What Does Design Want to Be?

December 3, 2015

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About four years ago, I railed against the state of design at the time. As a practicing designer, it deeply troubled me that the design world had become so self-absorbed that it lost touch with reality. News articles and blogs were celebrating design for the beautiful, delightful products that it brought into the world, and praising the rockstar designers whose sheer creativity produced such marvelous creations. We didn’t need more voices singing the praises of “good” design, only to fuel consumer appetites for Apple, IKEA, and Target merchandise. We needed more designers to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with problems people face every day, like getting access to quality health care, affordable housing, clean water, and secure food supply. Sure, there were designers doing noble, respectable work then, as there always are, but how could anyone cut through the noise to see the good among the not-so-good? How could anyone understand the value of design in responding to real needs, not simply commercial interests?

Today, little has changed. Awareness of design is growing rapidly, thanks to the glut of marketing hype about design still clogging up magazines, news sites, and blogs, but it remains as daunting as ever to separate the wheat from the chaff or know which is which. Designers still design artifacts and experiences and apps (so many apps!), but more are aspiring to change the world, albeit with an incomplete skill set (on a related note, see Don Norman’s series of essays, starting with “Why Design Education Must Change”). Design process is being further decoupled from design craft and design expertise by way of design thinking, which has now falsely turned into an open-source cure-all for all of business’ and society’s woes — designers not required. Designers aren’t so much fighting for a seat at the strategy table any more as they are scrambling to keep up with a continuously changing market environment that’s wresting control of design from their very hands and putting the integrity of design into question. Either everyone at the strategy table has done some form of design thinking training by now and is plastering their boardroom with sticky notes, or they’re making designers an offer they can’t refuse: join us or be assimilated.

Let’s not forget the growing number of business, engineering, and other university programs that are tacking on design and/or design thinking to their curricula in order to better equip students to solve “wicked problems” (This is a grossly misused term, by the way; Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, who introduced the term “wicked problems” in 1973, outlined ten criteria, some of which state that wicked problems are not truly solvable like “tame” problems due to their constantly changing and deeply complex nature.).

So yes, I’m still complaining. What continues to trouble me are the persistent disconnects between what we say about design, what design actually is, and what design and designers can realistically accomplish in the world. There’s a sizable gap between where the focus of attention currently is — the selling (and selling out) of design — and where, in my opinion, it needs to be – clarifying design’s role and aligning design activities and services to where they’re most needed (or at least, where they’re best suited).

To me, this is part of a larger problem that has only lately attracted attention: design has swelled over time to become too many different things for many different people. In the process of scaling up beyond “posters and toasters” and adopting methods from the social sciences, business, and creative problem solving along the way to tackle bigger challenges, design’s boundaries have started to lose definition. And without recognition of the growing body of knowledge at its core, design has no center of gravity to anchor it against misappropriation.

Design has long been evolving in tandem with social, cultural, technological, political, environmental, and economic changes across the world. Now it’s getting tangled up in all of them. For design to move forward (not backwards) through this current cycle of change, as its reach extends further into more dimensions of life and more participants enter the design space, it needs a system or framework for understanding it and engaging in it productively. Especially at this moment in time, design needs to be reframed, not as any one person or group wishes it to be, but as an inclusive synthesis-in-progress of diverse perspectives that are part of the new reality of design.

From this angle, more questions than answers emerge in the attempt to chart design’s new direction:

  • How do we communicate and demonstrate the value of design expertise in the emerging context of DIY design?
  • How do we encourage a dialogue that helps clarify the role of designers alongside all other participants in the full spectrum of design interventions?
  • How can designers stand up for design and lead the conversation about design while displaying some humility?

The assortment of perspectives below serves as more of a snapshot of thinking than a rigorous examination of the questions I pose. It’s a reflection of my current headspace as I sort through these issues in my own practice.


A 2013 New York Times article by Alice Rawsthorn briefly discusses the idea of “expanded” design, or design that “can be usefully applied outside its conventional context,” and acknowledges the risk of design becoming meaningless as it departs from the conventional notion of artifact creation to confront social and global challenges. She states:

The problem, or so the critics of expanded design claim, is that the proliferation of new approaches has made design seem even fuzzier and less coherent. They have a point. If the concept of expanded design is taken to its natural conclusion, just about any form of planned change can be described as having been designed, and design will not only become fuzzier still, but indistinguishable from common sense.

Does this matter? I’d argue not, at least not if identifying something as a design project will improve the outcome.

While Rawsthorn points out the potential pitfalls of making design a catch-all activity for a broad swath of human problem solving, the presumption that a “design” frame or lens can lead to a better end result requires more explanation. Why exactly is this design frame so beneficial? The article doesn’t make it entirely clear what exactly is inside design as opposed to non-design-based problem solving, aside from the “design process of research, analysis, visualization and communication,” that gives it value. Furthermore, what do design and designers bring to bear exactly on non-traditional design problems versus laypeople or “intuitive” designers, who’ve accomplished much on their own for so long? I’m sure many designers could easily answer that question, but the fact is that they haven’t been, or at least they’re not doing enough to communicate it widely enough.

In his 2015 book Design, When Everybody Designs, Ezio Manzini explores in-depth the changing nature of design for social innovation, and especially the relationship between “diffuse” design, performed by non-experts, and “expert” design, performed by trained professional designers. It is the interaction of those two roles together that greater possibilities and potential arises for social change, he claims. Following this logic, Manzini proposes what he calls a new “description,” not definition, of design:

Design is a culture and a practice concerning how things ought to be in order to attain desired functions and meanings. It takes place within open-ended co-design processes in which all the involved actors participate in different ways. It is based on a human capability that everyone can cultivate and which for some — the design experts — becomes a profession. The role of design experts is to trigger and support these open-ended co-design processes, using their design knowledge to conceive and enhance clear-cut, focused design initiatives.

Rather than draw a sharp line between expert and non-expert or judge the value of one over another, Manzini emphasizes the complementary roles of both in the co-creation of solutions. In this paradigm of co-designing, design experts are neither passive facilitators (who do what he calls “post-it design”) nor the sole creative visionaries (who do “big-ego design”), but as active participants in a shared process who “spark off new initiatives, feed social conversations, and help the process of convergence toward commonly recognized visions and outcomes.”

A missing piece today in achieving the vision Manzini sets forth is the development of new skills among designers who pursue this direction (rather than assume all designers should follow this path). He does detail various techniques and activities for supporting the co-design process, such as incorporating visual tools to prompt social conversations and creating physical spaces and infrastructure for collaborative work, but generally speaking, design education is not yet focused on building fundamental capabilities to equip designers with both traditional craft skills and creative collaboration skills together.

In the absence of fully-equipped next-generation designers or even an inkling of something like co-design, many non-designers are taking matters into their own hands and assuming the role of expert designer in an effort to create change in their respective domains, enabled by the plethora of toolkits, books, workshops, and other pre-packaged design knowledge commodities readily available today. It’s easy to criticize the peddlers of DIY design, the consumers of these offerings, and the casual “borrowers” of design practices to enliven their classrooms or workplaces for designers getting left behind. However, the fault lies primarily with the design institution: in the midst of fast-moving market forces and growing appetites for all-things-design, design has remained myopic, passively ceding ownership of itself, and lacking a strong foundation to stand upon. As Anne Burdick describes in her 2009 talk entitled “Design Without Designers”:

In the United States in particular, design’s rhetoric and self-definition has centered around its relevance to commerce. Design students are seldom taught to recognize or articulate their own unique expertise outside of their value to business. Our emphasis on design as a profession rather than as a discipline has left us without the scholarship that validates other fields. Our inability to advocate for design in larger terms excludes us from discipline-defining, knowledge-producing, and policy-generating activities, especially within research, education, and government.

Without acceptance as a bona fide discipline supported by research and literature, without regard for its legacy, without an evolving design education system oriented to human outcomes instead of outputs, and without designers serving as vocal proponents of design’s value across diverse contexts, design may very well lose whatever identity it has and become whatever anyone wants it to be.


The Future of Design History

June 30, 2015

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The future is so now. Everywhere you turn, there’s some book, blog post, or conference about “THE FUTURE OF something-or-other” these days. The faster tech progress moves, the more impatient people become for the next new thing. There’s certainly nothing wrong with envisioning the future and imagining possibilities for what could be. Meaningful progress depends on it. But there is something deeply wrong when we forget about everything that got us here or, worse yet, have no clue it ever even existed.

Recognizing the value of design history and truly learning from it is a loaded topic. It would take more than a lowly blog post to address topics such as the gaps in design history, the underuse of primary source material in education, and the false idolization of influential figures in design history. What interests me right now is the perception and role of design history in an internet- and social-media-driven world. Two interlinked forces are at work shaping design history — for better and worse:

  1. The design explosion: As the popularity of design increases (never mind which design we’re talking about) and the demand for designers and design skills grows (never mind specifics, again), what design is has evolved in response to these changes. More diverse voices outside of design are shaping and “curating” conversations about design, new players are redefining the landscapes of design education and practice, and new applications of design are gaining more recognition among the more traditional products and services. However, with so much activity around design, it becomes more challenging to make sense of design and find information about design history that is accurate and useful.
  2. The digital revolution: There’s no denying the speed and scale of change still happening from the analog-to-digital transition. Design continues to explode because more people know about it, interact with it, and practice it thanks to the unprecedented reach of the Web, the ways we can access it, and the number of places we can share and find information. The whole of design may seem no more than a Google search away on whatever device we want, but much design history still hasn’t migrated from boxes and shelves to digital files on servers and in databases. And what has migrated may be unreliable or incomplete.

Both forces combined have certainly elevated, broadened, and enriched design over the past twenty years or so, but they have also given rise to a growing trend toward “new” and “now.” In the Internet Age, design history is neither of those things. Instead, it is associated with words like “old,” “outdated,” “archaic,” among other unfavorable descriptors. It’s about people from, like, a hundred years ago doing lots of long, hard manual work without computers. And let’s not forget the stuffy old instructors who deliver bone-dry design history lectures and assign dreadfully long readings from super-heavy textbooks. For these reasons, it must be repackaged in the context of quick-fix social media and grabby blog posts and linkbait to become “new” and “now.”

One of the biggest problems hurting design history today is the use of historical design imagery, particularly visual displays of information commonly labelled “infographics” culled from online library, museum, and archive collections, without the correct citation: it’s either missing, incomplete, or the source cited lacks the actual reference. Countless Tumblrs, Pinterest boards, Facebook pages, tweets, and other forms of social sharing feature these images with little more than a trite “cool historic infoviz” or “[INFOGRAPHIC] Awesome Victorian data display” to accompany the posts. It may seem harmless, but the compounded reposting creates more distance between the original source and the place it was found (reverse image search is occasionally helpful, but no substitute for correct citation).

The widespread use of historical design imagery as visual fodder for personal mood boards and attention-seeking reduces the value of design history to clip art that can be freely redistributed across the web without regard for provenance or historical context. Works that are out of copyright or in the public domain aren’t necessarily fair game because there are no legal repercussions (as with music videos on YouTube). They are still someone’s creation and it’s worth stating who made them, when, where, and why, not just in the interest of good scholarship but in the interest of helping others learn more about that “cool” discovery.

An event I attended recently at the New York Public Library, Peripheral Landscapes: The Art of Maps, perfectly encapsulated the problem of design history stripped of meaning. The event featured three digital collages constructed entirely from cut-outs of “decorative and non-informational elements that reside along the edges of maps” that are part of the library’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. The project was part of the library’s Net Artist in Residence program intended to make the most of their digitized historical collections and infuse them with a little more “new” and “now.” For most of the talk, the artist, Jenny Odell, spoke about her interests in online imagery and particularly Google Maps and Google Street View, and to be fair, most of the work she showed was conceptually interesting. When asked during Q&A if she documented the image sources she used, her response was a plain and simple “no.” Granted, much art contains allusions to its influences but doesn’t often state them directly. In this case, a library-sponsored art project using its own historical map collection to boost public awareness and use, attribution was surprisingly not a requirement — nor an obligation on the artist’s part — if only for the sake of helping viewers identify where the “non-informational element” came from and encouraging them to dig deeper into the map collection.

Making the effort to preserve links to the past across the analog-digital divide is critical to design history’s survival. In the absence of web citation police or a definitive, comprehensive online source of design history across all design fields, the responsibility belongs to everyone to correctly cite historical design imagery they post with the original source and not some derivative source or a linkrot-vulnerable URL. Even if it means doing a bit more homework beyond a Google search.


Living for the (Future) City

May 31, 2015

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New York is a constantly changing, evolving city. Shops come and go, buildings rise and fall, fashion trends run their course. For years, the city has celebrated its own ability to reinvent itself and yet stay true to its core, the “real” New York — the Frank Sinatra New York and the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys New York. The city is a place of desire and drive, no better captured than in the towering ad-screens and street-level spectacles of Times Square. The same appetites have always come to be fed in NYC — status, beauty, power, importance. It’s just the packaging that has kept changing to suit the tastes of newer generations.

But as years have passed, the values of the city have gradually shifted. There’s more to New York now than just sustaining the wealth that put it on the map in the first place or claiming one’s own piece of the pie. There’s an awareness of something bigger than individual pursuits, deeper than the instant gratifications that city conveniences afford, and longer term than one’s apartment lease. The future of the city is on people’s minds — a cleaner, safer, more efficient, and more inclusive city. A city where people can actually thrive and build communities while preserving their environment and strengthening infrastructure.

Such was the spirit of the inaugural IDEAS CITY festival in 2011 (which then went by the much longer name “Festival of Ideas for the New City”). Back then, optimism was low as many were still struggling through the economic recession. The event provided a much-needed boost of positivity and hope, if only as a show of stubborn resilience against a bleak future, a proud reassertion that NYC arts and culture were here to stay. It certainly got me excited, so much that I wrote about my experience.

Fast forward to 2015, just four years into the future. I’m back at the same event with a shorter name, ready for more good stuff. This time was different though. The bright picture of the future was still there, but what was brought into sharper focus was the stark reality of the present (for more than just NYC dwellers). As stated on the event homepage:

The theme of this year’s IDEAS CITY Festival is The Invisible City, an homage to Italo Calvino’s literary masterpiece of 1972. This theme is rooted in civic action, with each of the Festival’s platforms serving as an invitation to explore questions of transparency and surveillance, citizenship and representation, expression and suppression, participation and dissent, and the enduring quest for visibility in the city.

The full-day conference on Thursday, May 28, zeroed in on each of these topics, as speakers shared their perspective on how they tackled problems within each or proposed solutions. By far, the most galvanizing speaker was Lawrence Lessig, whose dynamic opening keynote on inequality, networks, and democracy shone a spotlight on the broken-ness of American democracy and Internet regulation (find a way to watch it here).

Also eye-opening was the panel discussion Full Disclosure and the Morality of Information. As the panelists openly pointed out, government surveillance of American citizens and personal data collection through various social networks happen every day and have serious consequences, but little is being done, or can be done, to put a complete stop to them. Such unseen activities can be made visible through art projects and awareness campaigns, as the panelists explained, but the real change that is needed must come from individuals taking action to protect themselves.

The Saturday street fair seemed a bit more chaotic / haphazard than the 2o11 version, and maybe a bit emptier than I recall, but that didn’t take much away from the enjoyment. In one booth, a pianist performed his musical interpretation of whatever someone drew or wrote on a piece of paper, no matter how abstract it was. In another booth, the NYC Department of Design and Construction presented the city’s plans for inclusive design for the visually impaired, which included a prototype for a special concrete ramp with raised bumps and ridges plus braille on the railing to indicate a construction site.

What struck me most about the event was the actual absence of the “invisible” people of the city who were mentioned by some of the Thursday panelists: new immigrants, disabled individuals, and others who tend to go unnoticed or flat out ignored by everyday people and public services alike. I think it would have been fitting (necessary!) to not just talk about certain hidden populations receiving help from some group’s efforts but to invite them to participate in the conversation about what their present is like and what they want their future to look like.

As a series, IDEAS CITY has come a long way and is helping to redefine what cities can do to improve the well being of their citizens in the present and in the years to come. Rather than just showcase inspiring and imaginative art, architecture, and technology concepts aimed at a privileged few, IDEAS CITY 2015 dug into real issues that need much more than stylistic innovation to solve.

(The title is a reference to Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City)

Change the Conversation

January 28, 2014

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I’ve never been much of a talker. As much as I enjoy rich, far-ranging conversations, at heart I’m a quiet recluse who prefers silence to chit-chat. Dialogue is great and necessary, but there is a point where talk must translate into action.

Looking back on the content I’ve read over the past year, a good portion of it is commentary about some problem or situation that needs to change, but there’s little indication that any action will follow to bring about change. Twitter often feels like writing on the water — as soon as ideas are broadcast (critiques, praise, and everything in between), they either ripple outward or vanish downstream. Blog posts have a sedimentary quality, as new or recycled material settles on top of old, day after day. And while books and journal articles are great, at the end of the day they’re just static knowledge containers. These days, it feels like the only call to action is to consume more content or struggle to keep up with it. What is all of that content for?

As I suggested in my last post, information design is drowning in chatter. There is so much discussion about infographics, data displays, and dazzling visualizations that the hard work of defining and giving more structure to information design as a formal discipline is being neglected. In my own blog, I acknowledge that there’s a considerable gap between what I say and what I actually do. I complain about the state of information design and visualization repeatedly — where there’s confusion, what challenges exist, what could be done better — but I recognize I’ve done little to change the situation beyond helping clients understand the full value of information design. Some soon-to-be-launched ventures will help me practice what I preach and catapult some words and ideas into reality.

The Web is an amazing platform for self-expression, idea exchange, and knowledge sharing, but it’s up to us to step away from our computers, put down our devices, and engage in the world. We need to get better at applying all the knowledge we absorb and all tools at our disposal towards finding and creating solutions to the problems that sorely need attention.

I want 2014 to be the year where we spend a little less time “curating conversations” from the comfort of our computer screens and more time getting our hands dirty in the messy, unglamorous work of sensemaking. Not all of that work will be tweet-able, “like”-able, or Instagram-able, but it will matter, however big or small the effort is.

5 Information Design & Visualization Action Areas for 2014

  1. Mapping Context: The understanding domain, which encompasses the language, people, practices, scholarship, literature, and other components of information design and visualization, is constantly evolving, but it’s still very difficult to see the map of this territory. Some may think that it’s futile to define boundaries and set definitions because of that perpetual flux, but without even a conceptual representation of a space that is occupied and shaped by so many different fields and perspectives, there can be no understanding among the people and groups that call that place home, nor can newcomers and “outsiders” get their bearings. Maybe once we have a sense of what we all mean by information design and visualization and start to mean the same fundamental thing, we can better contextualize what we do for others in their terms and collectively help make sense of the world.
  2. Making Connections: Richard Saul Wurman says that you only learn something in relation to what you already know (in a talk he gave many years ago in NYC, he described his personal frustration with the unfamiliar: “How can I put some velcro on this shit?”). I think we all could do a better job of forging connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar, instead of constantly pursuing the “new” and “different” under the guise of trendiness or “innovation.” That means doing more to help people understand what we all do, whether we’re data visualization people, news infographics people, wayfinding people, information architects, etc. How many of us have a crisp, clear, one-sentence description of our work that many people can understand and relate to?  In our daily work, that means reducing the scale and apparent complexity of the unfamiliar into human terms. One great example of this I found recently is the Dictionary of Numbers, which makes obscure numbers more concrete and tangible. The potential for this type of tool is immense.
  3. Expanding Community: There are many different, highly specialized communities within information design and visualization, but they don’t seem to talk much to one another. Maybe it’s me and my lack of history or possibly limited view of things, but I still don’t understand the divisions between, say, information design and information architecture communities, or information design and data visualization communities. When I peer into each little “world” encapsulated in their respective community organization sites and Twitter conversations, I see vibrant discussion and the occasional mention of a neighboring field or overlapping community, but I don’t often see deliberate efforts to bridge across to those neighbors and expand communities (unless you consider open calls to participate in conferences with broad categories or comment fields on blog posts active invitations). We all can be territorial for a variety of reasons, and the thought of extending a hand of fellowship towards foreign “tribes” may seem uncomfortable to some, but related to the first two points above, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. HelpMeViz is among the most promising communities I’ve seen recently that doesn’t simply celebrate shared interest in data visualization — it welcomes productive discussion around data visualization projects needing input. More physical and online platforms for teaching and guidance in this still fuzzy domain are sorely needed.
  4. Considering Consequences: One of the biggest ongoing problems affecting the perception and understanding of information design and visualization is the glut of (mostly bad) “infographics” and their sensationalistic promotion. It’s old news that marketing and graphic design have misappropriated the form and function of visual information displays to suit aesthetic and commercial interests, but the consequence is that information design and visualization are becoming too closely and too narrowly associated with empty, unintelligible, and irrelevant illustrations of facts and figures and artistic or technical experiments that serve only their creators. The reality is that those more expressive outputs won’t go away. Some argue that they are necessary elements or “disruptors” of the larger visualization ecosystem. Still, there still needs to be a clearer delineation between what is playful and what is serious. I would go so far as to distinguish what is fake from what is real. Information design and visualization, at their core, deal with enabling understanding and informing action, and we need to recognize work that serves that purpose — in both practical and meaningful ways. And we need to emphasize that information design and visualization span far more challenges than just making pictures of data and far more outputs and outcomes than infographics and data visualization alone, contrary to what blogs and magazine sites may say. We have more than enough “infographics” that leave us thinking “so what?” or “huh?”. It’s time to show that information design and visualization can — and do — make a real difference in the world.
  5. Championing Clarity: It’s a simple point, but one that is easily forgotten: we all can and should do more to make life easier for ourselves and others in the ways we interact and communicate with each other. Being a practitioner of any sort in information design and visualization should mean that an understanding sensibility is “always on” and a part of everyday life — not just when a project or client demands it. Let’s speak in a way that everyone can understand, and not assume others share our same lexicon. Let’s listen and take time to truly understand what others say and express, so we can respond in meaningful ways. Let’s slow down and cross one understanding challenge at a time, instead of jumping to conclusions about what a solution or answer should be. Let’s start simple when we’re explaining something, visually, verbally or both, so we don’t leave anyone behind. And let’s share our skill and expertise to help others, even in small ways, make clarity a habit.

It’s already the end of January, and there’s lots of work to be done. I hope to see more positive, constructive effort in 2014, as well as some fresh ideas and approaches to the areas I’ve listed. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates…


Redefining Service

October 23, 2012

Service is a part of everyday life, but what is good service and why is it so hard to get?

As a designer, I view and practice design through the lens of service. I’m not referring to service design or any particular design specialty, but the concepts of providing a service, being of service, and delivering quality service. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what good service means, and doesn’t mean, in the context of career paths and human behavior.

One insight into the nature of service came from a very unlikely place. Back during the 1980’s New Age movement, I stumbled upon Dan Millman’s semi-autobiograpy, Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Perhaps it was the cover art that attracted me to it, but nevertheless, the story was compelling — a modern-day hero’s tale of self-realization spurred by a chance encounter with a mysterious mentor called Socrates. The application of Eastern wisdom to inherently Western problems of material attachment and perpetual unhappiness was nothing new, but the real-world context of this particular narrative struck a chord with me at the time.

Recently, I took a chance on the 2006 movie adaptation of the book, Peaceful Warrior. It’s a mildly entertaining remake with some peculiar casting (Nick Nolte plays a convincing Socrates), but it does home in on the more instructive moments in Dan’s story. Early in his journey as a cocky, overambitious college athlete, Dan criticizes Socrates for doing nothing better with his life than working at a gas station. Socrates, in his wisened, gravelly voice, corrects Dan: “This is a service station. We provide service.” Indeed, he does much more than pump gas — he attends to the needs of his customers, whether it’s an oil change, a windshield cleaning, a tire pressure check, a snack, etc. Service is not defined by the form of service. Rather, the capacity to serve is channeled in many different ways. Dan learns this lesson by briefly working at the service station himself, eventually breaking down his ego to the point where he can productively start down the warrior’s path.

For many of us in the service industry, our respective professional paths are matters of choice as well as of circumstance, and not always tied to a higher purpose. We may jump on a great opportunity, find an arrangement that suits our lifestyle, or simply take what we can get to make ends meet. Our employment decisions might only hinge on two factors: the work (what we’re skilled at and expected to do) and the reward (what we get for our effort).

What we often don’t stop to consider is the service — how well we meet both the unspoken and expressed needs of those we serve. We praise it when it’s great and raise hell when it’s not, but we don’t always articulate what exactly makes good service. In a way, defining good service and how to deliver it is like describing the soft, subtle traits that we admire in someone, like a reassuring tone of voice or a well-timed comment at an awkward moment; to dissect the idea is to somehow rob it of its magic. There are probably dozens of training regimens designed to teach people how to be more customer centered and provide top-notch service, but I think that developing a true service orientation involves a little more than that.

I’ve listed seven aspects of service that I think challenge the notion of what good is or should be. These are just some initial thoughts, with plenty of room for discussion:

1. “It’s not my job.” Who hasn’t heard or said this at some point? It’s easy to believe that doing a good job means meeting a framed expectation imposed by an employer. In some cases, perhaps it is sufficient. Occasionally, straying from a neat and tidy list of job responsibilities is necessary when a pre-defined solution isn’t handy or there’s no one else to hand the problem off to.

2. It means going the extra mile for someone. We have grown so accustomed to receiving the minimum level of attention from store clerks, utility companies, cable providers, and many others, that “exceptional” service actually surprises us. Such attentiveness might be considered a fluke. With the gradual shifts in business from higher efficiency to higher quality, and the impact of companies like Zappos in reshaping customer expectations of service, higher levels of service might someday become the norm.

3. You can fake good service. I really don’t think that’s possible. Good service requires authenticity to be successful, not to mention genuine satisfaction. Hints of insincerity or contempt for the customer always show through.

4. You have to pay more for good service. This view upholds the belief that money and social ranking should dictate how one gets treated in life. Five-star hotels and top-rated restaurants pride themselves on impeccable service, but only for special clientele. Service models tied to the sense of entitlement and exclusivity associated with wealth (ie, “white glove” service) will probably never go away, but they shouldn’t promote unfair or unequal service across the board.

5. It costs more to deliver good service. On the flip side of #4, companies may make financial investments in hiring better qualified people, contracting the design of more effective processes and workflows, and incorporating newer technology with the intent of improving service. These measures can certainly help when done right, but investing time and energy in understanding people and their needs would probably yield more insights with less expense.

6. Service is about transaction. A plain old job is about transaction, but service is always about a relationship — a human connection over a shared concern. Good service creates a positive experience that a) makes you feel good about your decision to interact with a service provider, b) makes you want to go back again, and c) makes you want to tell everyone you know so they can have the same experience. The idea of “doing business” with someone fades away when value is tied to what you share, not to what you get from each other.

7. Service matters less when it’s not face-to-face. At some point in our history, it became acceptable to lower the standards of customer service when it shifted to call centers, interactive voice response systems, e-mail/online forms, live chat, and other faceless channels. Now social media are expected to fill a customer service void created by the proliferation of devices and constant connectedness, but the promise and the reality are miles apart. One recent case of poor customer service on social media drew attention from the press, but there are probably many similar cases where a social presence did less to serve customers than it did to satisfy a social strategy checklist. Social media are pervasive and ubiquitous, but I’m not sure they succeed at being personal and responsive where it really matters.

There is yet no replacement for direct human contact. We can’t reproduce the empathy, rapport, and basic feeling of being heard that the presence of another living human being in front of us can provide, nor can we convey the nuance of communication through our many growing channels. No surrogate technology can deal with our messy lives, unpack our clumsy ways of expressing ourselves, or guide us to an answer that solves our problem or just makes us feel better.

We have a lot more work to do to humanize our interactions, but it won’t take more incentives, training, and intermediary channels. Service is an inner motivation to do good for someone without being told to do so, and without seeking personal gain. Channeling that drive into one’s work is the key to good service because it is a natural extension of oneself. To conjure the Eastern philosophy of Socrates, good service isn’t something you create — it is who you are.


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