Stop ignoring the workers.

Service design typically focuses on the customer. But in the face of automation, we need to embrace an emancipatory approach to service design by focusing on the employees instead.

Lynn Shostack, who many service designers will recognize as one of the original advocates of service design in the 70s and 80s, describes that services have a level of divergence, or latitude built into their structures. As she describes in Service Positioning through Structural Change, “A highly divergent service would be one in which virtually every performance of the process is unique.” (pdf) A service with higher divergence is more flexible, and she concludes that “increased divergence usually indicates a niche positioning strategy, dependent less on volume and more on margins.”

Take the iconic Chinese-American restaurant menu, offering one of everything possible, and consider the impact of such a broad menu on things like supply ordering, storage, inventory management, and so-on. The company needs to have more raw material to work with, a more diverse storage system, more supply partners, and more tracking and purchasing overhead.

Compare this to the original McDonalds menu, which offered pretty much one choice: a hamburger. Don’t want a burger? Don’t come here. Divergence, in the Chinese menu, creates a more custom dining experience for a customer, but comes with all of the negative consequences of such broad boundaries. The single-item-menu minimizes the operational chaos of the business, but puts all the chips on one product: the basic underlying premise is that the one thing on the menu is actually what people want to buy.

Designers have learned to be relentless advocates for the customers of a service offering, demanding that systems are usable, useful, and desirable. The divergence model creates another aspect of services for designers to attend to – the relationship between business logistics and customer freedom to choose.



This tension between logistics and customer choice gives way to another tension: the give and take between the business and the employees themselves. What happens when the business choices about divergence lead to boring, unfulfilling jobs?

At their core, services are about the people that work within them. Healthcare has nurses and doctors and lawyers and administrators. An autobody shop has the staff that work on the car. A supermarket has the people that manage bulk buying, and people that stock the shelves, and people that clean the store.

In some cases, employees are empowered to explore and bend the rules of their employ to suit the needs of their customers. These employees are operating within a designed system but with flexibility and individualized attention. Sometimes, these boundaries are broad: they give the service worker a huge amount of leeway to do what they see fit. Zappos is notorious for such broad runway, with real-urban-legends of the Zappos rep buying a customer a pizza, because she asked for it. There’s even a similarly “how can this be real” story of a Zappos customer service rep staying on the phone with a customer for 10 hours, because they hit it off and were having a good conversation.

But sometimes the boundaries are small: service workers are expected to do what they’re told.

Some restaurants are aimed at efficiency and throughput, rather than personalization and quality of service, and employees at these restaurants have typically been trained not to focus on the customer, but to focus on compliance with the system itself – on the divergence model described above. Make each burger the same. Operate efficiently. Minimize errors. Maximize throughput. Even customer-centric organizations like Starbucks structure their customer-facing operations around normalization rather than customization, calling beverages in the same order and with the same language. It’s gently prescribed in their employee Beverage Manual; the Beverage Identification System was created as a “a tool for baristas to mark cups based on customer’s beverage order and ensure clarity of request and delivery of the correct beverage.” (pdf)

This isn’t relegated to the inexpensive restaurants.  Phoebe Damrosh, a former manager at Per Se (where a tasting menu is $685 per person), explained that “we discussed at length every movement made in the dining-room, from the distance between our feet when we served each plate (six inches) to the level at which to carry the plates (just above the waist with elbows at right angles).”



Damrosh also describes that – in addition to receiving robotic training – servers are also instructed to bend over backwards to cater towards unique customer needs. She recalls a situation where a famous and eccentric customer brought a stuffed animal dog into the restaurant and wanted a seat for it. The customer got the seat, and people sent the stuffed dog free drinks. The servers hated it, because they were forced to go along with an absurd charade: feeding drinks to a stuffed animal trivialized their hard work and expertise.

In both anecdotes, the servers have little freedom. The hyper-detailed training mandates homogeneous rule-following. The over-the-top service approach mandates pandering. Both models diminish positive human qualities: self-expression, creativity, critical thinking, and a sense of identity. Service designers wouldn’t think twice about how to handle this for users and customers – they would rail against systems that dehumanize end users. Yet somehow we ignore it for people within the organization.

Amazon is increasingly under fire for the way they treat their factory workers, with stories of workers skipping bathroom breaks to meet their quotas. Uber’s been repeatedly slammed over the way drivers experience the company, with criticism aimed at their earning potential, their inability to access customer service, and the policies and procedures they are expected to follow. The counter to arguments against these workplace behaviors has always been capitalism, embodied: if people don’t like the working conditions, quit.

But that’s not a very designerly way of thinking about the world. Our focus should be on helping people who have the jobs, not brushing off their needs. We need to change our service design thinking to include all of the people in the system, not just the person who pays.

Designers are rarely the saviors of systems, and we often cause more harm than good in our attempts to fix things that are broken. But service designers may actually be on the front line for avoiding, or at least slowing, the inflexibility of service systems. Divergence for employees indicates real flexibility: the ability for workers to use their brains, not just their hands, and the need for employees who can use those brains to support real human experiences. When we envision services, build artifacts, describe the idealized journey, and define the blueprint, it’s fundamental that we start considering and even prioritizing the real needs of people in the system who aren’t “the user.”

Robotic bee image from Yufeng Chen, E. Farrell Helbling, and Hongqiang Wang.

Jon Kolko

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