Episodes

Andy Polaine on Service Design

"In some respects, what you're designing is a kind of ecosystem."

My guest today is Andy Polaine. Andy is a service designer, consultant, educator, author, and podcaster. He’s co-author of the book Service Design: From Insight to Implementation and host of the Power of Ten podcast. In this conversation, we discuss service design, and how it helps organizations think more holistically about the experiences they enable.

Listen to the full conversation

Show notes

Read the full transcript

Jorge: So, Andy, welcome to the show.

Andy: Thanks for having me. It’s pleasure to be here. It’s very nice to be the other side of the mic, as they say.

Jorge: Well, it’s a pleasure having you here. For folks who might not know you, how do you introduce yourself?

Andy’s background

Andy: So, my name is Andy Polaine. I am a service designer, consultant, trainer, coach, writer, and podcaster. And so, it’s never really very easy. I’ve got one of those kinds of “hyphen” professions where I just kind of add bits to it all the time. My background is… so I actually studied film and when I did my undergraduate, I wanted to be a film director.

And, initially I wanted to do visual effects actually from a very early age. And then, got interested in film and filmmaking. And when I started my degree, which was photography, film, video, and digital media, that just came in – this was early nineties, like 1990 – as I knew there was this thing called multimedia where you could… with Macromedia, or it wasn’t even that, it was called Video Works, I think it was before it even became Director.

And I’d always noodled about with computers; I’d had a personal computer as a younger kid, played games a lot and stuff. So, it was always kind of fascinated with interactivity. And I had those kinds of dual tracks all the way through. There was a sort of bit of competition in my head between the world of filmmaking and this new thing. And I chose this new thing, “new media,” as it was at the time, because I was kind of interested in it as a form. What does it mean to be able to interact with stuff? What are the affordances of this new thing?

And so that’s where I started. So, I started kind of doing interaction design before it had that name. And sort of discovering some things about interactivity, with a group called Antirom. And then, I started teaching it quite a lot and I’d always done a lot of teaching, even when I was a student, I used to of teach my peers quite a lot.

And that’s always been a… The secret thing about teaching is you hoover up a lot of knowledge. I think you gain more knowledge from teaching than you do give out actually. And then I was heading the School of Media Arts at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. And we were having a kind of faculty restructure, and I’d started getting interested in the idea of organizational design. And in these meetings about the restructure, the faculty – mostly designers and artists, who were the faculty – were having a meeting where they read out pages of A4 to each other, and then had long conversations and I thought, well, this is a design process. Why aren’t we up at the whiteboard, you know, designing this organization?

And then when I went back to the UK to visit a friend of mine, Ben Reason, in his newly minted studio of Livework, he started talking about service design. And he said, we’re doing this thing called service design and I met Lavrans and Chris Downs as well and suddenly there’s, “oh right! There’s a whole way of thinking about this stuff.” And sort of language. And so I started kind of making the shift into that and then co- wrote the book with them, and then started teaching it. And I actually, you know what? [It was] the other way around, I started teaching it and needed the book that I wanted to teach from. So, there wasn’t one, so I wrote it with them, and that’s sort of been my journey.

Then I went to Fjord for a while where I was, again in a kind of teaching role, as well as design director role. And I’ve just recently – with brilliant timing, on the 1st of March – went independent again, as a design leadership coach and also training, clients and client teams.

Powers of Ten

Jorge: Your podcast is called Powers of Ten, and that’s named after the very famous film by Charles and Ray Eames. Why Powers of Ten? What is it about “Powers of Ten” that is so powerful?

Andy: There are, there are two books that – I realized that only recently – that had seemed to have had a massive influence on me when I was a kid. My dad is an artist and was a designer too. And he had a book version of Powers of Ten that’s where I first saw it. I saw, you know, a book with the frames in it. And there was another book called the Guide To Self-Sufficiency by a guy called John Seymour. Now I can talk about later and it talks about the, kind of, how to be self-sufficient, grow your own stuff, but it talks about the four seasons of the garden.

And the Powers of Ten thing, just stuck with me, cause this guy actually called Andreas Elba (?) who was a friend of mine, and we were having a conversation about how to explain service design to people. Because that ability to zoom in and out and zoom out from big picture to detail and back again, and understand how they affect each other is really, really important, right? And we’ve really seen it recently with the coronavirus stuff, but small things can make a massive difference, particularly when they sort of aggregate up. But at the same time, a shift in policy or something can ripple – or a shift in business model ripples across all the details. And so, I’m talking about it and I had this kind of model of these different layers. And I think Andreas said, “Oh, do you know that film ‘Powers of Ten’?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, yeah, no, I love that!” And then I started using that as the way of explaining it to people.

And so the thing about “Powers of Ten” is this idea of… One, it’s an exponential thing, which now everyone understands, thanks to the coronavirus. But this idea of… To those that don’t know, it starts with a camera above a guy on a picnic blanket, one meter above him and then 10 meters and then a hundred meters, the powers of 10 each time. So, one of the things is how quickly you’re out into the universe, right? How quickly that multiplies up. And then it goes back down into the subatomic level.

But the other thing is this kind of rhythm that there is, where there are moments of density: there’s lots of matter, there’s lots of planets, or there’s lots of whatever, and then space. And as you know, good chunks of it in both the subatomic level and the kind of universe level where there’s just lots of space and then suddenly there’s a lot of density again.

And I just found it, that sort of fractal thing where these patterns kept repeating themselves, I found it really, really fascinating, and it really stuck with me as a kind of way of thinking. I don’t know if it has anything to do with my kind of film background. Maybe there’s a bit of it there. You know, and when you’ve got like a line and a scene and kind of an act and so forth, or, maybe. But I just find it a really useful way of thinking about everything.

Consulting

Jorge: I’m wondering, in consulting work – because I take it from what you’ve been describing that most of your career has been as a consultant, in advisory roles to organizations…

Andy: A mix. So, I’ve had… I switch in and out of kind of academic life and consulting. And so, I’ve had periods where I’ve been doing likes of 10-15% consulting every so often and doing talks and stuff and mostly teaching. And then I’ve had periods of the other way around.

Jorge: So, these subjects, I think, fit in very nicely with what I would expect to be an academic perspective on the work, right? Where it’s more introspective and you’re… you were talking about this notion of zooming up and down the levels. And in my experience, folks in the business world are more focused on the nearer term, perhaps more actionable or kind of like… I’ve even noticed a resistance to ideas that they might consider more philosophical.

Andy: Yeah.

Jorge: And I’m wondering, first of all, if that somehow corresponds with your experience, and if so, how do you deal with that?

Andy: It does correspond to my experience. So, service design in particular… You know, fundamentally it deals with ecosystems and services are kind of multiple touch points, they’re multiple kind of channels. If you can think in terms of ecosystems and actually try and pull the parts of those ecosystems together to understand that you’re actually all involved in delivering the same thing.

You know, there’s I think a bit in the book where we say a service is designed in silos, or created in silos, or experienced in bits. And it has a reputation, service design does, of boiling the ocean. Right? So, it’s… Laddering up is a great thing, but you can very quickly get into a point… And I see it with students a lot, where it’s like, “I want to do something about sustainability. And that means we have to change the use of plastics. But in order to do that, we have to change this…” And then all of a sudden, they’re like, “Oh, we have to change the entirety of capitalism,” which is absolutely true. We do. But it’s very, very hard to tackle it at that level.

And so, I think one of the things that, in that sort of consulting world is to work out, what’s the level of influence of… First, there are two things. One is, what’s the level that we’re actually trying to achieve, change at, and having a conversation at? Because often I think clients will state will want – or stakeholders will want – to be making change to what’s essentially a structural change to the business, but sort of hoping that they can do it through some sort of customer experience mapping or something.

So getting that right, getting everyone understanding that this is the level that we’re tackling at, or working at, is important. And then making sure when you’re having those conversations, you don’t get kind of out of whack, you don’t get kind of misaligned. Because I’ve seen, you know, plenty of times people having a really long discussion or debate or argument about some detail and yet the bigger picture thing is actually in fact the thing we need to be talking about at that time. And vice versa, right?

In my head, I’ve got those different kinds of zoom levels and I’m trying to kind of work out where people are at and where the project is at and try and bring everyone aligned on that or move them up and down as well, you know?

Jorge: Yeah. And I’m guessing that also understanding what level of role you’re dealing with in the organization itself might be important, no?

Andy: Yeah. Yeah. And, and that’s what, I guess what I meant by that kind of, someone who’s jurisdiction is quite… it doesn’t have to be smaller, like it could be they’re the head of customer experience or something, but if they are then in competition for budget or whatever it is with the head of marketing and the CEO has another idea and whatever, they’re all essentially part of the same ecosystem if they’re fighting with each other. Or they feel like, “Well, that’s not my kind of role and that’s not my jurisdiction.” It makes it very, very hard for them to operate. So a lot of that job is facilitating the conversations between them. And I guess a lot of my frustration is…

I’ve come away from the idea of kind of breaking down the silos. I think silos are actually… they’re often for good reasons and you need some kind of containers, but sort of bridging them or making them a bit more porous, I think is really crucial. I think that you really need to make sure that you know how you fit into the other part of whatever else is going on.

Jorge: One thing that I’ve experienced in consulting engagements is that sometimes these design projects serve as the excuse for people in those silos to work together collaboratively, perhaps for the first time. And they become more aware of the… more tangibly aware of their differing objectives, incentives, and communication styles, perhaps. And just that knowledge is a powerful catalyst to changing the conversation, somehow.

Andy: Yeah. So one of the things… this is a service design thing, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this… but one of the things in service design is a service blueprint, where you’re mapping out the front stage and backstage, all the sort of bits of the enterprise that actually deliver or support the delivery of that service or that experience. And I think it’s often seen as… we’re going to design this thing and then we’re going to fix it, you know? And blueprints are actually a kind of terrible name. Because it’s, it’s not really a blueprint, what it is is a map really. And in that it’s often its main value is actually, for the first time, different parts of the organization, see how well their stuff fits together, you know?

And it’s one of those things of, our tools, you know, shape our thinking. And if you sit in PowerPoint decks and Excel sheets the whole time, you don’t ever really see the connectedness between all of those different things. And so, whether it’s synchronously, everyone’s in the room together, asynchronicity of people coming in and out, I think that’s a really kind of useful tool for that.

What is service design?

Jorge: Some folks listening in might not be familiar with service design.

Andy: Hmm.

Jorge: What is the introductory spiel? What is the “101” to service design?

Andy: There’s a, there’s a big debate about this. So, one of the ways of thinking about it is, it’s the design of all the different touch points that go into delivering a service or a customer experience, plus the kind of backstage, behind the scenes things, and that’s kind of IT. Could be man-in-a-van delivery, it could be all sorts of things that go into actually delivering that service and making sure that they are coherent across different channels. So when you move between say a website and an app or call center, you’re speaking the same language, talking about the same things and so forth. And also, that there are kind of seamless transitions between steps, so as people move through the journey. And so, with that, that means someone can take a journey through your service ecosystem in whichever way they like and it’s always coherent.

And service design is basically about doing that the way I usually explain it to kind of, you know, my mother, is this idea of… if you’ve ever had an experience with an organization, often with government, but often with things like telcos and insurance companies and so forth, where if you’ve got a problem and it feels like every time you phone up or have some kind of contact or, you know, use a touch point, it feels like you’re dealing with five or six different companies instead of one. Our job is to make it feel like it’s a seamless experience.

Jorge: One thing that is coming to mind, hearing you describe that, is that it sounds comprehensive in nature and holistic, right?

Andy: Yeah.

Jorge: In that it’s looking to embrace as much of the experience as possible for someone who is trying to accomplish something by interacting with either a system or organization. And that strikes me as a direction that might be in tension with another direction, which has to do with specializing more or wanting to compartmentalize design. And I’m thinking now of like professional self-identities, right? Like some people think of themselves as visual designers or, I don’t know, industrial designers or, you know, in…

Andy: UXers or whatever.

Jorge: Right. And what strikes me here is that in all of those cases, the object of design is some kind of tangible artifact. Some are more tangible than others, but something that you can examine and point to and say, “I designed that.”

Andy: Yes.

Jorge: What is the object that’s service design designs? I don’t even know if that’s a fair question.

Andy: No, it’s not really. I mean, it’s, like I said, you’re designing what you’re doing is taking a zoom level up actually, or a couple of zoom levels up and trying to design, make sure that all those objects or those touch points – that can be people, incidentally, or systems – are working in cohort, that you can interact with each one and understand what’s going on. That there’s a kind of seamless sense to them. They feel like they’re a whole.

So, in some respects, what you’re designing is a kind of ecosystem. But there’s another bit to that also, which is the business model, right? So, you know, most service design teams have a business designer amongst them. Because they’re the two halves of the same coin. If you’re trying to design a service… and let’s take an example where you say, “Well, we’re going to change the business model from freemium to subscription.” Then the way the whole… all the touch points around that and the way you talk about that have to change, right? You know, to communicate it right. And often you’ll see that a business model and the design of the different touch points in the service are slightly at odds to each other.

The most… well, one of the ones I know of is a telco’s name I won’t mention. The call center, when you phoned the call center with a problem, they would tell you to go into the store in order to get some help. But the same company had created an app, a sort of self-help app, in order to try and get people not to go into the store. So, see you have two touch points that are kind of working against each other, with different messages, coming from the same company.

Jorge: Yeah. And you talked about coherence earlier, right? Like there’s this misalignment there that stepping up a level and looking at the entire – or as much of the picture as you can – exposes those points of incoherence.

Andy: Yeah, and it breaks trust, right? You know, humans anthropomorphize everything, right? We give our cars names; we shout at our computers. We do it with our pets and everything else. And I’m pretty sure we’re just basically hardwired to see the world narcissistically as kind of everything in the world is like another human being, right? And I think we also relate to companies like that too. And so we have these you know, things in this relationship, you go, “Oh, I thought we had this relationship and it turns out we have a different relationship,” and there’s a little kind of ding in the trust there. And, and so that, that kind of happens all the time.

If you imagine someone who you kind of know quite well, who you’re spending a lot of time with – which is often the case with some services – and all of a sudden, they do something really out of character, you start to kind of wonder, “well, what’s going on there?” And so that’s, I think, what’s going on when you get that destruction of trust, when those things aren’t designed as a kind of coherent whole.

Jorge: It feels to me that service design is kind of systemic design; it’s design of the system. And perhaps calling it systemic design might lead people to assume that it really is about technology or something when it’s meant that, “system” meaning in the broader sense, no?

Andy: Yeah. And you know, I’ve been really interested in systems thinking in the last few years. I think I’ve always have been, but in the last couple of years, I’ve read more up on it and stuff. And you know, I think there’s a lot of overlap there. And one of the reasons why I think there’s a lot of overlap between that and say, circular economy and sustainability, is a lot of the way of thinking is around kind of ecosystems and human behavior and understanding how small changes can add up to a kind of big difference.

And, do you need to kind of map out those big things, but also you also need to deal with the absolute details of how easy it is to find a recycling bin and stuff like that. All those things that are just the barriers to people changing their behavior don’t have to be very high for them to not do anything at all.

Projects and governance

 Jorge: When thinking about design engagements, I often think of them as projects to be undertaken, especially as an independent consultant.

Andy: Right.

Jorge: You get called in because the organization has some kind of need, and you get brought in to help them design a solution that addresses that need, right? And one of the systemic aspects to any kind of situation that an organization might find itself in is that whatever caused it and whatever intervention you’re designing is not something that is going to be fixed into a particular time. There are going to be ongoing changes happening, right? And I’m curious about the relationship between service design interventions and ongoing governance of the systems that are set up.

Andy: Yeah. This is the kind of bane of agencies’ lives actually. So, it’s design agencies, I think because, you’re absolutely right. I mean, there’s lots of different parts to this. One is just a purely kind of… we talked about it before, is a sort of jurisdiction level of who is your stakeholder? Who is basically hiring you as an agency or as a consultant? And, what’s likely to be their kind of budget, right? And they have a kind of certain amount of budget, and it seems to sort of pan out to be where you’ve got enough money for kind of three or maybe six months of work, which often means that you kind of get the discovery and the kind of ecosystem mapping and the concept of this sort of beginning of the kind of concepts done. And then basically the budget’s used up of, what’s probably at least a kind of two- or three-year process really.

And so service design is slightly got a bad rep in that sense of being, you know, or you guys just come up with a load of kind of journey maps and blueprints and concepts, but never execute on them. And the reason why our book was actually called From Insight to Implementation is because you really need to be able to follow those things through and keep referring back. So, that is a real problem, actually.

And the other bit is that jurisdictional thing, which is that person has started a process, which in fact affects the whole company or it needs to involve the whole company in order to maintain it and deliver it and so forth. And there does need to be governance there. And that governance is often set up sort of internally focused around well, you’re in charge of IT, you’re in charge of marketing and so forth, rather than thinking about the, how does this relate to the service and the delivery of the service? And so, who needs to be in the room, basically, having conversations about how this gets modified or changed and so on and so forth. And that is a real problem.

I think there’s a real problem with this idea of when again, you know, it comes back to, say, in a funding model, in an organization, the difference between funding a team versus funding a project. Projects, I think, are a natural way of people to think about things. And I’m guessing it probably comes from school. It’s actually often a terrible way to think about services. I much prefer gardening and we talked about the such, I think, over email. That’s why I gave this talk. I talked about that gardening book, right? And that there is no sense where you, you say, “we’re done. We’ve shipped the garden!” Right? It’s not, it’s never finished. It’s always changing you plant something. And some, it really does well. And then all of a sudden it does too well, because it’s casting shade over all the other stuff. And then something else is withering in the corner and you either just chop it out and throw it in the compost deep or you move it somewhere else.

And so, it’s kind of ever going, changing thing. If you think of government services, like, I don’t know, applying for a passport, or going to jail, or visiting people in jail – that’s not a thing that’s ever done; it’s just always changing.

Jorge: The idea of gardening brings up the element of time into the project, right?

Andy: Yes.

Jorge: And this notion that the intervention you’re making now is going to have effects down the line. And in some ways, what I’m hearing you say is that ultimately the object of design might be the thing that makes the design as opposed to the intervention itself.

Andy: It makes the design in what sense?

Jorge: So, when you talk about funding teams versus funding a project, in some ways the project serves as a reason for a team to coalesce. But ultimately the thing that you want to do is ensure that the team is in place and that they have the resources necessary for whatever goal the thing is setting out to accomplish; to be an ongoing concern as time passes.

Andy: I do think that as a… you know, if you’re coming in it from a sort of consultancy/agency kind of angle to an existing organization… or an organization that isn’t a design organization, like a bank or an insurance company or whatever, you only really can be successful if that company can take on some of the skills and work and become – you know, quite often, a lot of them do have internal service design or design teams internally. I don’t think it’s realistic for them to constantly rely on externals. I think those external consultants can bring knowledge from other spheres, which is really useful, and experience from other spheres, and see patterns where, if you’ve been stuck in the same organization for a long time, your field of vision narrows, and also can do some of the heavy lifting sometimes. But ultimately, and particularly for public services – it’s why the GDS in the UK have been so successful, because they’ve really got a fantastic group of designers working on that stuff all the time and have become much more integrated into the sort of ongoing process. I don’t know if I answered your question there, though.

Jorge: Yeah. No, you touched on something that I was wondering as well, which is the relationship between internal design teams and people who come in from the outside. To bring it back to the Eames image… the very nature of the engagement, if you’re external to the organization, you are by definition, less close to the situation, less close to the problem at hand, so to speak. And as you were pointing out, you have this broader perspective informed by projects, perhaps in a variety of different industries, even.

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Jorge: So, you bring that perspective to bear on these projects and you have to work with people who are internal to the organization and, and much closer to the situation at hand. So, in some ways you have to develop this ability to very quickly move up and down those zoom levels, right? So, that’s one thing that comes to mind.

The other is that there are upsides to doing this kind of work that transcend the immediate project at hand, right? You might be hired to help solve for something that isn’t working well or ease transitions between steps or what have you. And you might deliver on that, and that might be part of the value that you’re bringing to the client, but you’re also demonstrating a different way of working, right? Like one that does take in the bigger picture, perhaps.

 Andy: Yeah. I think this is both a sort of beneficial thing that you bring in and is a cause of frustration too. You know we sort of talked about it a bit before, that zooming in and out lens is really useful in the sense that you’re showing how… because particularly a department or a team inside a larger organization can get a little bit sort of stuck in their own bubble or their own kind of confinement, and they often get sort of learned helplessness, this, “and we would, we’d love to work that way, but we can’t. Cause that’s just the way things are done around here.”

So sometimes that’s true in which case, well then, your design problem isn’t really the thing that you’re trying to tackle, your design problem is the thing that’s constraining around you in the organization. And you know, if you get the chance, then we have to deal with that in order to kind of make you be successful. That can be liberating because you’re able to make that connection, you can create some change inside an organization. Or it can be deeply frustrating, because the answer to that is, “well, that’s all very well, but we just have to fix this thing. You know, we just have to kind of deliver this thing for whoever by this impossible deadline and we don’t have any chance to affect that other stuff.” And so, you are just kind of selling them a kind of a pipe dream.

You know, a lot of the kind of training or coaching I’ve done is interestingly less around, “we’re really struggling with this design problem. Can you help us?” Than it is around facing the other way, “we are struggling as a department inside our organization to kind of gain traction, to gain buy in, to… we can see that there’s this thing, and we can see this connectedness, but we can’t seem to kind of convince anyone else of it.”

And then, you know, and so that’s actually a lot of the work I do is kind of non… it’s not really focused on the design object, actually. It is focused on the server ecosystem around those designers.

Jorge: Again, hearkening back to “Powers of Ten,” right? Making the invisible, visible by zooming up and down the levels.

Andy: Yeah, it is. And, and like I said, that can be, you know, it can be liberating and frustrating for people. And, you know, can also be a bit annoying if you’re kind of… so, one of the things is when you come in as an external, it’s just like any other kind of therapy or something it’s much, much easier to see someone else’s relationship problems from the outside than it is to see your own and your own patterns and stuff. And so, you know, the advantage of bringing someone in externally is they’ve got that kind of view. They can also probably say things that internal stakeholders can’t say. So that’s, that’s kind of one of the roles I often play.

But that said, it can very easily sort of come across as, you know, I can see this whole kind of picture and you guys can’t. Or even if I paint it for you, then they’re just going to feel frustrated that you’re not just focusing on the task at hand.

Closing

Jorge: Well Andy, I feel like we have so much to talk about and we could keep going. I feel like I have like four or five different things that I want to ask you about, but we have to wind it down. Where can folks follow up with you?

Andy: So, I have a website it’s polaine.com, P O L A I N E, like my name. I’m on Twitter as @apolaine, you’ll find me on LinkedIn. Those are sort of main three places and I don’t really hang out on many other social media places anymore. I sort of cut down on it.

Jorge: And the name of podcast is Powers of Ten, right?

Andy: It’s Power of Ten actually. Yeah, so I gave this talk about “design to the power of ten,” and so that was where it came from. And I didn’t want to kind of too heavily steal the Eames’s title. So, yeah, it’s called Power of Ten it’s on the, This is HCD network.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. I will include links to all of those in the show notes. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show Andy.

Andy: Thanks very much for having me.