This thing called agile might kill us all

My current gig is working for a big high street bank. The brief is to redesign the ‘end to end mortgage experience’. The timescale is to reach a business case, with a roadmap of delivery waves to achieve minimum viable product, within 6 weeks. There are so many aspect of this that are fascinating. It’s worth breaking them out.

What’s most interesting is that service design has moved on again. I though agile service design was leading edge. But agile transformation through service design is what we’re doing here. Let me try and define this.

Agile transformation through service design is the iterative investigation of the following set of assets.

Target Customer Experience (TCX) – the experience the organisation needs to provide that will encourage profitable behaviours from customers. They want loyalty and self-service so they can reduce head count costs and increase revenue – who doesn’t. This is the traditional environment where service design works. Service design orchestrates all the different types of design across all the different channel, to make it easy for customers to exhibit these behaviours- to self-serve and fall in love with the branded service. So we make it simple to apply for and manage a mortgage online. From a service design perspective this is on a spectrum of simple to relatively complex. You get your insight, you design your multichannel concepts, you test them. So far so good. But then we meet asset 2 in the agile transformation mix, which takes us into complex.

Target Operating Model (TOM) – the capabilities you need within the organisation to deliver the TCX. Now, TOMs have been a staple part of the transformation diet for many years, but in agile transformation they support a new purpose. In the olden days they were all about reducing the cost of supply – you shaved some cost of the call centre by putting it in India, you reduced Average Handling Time on each call, you shut down some branches etc. But the TCX is the new kid on the block and it dictates something different. It says – ‘these are the touchpoints we need, to get what we need from our customers and to keep them happy. What are you ops people going to do to realise them?’. It’s a big power shift. The designers are telling the business analysts what the requirements are, ideally based on empirical customer data (analytical or research based). This is not easy for many organisations to stomach, but once they do, I’d argue they are won over by it. Because it makes sense on a very basic human level. Problem is it makes no sense to an organisation based on silos of power – more on that later.

Okay – stay with me – agile transformation asset 3…

Roadmap – once you know what capabilities you need across people, process, IT and infrastructure, you then need to work out when you can get them. If you’re a service designer in an agile transformation environment, you will have likely given up at the TOM stage above, because that is tough enough. If you’ve made it this far, it’ll feel like the seventh circle of hell… This is the trade-off zone, and IMHO designers struggle here. Their vision being so obviously perfect (and it is!), that they find it hard to handle the operational change reality which is marked by one word – LEGACY. Legacy habits, systems, protocols, policies – you name it. This is where patience is a virtue. You get 20% of what you want in TOM 0.1, which gives you TCX 0.1 – this is your minimum viable product. This is what you gun for and go all out on. Done well, it gives you a backdraft to slide straight on to TCX 0.2 or… gasp, maybe even TCX 1.0. Hush, just maybe……

Okay – so you’ve survived it across Hades. The three headed dog is behind you. Now we hit agile transformation asset 4.

Business case – at the end of the day every part of your TCX is a change and therefore a cost to the business, which needs to stack up against a measurable benefit. This is service design’s weak link. Yes – we all get the visceral reality that customer-centred services are more profitable – but someone at some point will want to see the numbers, or they will ask you to leave the room. The interconnect of TCX > TOM > Roadmap is all in the purpose of achieving a business case, which allows you to spend money to GET YOUR IDEAS OFF THE WALL and into reality. In fact spin this all on its head. You need to put your business case as a hypothesis right at the start, before you even embark on your TCX. Agile transformation through service design is customer-centred, but it is above all else, business-focused.


I find myself in a quandry. I am intellectually stimulated by all these shifts. It is the right thing to be happening to service design and participating in its germination is very stimulating. But it is also very over stimulating in other ways, as it is breaking some big boundaries and shifting some consderable agendas. Both in my head, the heads of those around me, and the collective heads of the organisational cultures working on it. Like all things revolutionary it spills blood. It is equal parts edge-of-seat exhilarating and terrifying.

Three reflections on this feeling I’d like to share:

Designing in legacy – for those of you who have been kind enough to listen to me in the past, I’ve said before that designers can no longer get away with just setting a vision on the wall. They have to get actively involved with taking it off the wall. And that starts DURING THE DESIGN PROCESS. Service design needs to happen in collaboration with the people who run LEGACY. It doesn’t mean you have to let them drag you back (though inertia and atrophy will be rife),  what it does mean is that YOU have to take THEM with you. A good idea that works on legacy is 1,000% better than a perfect idea that doesn’t work on legacy. I am repeating myself, but it bears repeating.

Language – I felt compelled to introduce the TCX thing into common parlance (as common as I could get it) about a year ago because I wanted to align to the generations old term TOM. And also I wanted to abandon the many conflicting practices that contributed to it – systems thinking, service design, behavioural science, gamificaiton, experience design, UX, CX, simplification – you name it, your large scale service provider has it. And like any good set of religions they bicker over their differences, but fundamentally they share more than they differ. That’s what I use Target Customer Experience to describe – a set of practices that create the conditions for profitable customer behaviours. Under the bonnet we need to do lots of work to settle on language – personas, journeys, experience architectures, epics, waves etc etc the list grows each day. I used to bemoan going to the service design conferences as people always discussed language, but now I see they have a point. I am sat in rooms trying to do agile transformation and language is getting in the way at every turn.

Agile – it is a genuinely alarming way to work for many people. It requires people to put themselves in a very vulnerable working environment. To expose their thinking in a fast paced environment, where everything (including your precious ideas) are in prototype. You know how at school it was always about getting the right answer and in your career it was about delivering a polished result? Well here it’s about good enough. In many ways this is GREAT. Perfection is the enemy of good. BUT, it goes against culture and people can feel very exposed.

(Note: someone needs to write a Marxist evaluation of agile. Yes the outcome is better and it’s all very sexy and new and ‘oh so right’, but I suspect the cost on the worker is high as essentially it speeds production and works the asset of production (you and me) harder.)

Power – agile transformation through service design is inherently political and therefore a challenge to established power structures. One, service design cuts across organisational boundaries, because (as I’ve said in a previous post) that’s what customers do. They are ruthlessly horizontal in a way that vertically silo’d organisations really struggle with. Two, agile is ruthless in its slaying of sacred cows because it has to prioritise ruthlessly, based on the as-pure-as-you-can-get empirical customer and operational data. It doesn’t matter that you have served 20 years and risen to the highest point of hierarchy, your idea is measured on the same criteria as call-centre agent 1,746. I don’t yet have a third.

So service design is evolving beneath our feet. This is a good thing, but it comes at a price – for me, for you, for the organisations we work in. I think it’s worth it, but not every day. Some days I feel plain strung out. Some days I feel like agile has been sent to save us all. Some days I feel like agile is here to kill us all. Either way it is here.

A different hire car each week – what it taught me about the future of mobility

I travel a bit for work, and when the trains don’t work out, I’m able to get hire cars – which is a great convenience. The experience of getting a different hire car each week over the past few months has revealed to me just how important the human computer interface is becoming, and just how poorly it is currently being engineered. And in a chunk of metal travelling at high speeds, a poorly engineered interface can be deadly. I know this.

Even though I’m 6’4″ I’m generally quite happy to take the economy option that pops up in the corporate booking system. I don’t get to choose the brand or model, so it’s always interesting to see what turns up.

Also I know I’m an edge case – not many people jump between brands and models like this – they usually develop brand loyalty and learn their car over a number of months/years. But I suspect this will change as cars become servitised and manufacturers begin delivering mobility services rather than car ownership. More on that later.

Anyway, this is usually how my user-experience goes:

  1. I sit down and adjust the seat and mirrors. These things are designed pretty standard these days, so no heavy cognitive load.
  2. Then I put my feet on the pedals, hands on the wheel and start the car. I get a feel for the engine in an instant, from the depth of whine/purr/grumble. I can quickly identify what stick does what – wipers, gears, indicators, lights. Generally that plastic and metal stuff is pretty standard as well
  3. Then – before I even get in gear – I have to face the new modern bit: I want to connect to the car. From my experience over recent months, this is where the car manufacturers are all struggling and where they are missing a trick. 
  4. And then I have the challenge of operating this interface whilst actually driving. This is the bit that is really worrying. Screens destract rather than inform. My eyes are off the road too long. And the complexity of the system drives frustration that impairs overall concentration. Bluetooth connections fail, speech recognition fails to make calls, simple tasks like changing music stations involves confusing icons and interactions. 

The variabilitphoto 1y of interfaces is enormous, and the number of quality designs is very very limited. Invariably there’s a crude touchscreen, and invariably the interface is an electronic version of the push button plastic of before. No effort to rethink the functions and features. And trust me, a touchscreen is far worst than a dial for scanning radio frequencies. It’s a case of new technology damaging old behaviour. 

And often the data and interfaces are split into different locations – data about the car’s performance is set next to the dials in front of you, whilst all media related data is separated into the middle of the dash – no idea why. And then you get the controls set into the steering wheel. All vary in function and location. I mean – what the hell does this button do?photo 3

It’s my firm belief that these interfaces will become the most important factor influencing car purchases in the future. Engines are going to become more efficient and less about performance. People will expect them to start every day, handle well and have a low cost of ownership. Most cars perform very well on these terms. There was a narrow range in physical and cost performance between all the models I drove (the VW was better than the Vauxhall), but I suspect it is getting narrower as technology improves. 

The interface is the new consumer battleground, and much needs to be done.

Here are some use cases we would all like to see realised. First the basics:

  • I can actually make a call by calling out the person’s name. The number of times I’ve tried saying names at different volumes and dialects, only to get a computer lady telling me to repeat the name is mind bending. Interface Rage.
  • RDS, TA, Region – all these legacy radio acronyms disappear and the function they serve is made apparent and intuitive. I have no idea what they do anyway, but I know if I hit one of them annoying traffic people keep interrupting songs
  • Just as pedals and dials are now consistent, the location of interfaces needs to becomes consistent – data is collected in one safe place, so it informs and doesn’t distract. Gestures are employed so you don’t have to look to find the thing to point at. I can adjust volume by moving my finger up and down a screen – left to right to change stations or tracks. No more swerving whilst stabbing fingers dangerously at touchscreens. Like this.
  • iPhones no longer come with a lengthy and costly instruction manual. Cars do – often with a separate one for the interface. Who wants to read these things? Who does? Design them to be intuitive, save the cost of the paper.

Now onto the more interesting and advanced stuff that can help brands build loyalty. These are more important to me than anything that gets talked about on Top Gear. I’m sure I’m in an addressable segment, but can’t believe I’m alone in it. And with Gen Y recognised to be less about ownership, and more about reduced environmental impact, I’m confident we’ll see a growth of this segment. Any service that can take effort and hassle out of people’s lives will succeed. This is being proved time and time again. So if a brand can achieve the following things, I will buy a car from them. 

  • I’m running low on petrol, so the car directs me to the nearest petrol station
  • It’s lunchtime so I’m likely to be hungry, so the car directs me to chains en route where I’ve previously eaten 
  • When I stop for petrol, remind me to top up the washer fluid
  • The car auto-diagnoses problems and notifies me of what I should do. I feel like a caveman having to still check the oil dip stick. Tell me when it’s low.

Unfortunately the law of car retailers is that these are cool new things and therefore must go into the premium models first. I think that’s a mistake. Design a good interface across all models – though yes, make additional features modular for different buyer segments.

There is some evidence of this happening. Fiat have put a digital dash into its latest 500 model – fiatthough it looks overly complex. landrover

And Landrover are doing the same with their higher-end models, though sticking to car-themed chrome styling, which I don’t think is helping anyone. 

And of course Apple is getting into the market with CarPlay which looks promising, though unclear who the partners are. And of course Google is in there with OAA that doubtless will mesh with its driverless car and robotics investments, which seem to be mired in health and safety regulations. Personally, I hope that the open source MirrorLink will prevail. Trusted brand VW are putting it into new Polos, which will help. Having just moved from an apple to android handset, I think the configurability of open source will work better across the variety of models and brands.

But lets go further than just the interface, with one more future scenario that I am personally very keen on:

In the near future I don’t own a car – instead I pay a subscription for a car service. Most of the time we as a family use an electric car for local journeys (school drops offs, visits to friends and relatives, shopping trips), upgrading to a hybrid MPV for a two week summer holiday in Devon. In this world the vehicle has been reduced to a component of a mobility service. I am more interested in the purpose it serves that the thing itself – i want to get around in different situations which require different vehicles. The vehicle itself is expected to perform but is ultimately temporary and disposable.

In this situation the interface becomes my connection through the product to that service. And the service knows my driving habits, how to position seats and mirrors and the radio stations I like. It has my contacts stored in the cloud so I can make calls easily. Upon key contact (or phone contact?) all of these things are set up in whatever vehicle the service provider has provided. 

Whether Audi or Avis end up offering this service, I don’t know, but it’s coming. Peugueot are playing with Mu, though it doesn’t look heavily invested.

But let’s be honest – this example is not about interface design – it goes way beyond that into service design, the implications of which are an entirely new business model that disrupts entire supply chains. And given the challenges Tesla are facing in the US trying to bypass the car retailing consortia with their direct to market sales model, I don’t hold out hope for rapid change. However for me this is scenario is as inevitable as the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing and OTT TV services.

Customer demand is like water – it always finds the path of least resistance and over time will erode rock to get what it wants. It will be no different for cars.

Read more here, here and here.

A Horizontal Manifesto

The world is oriented around verticals. It’s accepted wisdom that verticals help us organise service delivery. Hierarchy, control, order – these things flow top to bottom right? Government departments, corporate divisions, contact channels – this is the way of things. They appear to provide us, as service providers with benefits. But it’s my opinion that they actually cause more problems than they solve.

I propose that verticals are holding back business performance in the digital age. They’re a hangover from an industrial era of management and we need to challenge them. I also propose that we already have the tools at our disposal to do so. In fact I want to propose a Horizontal Manifesto.


So what’s the problem? Clearly the most obvious one is that verticals give you unhappy customers. Because traversing verticals takes effort, and customers hate expending unnecessary effort. But the biggy is actually cost – verticals cost business huge amounts in wasted cost. If one department sends me a letter that I don’t understand, then I’m going to make you pay by calling you and getting you to explain it again. And verticals undermine revenue generation – because unhappy customers are unlikely to buy more stuff. If I think you’re hard to do business with, I probably won’t buy more stuff (British consumer apathy and inertia being taken into account of course…)

For me verticals are the long sharp things that puncture holes in your bucket, out of which leak a constant stream of hard-won customers.

Hand pouring water from a glass into a leaking pail

Indulge me as I draw this out a bit.

How verticals hurt

The sales team sell me a phone and tariff. They do this quickly and efficiently, because they’re incentivised to win the sale. 3 months later I go over my data limit and get a surcharge. My reaction – I am surprised and call in for an explanation. I spend 3 minutes on the phone. “I didn’t know I was near my limit.” “How am I supposed to know how much I’ve consumed?!” “No-one ever told me what to do..!!!” The agent fobs me off – they see it as my fault. I take another route through the phone menu, and speak to a different department for 5 minutes. They say someone from ‘back office’ will get back to me. I don’t hear back, so go on a web chat. They can see that I have contacted in the past 3 days, but can’t see the full details on their system, so ask me to explain my issue… and so it goes.

We all know this picture. Of course the customer hates it as it makes them feel like a mug. And of course business leaders hate it because it is deeply inefficient (this scenario will have cost £100s in servicing unnecessary costs, undermined £1,000s of brand and marketing investment, and lost them the opportunity for future revenue gains).

But the really sad and maddening thing is, the manager of the vertical will likely have been in tolerance of most of their targets, eg short calls with good AHT (Average Handling Time), even if they do get a monthly bang on the head about poor RFT (Right First Time). Budgets will remain balanced. Customer satisfaction as we record it (how people think the call / web chat went) will be okay – the agent was nice even if the outcome wasn’t.

The manager will have successfully minimised the cost of supply within their vertical – ie the amount spent on handling the demand. Never mind that further supply costs are incurred in the next vertical along. The problem being that tracking costs across verticals isn’t really anyone’s job. More on that later…

Customers are ruthlessly horizontal

The thing vertical businesses need to wake up to is that customers are ruthlessly horizontal, and ruthlessly impatient. This is not a good combination for vertical service providers – meaning almost all service providers. Customers want to get things done, and those things invariably involve interactions with different verticals.

As we’ve seen, the worst bits are clambering over the seams of the verticals – being passed from call centre to call centre, and having to re-state your details to each agent – having to learn new interfaces between the sales website and the service website, and often encountering different sets of facts on the page – going into the store and getting quoted a different price to the one you got on web chat. At the best of times these are speed bumps, at the worst crevasses.


Customers are lazy. I’m not being rude here – we are all customers. I am a customer, and as a customer I am lazy. I resent making an effort. This is particularly the case in the digital self-serve world. If you want me to buy something AND do all the work relating to that transaction (ie self-serve ie you’ve outsourced it all to me) then you better work bloody hard to make that simple, easy and convenient to do – if not desirable even. Your part of the deal is to remove all the effort. “If Amazon can give me a One Click impulse purchase on any device then WHY CAN’T YOU?” That’s what people are thinking.

There’s a reason why Customer Effort Scores are emerging as the best indicator of loyalty – it’s because we are fundamentally lazy. And the internet has made us all MUCH lazier, and as a result made the job of EVERY channel MUCH harder. (Incidentally Gerry McGovern makes a great point of this here.) You cannot afford to let your verticals get in the way of this dilemma. Or you could, but you’d need to become an expert in gamification – make it fun for them to traverse the verticals 😉 !!

Okay gripe over – let’s put a more positive lens on this…

In the case I’ve presented, surely what we want is an educated customer who is capable of self-helping. We want a customer that knows their data limit, can set notifications if they go near the limit, and have the option of buying more when they need it. Because this would have provided us with an empowered and more responsible customer, and avoided the need for the call in the first place. Small upstream education cost in the sales and set up stage – large saving downstream in the manage and use stages.

Upstream, downstream. This is horizontal language. It’s no mistake that ‘customer journey’ was lampooned in the paper this last week – it’s become a faddishly over-used expression. But as with all fads, there’s a germ of value in there. Everyone is abuzz about journeys because they are anti-vertical – and everyone knows that verticals are bad. They’re bad if you’re a customer (effort), and they’re bad if you’re a business leader (cost and lost revenue).

But why is it that the organisation can’t get Sales to deliver the upstream education in the above example? Well it comes down to the old adage of ‘culture eating strategy for breakfast‘. If your culture is vertical because for eons your money and power has flowed that way, writing a strategy about customer journeys and service design is not going to work. You will get cosmetic improvements at the interface, which will improve your service hygiene levels and bump CSI, but you won’t change the system.

You’ll come into contact with plenty of managers who have their entire careers wedded to being brilliant vertical deliverers. To get them to work horizontally will make sense to them as customers, but as professionals it runs counter to everything that’s come before and everything they want to go on to do. You are proposing risk and disempowerment. When you suggest that money should be spent according to the needs of the customer, as defined by a service design or customer experience team, rather than by vertical managers – well this becomes an exercise in kingdom destruction. The logical conclusion for them is that they lose budget to some new fancy sounding department, to do stuff on brown paper over big walls… (Ps it’s great to watch Barclays – a 350 year old bank – going through this. I’m hoping it can help us turn a corner.)

Well we service designers are all diplomats right? We’re all playing for the long game. We have integrity and decency. We aren’t here to destroy vertical kingdoms. But the kingdoms need to be turned to a new purpose or they too will perish when the customers naff off.

So we need a Horizontal Manifesto…

1. We need to see horizontally

We need to see our organisations as our customers do. It’s a long-term bad joke now that the only person who sees a whole company is the customer. Well that needs to be put to bed.

Luckily we have big chunks of this in place or coming into place. Certainly the quantitative bit has developed a lot. My read is that the Customer Experience Industry has done a huge amount to connect quant operational and customer data together, and marry it with better metrics to measure performance. But I have to admit to beng worried about the CX industry and it’s intent to boil down oceans of data to find problems. It’s all very analytical and arguably in keeping with the industrial mindset that gave us verticals.

My hope is that the qualitative insight service designers bring can be married to this work. I guarantee you that standing in the shoes of the customer for a day, will get you closer to an understanding of the customer pain points faster (and more cheaply) than the data can be crunched. Give it to a good service designer, with the tools to trigger the same empathetic viewpoint in your vertical teams, and you get a quantum result. Regardless of what vertical I represent, and the baggage I carry as a result, I can always be made to empathise with 78 year old Ethel struggling to log in. We are all human. We can all see this way. We just need to do it corporately.

2. We need to think horizontally

Once we’ve got a good panoramic, horizontal view of the problem, we need to think in new ways to solve them. We can’t think in the vertical way anymore. Vertical thinking is done in meetings, disaggregated through lengthy reports, communicated by emails and internal newsletters – and ignored by almost everyone. Horizontal thinking isn’t part of the day job.

We need to bring together the vertical decision makers into rooms where we can look at the customer’s journey, and think collectively and creatively of ways of fixing their problems. What we need to do to achieve this is get permission for people to do this (saving the business from angry customers, falling revenues and rising costs) as opposed to ‘doing the day job’.

3. We need to act horizontally

We then need to act horizontally. Because the product of thinking is generally thought to be strategies and graphical visualisations of future services. The simulacra of action, ie not action at all. We need to not just think in these brown paper rooms, we need to take decisions in this way too. These collaborative multidisciplinary rooms generate great thinking – great ideas – but they often don’t scale commercially and horizontally because the organisation can’t back up horizontal thinking with horizontal action. Decision making outside of the C-suite is often highly verticalised.

This is by far the hardest pledge to make as it means getting into the guts of how your organisation runs – where the power sits, who has the money, how decisions are made, the environments people work in.

And doing so threatens much conventional wisdom about how action takes place. Those who try to act horizontally so often lose all their energy in the thick long grass of established bureaucracy. Change management, project and programme controls and IT releases – these have all become necessary and useful parts of business, but the eternal rounds of effort persuading each and every vertical to work horizontally saps the strength of those flying the flag. (Incidentally, I like the argument that turns the tables – “you write a business case to say why it SHOULDN’T be done.”)

Many business leaders pledge that they want to be ‘customer-centred’, without realising that the vertical structures on which their business hangs, also undermines their ability to meet that pledge. For that reason I propose developing this out into a fully fledged Horizontal Manifesto that business leaders can understand and, with a bit of cajoling from you good folk, readily sign up to.

I’m warming to this idea so much that I’m going to do more work on it. If you’ve got input / thoughts, I’d love to hear them via @joelbaileyuk

Thanks for reading. Joel



You’re 74. One day you wake up with a chronic medical condition – maybe even co-morbidity with lots of conflicting issues. A meeting with a GP spawns umpteen consulting appointments. You spend the next 12 months receiving alarmingly written letters for appointments you can’t make, listing phone numbers that go unanswered. You spend hours wandering lost in hospitals trying to find the right department. (But on the plus side you develop guns of steel carrying a lever arch file under your arm that describes your horizontal life for the benefit of each vertical you encounter. You see they hate talking to each other)). You struggle to make sense of the adult social care worker when she quite honestly admits that it’s not in her remit to help you with the things you need – its the health team you need to speak to. Your battle with horizontals becomes a matter of life and death. If you’re lucky you are middle class and can navigate all this. If not, it’ll probably be a series of collisions.

I’ve spent 2,000 words describing how verticalism undermines private sector businesses. I could write 5,000 on how it undermines public sector organisations. The killer fact is that most of us will end up in the above scenario – CEOs, COOs as well. Just another reason to make the pledge…

Design before digital

Digital is the new monster in the room. Everyone wants a slice of it. It is the big revolutionary thing that risks blinding everyone to the fact that the first principles of business still apply – you need to understand your customer and know how to serve them – everything else comes second.

I remember the first dot com boom had people equally breathless – probably a bit more so given that no one knew what shares they were buying and why. But it’s not much different now. People know they should buy Facebook shares, but I’m not sure they know why – or how – Facebook is going to actually make a return for them. People are still breathing the hype.

So when I read this story from O2 it made me think. Yes we do need plenty of new digital workers to run this digital economy we all need and expect. But I imagine 20 years ago they said “we need 700,000 call centre workers” or whatever the new wave was then. Now I know that digital is different from call centres – it offers the potential for exponential innovative change and new business models for every sector. I know this. But I’m uncomfortable with the logical conclusion of this approach – lots of training and education in coding, content creation, UX design etc. 

My discomfort stems from the concern that this is all a bit specific and potentially cosmetic. What we actually need are design leaders who know how to use digital. People who can look at digital (and whatever comes post-digital) and connect it to the business and customer in meaningful ways. What we don’t want is lots of people chucking digital in every direction as the answer to all the problems. Just like I’m worried by the current urge to chuck Big Data as the answer to all the problems. We have a habit of getting carried away with these new things.

(And I am aware that I could be challenged in the same way around service design – but I actually think service design is just good business practice – ‘understand your customers and work out how to serve them well’ is not a new form of practice – we’ve just had to re-invent it as a discipline in a fragmented corporate world where only the customer every sees the whole thing).

What I want is a balance between strategic design skills and digital skills. They are two sides of the same coin. If we generate loads of digital skills without design skills we’ll end up building digital white elephants that fail to deliver. For me it’s all about purpose. Ask ‘why digital and in what form’ rather than assume digital.

I’m excited that the UK Design Commission’s latest area of focus is the relationship between design and digital. See below:

Design matters to the digital revolution – but do we truly understand how?

  • What is the role of design in helping governments and businesses invest in, adopt, and transition to new technology platforms? 
  • Can design help extract optimum value from this new industrial revolution? 
  • And what are the implications of all this for the world of design?

For the Design Commission’s third inquiry we turn our attention to the role of design in an age of rapidly evolving technology, and examine the contribution it can make to the future success of the UK economy.

More will appear here over time. I’m hoping the process and eventual report will bear some good thinking in this space, to help clarify things. But until then I’d suggest taking a healthy dose of design with all your digital…

Get big, go deep – or go home

I’ve had an interesting run over the past few weeks. I’ve been spending more time out of the studio doing strategy stuff. Which means I’ve had the chance to speak to a whole range of people in and around service design. What I’ve picked up is a consensus that service design is reaching a tipping point – that the industry has an 18 month window to do something – to make the case, land it and grow from there – or to fade into hubris and lost potential. I’ve been feeling like this for a while, so it’s nice that the ante is being upped. But worth getting into the anatomy of this opportunity – thus a blog post.

Why a tipping point and why now?

A few things have come together recently:

  1. Government Digital Service – basically a design studio wrapped in a digital money saving business case – has demonstrated that design has a role to play in even the most traditional of organisations. Not only is there a forceful design studio in there of excitable designers seeking to change the world in a nimble/agile way, but there’s a Transformation Team of dyed-in-the-wool civil servants soberly connecting the deeper elements, and negotiating in the trenches with the grubby back end
  2. My own organisation is seeking to step up its intentions around service design. After a few years now of tactical success, we’ve proved the business case. I have clients who are asking for similar input. So people want more – more breadth and more depth. They want to talk about operational change – they want us to help them rethink how their organisations are plumbed, so they can be more customer-centred
  3. Other organisations are taking design more seriously. Barclays have just put a Chief Design Officer on the board. Accenture bought Fjord etc

What is going on?

I think senior leaders – the people who hold the big purse strings around organisational change – are finally being converted to Service Design. We’ve been in an elongated pilot phase. Every agency and lots of clients can point to game changing projects that have step changed organisations. Well – I think that finally the game has changed, the step has been taken. We’re no longer a substitute brought on for an occasional turn. We’re now on the field. This is great news, but being on the field brings its own challenges – which is what this post it really about. 

Dom Campbell at Futuregov wrote a great post called Go Big or Go Home. Go and read it. It echoes my feeling. I’d just like to extend it a bit – it’s not just about big design – ie broad application across large scale services like local government or telcos. It’s also about going deep – penetrating the innards of the organisation to make change happen. Now this is interesting, because many designers just don’t seem to see that as their job. They design, they generate ideas, they create collateral, and they pass it over – even if it’s an agile handover that is very seamless. They still hand it over. But to who? This is why we need to ‘go deep’. Let me break it out.

  1. Get out of the studio – the studio is a nice place to be. They play music there, and where flip flops. Get out of this comfort zone. You need to spend more time with the Learning and Development team understanding how to change staff behaviours. You need to understand how a commercial model for a transformation programme works. You need to sit with the IT guys and understand what data latency means. 
  2. Compromise – I wear a suit and tie every day. Only yesterday I had to explain to a senior colleague what Kickstarter was. We all need to stretch further towards those we’re trying to convert. We need to swallow our pride, be the bigger man/woman and suck up the short term “eugh, suit!’ thing. We need to be prepared to lose battles, forfeit ground, in order to win this war
  3. Challenge ourselves – we need to stop patting ourselves on the back that we’re the next big thing, riding high on the hype wave, with lovely projects and beautiful collateral. I was challenged the other day by someone that ‘service design fizzles out’. And they’re right. We are now more ‘the thing’ rather than ‘the next big thing’. Organisations are giving us the time of day – but they need to see that we can run broader and deeper. That’s the 18 month window we have.

My proposals:

  1. We need a joined up coherent campaign to tell the market that ‘this is what we do’. We’re out of pilot phase, we are prepared to go broad and deep. The campaign needs to be agile – it needs to not take 18 months to get it’s act together. Luckily the Design Council seem to be shaping this one up.
  2. We need to propose how we should fit into big organisations, splitting out the two big things we do: a) achieving multichannel customer service excellence, and b) delivering ongoing service innovation on the other. These are different skills so we should classify them as such. It’ll make it easier for others ‘to get’.
  3. And we need to reach a rapid consensus on the usual suspects – better evidence, neater proposition, improved talent market etc. Though my belief is that if we crack 1 and 2 we will be compelled to do 3. The reason 3 hasn’t happened is that we haven’t been forced to make tough decisions in the face of tough deadlines. Let’s let necessity be the mother of intent. Too many academics have spent too much time on 3 – it’s a MacGuffin. We need 1 and 2, then we’ll get 3 as a bi-product

And if we don’t do something?

Well we end up missing our boat, like Systems Thinking. Still around and doing good tactical things, but never really lived up to it’s hype and largely descended now into hubris. Service Design is not the answer – but it could be. Betamax was the answer wasn’t it? As Geoff Mulgan said at a meeting at the Design Council last week, Service Design exists in a very competitive environment. It is up to us to come together and land this opportunity in the next 18 months. We need to collectively tool up – get big, go deep or go home.

Embedding service design in a big organisation

The shift to embedded service design.


In the recent Restarting Britain report that I helped put together, we discussed different ways that organisations could bring service design to bear.

I’ve experience working in or with almost all of the models presented. But for me the embedded one is the most interesting as it’s where I believe most organisations are maturing to. In many cases we’re seeing organisation leave the agency-led era, where external facilitators have proved service design in small to medium-size ways, and commissioners are now seeking to scale its application in larger ways. Achieving this requires an internal design workhorse – a team of people spending dedicated time service designing within the organisation.

But what shape should this embedded team take?

Often it’s the case that many supporting elements exist – research, BI, MI, UX teams etc – but they aren’t bound into a whole. I was speaking to a client just the other day who asked me what an ideal greenfield Voice of the Customer team would look like. I love the intent of this question as it shows that design leaders are being asked about the future (significant), but the form of the question is wrong. For me it’s about binding qual and quant insight into a design led decision making function – which can apply that decision making at short, medium and long term cycles. For instance – tailoring live multichannel contact points, monthly redesigns of top tasks ‘in beta’, and annual innovations of the future operating model. We need to leave old models like VOC behind and wake up (or wake up our clients) to the opportunity of holistic, strategic service design within organisations.

So how do you best bundle them? And what steps should you take to bundling them up?

A case study.

The Government Digital Service is “a new team within Cabinet Office tasked with transforming government digital services.” I’m not that close to what they do, so I’m reading this case study from a distance via conversations, journalism and hearsay. My guess is that GDS was perhaps originally positioned as an agency, with a roving government brief – nothing too threatening, people didn’t have to buy them, and so they avoided ruffling civil service feathers (a standard critical success factor in most public sector projects). So this gave them a chance to wrestle some early projects, build credibility and thus develop a head of steam. But as the business case for design in government became clearer, they changed their footing. I’m not sure when it happened, but they became a mandated ‘fact of life’ for most departments and NDPBs. What’s remarkable is that this has happened to the extent that their design-led philosophy is now embedded in government and is becoming part of the DNA / fabric. I for one very much look forward to seeing what happens as a result. I’ve been taking a number of projects on a similar journey – from early ‘following our nose’ agency-style projects, through to tactical/guerilla change programmes, and on to setting up embedded service design teams. I see other case studies like this all around.

(Interesting aside: why is it not the Government Design Service or the Government Customer Experience Service? Most likely because digital is all about channel shift, which is all about reducing costs, which is all about everything in government right now! But I can see a point in time in the future where Digital will get dropped / replaced. Particularly if the Number 10 / Cabinet Office push on service design grows legs)

So what are the ingredients of an embedded team?

  • Dedicated resource – agencies move in and out of the organisation, being drawn on to deliver tactical work. You need a dedicated resource to run embedded work. And I don’t mean two people who basically manage agency work – I mean a team of people who live and breath the strategic challenge of the organisation
  • Diplomatic skills – agencies don’t have to be diplomatic – they are commissioned to do the work by someone who has done all the business case smoothign and chaping for them. But the embedded team need to be politically minded to survive the big corporate structures. Many technically adept serviced designers have failed to scale their offer because they overly rely on the “service design flag of intuitive brilliance”. Remember – people don’t care about service design. Work out what they care about and latch service design onto that. 
  • Clear methodology – this one is a bit yawn-y but important. Method makes most people’s eyes roll, but what I mean here is that you need a logical spine onto which you can latch your work (see previous point). Otherwise you will be dancing a different dance to every buyer. Some basic principles, a flow of work, that people can ‘buy’ in easy chunks.
  • Clear benefits / metrics – service design competes with lean, systems thinking, business process re-engineering etc. You will need a business case that is stronger than theirs. Stronger because people will buy the weaker business case they know, than the stronger business case they don’t know. Get early clarification on what the big measures are – NPS or Customer Effort? And how these trade off against more traditional sacred cow measures such as AHT? You need to fit into what is measured, as that it what is worked on.
  • Ways in – you will need to spend time networking. Usually this scares the design ponies as lots of designers do their work ‘in a corner’. But plenty of service designers are all about engaging in co-design and co-creation so this fear is removed. Good – because you need networks, conversation starters, watering holes to communicate the “bloody difficult business proposition that is service design”. This stuff takes time to land and connect into people’s brains.
  • Champions / evangelists – probably the biggest one. You need people to make the initial connections happen – people to provide air cover, people to knock heads together occasionally, people who believe in service design. At GDS it has been Martha, Mike and Francis (I don’t know these people, but their first names sound so great in a row like that!). I have had people do it for me. I look forward to doing it for others.
  • Story telling – once you get underway you need to be continually story telling – broadcasting the good work and success stories around the business to build that head of steam. The stories are the things that travel and give people reasons to seek you out. If you do your job properly these will just emerge – people will want to talk about it. That’s what service design does when it becomes embedded 

So if that’s the list, then how do you make the move to embedded?

  • Earn your stripes. Develop some case studies. Make some progress. These are the things you will want to leverage and scale
  • Create a shopping list. What do you need to become embedded? See the list above.
  • Pitch it. Find a willing buyer / corporate sponsor who will not only willingly listen to your pitch, but has the clout to do something about it

I am very keen to see more GDS stories of embedded service design from around the world, so get in touch if you have any personal experiences to share. Thanks

Task rooms

In the future I’d like to see a situation where, close to every team delivering a service, there’s one or more ‘Task Rooms’. These would normally be meeting rooms where people sit and talk about interminable abstract problems, before breaking up to work solo on their desktop machines. But the Task Room is a bit different:

– the room is dedicated to a key customer task that the organisation is intent on delivering well to its customers
– that task is up on the wall, left to right – warts and all
– each wart is studied and obsessed about – why is it there? How can it be removed? What other warts are the customers seeing that we aren’t?
– one or more big customer personas should be on the facing wall. These are the poor people we are trying to help through all this
– you’d start with the big hairy high volume tasks, and as they got sorted you’d replace them with slightly less hairy but still important ones
– you regularly take people out of delivering the service, to the Task Room to work on the service – to eliminate the warts

That’s it. Not rocket science. Some are already doing something similar. Pixar has storyboard rooms running for 4 or 5 years, so they can continually live within the story and refine it to within an inch of its life.

European House of Design Management

I attended a one day workshop to expplore what a Design Management toolkit might look like and how it might help public sector orgs in Europe. It was organised by the DBA in partnership with Danish Designers, on behalf of the EU. Thought I’d capture my thoughts.

The exercise felt a bit constrained by the way the initiative was procured. The team had obviously had to rapidly find a hypothesis with reference points, which we as a group then rapidly dismantled. The models felt a bit old, dusty and out of step. But that’s by-the-by. It triggered the right level of debate, and the message was given and taken in good grace and I think there’s plans to take a design approach to the next stages.

What was interesting was the intersection of practice in the room. Design was there in many different forms: design managers, design leaders, design academics, service designers, public sector design enthusiasts – all sorts. I was struck by the route Design Management had taken from product, industrual and architecural routes, which made me feel a bit out of place, given I’ve come up through the digital UX route. This was a bit evident in discussions with me banging on a bit about how new methods like Lean Startup and Agile UX were conspicuous in their absence. Also the CX work coming from Bruce Temkin and CXPA. If we want a toolkit in 3 years that feels fresh, then it needs to be taking into account latest practice now!

Having slept on it, I guess my big hopes are:

  1. An accredited design toolkit – so clients know what they are buying, get a degree of predictability in method and thus reduces overall risk of the purchase of design. Makes it easier for us to sell it. Something like what architects have evolved.
  2. A route map that takes the reader from the steps: “what could we do”, “what should we do”, to “what can we do”, “what will we do”, with a parallel stream of “how should we do it”. Adopting strategic design into an organisation needs to be pitched as a bit of an adventure as it changes the way the organisation works – as evidenced by the Roca case study we were presented with by Raymond Turner, which echoed my own experience with my own clients.
  3. A set of tools aimed at leaders (how do I envision and engage), managers (how do I change direction and drive through) and frontline staff (how do I become a designer and keep designing) – to help each group to handle the change on their own terms. Each will face very different challenges through stages of transition
  4. A community for leaders (definitely) and managers (maybe at a later stage) to help them build understanding and confidence – hear from others, learn from their mistakes, seek advice from peers.
  5. Language, tone of voice, pitch – Confidence is the major stumbling block here. Risk is the watchword in all this – the public sector hates it, but embracing it will help it survive. The relentless pitch to these guys needs to be “innovate to save. execute to survive” – design needs to be positioned as a low cost route to considerable savings, whilst also delivering better outcomes for staff and customers. We need to be clear that this is at the heart of the Design Management offer. We also need to make sure this doesn’t devolve into a dry EU toolkit. It needs to retain all the appealing and human ‘colour’ of design – the creativitiy and inspiration – the focus on storytelling, imaginatoin and drawing that we know often mark the turning points of projects. These things need to be embedded into the output and the way it is distributed.

Finally a note of concern about the 3 year timescale. Please please please can we not wait until then to deliver a perfectly form but hopelessly out of date toolkit? Can we instead borrow from the latest in design (Lean Startup and Agile) to reach a Minimum Viable Product in the next few months. Get that basic toolkit out there in the public domain, being used by a beta group and – crucially – failing to work, so we can quickly improve it again and again. The energy in the room yesterday will lend itself well to that way of working. 

Signal-to-noise – Service vs Customer Service

In Accenture’s 2011 Global Consumer Research Study they state that “consumers around the world are giving off mixed signals at a time when keeping consumer relationships strong is more critical than ever to providers. On the one hand, consumers claim they are more satisfied with the companies they do business w2ith. Yet on the other, they feel less loyal to companies, increasingly switch providers and shop for better deals as their expectations rise.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase “mixed signals”. Generally consumers are pretty straightforward and its us organisations that are failing to discern signal-to-noise. I think consumers are signalling something pretty clearly. ‘Customer service is important to me, but it doesn’t drive my loyalty. How you help to meet my need drives my loyalty.’ I find this distinction is regularly confused in the service industry – between ‘customer service’ (what you do for customers who need help) and ‘service’ (how you meet their need). Let’s be clear – business effectiveness comes from the latter and not from the former. If all your customer experience work is focused on providing great customer service, you’ll have an efficient service but it’ll never be effective at achieving truly great loyalty.

Service vs Customer Service venn
The overlapping but distinct fields of Service and Customer Service

In many ways we already know this. Evidence indicates that customers don’t reward good customer service (which they consider hygiene), but they are certainly willing to punish bad service. This does not sound like the basis of a loyal relationship. HBR’s work reinforces that customer service in and of itself is not so important. (I know some surveys indicate that what people value from a service is friendly and informed staff, short queues etc – but they wouldn’t even be in the store without a great service proposition. Mostly I think this is the result of ill thought through survey structures.)

I’m witnessing this challenge at the moment. A Customer Service team that just doesn’t understand the purpose of the Service Design team. They have traditionally done continuous improvement against their own KPIs – though I feel have failed to realise that those KPIs are for a Customer Service team who’s modus operandi is increasingly to deal with failure demand. The Service Design team is there to focus primarily on the service proposition – what is the purpose of the organisation in the customer’s eye? – not whether they had a nice call experience. I don’t want to diminish the latter, as it is important, but the former is critical to long-term success and profitability. and the challenge of user-led government went live the other day. It was a big day. Another chapter of user-led government opened. A new phase that brings us bang up to date as a country. And I’m not just talking about a nice new clean interface. This is not a cosmetic shift. The behind the scenes work involved here will have been considerable.

Government tends to the complex, like my kids tend to the nutella. To get one page of simple plain English content published will have taken multiple drafts, professional reviews, discussions to calm those reviewers, and redraftings. I know cos I’ve been there. I once argued with the owner of the Cider and Perry regulation over the phone for an hour. My suggestion that her 80-page regulation could be reduced to 1 side of A4 was literally heretical. That it was ‘impossible’ was one thing, but she also insisted that it was nigh on illegal. Her view was that government was obliged to lay down every fact, and it was the responsibility of the reader to learn, discern and take action. There was no sense that 80 pages of lawyer-level language was a barrier to some chap wanting to make and sell a bit of cider. That it was holding back UK PLC. That – far from being a civil ‘servant’ – she was actually hindering opportunity. (I never said that by the way. That wouldn’t have gone down well). Eventually I got her agreement on the basis that I wasn’t replacing her 80 pages, just preceding it. And she finally conceded that getting someone to understand the key points in 2 minutes meant they were more likely to read her lovely words in full – or something like that. Either way it was a small victory, and those days of early ‘transformation’ were built on small skirmish victories like this.

Hopefully this gives you a sense of how tough it was. And this was around 2002. There was little-to-no sense of ‘the user’, or their ‘user experience’ in government. We at had to run these arguments on a daily basis. We scraped through. We couldn’t point her to many universally recognised examples of user-led brilliance like Amazon. She probably hadn’t bought much online. There was no Apple back then. ‘Platform’ wasn’t even a word. We were still guerillas in the mountains of Whitehall. (he he – honest, it did feel a bit like that).

So’s launch has had a long trajectory. Thousands of sites, down to three sites (labelled – I always felt quite ridiculously – as ‘supersites’), and now down to one. This is an important history and one that many other countries are watching with interest. But I have to admit to some reservations, initially triggered by some of the language being used. Reading some of the coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing had come before References to the supersites always had the whiff of the “carriage clock gift” after 20 years of service. ‘They’re valuable websites. But they’re of their time. And times change.’ I paraphrase. I can’t deny any of those points, but emotionally I feel like Schmidt. In contrast, the language used to describe the initiative has on occasion had the sort of breathless air of that which surrounds Silicon Roundabout. So I guess this post is part feedback, part air brake on things.

The overall look and feel is fantastic. It’s how government should be. Simple clean and with all unnecessary obstacles removed. It’s a site that gets out of the way. I had no problems at all using what was there. Getting the next bank holiday slap bang in the middle of the page is great. When it comes to interface – this is a great step forward.

My problems popped up with the content. I picked the ‘do I need to pay VAT?’ question as it was always a highly ranked search at I browsed first, got to the Business Tax page and couldn’t find a reference to VAT. This was weird. So I searched ‘do I need to pay VAT?’ – again, no joy. I got ‘Pay your VAT bill’ on the standard search and ‘Amusement Machine Licence Duty’ on the detailed guidance.

This was even more odd, because the VAT decision marks a pretty major life stage for a business, so to leave it unsupported like this was strange. Also, had a pretty good interactive tool that helped you answer this question in a couple of minutes.

More worrying was where you go from there. The VAT helpline was listed a couple of page scrolls down the search results. But that kind of undermines the intent of digital by default (a call costs ££s, a web visit pennies). With a bit more creative searching I eventually found a “When to register for VAT” page, but the content on it was so light it didn’t really answer the question. The 2002 civil servant responsible for VAT would be turning in their grave! So… what do you do at this point? Well… you type ‘do I need to register for VAT?’ into google and then… well, god help you, it takes you here

I haven’t had much time to dig further, but this example reinforces sone discussions i’ve had with folk in this area – that there’s still a challenge that still needs to address. One which is an inevitable challenge given the Digital by Default pledge. And it’s this – the long tail.

Government can only be simplified so far. You can take the top tasks and clean them like a whistle, so that 80% of users skim through happy as a lamb. But government is complex – starting a business is complex – VAT is complex. If you run race horses in the UK, you will pay different VAT to a baker from Cornwall. You can’t fix this with a better interface. In one way the Cider and Perry lady was right – somewhere, somehow government needs to publish all the facts. This is a big hairy content problem.

In a digital by default world all of this content needs to live somewhere. And I want it all to live on – it has the right philosophy, the right team, the right interface, the right mandate. But I don’t see it there. The current site feels a little too neat. A little too tight in scope. I know shouldn’t have had content on bee keeping. That’s proper ‘deep in the long tail’ stuff, so i wouldn’t expect to see it here. But not being able to answer my VAT question is more troubling, as that is arguably a ‘long neck’ business task.

Digital by default is about user experience, but really it’s about saving government pots of cash. is way cheaper than any of the supersites it has replaced. But we need to be careful that it’s not a false economy. The reason those big old expensive sites cost so much was (partly) because they required an army of people to work the content, and keep that content in-step with regulatory change – which was costly to track. (Government doesn’t have a team tracking changes. I had to commission a legal team in the private sector to track changes and notify me so I could keep my content up to date. To the point where – ironically – I often knew about a change in regulation before the originating department official did).

I don’t see any radical new way of handling that. I’m sure there’s a MUCH better CMS in there somewhere, with a MUCH better cross-departmental review process. But people still need to do the words. Agile UX will not help resolve that. Someone needs to argue with the 2012 equivalent of my Cider and Perry lady. If they don’t, then the service never gets beyond the cosmetic – it helps you get to and through the basics quicker, but it can’t help with the detail and the complex. So you end up back at the big old flabby departmental website, suffering through a tricky UI. And so we’re back with lipstick on a pig. A more glamorous, 2012 brand of high-sheen, uber-gloss lipstick – but still lipstick.

Since leaving I’ve graduated from guerrilla tactics, though only a bit. I still feel most of my work happens in the trenches. Multichannel service design in the public / private hinterlands is a tough gig. It’s upstream from the interface. It’s trying to get user-centred practice injected directly into the DNA of the organisation. Nirvana for me is changing the pig. This will not happen over night.

I feel a strong kinship with We’re fighting on the same front. We carry much the same kit. But I worry that thus far – after quite a long prototype cycle – they haven’t tackled the big hairy content issues, of which my admittedly singular VAT example appears illustrative. (Incidentally – I am probably a bloody awful reviewer of Having spent a chunk of my career running, I am always going to be a bit defensive of it, and perhaps sharply critical of any replacement – but equally, I hope that experience can provide a useful vantage point).

But it’s early days. And there’s plenty to indicate a possible win in the long-term pig-changing battle. Major air cover from Maude. An inspiring and talented front lady in the form of Martha Lane Fox. An experienced and energetic team who’ve now cut their teeth. Every win they have on this front will help all of us involved in building better services. Getting to this point has been a considerable achievement. I don’t want to take from that. I just hope that there’s a programme manager in there somewhere, already limbering up for phase 2 / eternal beta, supported by a crack troop of ninja-like content editors, ready to do Cider and Perry battle, and laser focused on answering my VAT question in under 2 minutes.