The 10,000-Foot View of Service Design

March 17, 2020

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what strikes me as the most difficult and interesting challenge I’ve faced adjusting to service design after decades of practicing other flavors of human-centered design: the problem of altitude and granularity appropriate to solving service design problems.

In design, thinking about altitudes and zoom levels is common to the point of being a tradition, starting with the Eameses’ classic “Powers of Ten” film. Given its strategic, integrative, multidisciplinary scope, Service Design is particularly zoomy, so it is unsurprising that altitude-based frameworks and analogies are frequently used in the Service Design world.

As important as it is to understand the value of working at multiple altitudes, it is also helpful to be prepared for the experience of changing altitudes, especially within Service Design’s own peculiar range. For the uninitiated, the shifts in granularity, theme and perspective can be a slightly strange experience. As a sort of expectation-setting initiation, I offer an extended, but hopefully not too labored, analogy.

If strategy flies at 30,000 feet (where the ground is so distant it looks like a map) and we agree most design flies at 3 feet (where the ground is so close and so chaotic it is hard to survey), service design flies at 10,000 feet, approximately the cruising altitude of a single-engine prop plane.

10,000 feet is a very useful altitude that bridges 30,000 foot and ground — clarifying relationships between strategy, operations and the experiences real people (real customers, real employees) have as a result — but flying at this altitude does introduce practical challenges.

First, there is the issue of clouds. At 30,000 feet, the clouds are below you. Standing on the ground, the clouds are above you. But at 10,000 feet you are flying in and out of clouds, which can be very disorienting, in the most literal sense. It can be tricky to know which way you are facing or which way is up. And the view is neither clear nor continuous.  One moment you can see a bit of ground, the next you see nothing but your instruments, and you have to use your memory, imagination and your recording and data-gathering tools to form a sense of the whole. But the understanding that develops from these varying sources has far more structural clarity than you can get from the ground and more human richness than you can detect way up in the cold, thin air of the stratosphere. To put it all together, though, interpretation is necessary. The picture doesn’t automatically emerge by itself. The heterogeneous parts must be skillfully pieced together into a coherent image.

Second, you are dealing with some odd scales of meaning. Looking down at a town, everything looks miniaturized but still human, maybe even exaggeratedly human because the tedium of life is abstracted away and we relate to it like kids playing with toys. Some homes are big, some are small, some are complexes or towers. Some are arranged in grids, some along windy branches of street bulbing in cul-de-sacs, and some cluster along the edges of lakesides or hills. Some homes have trees or yards, pools, trampolines or gardens, driveways or parking lots. You can imagine what life in the neighborhood might be like. But you can also see the layout of the city, and get a sense of how parts of the town connect up. You can see where the schools, the stores, the churches, and the sports fields are. You can see where things have been built up, what has been left in a wild state, and where development is happening.

Now, imagine telling a story about the life you see below, doing justice both to the individual lives taking place in the tiny buildings below but showing how it all connects to form a system… this is not the usual storytelling scale. It is neither intimate nor epic. It must generalize, but without blurring key particularities or averaging individuality into bland anonymity. But if you wish to tell the story of how a town works, or if you want to propose significant structural modifications to the town, this is the narrative scale required. Telling such a story requires thoughtful zooming in and zooming out to show connections between whole and part, connecting fine grain details of breakfasts, meetings, and bills, with grander-scale phenomena like demographic trends, commerce and traffic patterns. Translated back to Service Design, this means combining stories of cultural and industry trends, corporate strategies and vignettes from customer’s and employee’s lives to show how these macro-level trends and strategies impact the everyday existence of individual people, and conversely, how the micro-level behaviors impact strategies and generate trends.

Finally, intervening at this height is strange. Many proposals for change fall somewhere between strategic and tactical. They anticipate details of implementation, but without over-specifying them. Specifications are suggestive and provisional and intended more to clarify a problem than provide a solution. Many people find the interpretive latitude confusing: what in the recommendation is fixed and what is variable? If everything is open-ended what use is the recommendation at all? It can all seem vague and insubstantial, yet there is a thrust and lasting momentum in the work that carries initiatives forward and in a direction that benefits both the organization as a whole, its employees and the people it serves. Somehow the recommendations made from this altitude are capable of creating continuity between the grand plans of strategists and the intricacies of implementers on the ground.

The 10,000 view manages to refract the grand plans and sweeping aspirations of the 30,000-foot view into actions on the ground that actualize it and prevent it from remaining mere aspiration and plan. And the 10,000-foot view provides individual actors on the ground a way to relate and connect their efforts to tangible, relatable and realistic goals that connect up with the purpose of the organization.

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