The Road to Service Design & the Future with Leah Buley

Leah Buley is an Adaptive Path alum, the author of The User Experience Team Of One: A Research And Design Survival Guide, and a keynote speaker at this year’s Service Experience Conference. Adaptive Path’s Jessica Striebich chatted with Leah to learn about her talk at #SXConf16, her career trajectory, and her perspective on the evolution and current state of the service design field.


  • From being a design practitioner to an analyst of design industry and practices
  • Defining service design in the context of the user experience field
  • Understanding maturity and measuring design impact and within organizations


Jessica Striebich (JS): I’d love to hear about your career trajectory. I’m curious about where you started, how things have unfolded, and what you see happening next.

Leah Buley (LB): I’ve been in this field for, I don’t know — it’s going to be 20 years now basically. I started out as a front-end developer. When I was in college, I learned a little bit of code for an English class, actually, and then when I graduated into the job market it was like, oh, that’s probably the most immediately useful skill that I have right now because I had a typical liberal arts degree.

So I was a front end coder for a while. I realized that what interested me about working in the digital space was the opportunity to package and present information in a way that made it comprehensible for people. So I went back to school and got my masters in library science with a specialty in information architecture.

So I was doing all that stuff in-house for probably five years before I started to realize I didn’t feel super confident that I was a really great designer. I was churning out a lot of UI design work but I didn’t feel like I always had a lot of confidence in where my decisions were coming from. They weren’t always informed by really good, deep research, they weren’t informed by an MFA level of design theory. I worked for these companies and I was like, “Hey, you know, there’s this really cool topic, information architecture, human computer interaction, we can do usability testing,” and they were like, “Ah, that’s kind of interesting but not really a big priority for us.” So that was when I was like, okay, I’m gonna look for a new job that’s really gonna give me exposure to a deeper level of human-centered design.


And that’s when I joined Adaptive Path actually, and I was such a fan girl. It was just like… my life is going to change. And it did totally. You know this because you work there — it’s such a spectacular team of people. Folks like Brandon Schauer and Jesse James Garrett, they were so generous with their wisdom and their time and helping to expose me to processes that I hadn’t known about or participated in before. And the caliber of clients. It was an education just to get to work on these really toothsome, sort of nutty design problems that weren’t just your standard UI design.

JS: It’s a very rich experience as an employee.

LB: Completely, yeah. And I really love the AP kind of three-legged stool of practice — you know, good practice and project work but then also thought leadership and education and sort of trying to lift all boats in the field by sharing what’s coming out of the practice. It was this really productive cycle of helping me to just begin to let myself have bigger questions about the value of this field, and where the field is going.

I was at AP for four years. But while I was there, companies seemed to behave so strangely and irrationally. When you’re on the consulting side, you don’t have enough visibility to understand why they’re being so irrational, so there were a lot of times where I felt like we did great work and we’d go into the conference room and the client seemed to love it. And then they would do things to the work afterwards.

JS: They make these other decisions.

LB: Right. Exactly, exactly. And so that’s when I decided that I wanted to go back in-house but with a perspective that enabled me to continue to think about the bigger value of design as opposed to just going in to do UI design. I wanted to see what happened when the designers leave the room.

So Intuit was perfect for that because I was in the central design group. In companies that are trying to get design-centric, it often starts with this strong central design function. Then that central design function pollinates the business units, then as the business units get stronger at design, the need for central becomes less, so it sort of starts to starve off the stem, which is not bad. It actually means the whole mission has been successful. But it’s hard — and it’s sad when you’re in the middle of it.


LB: After being at Intuit for a while, I found myself at this crossroads where the obvious trajectory was to try to grow as a design leader and try to, you know, move up that ladder. But then there was this other trajectory which was that I loved the writing, I loved the thought leadership. I’m so curious. I’ve seen things from the agency’s perspective, I’ve seen this bigger value of design and growth of design but from the perspective of only one company, Intuit. I wanted to see how this stuff is happening across industries, you know?

I always loved Forrester’s research and thought there was a lot of smart stuff there, and I discovered that was another path that I hadn’t even realized I could take. It was such a fascinating experience to go from being a design practitioner to an analyst of design industry and practices. Basically what you do when you’re an analyst is keeping tabs on change in industries over time and doing a mix of quantitative and qualitative research to empirically prove out what is happening and what organizations should do about it.

JS: I’d love to hear more about what you’re up to here at Capital One. People keep mentioning something about measurement.

LB: So, I left Forrester about six months ago. I decided it was time to go out on my own after fantasizing about it for a long time, and the work that I’m doing now is a mix of continuing custom research and analysis (sort of in the vein of what I did at Forrester), consulting work with organizations around organizational capabilities and best practices, and training and events-related stuff. So the Capital One work is in that consulting bucket. The particular focus of this work is essentially helping put together tools and resources for Capital One designers to use measurement to demonstrate their impact to the organization.

JS: Cool!

LB: Yeah, it’s fun. It’s really — it’s an interesting project. What’s interesting is obviously businesses use measures to make decisions. The design field — and the experience design field — has historically adopted a stance which is like, we really need our business partners to understand the value of more qualitative, less measurable insights and data…

JS: The fuzzy stuff.

LB: The fuzzy stuff, which we do for sure. But I think by over-indexing towards that perspective we’ve fallen into a situation where there’s actually a real gap in our ability to be credible quantitatively about how we do design work and what the impact of our design work is.

It kind of gets back to like that fundamental question of how am I confident that I’m making the right decisions thing, from way back earlier in my career. What’s interesting as you look across the industry, is there really aren’t great best practices anywhere. I have not encountered in my research any company that’s got it figured out.

JS: Are there any measurements around internally facing efforts, like whether employees are benefitting from it and feeling more fulfilled?

LB: That’s a great question, yeah. Totally. That’s something where the customer experience community is actually a little more on top of it because there’s been a lot of analysis that shows that employee satisfaction measures and employee confidence measures are indicators of the quality of the customer experience, too.

Your question is astute, though, because what I’m finding at Capital One which is measurement means something different to everybody, no matter who you ask. For some people it means how do we prove that our experiments are successful and that this design is better than that one? For some people it means how do I keep track of whether my design organization is healthy and I have enough resources. To some people it means how do I connect the dotted line between NPS and business impact, and all those things are actually totally legitimate things you could measure. Then it’s a question of what you measure and why. So that’s kind of what we’re looking at.


JS: Tell us more about your talk, “The Future of Service Design”. Do you have anything you can preview?

LB: Service design is actually a discipline that lets you truly think across the end-to-end experience and across the digital and non-digital divide. My talk will cover some of the research I did that really looked at what the practices of service design providers are today, and how they are different from user experience design as well as customer experience.

JS: How do you go about investigating that?

LB: We did one big quantitative study of service design providers — primarily agencies — and got a lot of information about the kind of processes they use, the touchpoints they primarily design for, the kinds of industries they primarily serve. Then based on the results of that self-reported data, we did statistical factor analysis to understand the underlying concepts that anchor a particular service design provider to a certain approach to service design.

But the paradox is really where service design is going right now — it’s moving strongly towards digital design. If you look at the conversations that are happening around the professional communities for service design and conferences that we have, every year it gets to be more and more about what we design for digital. I did an interview with Fjord when I was at Forrester and they self-brand strongly as a service design agency. I asked, “What would you say is the percentage of digital product projects that you work on?” The answer was 70 to 80 percent, and they said, “You know, but we bring a service design orientation.” So there is this really interesting paradox such that if you say you’re doing service design and you have a strong orientation to doing digital, is that a problem?

The reality is more of service design in the future will be digital because more of business in the future will be digital, so it’s not the touchpoint that’s the issue but it’s the orientation you bring to the touchpoint that distinguishes it.

Join Leah to learn more about the future of service design at the Service Experience Conference on November 03–04 in San Francisco. Leah will be joined by a line-up of premier leaders in service design and workshop teachers with practical take-home tools and know-how.