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Don’t Let Your Customer Ecosystem be a Dirty Aquarium

Posted April 15, 2015

There’s a new change. We live in a service based economy. Products aren’t the focus anymore, and not what drives people to want to have an ongoing, multi channel and multi context relationship with you.

If you’re working in the technology, software, or startup industry, you are probably neck deep in the idea around offering ecosystems. Companies increasingly want to expand the ways people interact with them by creating ecosystems of products and services that give their customers more options than ever to engage with the company. The desired outcome is faster adoption, greater network effect or NPS, and ideally the pinnacle of ecosystem success – customers who don’t see themselves as victims of “lock-in”, and instead remain loyal not because they have to, but because they want to.

Consumer ecosystems span contexts, devices, channels, environments, and most importantly, experiences. Customer’s string together the experiences they have across your ecosystem into a singular perception of who you are. That ecosystem is what you’re selling to the customer – the opportunity to experience what it contains as a whole.

With that new focus on the ecosystem, the service designer lives in a place that looks at it as a whole, decoupled and untethered from any specific product or channel. Our organizations provide a medium that the customer’s move through and as service designers we live in the gaps and seams of that medium, attempting to tie it all together as a true end-to-end, surface-to-core experience.

In order to better understand the role service design plays in an ecosystem, let’s start with a easy to understand analogy that myself and two of my friends and colleagues, Danny DeBate  and Jaime Smith serendipitously constructed over the period of a year – an aquarium.


A Little Happy Ecosystem

Imagine a simple aquarium. In that aquarium, you’ve got the glass rocks, a little miniature castle, and a plant. There you go! But wait, there are other elements we’re forgetting; the water, the air, the food, the waste. What about other contaminants? Things that drift in through the air, micro organisms growing on the glass or in the water. And let’s not forget the most important part, the fish itself.


This forms up the micro ecosystem in the aquarium. When you add the customer, the fish, that you have built this ecosystem around, you get the totality of what we’re offering; the aquarium experience. These individual pieces and intentions are unknown to the fish, it sees its experience as one big “memory and relationship” with its surroundings that happens over time.

But wait, we’re forgotten probably the most critical part of the ecosystem -the owner of the aquarium, you! The ecosystem is something you’ve created and brought to life. The fish exists in your construct. You decided if you were going to get the little glass rocks, and the miniature castle, and the plant. And furthermore, you’re the one who has to maintain the gaps in the ecosystems cycle. When the water is too dirty since there’s no effective cleaning system, you clean it. Since there is no natural food source, you supply it. You live to serve the fish by providing and maintaining that ecosystem, and in return the fish exists to serve your needs (the fish being the customer).


A basic analogy for a business ecosystem. The fish is your customer, you are the owner, and the rocks, plants, and water are your products and offerings you put together to try and give your customer some sort of ecosystem medium to exist in. The “end to end” experience.

The Players

The aquarium didn’t appear out of nowhere. Someone built it, and others contributed to it. There are various actors that all help make it go. One way to look at it could be:

  1. The fish = the customer.
  2. The aquarium owner = the owner over the “running of the business”.
  3. The subject matter experts who create the rocks, the plants, the glass = the UX designers, PM’s, engineers, and any other stakeholder.


The Fish

The fish exists as the customer. They are the purpose of the whole ecosystem. All your efforts and everything you put into maintaining these aquariums is in service to them – the crux of what service design is. The more you serve the fish, the happier they are and the longer they want to stay and not end belly-up on the surface of the water. And, in this magical aquarium, the happier the fish are, the more likely they are to recommend what you offer to their friends and colleagues.


The actual running of the ecosystem and the ensuring of it’s continued health isn’t of concern to the fish. If you run it well, the fish stays alive and flourishes; you retain a happy customer. If you let it deteriorate, the fish becomes unhappy and eventually dies; you lose the customer, and also your reputation. Either way, the role of the fish is to interact and react to its environment. Keep the ecosystem healthy, fish are happy. Let that health decline, fish are not happy.

The Owner

The owner of the fish and tank represents the owner of the experience and chief outcome stakeholder. They are not necessarily the actual business owner, especially in large organizations, but the owner and driver of the experience we are offering. This could be anyone in the company whose responsibility is to ensure that the ecosystem is acting in service of the customer in sustainable ways.


The owner has a goal – to keep that fish alive. This translates to whatever business outcome is driving the cause for this ecosystem. If the owner is more interested in the ecosystem itself than the ecosystem’s outcome, they are a hobbyist. Keeping that fish happy and alive drives revenue, subscriptions, repeat business, and the adoption of addition or new products and services in your ecosystem.

The Experts

And then, we have the subject matter experts. The metaphoric ecologists, biologists, ichthyologists, aquarium designers. These are those stakeholders, the business drivers, the UX designers, PM’s, and engineers. They drive, direct, and create the pieces that we assemble together to create that ecosystem experience. These experts are focused and have deep knowledge of what they direct and create. And appropriately so, their responsibility is to serve the fish through what they specialize in.


And since this is an experience design blog, I’ll make a point to single out UX designers as the experts that design the tangible nature of these individual touchpoints. That is their job – to make the best components they can. But the entire ecosystem experience? That’s not their focus. A good UX designer will tell you that a holistic experience is their job, UX design is focused on touchpoint efficacy and expertise, not an entire intangible ecosystem. It’s a divergence as we look to create experiences for customers that are ecosystem-wide, those people who create the experiences on that touchpoint level should stay focused on what they do best.

There is the new focus on the experience design of an entire ecosystem. I propose that focus is the job of the service designer.

The Service Designer

Not a very well defined role in tech ecosystems. In true service based industries like healthcare or hospitality, it might be easier to see where the service designer fits. But as we’re adding service design into tech companies, building software, clouds, SAAS offerings, mobile apps, etc, there’s not a clear spot.


But before we talk about the spot, let’s take a look at how I’m defining ecosystems and the scenarios that service designers fit in to. There’s a certain amount of clarity needed to even see what the service designer’s purpose is and what there is to effect.

There’s are two theoretic constructs I have been working on as a way of seeing two sides of how an ecosystem operates.

Ecosystem Theory

The first I’ll call ecosystem efficacy: the ability to continually produce the desired outcomes. This is the state most of us desire, and the state that is the easiest to start out with when working at a smalls scale. It means the ecosystem is working the way we intended, and producing positive results. The fish are staying alive and the aquarium is able to be cleaned and maintained at a sustainable rate.

The second is what I call ecosystem entropy: the gradual decline into disorder and unpredictability. This is that sad state where your ecosystem is producing more of the bad than good, and you’re having to intervene more and more just to keep it running and the fish alive. Your time is split; in addition of the growth and health of your ecosystem, you’re busy worrying about things that shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Sustainability suffers, and resources are used inefficiently.

Ecosystem Efficacy

Efficacy: The ability to produce a desired or intended result.

If an ecosystem is self-healing in nature and growing in a sustainable manner, it has ecosystem efficacy. Even with the maintenance and overhead it will always have, it is designed in a way that allows the desired outcome to keep happening, the fish stay alive, without an excess of manual intervention required.

In this case, the aquarium is designed in a way that will have a tendency to keep working as long as the system is maintained. The fish get the resources they need from ecosystem, the waste is removed faster than it builds up, and the experts we mentioned earlier are able to keep up with the work. This allows the owners to have the latitude to add more fish or make the tank bigger, depending on their goals.


Keeping this cycle going is what running the business successfully is all about. Everything that goes into maintaining that aquarium and ecosystem is in service to the fish – the outcome, the customer. That’s the key phrase: in service to. Service as the design of the ecosystem that is “acting in service” of the customer or desired outcome.

Ecosystem efficacy is the state we want to strive towards. Every system is imperfect though, and imperfections tend to grow and spread if left unattended.


Nothing can scale perfectly. Even the most well-maintained ecosystems require maintenance, effort, and outside energy to keep them in a state of healthy sustainability. As the ecosystem grows and grows, the complexity and overhead increases exponentially, it’s not a 1:1 ratio.


It’s that complexity and overhead that will eventually catch up to the people who are responsible for the ecosystem – the owners,  experts, and the service designers. Maybe that is a whole company, an organizational subset, or even a single team. If you want an ecosystem to grow, the energy needed to combat the complexity and keep the efficacious cycle going increases at a greater rate than the ecosystem itself.

The nature of complexity is that it will always trend towards disorder, and require more outside intervention to maintain. This leads to the second theory: ecosystem entropy.

Ecosystem Entropy

Entropy: the gradual decline into disorder and unpredictability.

To continue with the analogy of our business ecosystem; the aquarium is built, then it grows a little into a slightly larger and slightly more complex aquarium, which then grows into a substantial aquarium with substantially more complexity. While the fundamental nature of the ecosystem stays the same, as it is scaled up the complexity grows and grows. As complexity increases, it requires more energy to maintain order.

If a company does have an ecosystem that is in a state of decay, odds are there is a measure in place to combat it; manual intervention. This is when an outside force comes in an tries to correct the cycle at some point in the process, to bring it back into order.

Think about an aquarium that has an excess of gunk and buildup on the glass, and you don’t really know why. Instead of trying to remediate the problem as far back in the process you can, you just clean it more often, or get more people to clean it, or both.

This sort of intervention should be familiar to us all. You might have to add more customer support to handle increased customer issues, or invest heavily in marketing and PR efforts to keep the companies reputation in good light and bring in more new customers faster than you lose them. If you try to scale up your aquarium that has more entropy than efficacy, you have to keep scaling the manual intervention.

But if you take the current aquarium ecosystem and scale it up, you still have the same pollution and gunk buildup you have to clean, only now instead of it taking 1 person, it takes 10. And those 10 people need someone to manage them and coordinate the efforts. There’s new overhead, gaps in the process, and energy expenditure. The increasing complexity causes more chaos, more mishaps, more entropy. You’re scaling your ecosystem, yes, but you’re scaling the ecosystem entropy at a faster rate. Imagine now you have 100 people cleaning the tank, and the overhead and coordination that will require.


At some point, scaling is no longer possible. You cannot apply enough external intervention to keep the ecosystem running in a state of entropy, and the negative effects will keep building up until they bring the ecosystem to a halt. Logistically, financially, or even physically, there’s simply no way to effectively run two parallel businesses – the one you want to be running, and the one that has to run in parallel, cleaning up the mess that a broken ecosystem creates.

The Service Designer

So what does this have to do with Service Design? Ideas around a business and customer ecosystems are not new, and certainly not something that service designers are solely responsible for. In fact, some might say they don’t even see how service designers would be involved at this level at all.

The way I am suggesting service design works in the overall ecosystem is to promote the idea that the goal of a service designer is to engineer, or re-engineer, an ecosystem into a state that is self-healing at best, or at least balanced between efficacy and entropy. That is what the service designer is working to ensure; keeping an eye on the ecosystem and how all the internal and external pieces are working together.


This is an approach that is not nearly as prevalent as what we know as UX or customer experience. In a lot of organizations, across any industry, there aren’t always roles and dedicated people who are there to look at the entire ecosystem – end to end, surface to core – from the lens of experience engineering. There are lots of people who do it from business analysis, operations, finance, and executive leadership. But the presence of experience architects working horizontally across all silos, channels, contexts, and products is something new in the technology, software, and digital services industry I work in.

As someone who is entrenched in this world, I see the void. I have met very few people in the digital experience design field with “service designer” as their role, and even fewer who can claim to be helping design the experience of an ecosystem at an end-to-end, surface-to-core level across their organization.

The End of an Era…

The era of the product is coming to a close. The world is connected, people expect seamless experiences and to be able to traverse the relationship with you in whatever fashion they want. It’s a service based economy, and keeping people happy in your ecosystem is how you provide experiences that act in services to your customers. We all want to offer ecosystems, connected services, relationships with customers across those channels, contexts, products – experiences that happen as relationships between people and business.

Take a look at your fish. Think about all the work you put into keeping it healthy, to adding more fish, to growing your aquarium into something bigger and better, something those fish want to live in and be a part of. Not because they have to, but because they want to. An effective ecosystem will keep those fish, your customers, happy indefinitely if you’re keeping the efficacy in front of the entropy.


…and the Beginning of Another

The age of experience has been here for a while, there is no debate about that. Now, it’s time to start thinking beyond the experience of just products and touchpoints, to stop leaving what we build as independent entities glued together with branding, UI, and clumsy handoffs across contexts and channels. The goal is to start acting end-to-end and surface-to-core.

Who lives between those spaces? Who serves in a role that spans the ecosystem and works to keep the seams smooth and pain free? Where is that horizontal layer, the thread that spans the silos across experiences, that is ensuring the entire system is working?

That’s where I see service design living; in service to the ecosystem, which itself acts in service to the fish. The cycle continues, the system grows, and the design of the entire experience is what helps ensure that the center can hold.

What are you going to do when you want to scale that aquarium experience to become an ocean experience? That’s the service designers contribution to the ecosystem, to work horizontally to ensure efficacy over entropy so that someday, you go from owning your own aquarium, to owning the entire ocean.


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I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.
  • zinalpatel

    Awesome. Perfect analogy. Few years back when asked…where do i see myself after 5 years? My instant reply would be…I wanna do something in/around service design. No one then understood it nor were interested in knowing what that meant. I think i have a perfect answer now. Thanks.