There’s a video that we often use in lectures on service design. It’s a film about a door that people keep trying to pull instead of pushing. It’s a perfect illustration of a communication problem. The door handle says “pull me”. And that’s what people do, and then the door screams “push”, by just not opening when you pull.

Now, it is a justified question to ask what this has to do with communication. After all, there isn’t a sign saying push or anything like that. But like Elon Musk has said, “if a product needs a user manual, then it is already broken.” And signs saying push or pull are essentially user manuals, giving instructions in words, which by definition is already inefficient because it requires people to think. But people only start thinking when the first reaction is wrong.

Consider your last visit to the grocery store. You know where stuff is so you go in confidently, knowing that you’ll find what you need. It is only when you are hopelessly lost that you glance up at the signs where you are, and then you look for the signs describing what’s in each aisle until you find what you are looking for. What you regularly won’t find inside the store, is the layout map of the whole store, showing where stuff actually is. That map is conveniently placed by the front entrance of the store, where no-one looks at it, because you know where you’re going. The communication for where stuff is in the store is not based on how and when people need information, but instead presumes that people are rational and think first and do later.

Do first. Think later.

RTFM* is a much used acronym in the service call desk industry. It is the main reason why people have problems with products and services. Simply put: people don’t first read the manual and then try to connect their TV to the internet. Instead, they’ll try to connect the TV first, and when that doesn’t work look at the manual. And often they won’t be able to understand the manual because it was written by engineers for engineers and doesn’t help the rest of the 99% at all. So they’ll call the help-desk, where a trainee engineer wonders how the customer was ever able to operate the phone, to call the help-desk.

It is human nature to presume that your existing experience is enough to get you through new experiences. And when that doesn’t work, you’ll look for help. Which means, that the signs saying that your existing experience isn’t enough and you should read the manual first, weren’t clear enough. Again, a communication problem.

For example, to learn to drive, you need to be taught. Because the first time you get behind the wheel and get the car moving, all of your previous experience with moving machines (bicycles and mopeds and skateboards) are completely irrelevant. Without very clear guidance, you are likely to wrap your parents’ car around the nearest telephone pole. Which is why the process of getting driver’s licence are well established and clear. The communication that “you can’t just wing it” is adequate. And the ones that didn’t get the message fortunately compete for the Darwin award and remove themselves from the gene pool.

Design services for humans, that think they know

Designing services and products, you have to presume that the user presumes that he or she knows what he or she is doing. Consequently, if the use of the service or product actually requires new knowledge, then this should be incredibly explicit. And if it isn’t, then the fault lies with the manufacturer or service provider, not the user. This applies to everything from the new DSLR camera to a tourist’s ability to use the automatic ticket vending machine for the public transport system.

Communicating clearly to the new user, what you should know before you start, would radically improve the customer experience in many areas. Because it isn’t the fact that some products or services are complex, but rather that expectations of the users weren’t managed properly, that irritates users. Misunderstandings are frustrating. They make people feel inadequate, because they weren’t warned in any way or form, that “you won’t be able to use this ______.” Depending on whether the service or product is important, the user then will either upgrade their knowledge / understanding or simply choose something easier to use.

Manage expectations = have happy customers

The customer experience is 100% dependent on whether the product or service manages the expectations of the customer effectively. As a customer of McDonald’s you won’t be discouraged to walk into Burger King. You think the service is broadly the same and you’re likely to be right. So the expectations were managed by the customer’s previous experience. Which would lead one to presume, that most burger joints are similar. So if you were to launch a completely different burger joint, you’d have to make sure to manage the customer’s expectation of this explicitly, because otherwise they’d just be disappointed and not buy anything. So at the end of the day, it is again “just” a communication problem.

However, there’s a twist. Don’t manage expectations with instructions and signs. Manage it by building the experience in such a way, that it guides the user from his / her presumption to a new reality seamlessly, so that you build their experience one step at a time. Look at it as an on-boarding process, where every step leads logically to the next one, without overwhelming the user with too much information too fast about something they don’t even know if they like yet.

(And, if a sign is absolutely necessary, it should tell people where to start. Not micromanage the process. Like a sign for the restroom.) For more insight, check out this article.

* Read The (impolite expression referring to coitus) Manual

Never before has the world felt so uncertain. In some cases, and businesses, the past year has brought the future to the here and now. Remote working, which was in many industries frowned upon, is now a given. Government services that presumably just weren’t possible online have gone online. Delivery services have multiplied like mushrooms after the rain and everything that can be packaged is now available online, if it is available at all anymore.


On the other hand, competition online is more like an oriental bazaar, with everyone shouting out their sales pitches at the same time, instead of the orderly communication and traditional advertising that we used to get offline. On the first glance, many products and services seem incredibly alike and being able to tell the good ones apart from the bad ones is a real challenge. Furthermore, in an era of accelerating technological innovation and information flow, it is a real challenge to ensure that your product or service is actually fundamentally different from your competitor’s. Especially since most companies are keenly aware of what their competitors are doing, presuming also that they must know something more, and then copy whatever it is that the others are doing.


More and more we fall back on an adage that we’ve used since Brand Manual’s founding in 2009: most companies are saying the same thing about the same thing at the same time. Quality is not unique anymore and more features just make choosing harder. However, talking about and delivering quality is easy and adding features seems logical and therefore that is, what is done. However, for customers who are literally bombarded with information (most of which is irrelevant) more choice is debilitating, not liberating.


What does your customer actually value, from what he or she buys from you? Surprisingly, many companies and organisations simply do not know. The presumption is – quite logically actually – that since whatever they are making is also currently selling it must be what people value. And, again quite logically, since the sales are growing, making more of the same or similar stuff, must be a good idea. And since competitors are also doing it, then what could possibly go wrong?


Where is value created for your customer? Professor Noriaki Kano way back in the 1980s defined that every product or service competes on three levels. The first level is the hygiene factor. This is the level where the product or service does what it says it does. A car drives. Planes fly. Winter jackets keep you warm. Grocery stores have a wide variety of groceries. Hygiene factors are the basics, without which you would not be considered at all. 

The second level includes linear factors. Cars drive faster, are more efficient, cheaper, have more features. Flights are cheaper or connect faster. Winter clothes are warmer or lighter or better made. Groceries are fresher, more organic or cheaper. Linear factors are understandable in the sense that more is more, or less in the case of price. You know what you pay for. They are rational. 

The third level includes delightful factors. These are the reason people come back. What they really value above and beyond what they actually pay for.

The hygiene, linear and delightful factors beautifully correlate to Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle theory of what, how and why. According to Simon, all companies know what they are doing. Making cars. Flying people. They also know how they are doing it. The processes, the machinery, the production. However, the question of WHY they are doing it, is often undefined and after a longer time in business, unclear. WHY is related to the delightful factor, which is one of the key reasons for customer loyalty. This requires a different outlook. Why do you come to work on Monday? What is the purpose of your existence?


What will the future look like? Who knows. But as long as companies and organisations follow each other instead of looking to understand what the customers actually value about them, the future will always be a fog. As professor Theodore Levitt famously posited, “people don’t want to buy a quarter inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Similarly, in most cases, they don’t want what you make but rather what they get from it. To acquire this knowledge requires a focus on where the value is actually created for customers, not where the company makes its money. This shift of focus from what you deliver to what customers actually hire your product or service to do for them is something that requires companies to rid themselves of their most basic presumptions and step outside their internal echo chambers.

While we have all heard and read a lot about political and social echo chambers in past tumultuous years, we have often failed to recognise the biggest echo chamber of them all: our own organisation. After all, people working together towards a common goal will inevitably start thinking alike at some point. Furthermore, our own confirmation bias naturally makes us look for data to back up our own conjectures. The only way to challenge our own biases is by going to the source and finding out what actually matters, and is of value, to our customers.


The only way to stop saying the same thing about the same thing at the same time as your competitors is to find out what do your customers actually value about your product or service. This means going outside the echo chamber and your own confirmation biases to talk to customers in-depth. You will find out a lot of what you already knew, but haven’t acted upon or didn’t consider relevant. You will also find some things you never thought about, that if you start acting upon them, you can clear up the fog of your future. You will also find out, that in most cases you are not as important to your customer as you thought you were. Which is actually a very good starting point to answer the “why” question and start delivering on the delightful factor, which keeps your customers coming back to you. Best of all, you’ll stop following your competitors and start following your customers, which is as Jeff Bezos pointed out, the reason for Amazon’s success.

Learn how your organisation can harness design thinking and service design. We train a lot of companies. Either through SD4X, the Design Masterclass, or directly. Drop us a line.

One of Brand Manual’s co-founders, Dan Mikkin, has decided to move on. After exactly 12 years, his vision of Brand Manual has grown apart from that of the rest of the partners. We respect his decision and are very happy to have had him as one of the co-founders of the first service design focused company in Estonia.

What started as a boy-band in 2009 has grown into a company of independent and diverse teams, each with its own superpower, helping to make our clients’ businesses better one at a time. Our recent change in structure, into independent teams, has paid off. It helped us all overcome last year’s isolation challenges and contributed significantly to grow the business in our Maastricht office.

Brand Manual will continue to stay loyal to the original path of service design and branding. It is not often that co-founders exit the company. However, this year we are also welcoming a brand new partner amongst us — our long-time co-worker and digital genius, Mihkel Virkus, is now officially a co-owner of Brand Manual. Hooray!

Change is good.

Change is the perfect opportunity to grow our business and welcome new talent to make Brand Manual more diverse, fun and competitive both locally and internationally. Reach out and drop us a line, if you think that we are good enough to challenge you with interesting work!

If you design a city for healthy young people, then it is accessible for healthy young people.

If you design a city for people in a wheelchair, for people with poor hearing and eye-sight, for elderly and infirm people, then it is accessible to everyone.

After all, accessible by wheelchair also makes it more accessible for skateboarders and parents pushing strollers and bikers. Safer for the elderly (who maybe can’t see or hear so well) also means safer for small children (who don’t pay attention to dangers around them).

The above doesn’t seem like such as stretch. It doesn’t even change the cost of design too much. Making places wheelchair accessible, for instance, doesn’t make construction more expensive or cheaper. Just different. In fact, modern cities are built more and more around this principle and it does make the city a more vibrant and fun place. For everyone.

So far so good. 

Online doesn’t play

However, the online the world looks very much like the city built for healthy young people. If you are not comfortable using digital tools, if you can’t read small, low-contrast text, if you are not sure of what the red button does, then you can’t play there. 

Online accessibility is a problem. The same way stairs with no ramp option are a problem. 

Technical support

In my family I am technical support. On a daily basis I see how hard it is for an elderly (but sharp and modern) person to navigate all the different platforms, softwares and hardwares, to participate in online life. Tech support from the hosts of different environments is all geared towards explaining tech to the tech-savvy. But to an 83 year old, it is all greek.

The difference between a URL, a website, an online bank and a homepage is not obvious. Neither is the need for different user names and passwords (that you need to remember) and two factor identification based on social security numbers and an app in your phone. And then there is the password to your computer, the user name of it, how that relates to your computer app store account (or doesn’t), how that is connected to your phone (or isn’t). Add on top the need for multi-tasking in various softwares and communication platforms during online meetings, and a person that is a little bit afraid of technology because she isn’t comfortable with it, and you have a recipe for confusion and aversion. In the worst case scenario, it ends with the person not participating at all in online discourse.

The online world is not accessible to people uncomfortable with tech, the way a stair case is not accessible to either a parent with a baby carriage or a wheelchair bound person.

Designed by the designer for the designer

As long as the design of things and services and environments is done mainly by healthy males, then there will be an inherent bias towards making things work well for healthy males. This is discriminatory towards women in general, because everything from the way a seat-belt works in a car to the size of smart-phone is based on male proportions and physiology. But it is especially descriminatory towards young and old and non-typical people in every way. In short: stairs everywhere.

Online accessibility = offline accessibility = accessibility

The online world has to be as accessible to everyone, as the offline world. Ramps and automatic doors and flat surfaces and benches to rest on and so on. In the real world, it starts with putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and trying to access a building in a wheelchair, or cross a road as an octogenarian, or open a door as five year old. In the online world, it also requires a bit of empathy to imagine and work towards making the site work for everyone. Fortunately there are also online tools, to help ensure accessibility for all.

A checklist to consider for accessibility improvements includes:

– language settings (especially for multi-lingual countries)

– enabling visual indicators (for keyboard enabled navigation)

– preparing the site for screen readers (allows you to listen to websites)

– preparing your site structure (a clear hierarchy of text, that can be toggled through in the right order)

– images and galleries with descriptions (for screen readers) for the visually impaired

– text and graphics that are clearly discernable, with legible fonts and type sizes

– reduced motion (less things that move around and are fancy)

– Videos, audio and documents made accessible (videos with transcripts etc)

– Adding an accessibility statement to your site, with a feedback loop, so that users can help you improve.

Just as design for inclusion isn’t common in the real world (but getting better), it is also missing in the virtual world. However, as we move more and more online, there is a real risk of leaving many people behind if we don’t make a concerted effort to bring them along. Making sure your online presence is accessible to all, is a good step in that direction.

If you want to know more about this, or human centred design in general, get in touch with us.

Service design projects or inititatives often suffer from two contradictory ailments: lots of enthusiasm and little team structure. Enthusiasm is necessary as the people involved are put into unfamiliar situations and asked to do counter-intuitive things. But doing this without team structure means, that in the long run the project will fail as presumptions about who does what and when overtake enthusiasm as the driving force.

If the team doing the service design work survives the invevitable re-adjustment of team member roles and responsibilities, they will run into the same problem again as the designed service moves from prototyping to implementation. As the design team is always much smaller than the actual organisation being re-designed, the roles and responsibilities of the whole organisation need to also be re-designed and communicated.

Because service design always impacts the larger organisation, because it always creates organisational change, it also almost always faces resistance within the organisation as roles and responsibilities are redefined and reassigned. This is one of central aspects of service design and design thinking and also one of the main reasons why service design initiatives fail.

The Service Design for Executives course (, which Brand Manual helps develop in cooperation with Tallinn University, Stockholm School of Economics in Riga and Maastricht University, has as its central theme (and main homework task for participants) to document and understand the impact of service design on the wider organisation. How redesigning the customer experience and organisational innovation processes necessarily change the way the organisation itself works (and has to work) in order to meet and exceed the needs and wants of all stakeholders. 

As a long-term member of the Service Design Award jury, the discussion about the submitted projects has also produced a number for the above described source of failure. Only about 20% of service design projects (as discussed among jury members) end up being implemented. Which conversly means, that 80% of service design projects fail. Experience suggests, that the reason projects fail is because the organisation wants to achieve different results but hopes to achieve them by doing the same thing it has always been doing.

In smaller businesses, achieving organisational change is relatively easier. Often all stakeholders are directly tied to the company and driving change can be done within the context of daily business. However, in public services or large enterprises, where the the delivery of an improved service requires multiple organisations to work together, that may have different mandates, follow different regulations and face different obstacles, achieving the necessary organisational change, is notoriously difficult. Furthermore, as such initiatives for implementing changes are often also (partially) driven by period funding, the initiative often withers when the funding dries up or the political priorities change. On the other hand, when these services really do change for the better, the impact is far greater than just that of a company having happier customers and a fatter bottom line.

Achieving lasting change in complex ecosystems, such as helping school age children from being held back due to social and financial inequality, requires different organisations, from education to health care to social support to work together. However, as all parties tend to have a full days work already everyday, changing the system creates more work that reduces everyone’s motivation to participate. Without being able to define the team and team member’s roles and responsibilities, achieving the transition from “as is” to “should be” is almost impossible. Furthermore, as this change has to be benevolent rather than coercive, it requires on some level, a vision and determination to achieve change. Which brings us to the third critical aspect of service design and achieving real improvements for stakeholders: senior management support and buy-in.

In our practice, where senior management was disinterested or sceptical of service design (and a qualitative approach to organisational re-engineering), the initiative eventually always fails.

In order to successfully implement change throughout an organisation, to work differently and to deliver different and better results to all stakeholders, requires clearly defined roles and responsibilities, authority and backing to try new things and the support to implement them, when they are proven to work. To do this, the RACI principle works very well, in providing the necessary understanding of who is responsible for what, and avoiding the situation where everyone, and consequently no-one, is responsible for the end result.

RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. On the high level, it divides responsibility for doing something and providing the resources to do something in two. This means, that the person that is Accountable for getting something done has to provide the resources to the person Responsible for doing it. Resources are both time, money and authority. This way the person doing it has a source of redress, if they cannot get something done because they were delegated responsiblity without authority and resources. In short – in order to get someone to dig a hole, that someone needs a shovel and time to dig the hole. One without the other doesn’t work. If it is a complicated hole, they also need help to do it. Those are the people who are Consulted, who have the needed skills to dig the hole, whether knowledge or muscles or time etc. At the end of the process, the hole isn’t there to be a hole, but rather to put something into. Which means that there are people who need to Informed that the hole will be dug / has been dug and something else can happen now.

Service design to be effective requires three things:

If you are missing one or the other component, then go back one step and make sure you have all three. If you find yourself put in a position to design a better service but don’t have the explicit support of leadership of your organisation, a team to work with and understanding of who does what, then our advice is not to touch the project at all. It will fail.

Stephen Hawking called the 21st century the “century of complexity.” The past year certainly confirmed that hypothesis as normality exited stage right and negative became the new positive. There can no longer be any question that we need to be ready to adapt to change. The only question remaining, is “how?”

Future researchers have determined, that in order to effectively adapt, both individuals and organisations have to develop three key skills: preventive actions, ability to change and agility.

Preventive action is the ability to notice the weak signals of coming change, Taleb’s so called black swan. Moreover, it is important to recognise the most likely future scenario and understand the change with the biggest impact, which Michele Wucker referred to as the grey rhinoceros. Various action strategies need to be put in place as soon as possible to help you react more quickly, as the future runs down the door.

Ability to change refers to the skill of turning unexpected change to your advantage. For organisations this means leaving behind presumptions and pre-defined futures and instead accepting constant change as an opportunity for renewal and growth.

The third key skill is agility. This requires organisations to be ready to experiment and quickly change course. The latter is best served by teams that include T-shaped people, with skills and experience from a very broad spectrum disciplines.

How to support the acquisition of these skills is not obvious. What do you do, when you don’t know what to do? How to recognise change? How to handle irregular and unpredictable situations? How to constantly renew without burning out? Finding answers to these questions is what service design is good at. One particularly useful tool in the service design sandbox is the design sprint.

Recently we saw how the design sprint helped diverse, unfamiliar teams address future challenges in just a few days. We applied the design sprint within the first week module of the Service Design for Executives course (SD4X), where 25+ participants from Estonia, Latvia and the Netherlands worked on a real client brief inside a two-day window.

The brief was delivered by the Port of Tallinn, one of the busiest passenger ports in Europe. They challenged participants to find solutions, how to design a functional, democratic and organic public space within the context of the redevelopment of the harbour area, that would attract both locals and tourists alike. The re-construction of the area has barely begun and is scheduled to be completed in 10 to 20 years.

For the design sprint, participants were divided into six teams and each team worked from the point-of-view of a concrete persona type. The brief was the same for everyone: 1) define the key criteria of a welcoming harbour area of a city, 2) find solutions that make the area attractive for the user type and validate concepts with users and 3) propose solutions that could also serve as attractions during the construction period. The participants were pressed for time to find user group representatives and conduct interviews, to clarify the key traits of the personas, describe their user journeys and propose validated and tested solutions to the Port of Tallinn, that would make the area attractive to that persona.

The managers of the Port of Tallinn rated the design sprint results very highly. “Thanks to the broad life experience of the participants as well as the tools and methods of service design, a wide range of interesting and viable concepts were presented that also included very international points-of-view. Although participants were focusing on different user groups, a lot of commonalities still cropped up as needs of all people: accessibility, public transport, food, socialising spaces and activities for children, amongst others. More challenging ideas such as light shows combined with digital wishing wells, port side sauna and swimming (also in the winter!) pools, construction viewing combined with AR / VR tours of both the past, present and future were also presented” commented Piret Üts, business manager, real estate.

The course participants themselves appreciated the desing sprint experience very much. They particularly highlighted the importance of talking to users, rapid and constant testing of concepts, trusting the process even when you don’t know where it will lead you, the inherent strength of a diverse team, the pain (and satisfaction) of adapting to unknown situations as well as keeping the big picture in focus as you delve into details.

The feedback from the participants reflects exactly the reasons why the design sprint methodology works so well. It suits situations that require compact solutions through co-creation, rapid prototyping and qualitative testing with users. Just as the experience in the course showed, participants were able to deliver concrete results within two days, that the Port of Tallinn can now continue to work with. And let it be mentioned, that the paricipants had no prior information about the design sprint topic nor did they know each other beforehand.

Service design helps identify and focus on root causes, which increases the likelyhood of not being run over by the grey rhinoceros. This requires your organisation to become comfortable with future scenario planning in a constantly changing environment. 

The service design course, Service Desgin for Executives (SD4X) has been created by Tallinn University, Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, Maastricht University and Brand Manual. Starting in January and ending in August 2021, 25+ executives from very diverse organisations will go through the entire service design process from contextual analysis to problem definition, prototyping and validation. Participants in the program include organisations such as exela, ROC Gilde Opleidingen, Cicero Zorggroep, Sharewell, Rimi Baltic Group, VISTA college, Telia Eesti, Rimi Eesti Food AS, PKN ORLEN, PRIVA, Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, Statistikaamet, Rimi Latvija, Cabo Verde Airlines, GroeiFabriek, Eesti Töötukassa, Riga Airport, Sogeti, If Kindlustus, VIRŠI, The program is supported by Erasmus+.