What I mean when I talk about service

Message in ketchup on counter: “We waited 30 min NO SERVICE”

A couple of conversations recently made me realise I should write this down.

Jane tweeted: “Public Sector Digital peeps, what is now the best definition of a ‘Service’ for people not used to working in our world? The end-to-end journey which enables a user to ‘do a thing’ – am sure many have put it far more eloquently than that?”

In a private Slack conversation Trilly asked the reasonable question: “So, if ‘service design is the design of services’ – what’s the definition of a service?”

To both I had two answers, a short one and a long one.

The short answer, credit to Lou Downe and the government design community: “A service is something that helps someone do something.” (I borrowed precisely this formulation for our NHS Digital Standards Framework.)

The slightly longer, and definitely more jargoney version: “Service is the application of competences (knowledge and skills) for the benefit of a party.”

The second version comes from Steve Vargo and Robert Lusch’s marketing concept of Service Dominant Logic. I prefer this one for certain important nuances…

People need service, not services

Discussions about services plural are really about boundaries. What constitutes a “whole” service? How do I know when the service is finished? These are important questions for people designing and delivering service, but less so, I think, for users. To users, service is an uncountable noun. I work for the National Health Service, which has served the nation, from cradle to grave, for 70 years and counting. In reality, the NHS is lots of separate organisations, systems and plans. Our job as service designers is to make them work coherently so that patients never need to care about our structures.

We’re all knowledge workers now

Vargo and Lusch’s use of “competences” gets to the heart of the first “something” in “something that helps someone do something”. It doesn’t prescribe a particular sequence of steps in a customer journey. It doesn’t presuppose a digital or non-digital solution. It could be a human or non-human competence. Knowledge and skills can be encapsulated in human minds, in paper processes, and, increasingly, as software. (See also “Alexa skill”). What if the building blocks of service were not steps at all, but skills? We’re all knowledge workers now, and every service organisation is a learning organisation.

Value only in use

For service value to be created, knowledge and skills must be applied. In the world of goods, if a company makes a widget and stores it in a warehouse, the unsold widget appears at once as an asset on the company’s balance sheet. In the world of service, if we make an appointment and the patient doesn’t turn up, or we write a web page but nobody accesses it, there is no value creation. The beneficiary is always a participant in co-creating value.

The benefit of a party

In public sector discourse, service is often transactional by default, delivered by a paid provider to a passive recipient. It’s true, many services are configured like that, but other more creative configurations of the parties are also possible. Picture, for example, a diabetes education course where a group of newly diagnosed patients support each other. In that case, who is the “provider” and who is the “recipient”? So I like the vagueness of “the benefit of a party” or “beneficiary” as a more inclusive term than “recipient” or “user”.

“Service is the application of competences for the benefit of a party.”

That’s what I mean when I talk about service.

Update, 14 April 2019

Caroline challenged me to say that again using simpler words. My best attempt:

“Service is doing what you can to make stuff better for someone.”

Not All Mammals! In defence of designing for “people”

I’ve been thinking about this exchange with Roberta…

@mattedgar Lots of people _talk_ about getting users in the room. This weekend @mHealthLeeds is actually doing it. #mhleeds

@RobertaWedge @mattedgar Users of what? In a health-care context, the term covers layers of euphemism.

@mattedgar @RobertaWedge fair point. Alternatives to the word ‘user’ gratefully received. (Often but not always “people” works just fine)

@RobertaWedge @mattedgar I am anti “people”. Citizen, student, resident, account-holder, patient, passenger, woman, employee – precision aids discourse.

@mattedgar @RobertaWedge indeed. Though may also reinforce rigid role definitions and allocations. People wear many hats, sometimes simultaneously.

Also this post by Russell…

I’m old enough that I’ve seen the same debates go round and round a few times.

One is the (always well-intentioned) cry – let’s stop saying customers/consumers/users, let’s remember they’re people! This always snags an emotional latch but I think it’s worth resisting.

Firstly, let’s remember that they’re also mammals – does that help? No. Moving up to the next biggest category isn’t especially useful.(*1)

Secondly, if you need reminding that your customers/consumers/users are people you have bigger problems. Changing what you write on your briefs/stories isn’t going to help.

I know where they’re coming from. I get the need for precision. I think we all agree that whatever you call them, we make stuff for and with messy, multi-faceted actors. But, as a people-centred service designer, I reckon the P word is worth defending.

While there is a place for “user” and other words of precision, it should not be at the expense of open-ended human-centred inquiry. A more interesting question might be, what are the right words for where we are now, in our digital culture as a whole? I for one think “people’s” time has come.

cat and mouse

For starters, the point about designing for humans as opposed to animals is not as facile as Russell makes out. At risk of being hauled before a gavel-toting, wig-wearing dolphin in the post-speciesist court of the future, Not All Mammals! My cats have evolved to simulate affection, but I’m certain that if I lay dead at the foot of the stairs for a couple of days they would eat me.

We are not cats. We can and should accord our human users a human level of tolerance and curiosity. Overuse of reductionist language is a tell-tale sign when we forget to do so. “Customer” or “claimant”, “passenger” or “potentate”, “servant” or “CEO” – they’re all different flavours of the same remouillage.

Moving up to the next biggest category – at least for a while – is what designers do. An iterative process zooms from the big picture to the tiny details and back again. The words we use as we zoom signal where we are in the focal range. Worrying about whether the next link is obvious, or the service accessible with a screen reader? “User” may be the best word to deploy. Helping someone unpick complex medical and social factors that impact their mental health? They probably need you to see the whole person. Over the course of any design process, it pays to mix it up, to vary the vocabulary.

Shoes - Some rights reserved paul-w-locke

We set ourselves too easy a task if all we do is satisfy the needs that present themselves at face value; often things that matter are hiding in plain sight. In my work I’ve found myself pointing out…

  • to a footwear brand that teenagers’ feet are still growing
  • to a retailer that shop floor workers turn to family members for help with the intranet
  • to a utility company that couples argue about who spends too long in the shower.

Banal insights like these make a direct difference to the service we offer. They can only be had by breaking free from blinkered caricatures of “runner”, “employee” or “resident”.

Every time we boldly launch our little boat by asking “what is the user need?” two further questions lurk implicitly upstream: which users, which needs? Ignore these and we will be forever tethered to our preconceptions about the nature of service we aim to deliver. Maybe some people call a contact centre to rapidly resolve a service problem. Maybe some call for reassurance that there are real people behind a digital service. Maybe others just call because they’re lonely. People-centricity reveals dimensions here that focusing only on the caller as user would miss.

We should also consider the number of actors. Service dominant logic dictates that service is always co-created by multiple parties – as a minimum, the one demanding it, and the one delivering it. Service design and innovation processes look at how those parties work together. Sometimes the best way to unlock greater value for end users is to set free those who serve them to do their best work. Want to improve the experience of online news? You’ll need to change the way news is gathered and edited as much as the way it is accessed and explored.

When we follow all the actors and understand their capabilities, we find that the boundary between “consumer” and “producer” is more malleable than the reductionists assume. Mobile, social media turns public transport “passengers” into providers of powerful real-time information service. US supermarket “employees” donate food so their colleagues in need can enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner. The complex and variable geometry of service only emerges when we accept the people involved for everything they are.

Texting in the park - some rights reserved - duncanh1

One of the delights of the new GOV.UK (in which – Disclosure! – I play a bit part, but for whom I certainly do not claim to speak here) is the way it demonstrates that many of the debates of Noughties web design are now pretty much solved problems. Form follows function. Text and hypertext dominate the flashy, non-standard carapaces on which millions were wasted by private and public sectors alike. High levels of accessibility, responsive design, open source frameworks, web-native APIs – they’re all just manifest good sense things that make user experiences better.

This good news is not yet evenly distributed. Many organisations would do well to take their lead from the Government Service Design Manual. Like learner drivers they might need to go through the consciously competent stage of focusing on their users. But when they’ve internalised that then what?

The settlement of those user-level questions should free them up to direct their attention to more positive visions of digital service, and to people’s higher-order, higher-value issues. They can focus on making explicit those questions that so often go begging: which users, which needs? They can create systems with continuous improvement built in. They can ensure there is empathy and the possibility of change every time service is delivered.

Users may well be the place to start. But people must surely be the end-game.

It can be these, but…

Our economy will not grow bigger in scale, but we will see it become more specific, more diverse, more adapted to individual needs and desires. The economy that served us well is giving way to what I call the informative economy.

According to my dictionary, “to inform” means to “imbue or inspire with some specific quality or value.” Practically speaking, information is not merely data, telecommunications, or a computer network. It can be these, but it is also the knowledge added to resources to make them valuable. It is design, craft, utility and durability — everything that makes a product more useful, longer lasting, easier to repair, lighter, stronger, and less energy-consuming. Information is nothing more (or less) than how to make or accomplish something the best way.

A Chevrolet requires ten to twelve times more expense on warranty repairs than an American-built Honda does. The difference is information in the form of design, workmanship and quality. Twenty-five years ago Honda was a “small” business. It became a big business not by building bigger cars, or cars with more gadgets, but by building a car with more information…

— Paul Hawken‘Growing a business’ (1987)

Thanks to Andy Bell for the recommendation.

The risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things

Get excited and <strike>make</strike>do things

I once worked in a Parisian office where the walls were emblazoned with encouraging slogans in English, “share ideas!” “create!” “go!” But my favourite was always the half metre-high vinyl entreaty to:

“do it simple!”

In my more cynical moments I would claim this word art spoke volumes about the culture of multi-national business, more I think than its writer knew or intended. But this is not one of those moments, and in any case who am I to criticise people who spend their working lives operating in a second language while I, through accident of birth, get to open my mouth without a moment’s thought?

No, the mangled motto always reminded that while English has two verbs – “to do” and “to make” – French has only one – “faire”.

This is important because something’s been troubling me about this whole thing for making things. What exactly are the relationships inside that trinity of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things”?

In my long-drawn-out drift from product manager to service designer, I’ve come to subscribe to the tenets of Steve Vargo and Robert Lusch’s Service Dominant Logic:

“that all firms are service firms; all markets are centered on the exchange of service, and all economies and societies are service based.”

But if I Don’t Believe In Products, why my excitement about making, about the prospect of artisan manufacturing, print-on-demand, Arduinos and laser cutters and 3d printers?

Makey Makey carrot keyboard

What would it mean for a service designer to live in the UK’s Maker Belt?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have three avenues that might be worth exploring further.

1. That makers are motivated by the process, not the product.

David Gauntlett’s ‘Making is Connecting‘ is good on this front:

Making is connecting because acts of creativity usually involve, at some point, a social dimension and connect us with other people; And making is connecting because through making things and sharing them in the world, we increase our engagement and connection with our social and physical environments.

Of course the thing matters, but only because it is filled with meaning by the people who make and use it. Its intangible value is far greater than the sum of its atoms.

2. That the products of making are frequently service avatars.

As Mike Kuniavsky says:

We are entering a new phase of the internet, one in which connected devices will be the new end points for services. This represents a seismic shift, one where the service is represented as a dedicated hardware device.

Berg’s Little Printer or the Good Night Lamp certainly fall into this category – lovely things that only come to life thanks to the services people make for them.

3. That paradoxically, the maker movement sits on top of a massive stack of enabling services.

  • Oomlaut is a service importing components and parcelling them up into starter kits for hardware hackers.
  • Folksy is a service enabling modern British crafters to network, communicate and sell their stuff.
  • Kickstarter is a service helping makers connect with and gain commitments from funders.
  • Shapeways is just one example of companies gearing up to offer 3d printing as a service.

So for me, the exciting stuff about the making movement is not the output, it’s the activity – the service ecosystem burgeoning around people’s desire and new-found ability to be makers.

Time to get excited and make do things.

“Please join me in a drive for better letters”

As a follow-up to the 1951 ‘No Idle Words’ booklet, comes this gem of a letter about writing letters. Its author was Charles Hill, a doctor turned broadcaster and politician who briefly held the office of Postmaster General.

Note also the lovely simplification of the royal coat of arms – just remove all the fussy heraldry from the middle, leaving only the supporters, crown and ribbon – and the brilliant phone number.

Transcript below.





HEAdquarters 1234.

11th June, 1956

Dear Colleague,

I am sending this letter to all in the Post Office whose job includes the writing of letters to the public. As a rule Post Office letters are very good. Sometimes they are so good as to make one feel proud. But it does happen that now and again Post Office letters come back to me because they have made members of the public very cross.

Unlike the customers of many private businesses, our customers cannot go elsewhere. Since we are a monopoly, our obligations to the public are all the greater.

A letter which is not clear and polite is just as serious a failure as is a wrong number or a misdelivered parcel. And it is bad in another way. We in the Post Office need the closest co-operation from the public if we are to provide efficient service. Unless the public think of us as a body of friendly, helpful and efficient men and women, we shall not get that co-operation. Bad letters are bad business – and we are in business.

Will you join me in and experiment? Will you re-read your own letters as though they had been sent to you? It can be a useful check to ask oneself as a private citizen what one would think of the writer. Would he seem to be a friendly, understanding, human being anxious to help, or a remote, cold, aloof bureaucrat? If you knew nothing about the Post Office and wanted to know only why you cannot get a telephone or why your letter or parcel went astray or was damaged, would the letter you have written seem clear and polite?

As ordinary individuals writing to a friend, we write simply and clearly. Or most of us do. Only when they pick up their pens in the office do some people sometimes write stiff, long-winded, and obscure letters.

Of course clarity is not all. Sometimes a letter is very clear – all too clear – but not very polite. But the people to whom we write are our customers. We cannot always do what our customers want; but we can, and should, always be polite. If the Post Office has made a mistake, we should apologise.

May I make some other suggestions? Write as nearly as you can as if you were talking to your correspondent. Keep your sentences short and use the simplest and most natural words. User your own words but avoid technical terms and abbreviations. Your correspondent may know little about the Post Office.

If your letter is to promise action of some kind, think out who will do what and say so. If you do not know, find out. If you cannot find out, the chances are that nobody is going to do anything and it’s high time somebody did.

If your letter is clear, polite, and as helpful as possible, you will be making a friend for the Post Office and doing a first-class job.

If for you this advice is unnecessary – as it is for the great majority of our Post Office colleagues – please forgive me for offering it. If not, please join me in a drive for better letters.

Yours sincerely,

Charles Hill

No Idle Words: a style guide for the age of austerity

No Idle Words - a photo set on Flickr

Russell Davies’ lovely post on the writing style of the GOV.UK beta inspired me to scan this 1951 Post Office writing guide.

We inherited it from my wife’s grandfather who taught telecommunications at the Post Office’s training college, in the days before BT. If anyone knows more about the booklet I’d love to hear from them.

The author of ‘No Idle Words’ is uncredited, but their  sound advice still holds more than 60 years later. Compare their watchwords with those of GOV.UK:

GPO 1951    GOV.UK 2012 
  • Clear
  • Polite
  • Brief
  • Simpler
  • Clearer
  • Faster

Much of it is timeless good sense, but more than that, the tone seems to chime with the specific spirit of our own age. The GOV.UK people already have a sense of that aesthetic, noting the pioneering influences of the Festival of Britain and Margaret Calvert’s road signage system.

I reckon the Post Office booklet shines a different light on the period, though.

The year of publication marked the fag-end of George VI’s reign and the start of Winston Churchill’s disappointing second term.

From the first word of the title onwards, much of ‘No Idle Words’ is devoted to the negative. Despite the superficial appeal of the call to clarity, the writer’s overriding objective is to save time and cost by fobbing off and ticking off staff and the general public more quickly and directly.

For example from page 15:

I am sorry we cannot at present give you the telephone service you have asked for. The Post Office is alive to the difficulties and incovenience caused by the present shortage of telephones, and is doing what it can to improve the situation. You will be advised as soon as there is a definite prospect of giving you service and in the meantime, it would be a great help to know if you change your address or if you wish to cancel your order.

These are the words of a post-“KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” society. However you put it, there is no glory in telling someone they cannot have a telephone. In an austerity administration all ambition is gone. What remains is for the civil servant to deliver bad news with good grace.

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party

I have been using the word “machine” in this connection, because it was the only name by which it was designated at that time. The adoption of a suitable name, however, was being discussed at this time by Mr. Sholes and his associates. “Printing machine” was first suggested, but the name did not meet with favor as describing the work it was designed to accomplish. “Writing machine” was also suggested, but as the work would be in printed letters the word “writing” seemed inapplicable. At length Mr. Sholes suggested the name “typewriter.” This was subject to the same objection, and there was some discussion as to whether the name “printing machine’* was not a better name after all, but “typewriter” was an unusual name and had a unique sound, and so it was finally adopted, and then for the first time was heard a name, sounding oddly enough at that time, but which has now become so common throughout the civilized world that we wonder that any other name was thought of.

Our interest in the work became more and more absorbing as it progressed, and the various parts completed and assembled. The keys were of black walnut, about three inches long and a quarter of an inch wide, with the letter of the alphabet to which it was attached painted in white on each key while between each key was a space sufficient to insert shorter keys similar to the black keys of the piano, which were used for the figures and punctuation marks. The figures ran from 2 to 9, the letter “I” being used for the first figure and “O” was used for the cypher. Added to these were the semi-colon, the dollar mark, the hyphen, the period, the comma and interrogation point, and a diagonal stroke which was used for the parenthesis. The keys being attached to the type bars and working in unison with the carriage movement enabled us for the first time to test the work of printing words and sentences. We were then in the midst of an exciting political campaign, and it was then for the first time that the well known sentence was inaugurated, — “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party;” also the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence, “When in the course of human events,” etc., which sentences were repeated many times in order to test the speed of the machine.

Charles E. Weller, “The early history of the typewriter“, 1918