1883 Japanese print by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重) via Wikimedia Commons

The shapes of service design

If you like pictures, this post is for you.

I remember in like 8th or 9th grade, in social studies class, when we learned about individualism. In one of our books I remember an image of a Japanese print (because I too like pictures) pretty similar to the one above. It was a big nature scene, an ocean with waves, and only when you looked really closely did you see a tiny little boat with tiny people in it.

1818 German painting by Caspar David Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons

Compare this to European paintings from the same period, the textbook claimed, and you’ll see a big difference—royals, aristocrats and a few regular people depicted larger-than-life in relation to their environments. Individualism, visualized.

I think it’s interesting to apply this same scrutiny to the kinds of illustrations we create as service designers. I started to get curious about this when I realized that a lot of service design diagrams were all looking the same: a little comicbook person in the middle, and around her, an orbiting halo of touchpoints (mobile phone, service representative, web page, et cetera) to represent her interaction with some service.

A person surrounded by a halo of icons. From a presentation at UX Week 2011

Another common one is the left-to-right journey map, which shows the little comicbook person in the top left corner, making her way from left to right through various service touchpoints.

Two individuals moving from left to right. From an ongoing project in the UK to improve emergency room services.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about these standards. In fact, they’re great at helping service providers adopt a more people-centric stance. Having images of humble users right there at the decisionmaking table is a very good thing for organizations that have prioritized other things and let customer needs slide. Power to the people!

That said, I’m still curious how playing around with these classic shapes could make services better or more imaginative.

A slide on design’s expanding contexts from industry titan Bill Moggridge. Note the assumed starting point- the individual

Why do we default to certain shapes? What are some other ways to depict services? If we get more creative with the way we diagram, would our services in turn be more creative, and maybe even less individualistic?

If we flip around our drawings, could we flip our thinking along with it?

This is especially important when talking about designing for social impact. A lot of socially-oriented design projects (healthcare, finance, education) sincerely aim to connect people and empower whole communities. I think a lot of idealistic designers today (myself included) are fans of the idea that collectives of people working together (as opposed to individuals in isolation) can help tip the scales of power in favor of those who have less.

Just in case anybody was wondering.

Enough talking, let’s look at more pictures. I thought I’d put forth a few ideas of alternative “service design shapes” to get your imagination going. I’d love to see more examples of unusual shapes and ways of structuring design illustrations. Please share yours with me.

Alternative shape #1: the inverted circle

In this image, the user and his touchpoints go around in a circle. The API is at the middle.

This is an illustration I made when I worked at the Cooper Hewitt museum in the digital labs department. I’m sharing it because I haven’t seen any other technical illustrations that incorporate a user’s journey through service touchpoints using the shape of a circle.

I chose a circle shape here because:

  1. The point of the drawing was to explain to museum staff and decisionmakers what the API does and why it’s central to the visitor experience even though it’s invisible.
  2. The “pen” is a piece of museum-owned hardware which has a lifecycle of its own. The diagram illustrates the lifecycle of that hardware (each pen is lovingly erased and charged at night for re-use).

Alternative shape #2: the landscape

Troubleshooting the museum visitor experience, by showing the museum lobby itself and the various people in it (this one’s drawn by me)

I also haven’t seen many other service design diagrams that take a snapshot of a scene and annotate it with notes on various touchpoints. It’s common to see plain snapshots of services, like a shiny architect’s rendering of a new bus terminal with happy people breezing about their transfers and ticket purchases, but rarely are these annotated with service design details.

I found that this shape lends itself really well to a drilldown on “pain points” which was the purpose of the above diagram. It made a team discussion about troubleshooting service problems a bit more lighthearted.

Alternative shape #3: The pyramid

Illustrating the system of capitalism from a critical viewpoint. The pyramid shape emphasizes the idea of unfair hierarchy.

Another shape that lends itself well to the illustration of a system: the pyramid. Putting human figures into a pyramid form has almost instant political connotations — and not usually good ones!

Illustrating the museum’s ‘tech stack’ in a way accessible to non-techies.

If your goal is critiquing an unjust system, or showing a hierarchical relationship among inanimate actors (as in a tech stack) the pyramid is a good one to have in your visual artillery.

Alternative shape #4: the web

A generic web diagram

I haven’t seen a good web diagram for service design yet! I would love to do one myself (get in touch to commission one) or if you know of one, send it to me.

The web shape has the power to deeply change our view of services.

It moves us toward de-centering the individual and focusing instead on communities, ecologies, and other forces bigger than any one person.

We are all interdependent. We all depend on infrastructure, social services, our employers, our families, and more. Even if you were to hypothetically go off the grid, hunt your own food and make your own fire, who’ll take care of you when you turn 89? No man is an island.

I’d like to see more service designers playing with the web shape as a way to illustrate our interdependent social reality and more importantly, to make our self-image better reflect that reality.