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The Riddle of Service Design Inertia

Posted February 1, 2015

Remember the Sphinx’s riddle?

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

It starts with a chant

Service design is just what it sounds like, the design of services. But this is a misnomer. If you look into the focus of modern service design across various industries, including my own, you see that it truly translates into “macro, end to end, surface to core experience design.”

This means it goes beyond the UX of specific touchpoints, and beyond just focusing on one channel or funnel. It truly stands for the macro view of the customer experience, and should be used strategically to design a more optimized and effective one, daresay delightful. Or, be used tactically to fix experiences that are falling short of their promise.

The tenets of service design evolved from designing real world experiences; a museum, a train system, an amusement park, a hotel, a hospital. But as more and more, companies who offer digital product and services see the efficacy of truly creating end to end experiences as the offering. Service design becomes the new “UX” in the sense that we know we want it, but without having done it before, where do we start? You might start by evangelizing to “think end to end.”

And thus the chant of “think end to end” is born.

The dead-end of end to end.

The problem with “thinking end-to-end” is that it is a well meaning, passive notion. Something to ponder akin to “think yourself thin.” It’s a statement of principle we all can agree with and nod in tacit commitment. But it’s just a statement to remind you to think, with about as much practical application as a cat poster with the quote “hang in there!” on it.

cat poster

That’s my concern with the zeitgeist around “end to end” thinking. The type of practical application of how you mobilize an organization to be capable of it is something that is incredibly hard to articulate and teach in a practical manner.

To compound that lack of information and instruction, there’s often no follow through on actually implementing the ideas in the real world. We invite others to think in a new way, and then go back to the status quo. An evangelism dead-end.

The Physics of Bizness

Let’s take a quite detour and talk to Sir Isaac. Newton. His first law of motion (greatly simplified) states

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

The abstract concept of inertia is easy to understand when looking at an object it motion. It gains inertia, or loses inertia. In the world of business, we say this all the time. “Let’s pick up some inertia!”

But an object at rest has inertia – static inertia. The forces are balanced. When standing still, look down at your feet. The force of gravity is pulling you to down to ground, and the ground is pushing upward at your feet. Balance. Apply force in either direction and the force becomes unbalanced – hold on to a hot air balloon, and that force imbalances the force of gravity. Jump into a lake, and the force of gravity is imbalanced against the force of buoyancy of the water.

If something is at rest, that means that there are equal, balanced forces applying to it, however weak or strong. So if we look at an organization that appears to lack inertia, it doesn’t. Its inertia is keeping it in its present state of motion. It simply has equal forces being applied to it and its movement, to an observer, appears to be static.

Enough psychics for now.

Pushing While Pulling

Modern organizations that want to transition from offering hard edged products and disconnected services face a big challenge. There’s the ever-present hurdle of instilling a cultural desire to think about an entire experience, the totality of what a customer traverses. To generate enough force to imbalance the existing forces being applied.

If you’re a part of a movement, you’re quite literally a part of a force of movement. You are applying force in a direction, hoping to apply enough to imbalance the present state and get things moving.

This might sound familiar if you’ve been in UX and design for a long time, spending tremendous amounts of time and energy to get tech companies to focus on more than just the features and base functionality. To go beyond just visual design and interface usability and consider the user’s total experience of the product from the start. UX has mostly earned a place at the table of sophisticated organizations.

Service design doesn’t have it so easy yet.

Knowing is Half the Battle

People who are interested in real end to end experiences design know that there’s a next step that has to take place to truly design an experience, across touchpoints and channels, and really capture the end to end, surface to core journey that a customer traverses.

Knowing this is half the battle. Execution is the other half. What is still missing is a practical way to teach others to want to overcome the organizational inertia. Note that I didn’t say we teach others to practice service design, that comes later. We have to teach others who know there’s something else, and may be frustrated that they can’t quite get there, that there is an evolving way of working right within their grasp.

I spoke about this at the Adaptive Path Service Design Conference 2014. It takes a lot more than just approaching force with force. People need to understand the purpose of real end to end action, and be shown and inspired to want to help apply more force as well.

Movement comes from that force. Gentle or abrupt. Once things are moving in the right direction, that is the time to start spreading the practices of how to execute on the service design promise. Methods, deliverables, outcomes. All the things that make actual work get done.

Matter over Mind

End to end thinking isn’t enough. Telekinesis only exists in comic books. Sometimes, you’ve got to jump on and push, persuade, influence and infiltrate. And even then, it won’t be easy, and it might not even work. Just like Newton said, that which you push against pushes right back at you.

Stay true to what you believe in, and true to the work you want to do, or more importantly the work you should be doing. Don’t lose faith in yourself.

Oh, and the answer to the riddle?


I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.
  • I think “organizational inertia” is one of those terms that’s just right. I’ve totally been prone to chalking this up to something like “red tape” or “bureaucracy,” both are negative and one seems peculiarly revolutionary – especially when you’re trying to find the best way to pitch UX at the administrative level.

  • It’s the working ranch. You have to keep up the output you produced before introducing the new element, as you shift things around to try and make that new element more than just an experiment, but a new way of doing business.