Touchpoint Magazine Article: How Human is Your Organisation?

This article was published in the international Service Design Network’s Touchpoint magazine in October 2010.

From handier tin openers to more intuitive interfaces, the ability of design to humanise ‘things’ is well known and understood. Services, however, in spite of being provided by people in direct contact with users, are often de-humanised by measurements and policies set at an organisational level.

Top-down directives intended to increase revenue, efficiency or measurability can actually undermine experiences for staff and users, and de-couple what organisations aim to achieve from what their users want.

Following are three examples for bridging this gap illustrating how service design can meet such organisational challenges. It affirms that by transforming the front line you can liberate staff, unlock innovation and provide users with the experiences they demand to help ensure that the bottom line looks after itself.

Customer and Organisational Needs

Service users have fundamentally different needs from consumers of products. They seek individual experiences that bring touchpoints and channels together. They require direct interaction (and often human interaction) with the providing organisation.

Organisations inevitably need to divide tasks between departments and as such, develop roles and incentives to keep each of its components moving, employing automation and standardisation to boost efficiency.

These differences in needs and behaviours can cause a gap to appear, diminishing the user’s experience and in turn an organisation’s fortunes.

De-Humanised Services and Market Stalinism

A fixation on operations and efficiencies can mechanise and de-humanise services. Siloed departments can quickly create bureaucratic hoops for customers to jump through. While customers seek customization, longer-term relationships, and largely measure experiences on qualitative grounds, organisations often consider success in quantitative efficiencies and short-term ROI.

Key Performance Indicators would seem to be a happy medium, but can become subverted by target setting and the shortcuts necessary to achieve them. The minutiae of how to achieve something becomes an end in itself, obscuring and even detracting from why you’re trying to achieve it in the first place. Mark Fisher calls this effect Market Stalinism’ [1], after the USSR’s White Sea Canal project. The primary goal of allowing access for large cargo ships and tankers was hijacked by target squeezing, box-ticking and PR concerns. The result was a glorious media review of an efficiently completed canal, delivered on time and budget, but in truth it was only deep enough to accommodate the small tourist steamers on which the journalists sat.


Market Stalinism at work – Wherever you hear these signs.

Market Stalinism at work – Wherever you hear these signs.

The above example may be humorous, but this phenomenon is visible from small-scale interactions to life-or-death scenarios.

Gill Hicks, who was injured in the London Tube bombings of 2005, spoke at the NHS Innovation Live conference last year. She explained how it was those who broke the rules, and the moments when rules were broken, which meant the most to her recovery. From rescue paramedics bending resuscitation protocols, to hospital staff later sneaking her out of the ward to a nearby playground to improve her psychological well-being, small moments of individual initiative that did not adhere to organisational rules helped her recovery immeasurably.
Although organisations need to have safety procedure and focus on the bottom line to maintain profits and value, being rule-bound can often have the opposite result.

The cost of dissatisfied users is a damaged reputation and a long time spent trying to win their confidence and custom back. By tying the hands of staff with policy, pragmatism, common sense and innovation are stifled and even discouraged.

Re-Humanising Services

Service Design is the vehicle for uniting desirable user experiences and outcomes (bottom-up needs) with operational necessities and efficiencies (top-down needs). Below are three examples illustrating how organisations can be transformed from frustrating empathy-void automatons to empowered, adaptive, innovative helpers.


1. See the design process as an end in itself:
Lewisham Housing Options

Co-creative activities during the process can be as effective as the final deliverables themselves, in establishing the right culture to sustain a service.

Lewisham Housing Options – Transforming services by engaging staff in the design process

ThinkPublic and the Design Council worked with Lewisham Council to understand how they could better serve constituents who required housing, some of whom were in distressed situations and housing emergencies.

Staff members were all given a camera, some training and then went about interviewing people who were waiting for or had just had their appointment.

Through the direct experience of gathering data, footage and insights, the staff were taken away from their desks, databases and forms. Being re-connected with the situations, fears and hopes of those they serve every day, they began literally to see things through a different lens, asking different questions and getting to the heart of customers’ problems in a personal, human way.

2. See services as constantly in “beta”:
Passenger Personas

Transferring tools and knowledge through workshops, training and method sharing is an often-overlooked activity. It greatly improves the sustainability of a service by equipping front-line staff and management with the tools and processes to improve and evolve the service.

One European airport group has an established protocol for understanding and improving their passenger experience.

‘Greeter’ staff are on hand to help and direct passengers as they arrive in the terminal. At quiet times, this staff put themselves in the shoes of a passenger persona, select a destination, and set off through the airport identifying gaps in wayfinding, accessibility or even maintenance and upkeep. Issues are dealt with swiftly, making the job more satisfying for staff and the experience more pleasant for passengers.

Embedding design and empathy tools creates a strong link between an organisation and its users, ensuring needs are understood. Empowering those who have the grass-roots knowledge of a situation to take action to fix problems means solutions are more informed and services are built coherently, not on an ad-hoc basis.

3. Refrain from imposing common sense guidelines:
Just A Routine Operation

Generic guidelines inhibit staff from trying anything new or different. They cannot best serve individual customers, nor fulfil their role as ‘silent designers’ – observing and changing the system incrementally.

Just A Routine Operation from thinkpublic on Vimeo.

This documentary, created for the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, follows a man’s experiences during the sudden death of his wife, who suffered complications after a minor operation.

Rather than encapsulate what was observed through the film into another ‘framework for communications protocol’ or a ‘critical situation checklist’, the film has simply been screened to 2,000 NHS staff. By more directly experiencing the situation the staff can draw their own conclusions, which mitigates the need for ‘guidance’ because skills and empathy are developed more directly.
To those who may balk at a lack of control, consider Nordstrom, a US department store renowned for its customer service. Until recently, its staff guidelines consisted of just 75 words, including:

“Rule 1: Use best judgement in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” [3]

This laissez-faire approach has empowered Nordstrom sales associates to go to the extremes of customer service. By increasing autonomy and lightening the touch of administration, barriers to common sense, ideas and action are removed, enabling a culture of innovation.


By using Service Design to address organisational challenges, you can create direct and dynamic links between operational necessities and what users want are created, reducing waste and increasing demand.

How well this is done is most apparent at the ‘front line’ where staff and users interact. Organisations need to trust and support the people they hire, so that they can efficiently provide effective services that are meaningful and desirable to people. That is true return on investment.


[1] Fisher, M (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (esp. p39, 43)
[2] Just A Routine Operation (2008, Thinkpublic)
[3] Spector, R. (2000) Lessons of the Nordstrom Way
With thanks to Thinkpublic and Sean Miller for case studies and images.

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