Design’s power is in its leverage

As we shift from an economy of products to services, the role that design plays, and how it’s situated in the organization, must shift as well.

How It Has Been

In ye olden days, in-house product design was typically organized as an internal services function. There would be a group of designers, and they would receive requests from throughout the business for Things To Be Designed. Designers would then work to deliver on that request, and, when finished, would then move on to the next thing, which could be for a totally different part of the business.

For designers, the upside was that they could work on a wide range of projects, and they got to group together with other designers. The downside was that they were seen purely as tactical makers, with little influence over how business decisions were made. And, because they would work on things for such a brief period of time, it was easy for the members of the product team to dismiss a designer’s suggestions, since designers weren’t seen as being committed to that part of the business the way they were.

A more recent shift, spurred by digital product design, is for design to be decentralized such that there are designers embedded in product teams, working alongside engineers and product managers, and reporting up through that product team. The upside is that designers are included throughout the product development process, their commitment is appreciated, and their voice is taken seriously. The downside is that designers may find themselves working on a fairly narrow problem for a long time, they aren’t easily able to engage with other designers, and they can feel lonely “fighting for the user”.

In a services world, this embedded model features an additional drawback from the perspective of customer experience. Design problems are solved in isolation from one another (because designers on different product teams don’t interact), and so what gets shipped can feel fractured, or “Frankensteined,” as a customer moves through some experience, unknowingly being passed off from product team to product team.

A New Model Emerges

At Groupon, we operate under a new model, one that I’m hearing other digital/internet native businesses are using as well. I’ll call it the Centralized Partnership model, which endeavors to deliver the best of both models, and is suited for the coherent delivery of services.

At Groupon, all design is functionally centralized. Though we technically live in the Product organization, we also support marketing, lines of business, and internal needs. (I am of the opinion that the typical division of design, where you have a design team in marketing and a design team in product, is stupid. In a service world, you design for a customer’s journey, which weaves between marketing and product touchpoints. Those designers need to work together to ensure coherence throughout.)

Though centralized, we are not an internal services firm. We have design teams (Platform Design, Local Marketplace, Goods, Getaways, Internal, Core Merchant, and Merchant OS) that are dedicated to certain collections of products or features. So, our Platform Design team works on anything that underlies the entire Groupon experience, such as personalization, social, checkout, gifting, and user-generated content. Senior members of that design team have partnerships with the product managers of those features. And that team is dedicated to support those features, leading the product managers and engineers on those teams to respect the designers’ views. But by not working from within those teams, the Platform Design team maintains a holistic view of the Groupon customer experience, and can ensure that design decisions across those features are consistent and coherent.

This Centralized Partnership model has an interesting additional advantage, one that took me a while to appreciate. The entire designed output of Groupon flows through this one team. We have around 50 folks in the Design Union (what we call ourselves internally), and they touch everything across the business, interfacing with many hundreds of developers, marketing, and operations people. That’s leverage! We serve as the glue that holds things together. And, often, we’re the first to realize that two different teams, who otherwise aren’t interacting, are working on the same, or related, problem, and need to work together.

The more that design is seen as contributing to organizational strategy, and a competency to be outsourced at a company’s peril, this leverage should prove increasingly influential. We’ll know we’re on the right track when companies fear that design has concentrated too much power in too small a team.

How customer service and Starbucks are killing conversation

One of the defining activities of human beings is conversation. We like to talk to one another, and do it often.

In our interactions with companies, our conversations have become increasingly, and insidiously, scripted. When we call “customer service”, we’re put in contact with someone who has been told how to talk to us, and is discouraged from veering off-script. And when we try to have a human conversation with them, we get what are clearly canned responses (especially if we’re expressing dissatisfaction with a product or service).

Actually, though, we’re now happy to get a human, even if it’s scripted, because the increasingly typical first line of response for a phone call is Interactive Voice Response, where we’re expected to talk our way through a series of menus. Such systems became famous for pissing off customers, and so they were programmed to respond to the use of profanity by getting you to a human. At the outset, this was, in a small way, joyous, because it actually felt like we were being heard. But recently I’ve realized I will swear or yell at an IVR at the outset, because I know it will trigger the system to connect me with a person. Which means I’ve been programmed by IVRs in how to behave. The IVRs have co-opted us.

Many conversational spaces have been shaped in this way. The one that probably irks me most is the Starbucks ordering process, which was broken down by the folks at Dubberly Design. That article lauds this approach as one that works for “beginners” as well as “aficionados” of Starbucks. I find it diabolical, because Starbucks essentially dehumanizes the conversation between the customer and barista, turning it into a programmatic code. For a company that claims it’s all about the customers’ experiences, it’s disheartening how they make the primary interaction between humans one that could take place between robots.

Designers are taught to shape environments and tools to support their users’ behaviors and desires, but oftentimes this leads to over-specifying in an attempt to “optimize” an experience. This leads to static, stagey, and ultimately unfulfilling engagement, where we realize we are expected to play a role, and cannot just be ourselves. The challenge for experience designers is to specify just enough to support a good interaction between customer and company, but also allow for the emergent and irreplaceable spark that can occur between people.

“Service Design” / “Customer Experience Design”

In a recent post to Creativity Online, Jen Bove (who is a friend of mine) posits: “Service design, while often talked about in academia, is getting more and more attention from design companies and service providers, as the impact of experience design has been proven to increase customer satisfaction and brand perception.”

And while I agree that the practice of service design is ascending (slowly), I’m dubious that the term “service design” is getting more and more attention, at least in the United States. In my recent trip to London, I visited with Chris Downs, one of the founders of Live|Work, the UK’s premier service design consultancy. In our conversation, we reached a supposition that the term “service design” has succeeded in the UK and Europe because there have been government-sponsored public sector service design projects which have demonstrated its value.

In the US, our public sector is notoriously bad at supporting good design, so there’s been no public discussion of service design. In another conversation I had with Don Norman (who is currently obsessed with service design), he felt that the term would remain an academic one.

For my blog posts at, I’m talking almost exclusively about service design, but I’ve never used that phrase. Instead, I use “customer experience”, the phrase that’s received traction in the US, and it’s variants “customer experience design” or just “experience design.”