldview is a synthesis of an esoteric and Nietzschean perversion of Pragmatism, a hall-of-mirrors reflective design practice, and an idiosyncratic take on religion bordering on universal heresy (which is why I’m Jewish). Consequently, I have little hope of (or interest in) writing a book that does not generate a genre. This is why I will need to continue to self-publish. I feel a combination of impatience and panic when it is suggested that I need to nail down my audience, as if they already exist, and write to them, for their sake.) Also, nobody is going to craft a book to my standards. I may need to buy letterpress and bookbinding equipment.

2) To find a use for a new kind of writing… The above passage was embedded in an extended pragmatic exploration of Derrida’s writing. Rorty suggested that we forget what Derrida was asserting, and instead ask: what was he doing with his writing? I like translating this to: Forget the content — what does his genre want to do, and why? He is doing something new with writing, and to allow it to do its new thing for us we have to release it from the purposes and rules governing the genre(s) of philosophy.

3) Point 2 is getting very close to my interests (which is hardly surprising given that Rorty is the proto- pragmatist pervert). To create a new kind of writing, then find a use for it — is very much, to my designerly eyes, like intellectual R&D. This follows the pattern of how many technologies are developed, especially very new and unfundable ones. Some playful or obsessive technologist in love with a problem or a material intuits a possibility and follows hunches to produce some ingenious invention. This invention inspires other similar types — lovers of engineering problems — to push it further, just to see what they can get it to do. Eventually, the inventing proliferates, refines and develops to the point where it attracts the attention of some practical mind who sees in this invention the key to solving some specific real-world problem. Now a technology is ready to cross the threshold between technology and product.

4) What kind of mind escorts a potentially useful technology through the journey that transforms it into a useful, usable and desirable product and out into the marketplace? Lots of people try to do this work. The ones who are best at shaping technologies into products (a.k.a. goods or services) that fit human needs, desires and life-practices are designers. Designers (whether they are called that or not) are the people who see human life as vast, complex, often messy, systems, and understand that products are subcomponents of these human systems. The success of a product hinges on how readily it integrates into these human systems. (Increasingly designers are considering more than end-user integration, and are getting involved in manufacturing, distribution, promotion, merchandising, purchase, use, service, disposal, recycling, etc.) Wherever human and nonhuman systems are meant to integrate, designers increase the chances the integration will succeed. Some designers see a technology and immediately grasp its product potential, others keep up with technologies of various kinds so when they are given a human problem they can play matchmaker between this problem and the solutions in their imaginations, still others start with a thorough understanding of people and their lives and learn to define these problems so they inspire solutions from more technological minds. The best designers do all three, and effectively straddle and blur (or, rather interweave and entangle) the lines between technological and human systems.

5) What if we view philosophy as it is done today as technological development? And applied philosophies as slightly more focused technologies carried a step closer to problem types? Is there not room for a discipline that uses design methods (especially HCD, human-centered design methods) to apply philosophical technologies to very particular cases. Such a discipline would research problematic situations and the people, things and contexts that constitute them, define problems to be solved with the help philosophical “technologies”, shape conceptual systems that resolve these problems and develop materials to help an organization adopt the improved, more useful, usable and desirable philosophy? What if we use deep HCD to throw organizational business-as-usual thinking into crisis, so that it clears the ground and opens it into perplexity (what Wittgenstein identified as the philosophical negative-space of “here I do not know how to move around”), upon which a new philosophy can be designed (“to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” as Sellars put it).

6) If I view my problem as a genre problem, I can say I want to write a book outlining a new discipline as the first (at least first self-conscious) product of this discipline. I want to design a philosophy of philosophy design. It will be erected on an assumed metaphysical foundation — a faith — that doing such a thing is not only permissible, but necessary. But, being a designed conceptual product, it will seek voluntary adoption instead of argumentative coercion. It will try to demonstrate that this discipline, viewed in this way, viewed from this carefully designed perspective will be a useful, usable and desirable way for certain kinds of people to live their lives and make their livings, and that (this will be secondary) that organizations that hire and support people who do this kind of work will help generate more usefulness, usability and desirability for its employees, partners and customers.

7) Whatever we call them — Organizational Philosophers? Concept Designers? POV Framers — they will be responsible for:

  • Understanding how different people involved in an organization or part of an organization (department, office, team, etc.) think;
  • How these ways of thinking converge, diverge, harmonize and conflict;
  • What tradeoffs each of these ways of thinking make in terms of what domains of knowledge they do a good job of comprehending and communicating, versus what they must deemphasize, ignore, suppress or neglect in order to have clarity?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of values — what values do they elevate and serve, and what must they deprioritize or sacrifice in order to focus their sense of purpose?
  • What tradeoffs these ways of thinking make in terms of method — what kinds of action does it guide effectively and what kinds of action does it misdirect, encumber or fail to support?
  • Analyzing what the organization wants to be and to accomplish, and determining what an organization’s thinking needs to help it comprehend, do and care about.
  • Leading the development of conceptual frameworks the organization can use to think together in order to better be and do what it aspires to.
  • Communicate and teach the new conceptual frameworks using various vehicles such as visual models, verbal and visual explanations, taxonomies, glossaries of shared vocabulary, reference materials and training programs.
  • Testing and iterating both the frameworks and the communication/teaching vehicles.
  • Socializing and encouraging adoption of concepts across the organization.

This is what I want to do with my life, and this book will be a justification, a description of how it should be thought about and done, and be a proof on concept of what the profession produces.

Now, this is just me writing about a possibility. I cannot guarantee it will stick, and I’m not even sure I didn’t just derail my original plan for Second Natural, but it is at least getting me closer to what my intuition seems to want me to talk about.

I did not start off meaning to write this post, but here we are.

This is why we read Richard Rorty.

Fake etymologies

In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Rorty repeatedly busts Heidegger for inventing fake etymologies. The accusation extends beyond the incorrectness of the claims — the very impulse to excavate more primordial and immediate meanings is impugned.

This is fascinating to me because I wholeheartedly share Heidegger’s love of etymologies, and Heidegger is a nasty enough son-of-a-bitch that if I agree with him on anything, I feel a strong need to lab-test, analyze and inspect that agreement very closely.

Of course, as I’ve said many times over the years, it only takes a trace of poison to turn something wholesome lethal, so I am unwilling to reject everything an evil genius says, just because it was said by an evil genius. In fact, that wholesale impulse is one of the more toxic substances I see in the poisoned minds around me. But that doesn’t mean I’m ingesting anything Heidegger says casually.

(If you can’t tell, I understand evil to be a function of one’s philosophy. I see evil as a kind of philosophical disease, not as an essential characteristic of any soul. Evil is curable. The treatment is metanoia. Metanoia, like many treatments, tastes nasty on the tongue. But so do many toxins, so how do we discern?)

For the record, I see the toxicity of Heidegger primarily in his hubristic concept of the They, which obligated him to despise everyone but his own hand-selected authorities. I ate this poison years ago, and it caused me some very serious and pleasurable problems, before I managed to expel it.

I’m also worried about another idea, espoused in both Heidegger and fellow Nazi and mystic, Eugen Herrigel, author of Zen in the Art of Archery, one that is even more important to me than etymologophelia, the ideal of tacit use and ontic fusion (my term) with equipment and environment. Heidegger called it ready-to-hand, and argued that this tacit ready-to-hand being, where a tool, such as a hammer, and a whole working environment, such as a workshop, becomes an organic extension of one’s own activity and one’s own being (as opposed to discrete objects which stand apart from us present-at-hand, which is an exceptional state caused by malfunction or a conscious effort to observe. This idea of ontic fusion is both profoundly important to me as a designer and a prime suspect in my ongoing investigation of totalitarian ideologies. My suspicion is that this desire to fuse with our worlds easily metastasizes into a desire to take ourselves — the bundle of intuitions that constitute our soul — into the soul of the world itself.

Is there a way to wordlessly fuse with our own world, while maintaining a pluralistic attitude toward reality, and especially toward those ornery bits of the world we call our neighbors? That’s one of the core problems in my next book.


I had a eureka moment earlier today. I should use the word “apprehension” instead of angst, anxiety or perplexity. The word is etymologically perfect, derived from from ad- towards + prehendere lay hold of. It is what we feel prior to comprehension, com- together + prehendere lay hold of. It is what we experience before we can say “hence…” and well before the idea is ready to hand. (Sadly, “hence”is less etymologically cooperative, having nothing at all to do with –hendere. And the word “hand” also refuses to play the -hendere game I want it to.) Then I thought “huh, that was too easy. Is this something I thought before — maybe even recently? I need to put these idea out before my memory is completely gone.

I do sort of want to write a chapbook called Apprehension now, though. I also need to do one called Eversion. I need a damn printing press.

Esoteric and exoteric philosophy

Once we learn to disbelieve in positive metaphysics and to think in terms other than presence, and we recognize that no Rortian “final vocabulary” is final, and we give up on the project of remaking society to conform our own private ideal, it seems to me this constitutes a wonderful philosophical craftsman’s philosophy to be applied in making useful, usable and desirable philosophies for nonphilosophers. These latter philosophies might use positive metaphysics, presence, codified moralities, and any number of apparitional apparatus to help give the philosophy the sort of form required for optimal use.

In a sense, philosopher’s philosophies and nonphilosopher’s philosophies divide into something analogous to what in traditional religions (or at least modern traditionalist theories of religion) call esoteric and exoteric. Esoteric religion is for those who dedicate their entire existence to religious pursuit, in coming to terms with a soul’s relationship with the Absolute, including the myriad illusory appearances that mediate that relationship. The exoteric philosophies cannot be said to be false, because they are not matters of fact; they are matters of interpretation. They make intentional tradeoffs toward wholesome value and action, at the expense of depth and precision of understanding.

All esoterisms cheerfully qualify the exoterisms they offer with disclaimers. “This is just a device for indicating a truth, not truth itself”, etc., but such qualifications are comprehensible only in light of esoteric insight. Exoteric qualifications function more as depth charges that sink with the seeker and detonate at the proper depth, simultaneously authenticating the teacher’s teaching, and destroying the exoteric construct the point it becomes an obstacle to further progress.


On one hand, living in a bigger city exposes you to lots of types of people. You get used to seeing a wide range of diverse races, cultures and ways of life around you all the time, and it takes a lot to freak you out.

But on the other hand, living in a smaller town you learn to have real relationships with people you would normally ignore or avoid if you had more choices. You just can’t be that selective about who you associate with. You have to figure out how to (more or less) get along with who is there, and so you learn to deal with diverse personalities. Differences of opinion (albeit in a narrower range) don’t freak you out.

Each produces its own kind of liberalism — and its own kind of provincialism.
Ideally, you grow up in a small town and move to a big city and then you are perfect and wonderful in every possible way.

Nouveau puissant

If you are truly marginalized, you are used to being misunderstood, disregarded and misrepresented by people around you. You feel vulnerable and anxious about what might be done to you. You seek allies wherever you can find them to help and protect you. You learn to understand alien perspectives, so you can make effective appeals and influence the actions of other — or at least anticipate what they might do next so you can defend yourself.

Marginalized people are forced by necessity to develop insight and empathy. This is the consolation prize of marginalized existence, and its one real advantage. This is the source of the belief that powerless people know things powerful people cannot imagine.

When I meet a person who calls themselves marginalized, but who is overcome with imperious fury if someone seems to understand them with insufficient nuance — who is willing and able (or at least feels able) to punish anyone who dares treat them with less than perfect conformity to their expectations, without any apparent fear of reprisal — whose theories about their enemies are used only only to condemn and insult them, not to illuminate their logic or make sense of their behaviors — these people do not seem marginalized to me. They show no evidence of real insight or empathy — only a presumption of omniscience. Maybe they were taught things or read books by marginal people, but they themselves seem to have missed the real point of the lessons and absorbed nothing but the vices of marginalization: resentment and intellectual arrogance.

They are like nouveau riche, who play out the grotesque image of what poor people think rich people are like.

The nouveau puissant play out the evil, tyrannical image of what powerless people think powerful people are like.

They think it is now their turn to be what, in fact, only existed in their own imaginations.

Fact and opinion

Where do you draw the line between news and editorial?

The exact placement and sharpness of the line is debatable. This, however, does not make the distinction meaningless. Editorial argues a conclusion, and data is selected to support that conclusion. News attempts (with varying success) to present all relevant data regardless of what conclusion it might support or undermine.

Most of us learned long ago to scoff at claims of actual achieved neutral objectivity. We should not scoff at the intention to attempt it, though. After all, what is an ideal but an attempt to approach something unachieved and perhaps finally unachievable, but which points us toward something we believe is better? Facts are the product of such an effort, and their quality is a matter of how successfully they avoid being deployed to support any single argument. Opinions are the beliefs we argue, and their quality is a matter of how well they deploy facts to persuade others to reach a desired conclusion.

So basically, I am proposing that the difference between fact and opinion is one of intent, not of the truth of the content or how well supported it is.


I would argue that the line dividing fact and opinion should also govern what is and is not taught in public schools. This is the line that separates education and indoctrination.

If I were a parent with young children I would be livid if I discovered that their school had officially adopted a political position and were intentionally indoctrinating my children to share their political opinions.

If the leaders of that school were to argue that their political opinions were not simply their own views, but were objectively true and good, I would be doubly alarmed because this indicates a degree of naivety and political immaturity that should disqualify a person from leadership of any organization.

If the leaders of the school argue that all education is intrinsically political, and all they are doing is foregrounding the political content, I would argue that whatever political content they are foregrounding should be a matter of public deliberation.

A belief that one is permitted to use whatever authority one has (or rather, has been temporarily granted) to advance one’s own political opinions indicates contempt for liberal democratic process.

If we were to subject the political content our children are being taught to public scrutiny, I am confident the outcome would be what it always is when things are done out in the open with full transparency: we will agree to teach pluralism and honor the right of individuals to reach their own conclusions. We would return to teaching what the vast majority of us accept, our best attempts at fact.


I want to return to something I hinted at earlier. A lot of today’s political extremism is being driven by two naive notions.

1) Any ideal goal that has not yet been fully actualized (such as MLK’S dream) has been discredited and ought to be discarded.

2) If a line between one extreme and another (such as fact and opinion) cannot be clearly and sharply drawn, there is no real difference between these extremes and that no attempt should be made to observe any difference at all.

Most people I know who run around using these two notions have never really questioned them. Someone taught it to them as fact, it made sense to them, and it allowed them to go by their feelings instead of having to think things through or to consider the validity of other people’s beliefs. Education should teach people to question, challenge and resist such naivities, not train children to believe them unquestioningly.

Rorty on “liberal ironists

This is a selection of quotes from Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, which I pulled together to help me get the full picture of how Rorty understands liberal ironists, and how they differ from nominalist/historicists.


I use “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires — someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.


In his Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin says… that we need to give up the jigsaw puzzle approach to vocabularies, practices, and values. In Berlin’s words, we need to give up “the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail each other.” … Berlin ended his essay by quoting Joseph Schumpeter, who said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” Berlin comments, “To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.”


The citizens of my liberal Utopia would be people who had a sense of the contingency of their language of moral deliberation, and thus of their consciences, and thus of their community. They would be liberal ironists — people who met Schumpeter’s criterion of civilization, people who combined commitment with a sense of the contingency of their own commitment.


In the ideal liberal society, the intellectuals would still be ironists, although the nonintellectuals would not. The latter would, however, be commonsensically nominalist and historicist. So they would see themselves as contingent through and through, without feeling any particular doubts about the contingencies they happened to be. They would not be bookish, nor would they look to literary critics as moral advisers. But they would be commonsensical nonmetaphysicians, in the way in which more and more people in the rich democracies have been commonsensical nontheists. They would feel no more need to answer the questions “Why are you a liberal? Why do you care about the humiliation of strangers?” than the average sixteenth-century Christian felt to answer the question “Why are you a Christian?” or than most people nowadays feel to answer the question “Are you saved?” Such a person would not need a justification for her sense of human solidarity, for she was not raised to play the language game in which one asks and gets justifications for that sort of belief. Her culture is one in which doubts about the public rhetoric of the culture are met not by Socratic requests for definitions and principles, but by Deweyan requests for concrete alternatives and programs. Such a culture could, as far as I can see, be every bit as self-critical and every bit as devoted to human equality as our own familiar, and still metaphysical, liberal culture — if not more so.

But even if I am right in thinking that a liberal culture whose public rhetoric is nominalist and historicist is both possible and desirable, I cannot go on to claim that there could or ought to be a culture whose public rhetoric is ironist. I cannot imagine a culture which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization. Irony seems inherently a private matter. On my definition An ironist cannot get along without the contrast between the final vocabulary she inherited and the one she is trying to create for herself. Irony is, if not intrinsically resentful, at least reactive. Ironists have to have something to have doubts about, something from which to be alienated.

I think I’ve been misusing terms. I have used “irony” to mean “conviction despite contingency” in all cases, not only ones where doubt is active. Simply putting ourselves on even footing with those with whom we disagree, viewing their conviction and our own as essentially alike, despite the fact that we only feel our own conviction, to me, is an ironic stance.

Ray Davies sang, “I was born, lucky me, in the land that I love.” This is my paradigm of irony. We believe, lucky us, the truths we believe.

SD and UX research

I often get asked questions about the relationship between service design (SD) research and user experience (UX) research. The answer is very simple, but communicating that simplicity is not easy. This post will attempt the briefest, clearest answer possible.

Explaining the difference in the two forms of research will require briefly explaining the relationship between UX and SD, so let’s start there.

  • User experience is  typically defined as the practice of designing digital touchpoints. Digital touchpoints are usually parts of a larger experience that extends beyond digital to non-digital touchpoints, such as voice, physical spaces, printed materials and broadcast media.
  • When many kinds of touchpoints, including digital, are designed together to deliver a coherent experience (usually, but not always for a customer), this is known as omnichannel experience design.
  • Service design extends omnichannel design beyond, by designing for every person (service designers call them “actors”) involved with receiving the service and delivering a service (customers and employees interacting “frontstage”) and with supporting the service behind the scenes (employees working “backstage”). Anything involved in the delivery of the service — whether it is a human actor, departmental or team structures, a front- or backstage touchpoint, a technology, a process or even a policy — falls within the scope of service design.

It can be helpful to think about the relationship in terms of design materials. Every design discipline shapes a certain kind of material to produce value for the people who use it.

  • The material of user experience is digital media.
  • The material of omnichannel design is touchpoints.
  • The material of service design is organizations.

The differences sketched out above should set the stage for understanding six main differences between SD and UX research. Most of the differences are matters of degree, and of course, there are always exceptions.

One key point that should be noted is this: Service design does not in any way replace UX, nor does service design research replace UX research. Rather, service design helps UX do a better job of designing touchpoints that support the larger service experience.

Another thing that should be noted: None of the six key differences I list are matters of technique. The toolbox of techniques used in service design overlap with those of UX, with only minor variations in how they are used. A UXer attending a service design research session is unlikely to see any completely novel methods , but is very likely to be shocked by the breadth of material covered and the rapid pace of the sessions. They might feel anxious about an apparent lack of thoroughness. This is by design, though, and I hope that what follows (in #3 and #4) will shed light on why.

Difference #1: Who helps conduct sessions 

Because the material of service design is the whole organization, many people are involved in the design of a service. A typical service design may change organizational processes, IT systems, policies, physical spaces, call center scripts, even how departments are organized. To improve the chances these changes will be made, it is important that the people who will be making the changes (or will be affected by these changes) understand why these changes are worth the effort and discomfort. If people reject the research or dispute the design decisions, change will not happen. Alignment of understanding is absolutely crucial.

The best way to create this alignment is to bring as many people  along to help with the field research. Service design research is the ultimate alignment tool. When respected representative stakeholders from across the organization participate in research, witness firsthand how the service affects people’s lives, and contribute their own disciplinary knowledge and perceptions to the effort, insights from the field are deeper, more impactful, and more credible across the organization.

UX also benefits from client participation, of course, but can normally win sufficient alignment with far fewer people.

It is important to note that one of the most important stakeholders to include are UX designers, who will derive many of the same benefits from SD research as they would from UX research, or at least from foundational or generative UX research. (More on this below).

Difference #2: Who is recruited to participate

Because a service is designed for both those receiving the service and those providing and supporting it, the research is done with multiple types of participants situated in different parts of the experience, both front-stage and back-stage. Additionally, because services are experienced in many places in many different channels, it is often necessary to conduct research in multiple kinds of settings. For instance, a service design team might investigate how a service is experienced in the home and in a retail space, and how the service is delivered digitally, by voice or in person. While UX research recruits a variety of cohorts and considers use in a variety of contexts, service design expands the number of participants, roles and settings beyond what is typically considered in UX.

Difference #3: Breadth of inquiry

Service design’s scope is relatively vast compared to UX. Not only must we investigate more actors and more settings, we often use different approaches for each of them, to help the team get insights on how the service comes together and how it is experienced by everyone involved. Further, service design is trying to piece together a whole experience as it unfolds over time and zig-zags across channels, so the scope of each research session tends to cover longer spans of time than a typical UX project, and investigates a participant’s experience with equal attention wherever it leads, regardless of channel. With UX research, times spans are often briefer, and non-digital channels are treated as context for the UX design, not as something that itself might be redesigned.

Difference #4: Depth of inquiry

Because its scope is so broad, service design does not go into the detail and depth that UX design does. This is why no service design should ever go directly into implementation. Service design only defines UX design problems it does not resolve them.  Every touchpoint, digital or otherwise, defined by service design requires further work by design specialists who have mastered the craft of designing that type of touchpoint, with service designers staying involved to ensure the service as a whole stays consistent and seamless.

UX research is concerned with gathering insights that will guide the detailed design of a digital touchpoint. It seeks to get deep, detailed information on the person’s use context, mental models, vocabulary, physical and perceptual abilities, etc. Service design research only skims the surface of these questions, in order to keep an eye on how the touchpoints are integrated with one another and other components of the service.

In evaluative research, service design only validates concepts at a high level, concerning itself mostly with the usefulness and desirability of touchpoints in the context of the broader service, and deemphasizing usability to the greatest degree possible.

The only part of UX research that service design mostly replaces is the foundational research, and even there, only partially.

Difference #5: How analysis is conducted

As mentioned above, service design research is the ultimate alignment tool. To stabilize and refine alignment, service design teams will often conduct analysis socially and in the open, preferably in a location where members of the organization can drop in and participate. At Harmonic, we have called this “open research studio”. The analysis is intentionally visual and easily digested. Stories and other insights gathered from the field are displayed in ways that invite conversation and direct collaboration on the artifacts.

The process of collaborating encourages cross-disciplinary conversations and brings out a shared understanding that is relevant and comprehensible to everyone in the organization. And because so many people have had direct involvement in shaping the understanding it is likely to be complete and credible.

Difference #6: How findings are applied

Finally, returning to the earlier point that the material of service design is organizations, a material this complex is too much for any single mind to contain or any single talent to shape. The whole organization must be mobilized in redesigning itself to deliver better experiences. Everyone must learn to function as members of a design team. To make this transition as intuitive as possible, many service design research outputs are designed specifically to serve as large-scale collaboration tools. Most service design research findings include various kinds of experience maps meant to be physically hung on a wall or otherwise shared, and to allow teams of people to interact with the surface as a canvas for collaborative work.

Of course, the design research findings are always tools used for designing. But because the interpreters of other kinds of design research are usually experienced designers who already know how to interpret findings to make design decisions, researchers are free to emphasize the content of the findings over their form. The fact that many of the people doing the design are inexperienced working in that way places special demands on service designers to think more about the form and explicitly make them not only easy to understand, but easy to use in support of opportunity identification, ideation, or evaluation.


Wow, that was not brief after all. But I hope it was at least clear. I’ll make one more attempt at brevity with a summary:

  • Service design research seeks to understand many types of people who receive, deliver and support the service
  • …it accomplishes this understanding using a wide variety of research approaches in many different settings
  • …the research is conducted, analyzed and applied by large rotating multi-disciplinary teams which should include UX designers…
  • …but it does not replace UX research, which should be used to both inform and evaluate the detailed design of each digital touchpoint in the service.


Stuff I’m going to write

I think my “Coalition of the Unique” post might be the core of a Liberal Manifesto chapbook.

Susan’s and my strategy has shifted over the last several months. Rather than attacking illiberalism, we’ve chosen instead to find more beautiful reconceptions and redescriptions of Liberalism to help people understand and to feel why Liberalism is precious and worth protecting, conserving and progressing.

I also still need to finish my Liz Sanders Useful Usable Desirable chapbook. Maybe I’ll print them together in one run.

And Second-Natural is also starting to take shape. It argues multiple interlocking points, and I will probably write it as independent mutually reinforcing essays.

  1. Human beings have coevolved with our tools and built environments and our languages for so long, we have become naturally artificial. Whatever vestiges of pure nature we have left in us emerges in rare moments, usually (but not always) when we are at our very worst. We may long to be natural, feel natural, be in nature, or return to nature, but we are hundreds of millennia beyond that possibility. If we wanted to remain natural, we should have thought of that before we developed the capacity to think.
  2. Maybe what we long for is not exactly to be natural. The antitheses natural and artificial exclude the most desirable quality, second-natural, which is artificial naturalness. Second-naturalness is the true goal of design. If an action is second-natural it is done intuitively, with wordless intelligence. And any thing, any tool, we make that is used second-naturally becomes an extension of our selves. Artificial-feeling things never feel like extensions of our selves.
  3. One of our most second-natural tools is language. Second-naturalness in language use is fluency. That fluency can become so second-natural we lose the subtle distinction between our intuitive intentions and the words that give them form. It can begin to seem as though our intellectual intentions are essentially linguistic — that the language itself is thinking through our speech. I want to argue that language use is a special case of tool use. An artist can pick up a pen and start drawing a picture without consciously thinking about moving their hand or directing the pen, ink or paper. Most of the time there are no words.  No imagined final product is necessary. Ideally the artist becomes absorbed in the image. Language works exactly the same way. When we speak naturally, the words flow toward an intended meaning which emerges in the speech. We do not necessarily know how a sentence will end when we start it, but the saying is guided by an intuition which is not itself verbal, an intuition of what the sentence is trying to become.
  4. Activities feel artificial when we must continue to use our language fluency to verbally direct what is not second-natural. This is why a language-learner must begin to think in a language. An internal translation process keeps the second language artificial. But when we think about designing the things we use in our lives, often we are content with assuming an internal translation. Because we think our thought, maybe even our essential self, is linguistic it seems inevitable that we’ll be using language to tell our brains and our hands what to do. Consequently, most of the things we make feel artificial. We fail to design them for second-naturalness, for fluency. Our lives feel artificial because our philosophy of design is logocentric.
  5. A primary goal of design should be to thin the layers of language between intention and outcome. What is meant by a layer? What I do not mean is removing some linguistic veil of of illusion that separates us from some realm of metaphysical truth. All I mean is to minimize or eliminate the need for verbalized instructions to ourselves in our daily activity. And especially instructions for instructing ourselves. If we are using word processing software and we are trying to think about the sequence of actions required to, say, spell check a word in the document that has been marked misspelled, but we are unable to get the word selected in order to see the correct spelling options, we are now unable to stay absorbed in the sentence we were trying to write. We now have the words of the sentence we are typing, words instructing ourselves to try different options to select the word, verbalized questions regarding why the function is not working as expected, not to mention expletives. It is like operating a robot arm to operate multiple other robot arms. I believe these accumulating layers of verbalization are contributing to our increasing sense that something is going wrong with our lives.
  6. Because our logocentric philosophies assume the presence of language is inevitable in every detail of our lives, it doesn’t occur to us to challenge it. We are suffering from a thickening layer of words, insulating us from direct interaction with real entities that surround us. But we do not even know that this philosophy is interfering with seeing the problem. Our popular philosophy is so established in our own thinking — it is so second-natural to us, we cannot conceive of the possibility of changing it. When we think of philosophical thought, we automatically assume that we will be thinking about it, using the popular philosophy we already have.  We assume it will feel artificial. We have no expectation that a new philosophy can ever become second-natural to us. And this is not helped in the least by the fact that philosophers generally do not think of philosophies as something which ought to be designed for use, much less in a designerly way using designerly methods, and even more rarely, with the goal of second-naturalness.
  7. Philosophy should be understood as a design discipline. It should be directed by the things designers are directed by. Where are people encountering problems that might be the result of how they are conceived and thought about, or at least might be alleviated by thinking about them in new ways? Where is our thinking misdirecting or misguiding or misnorming our actions? It should make use of some of the methods of design, many of which are themselves philosophical praxes: interviewing, observing, opportunity definition, problem definition/briefing,  codesigning, modeling, visualizing, prototyping, iterative testing and most of all radical self-transcendent collaboration. Philosophy should adopt some key design concepts, for instance wicked problems, tradeoffs, divergent/convergent thinking, sensitivity to context, primacy of interactions. And perhaps most importantly, philosophy should push pragmatism to its logical next step. William James (I think) said that “truth is what is better to think.”. Philosophy should get more specific about what it means for a thought to be better or worse, by taking cues from one of the fundamental guiding frameworks of design, namely Liz Sanders’s Useful/Usable/Desirable. I’m tentatively calling this Design Instrumentalism.
  8. What does it mean for a philosophy to be useful, usable and desirable? A normal first inclination is to subject the presentation of the philosophy to these standards by asking questions like “Will this book teach me something useful? Is it written clearly and straightforwardly so I don’t have to struggle to understand it? Is it an engaging read, or is it a boring slog? These are all important questions, but I mean more than that. I want to ask these questions about the philosophy itself — about the ability of this philosophy to become second-natural in everyday constant use, after It is adopted as how one thinks, long after the book is put back on the shelf and the words are mostly forgotten. How does this philosophy work as a mind-reality interface? “Does it effectively guide and support my actions (or does it lead me to do things that interfere with my intentions? Does it allow me to think clearly and act intuitively without having to laboriously puzzle things out first? Does it force me to use language that feels abstract or theoretical to get to a conclusion? Does my life feel purposeful and valuable and worth effort?” If the answer to any of these is no, or even a weak yes, the philosophy design process should continue.
  9. Some other practical observations from my life of philosophical designing and designerly philosophizing deserve mention. Understanding anxiety and perplexity is crucial. To conceive something new, it is necessary to suspend or reject older ways of conceiving, or allow new data which defies conceptualization and full or clear comprehension to remain perplexing. All too often we misread anxiety as a signal that we are on the wrong track, and interpret perplexity (a state of intellectual disorder so thorough that the problem cannot be stated despite the fact that it is inflicting intense distress) as an emergency to end by any means possible as quickly as possible. Anxiety is the sign we are in the right path, and the right path is the one that goes directly into perplexity, through it and out on the other side, where we have found new ways to conceive truth. Another observation: wherever we see monolithic beings, we are generally getting lazy with our categories and reifying pluralities into singularities. This applies to our own souls. But I would like to take a few potshots at Richard Rorty‘s logocentrism here. He seems to think that if Nature does not exist as some humanity transcending monolithic authority, it can be sidelined from our humans-only conversation club. That redescription of truth underemphasizes the role real nonhuman beings play in shaping our truth. Nature isn’t one thing with one truth for us to discover, sure, but the myriad entities who we’ve assigned to nature do have natures that we interact with. These entities will cooperate with us if we interact with them one way, and will rebel against us if we treat them other ways. Our philosophies need to be designed to help us win the cooperation of nonhuman entities, and this is a huge factor determining the degree of truth in even our most universally-held beliefs. If we all agree something false is the truth, we’re all going to stop believing it when nonhuman entities register their dissent by scuttling our intentions.
  10. Finally, I want to suggest some ways philosophy and design can learn from one another how to converse across difference. All too often we debate before debate is really possible. In design we ask one another to try on possible ways of approaching problems, and we try thinking out problems using different logics. We draw what we are thinking when words fail us, as they frequently do. We are happy to play with possibilities, even when we are not fully conscious of what is directing our play, because often such play is fruitful. This is what it takes to get an infant concept viable enough to stand up to interrogation, argument or debate. Design teams dread having that guy in the room who only knows how to argue, and who kills all possibility of intellectual creativity with his still, narrow logic. But this is how all too many philosophers are: argumentative logicians. Hopefully, better designed philosophies can help guide better ways to craft, compare and iterate philosophies.

Update 9-15-20: I’m also being asked to write a book on Service Design research, so that’s another item on the list.