value the intangible

I wrote this on my holiday in Morocco (so long away now), and it also features on Engine’s website.

There’s a large open space in the centre of Marrakesh. There are no buildings or beautiful architecture, no fountains, no wildlife or breathtaking scenery. Without people, the Djemaa el-Fna is just an empty, dusty city square. Recently this space was declared a World Heritage Site.

During the day, entertainers, storytellers, dancers, musicians and artists arrive and set up their pitches as far as the eye can see, as audiences begin to gather round. Every evening, temporary structures are erected and suddenly a vast open air kitchen and restaurant is in place, at least for the next few hours.

Unesco described it as a ‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’.

It is usually not the physical, tangible elements of a service that are responsible for generating the bulk of an experience. Buildings, interior spaces, products and uniforms are props for people – the users and providers – to interact with and within. However, these elements are all often in place before roles and responsibilities of people are defined, staff are consulted, re-trained or even hired.

People can make an experience in any context, and completely transform it. Communities of residents can make a vast difference to quality of life in an area. Flash mobs go head-to-head with the dialogue of physical spaces, often subverting it using surrealism.

Understanding and investing in people can create a world-class service even without a venue (mobile phones, Facebook). The key to producing effective services is co-creation: the immersion of all kinds of users through the design process. Beyond consultation, co-creation seeks to design with users to develop ideas and prototypes for testing and roleplay on the journey to delivering a service.

It’s an interesting exercise to imagine a service as the Djemaa el-Fna, stripping away everything apart from the people and what roles, prompts and relationships they have with users and to ask yourself whether you are making the most of the power of people.