Check out my new project, Practical Service Design!
User Experience at Hello Erik

3 Analogies For the Aggregate Nature of Service Design

Posted September 14, 2014

How do you predict, and then shape, the behavior of a population? Or better, how do you design for something that is the collection of countless touchpoints or “products” that are interlinked, each with their own vastly different user-experience.

Service design is singularly centered on the human experience. We call it the end to end journey, but the service itself is something that is a collection of all the journeys that can be taken through it. The service that you design on top of is a big picture. Holistic is the word we use, but what does that even mean, and how do you look at something holistically and then approach it holistically?

I like to think of it in analogies. Service design lends itself to a lot of interesting analogies, which is good since you’ll be explaining what it is and how people should approach it a lot. If you thought repeating the tenets of UX ad nauseum was exhausting, service design gives you a whole new population of people to endlessly say “So, picture a…” as you describe what you intend to do.

Here’s a trio of analogies I’ve been playing with to try and educate myself and others on just where service designers should be placing their focus, and their priority.

Seeing It All at Once

At the 2013 Gamerscon video game conference, 974 different people had their playthrough of a level of Super Mario Brothers recorded. Even with almost 1000 different people playing, clear patterns emerge – patterns of convergence, and patterns of divergence. There are convergent areas of the level that most of the players either avoid or utilize, and there are divergent areas of the level where the patterns fall apart and randomness is much more apparent.

As Mario goes through and literally touches each part, the pipes, the bricks, the enemies, the journey of each player is altered a bit. But all together, it’s really “not that different” when viewed in aggregate.

Each of the playthroughs were overlaid onto a single video, and the result is what you see below. Can you see the obvious happy path? Or the places where it seems there’s no clear preference. Or the people who clearly have no idea how to play? My favorite part is the very beginning, at the 2nd pipe that has the perpendicular piece jutting out – people jump over to it, then realize it’s too tall to jump on top of, and have to go back. Imagine that as part of a service map. Something looks obvious and attainable, but isn’t, and you don’t know that until you get stuck.

Since a level of Super Mario Bros is literally an end-to-end, linear, contained experience, you can see easily the whole thing at once. Using any single player’s actions would not be very valuable to design a level around. If you devised a set of personas, you would have a wide array of people: a toddler new to games, an experienced teenage gamer, a Gen-X that played the game growing up, a baby boomer who says the last game they played was “pong.” Personas like this might be good when you’re targeting a certain group of people you want to appeal to and have a focused product/touchpoint you are the owner of. This is a lot more common in discrete UX design, whereas in service design you often aren’t the owner or designer of any specific touchpoint.

But what about when you need to target a group that is large, random, and far too complex to look at through the lens of any specific type of individual or touchpoint? What you need is an aggregate consciousness.

Science Fiction to Science Fact

There is a book by Isaac Asimov called “Foundation” that centers around a scientist named Hari Seldon. In this book, Seldon has created a science called psychohistory, a combination of history, sociology, and mathematical statistics. The purpose of psychohistory was to predict the likely future of a galactic empire’s population.


A huge super-computer took into account the combined behaviors of trillions of people, and using macro-sociology and mathematical statistics, it was able to predict the galactic population’s future with incredible accuracy when stretched out over hundreds of years. The book revolves around the immense power this would give the controllers of this computer – you can’t change the near future, but you can change the course of centuries with unrelenting accuracy.

And yet, using this same fictional computer to predict an individual person’s actions was incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Why was that, and what does that have to do with service design? The premise of this is that predicting the behavior of a single individual doesn’t extrapolate to the behavior of large groups of people. As the galactic empire continues on it’s journey through time, you have to look at it as a singular, malleable “mass action” of behavior.

Mass Action

Asimov makes a comparison with the actions of a gas. If you observe a gas, there is no way to predict the movement of a single molecule. This is known in physics as kinetic theory. Molecules are in a state of constant random motion, colliding into eachother and bouncing around like crazy. This is why a gas expands inside its container, unlike a solid. Picture a helium balloon, it floats because helium is less dense than air, and the random movement and collision of helium inside the balloon pushes it out enough that the volume inside the balloon is less dense than the air around it. As the helium molecules lose energy, the collisions become less, and the balloon shrinks down and stops floating. We can predict exactly what the gas does as a whole, but can’t even fathom how a single helium molecule will behave.

If we were to watch a colored gas with extreme magnification be emitted from a nozzle, a single gas molecule’s movement would be essentially impossible to predict. But if you look at the combined movement of all the molecules, the gas we see blowing out the nozzle, it is very easy to predict the action of the gas. We do it every day, blow some air (just nitrogen and oxygen gas) through a straw and push around a little ball of paper. Easy. Now picture a single molecule of nitrogen and its path down the straw, out the end, and towards the paper ball. Impossible.


One Big Collective Persona

With this idea of mass action of behavior, how does service design take into account that mass action of many individual personas?

I have a simple analogy I’ve been honing, which seems to be working and people just “get it.” I look at a service ecosystem as a national park. It’s a big entity, and has a lot of “things” in it. Paths, hikes, scenic overlooks, benches, restrooms, parking lots, hotels, restaurants, nearby cities. The combination of these things is the service a national park offers; they provide you with an aggregate “outdoor activity and vacation” experience.

If hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world go on that hike, who is the persona? There isn’t one. I don’t mean “there isn’t one,” but there isn’t “one”, no singular experience to focus on. This is true for any UX project, but I want to focus on where the persona exists; the landscape they traverse.

There is a national park aptly named Zion National Park, one I have visited probably 100 times, from being a baby to today. In 2013, the park served around 2.8 million visitors. Let’s take one specific hike: Angel’s Landing. Angel’s landing is probably the most famous in Zion. Through the lens of service design, it definitely has its own service blueprint. It has its own front stage, backstage, lots of touchpoints and channels. Intangible and tangible. And this hike also exists in the park’s blueprint as a touchpoint in itself!


My premise here is that a higher level POV of service design is focused more on the personality of the end-to-end experience, with a lot of channels and touchpoints that may all have their own separate “experience design” teams, priorities, and focus. It isn’t the service designers job to design the touchpoints or channels on a granular level. Service design is a distinct job of seeing the whole hike at once and mapping out all the traversals people can take on top of and through it. It is a very literal example of designing for and experience.

Designing Through Things

We can see the whole Super Mario level at once. We can guide a gas of millions of molecules through a straw. We can see Angel’s Landing all at once from our service design helicopter and how its touchpoints play together, and how the whole hike exists as a touchpoint in the overall park. The key is that we design for experiences through these landscapes as service designers.

The shift I’ve had to make as service design becomes an increased focus is figuring out how to look at all those entities and see how that collective nebulous entity will diffuse through what we’ve designed. It’s tough and it’s different than UX design.

I’ve ended up with these three analogy nuggets about service design that I want to continue to refine:

  1. Finding ways to look at the end to end journey of lots of people, all at once.
  2. Predicting a single individual’s movement is impossible – but get enough of them together in a structure and it’s easier to predict the mass action.
  3. The persona of service design can be aggregate collections of group behavior that traverse a landscape.

It might not be perfect, and it might even be wrong in a lot of cases. Especially concerning the role personas play in service design, that’s a whole different collection of ideas and hypotheses. For me, it’s a frame of thinking that emphasizes the end-to-end view over the specific interactive view. It is what makes touchpoint design so hard, and why service design is becoming a key element in the successful experiences your company is trying to provide.

In the end, it is the impetus of why everyone has to be involved if you want to employ service design thinking. All the touchpoint owners and internal stakeholders need to see the entire picture. You can’t design for people’s experiences unless you can see the whole landscape at once.

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

2 Responses

  1. Danny Peters | Conexperience
    Danny Peters | Conexperience September 17, 2014 at 10:17 am |

    Hi Erik, I am wondering how you design Angel’s landing exactly. Because the first two I understand. I do a lot of Journey Mapping and I interview, read customer feedback, talk to all the channels, design, discuss and do workshops. But I like your approach with visualizing the movement and a lot op people all at once. But with the Angel’s landing example, you didnt made really clear how you do that, without being in a helicopter for 7 days in the air, filming and analyzing all the people. Can you specify a little bit more, would help me a lot!! Thanks for the post, interesting!!!!

  2. Erik Flowers
    Erik Flowers September 19, 2014 at 6:02 pm |

    As I read it again, you’re right, I should add it in. The theory there is that you have a “thing” the raw hike itself. But how you build a park around it is a whole service blueprint in itself, and it’s more difficult in that you can’t really alter the rock and stone and river. Remember, you’re not designing the thing, you’re designing on top of it, and creating the things that happen that are visible to the user, and invisible behind the scenes.

    I’ll go back and add some ideas around it. The article is pretty long, but oh well. Good SEO.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.