Catching Up with Megan Miller and Erik Flowers of Practical Service Design

When Megan Miller arrived in San Francisco in November of 2014 to attend Adaptive Path’s annual Service Experience Conference, she came as a web designer in the midst of an existential quandary. As a member of Stanford University’s in-house Web Services team, the focus of Megan’s passion had recently begun to shift away from her visual and UX design duties and toward a holistic view of her clients’ end-to-end experience. Her team’s services were an important piece of that experience, to be sure, but there were other pieces: web hosting, ordering and billing services, video-conferencing services, and IT considerations such as workgroup administration and web authentication. Megan was increasingly drawn to the bigger-picture question of where the gaps might be in that end-to-end experience and whether principles from her UX design practice might be applicable toward bridging those gaps.

By the time she returned to the city one year later for The Service Experience Conference 2015, it was not just to attend but to deliver a presentation of her own. A lot had happened in the intervening year. She had been in the audience when Erik Flowers, Principal Service Designer at Intuit, delivered a presentation at the 2014 conference. Inspired by his story of success in carving out a place for service design at a high-profile technology firm, Megan contacted him for advice. Their email exchange led to a series of in-person meetings, a weekly web-hangout working session, and ultimately to the launch of Practical Service Design, a central resource and “home away from home” for service designers both fledgling and experienced. The site launch coincided with a new title for Megan: Senior Service Designer. Service design had officially arrived at Stanford. (Check out Megan’s 2015 talk if you’d like to hear her inspiring story in her own words.)

UX Design has matured. 10 years ago, having a UX team would have been novel. Now, it’s a must. Companies are defined by UX and customer delight, because there are 20 other apps just like yours.

When we checked in with Megan to see what might have changed around the office since her change of position, we found her still experiencing the rush and challenge of the new. “I came to this with 10 years of UX and digital design experience,” she said. “It’s a new skillset—a very different toolkit. Your wireframes won’t help you.” (Instead, the discipline lends itself to certain other types of deliverables: the service ecosystem map, the end-to-end overview, the service blueprint. More on that below.)

Megan’s service design projects so far have prominently included the “contextual inquiry” method—i.e., sitting with your users and watching them do the task you’re interested in—and the results have been illuminating. A recent project studying campus-wide usage of document storage and collaboration services (e.g., Google Drive) was typical of her approach: “I had them show me tasks: pains, gains, creative uses. I brought back emerging personas, top uses, top gains, top pains, preliminary recommendations. The idea is that the information collected will inform future strategies. It all went into a big report, and the research will stand up over the next year.” Depending on the project, the findings may or may not be immediately actionable—but that’s perhaps to be expected while an organization’s first-ever service designer builds a body of research. No immediate next steps were planned to follow on from that particular study; instead, the research will fit into and help clarify the larger picture of how Stanford’s community can best benefit from their IT services. “These collaboration services are not going away,” she said.

Why Now?

Megan’s trajectory from UX design to service design mirrors a broader trend. (The service-design-focused Service Experience Conference, which facilitated Megan’s and Erik’s partnership, was first held in 2013 and will move to a larger venue this fall.) “Service design is only about 20 years old,” she told us. “The roots are in the services industry: hospitality and government to name a few. We’ve only seen it recently catching on in the West Coast.”

We’ve had people comment that they’ve worked in an area for five or six years but never truly saw the end-to-end of what happens before and after their part. That’s the magic of service design and the service blueprint.

In her view, the rising profile of user experience design over the last decade has been an important prerequisite, giving customer-focused organizations a model for how to now think about and take advantage of service design. “UX Design has matured. 10 years ago, having a UX team would have been novel. Now, it’s a must. Companies are defined by UX and customer delight, because there are 20 other apps just like yours. We’re riding a wave of design that is cresting. Everyone is getting the basics right.” This, more than anything else, may explain the trending popularity of service design: organizations by and large now “get” the value of UX design, have incorporated it into their processes, and are ready to take the next step on the path toward a comprehensively user-centric ideology. (For more on the challenges and opportunities of service design, check out this article by Erik and Megan, available over at Service Design Network.)

The Service Blueprint

We caught up with Erik Flowers via Slack chat to find out how he diagrams and documents his findings in his work at Intuit. “We’ve utilized the service blueprint format heavily,” he told us, “modifying it into something sort of new that allows us to take these end-to-end experiences and really dive deep into each moment from the surface journey that you can see from the outside, to the deep core of underlying support processes and systems and people that make it happen. It’s an analysis of all the intermixed pipes, wires, tunnels, chutes, ladders, and our internal actors that are supporting the experience above and trying to make it as functional and smooth for the customer as we can.”

The service blueprint really shines when documenting the most complex of systems—the ones with the greatest potential for inefficiencies and oversights to creep in. Erik explained: “For those scenarios that really add up in the end as a painful customer support case, we’re able to address things much more collaborative and end-to-end. Then we can get to root cause and fix it upstream, so the logjam never happens in the first place. You can pull logs out of a river all you want, but it’s better to actually take a step back and see why they’re coming down at a rate that is causing the downstream jam.”

“We’ve had people comment that they’ve worked in an area for five or six years but never truly saw the end-to-end of what happens before and after their part. That’s the magic of service design and the service blueprint. It gives you a high level view and at the same time a highly detailed view. And with that, you can finally look at the beginning and end of an experience, and everything in-between, and generate those easy tactical fixes you can just go do right away, and larger strategic insights that require a vision shift across silos that probably will need leadership to see that end-to-end and let them see how everything is impacting something else. There’s really no way a single team or person can see that, it’s just too big. But once you make it tangible and visible, you can take that high level, wide view, and generate insights from that without having to hold it in your brain all at once.”

Here to Stay

Is service design a flavor of the month? Juha Kronqvist, a researcher and lecturer at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland, defended the long-term value of the discipline in an article published on Medium last November:

“The ongoing change from an industrial society to a service economy is getting stronger and affects the design world as well. The share of services in GDP is rapidly growing and successful products increasingly resemble services (Iphone, Nest, Fitbit). Service design is created in response to this megatrend and it elevates the capabilities of designers to a strategic level. Designers are expected to understand how services operate, even if they only design products. Service design — developed during the past 30 years — is still new and not without growing pains, but interest in its utilisation is booming as tangible results start stacking up.”

For Megan’s part, she retains a healthy dose of self-deprecating skepticism even in the midst of her enthusiasm. “Service design isn’t the silver bullet,” she told us. “We’ll hit the trough of disillusionment at some point. But we’re really new here, so we don’t want to limit the possibilities.”