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

You go to a restaurant. Order everything on the menu, because you don’t know what’s good. Taste everything. And pay only for what you like. Doesn’t sound reasonable, does it?

In the world of public tenders, especially for ambiguous topics, such as design, this appears to be common practice. Often these tenders expect participants to do a lot of the creative work, for free, just to see if the buyer likes it. “The tenderer submits a concept of the creative solution, which includes five creative examples and visualisations”, “the task of the test is to create a new design for an existing voter application” while “the payment for a fee [for the work] is not justified.” These are real quotes in response to payment queries held in the Public Procurement Register during the past few weeks.

Man eating many courses and paying just for coffee

There are multiple reasons why this is wrong

Firstly, it is unethical. You cannot ask someone to do a job for free in the hope that, if you like it, you’ll pay them. In any case, all the other participants will be left with incurred costs and nothing to show for it. A lot of effort is just wasted. In the current crisis situation, where governments have promised to support companies and professionals, who because of the lock-down may not even be able to exercise their profession, asking for free spec work is plain cynical.

Secondly, there are no winners in this game. How can you compare the quality between paid and free work? Often, public procurements tend to be very bureaucratic and full of demands, that are neither negotiable nor very clear. The result is that participants are required to invest even more time to read between the lines and find additional information, to understand the actual needs and goals of the procurement. If this is unpaid work, the motivation to really get it right is limited.

Thirdly, the “let’s see what we like” approach to judging just the visualised drafts combined with the least expensive bid, often finally leads to a poor solution. What looks “wow” often doesn’t work very well and is a recipe for bad results. Designers will invest as little effort as possible to win the tender, not to do the work right. The customer will end up with a mediocre solution that was bought by ticking all the right boxes, but doesn’t compare at all to having done things the right way. At the end, everyone loses. The buyer loses. The tenderer loses. And the tax payer loses. Which is all of us.

However, complaining is easy so we decided to see, if we could fix this problem

During the Global Hack a small team from Brand Manual worked on a solution for this and created Tenderly. Tenderly helps procurers (whether they be public or private sector) to really think through the whole tender. With the support of helpful questions, they describe the actual problem to be solved and the context, in which it exists, the needs and pains of the target group and tangible deliverables they expect.

tender generator user interface

Based on this, Tenderly helps them set up the right requirements, the design team competencies they need to have for the project, relevant references of the team and the previous experience to look for. Tenderly also guides them through setting up the evaluation criteria so that they can have confidence in the results, that the best proposal wins and that the team behind it really can do the job. No more evaluations on price alone.

For the tenderers, Tenderly provides them a detailed design brief that includes relevant background and contextual information, describes the actual problem to be solved, the needs, pains and what they are expected to deliver, in the end. It helps them “tick the boxes” so that they know, whether they even qualify without making them do unnecessary spec work.

Tender generator user interface

By making tenders transparent with the help of clear evaluation criteria, basing them on team competencies and methodology, Tenderly helps both procurers and tenderers get the right job done right. With fair compensation.

The first in a series of articles, of how to see the opportunities for innovation, that the Coronavirus is laying bare.

Never before has human behaviour become so immediately observable. One of the most vivid images is that of empty store shelves and people panic buying toilet paper in countries where there was yet no public guidelines on what to do, and why.

At least in developed economies, there have to date been no reports of failed supply chains for essential goods, so the action of people is based on nothing more than lack of understanding of what is happening, and what to do about it.

Office workers have been forced into the home office. And many quickly discovered, that home office’ing was OK for a few hours or a day. To do it everyday requires a fundamental rethink about where in the home to work, what chair you need, what to do about the kids that are also at home, and how to handle a work-life balance when everything is happening in a very limited space. Let alone that everyone in the household is using the same wi-fi at the same time.

Food delivery is having a booming moment, where it is available. And grocery delivery, since this is the one thing no-one can avoid. We all need to eat and in essence, the supermarket is where people and virus are most likely to meet. Visiting the supermarket, you can observe people trying to keep their distance while at the same time reaching for the same yoghurt that you were looking at. Body contortions ensue.

Government messaging affects behaviour. Where it is unequivocal and timely, it is calming. Where it is ambiguous or full of bullshit, it causes confusion and sows discord between people who believe different opinions. Which then by default triggers a chain reaction that leads to panic buying of 200 rolls of toilet paper. And misplaced social judgement, as the case of the lady calling out a man with a jumbo trolley full of toilet paper, who turned out to be stocking the shelves, not emptying them.

Similarly, taking into account human behaviour before making announcements can lead to unintended consequences. In Belgium the order to close all bars from the next evening at midnight lead to “lockdown” parties where people gathered, rather than dispersed.

In short, where there is human behaviour and adaptation going on, there is also opportunity. Once we get over our common misery, there will be some temporary changes in behaviour, and some will be permanent. Looking for those changes, that can be continued and improved can create new businesses and improve old one’s. Considering the instant and positive impact the reduced mobility of people has had on the environment, it really shows what collective action can do. Could we maintain this positive environmental effect once we all come out of quarantine? That would be positive disruptive innovation indeed.

Asking a lot of people for a lot of information doesn’t necessarily mean that it will lead to understanding. How many of us have received requests to answer one or the other questionnaire about our recent purchase / flight / hotel stay / restaurant meal or grocery shopping? How many of us have started out trying to answer the questions honestly until it turns into something like doing work?

And then we just tick the boxes quickly to get it over with. And then we have to wonder, if everyone answers the questions equally half-heartedly, then of what value can these answers possibly be and does the company really base its business development decisions on this input?

In board rooms executives pour over the results of various customer and performance research comparisons. Presuming that these represent some king of truth, decisions are made that have very little basis in reality and that can, in the worst case, affect customer satisfaction negatively. Probably the one outcome that the executives tried to avoid. However, at the end of the day, everything was done correctly and no one is to blame for anything that didn’t exactly go right.

Graham Kenny uses an example of asking people in seminars about how they chose one convenience store over another. The responses from the whole group invariably group into six categories: location, opening hours, selection, presentation, service and price. It is important to note, that everyone in the seminar is a convenience store customer at one time or another. Yet no one single customer could have defined all six factors, because each person could probably only recall one or two recent experiences and what their decision criteria were at that time.

Asking a lot of people through a questionnaire, however, may not lead to this grouping. If it is a multiple choice questionnaire, then the answers are already pre-determined. If they are open ended, then without discussion of what the respondent meant with his or her answer, quite a lot may be lost in translation. And if the questionnaire is long and the incentive to answer low, then the answers will be equally poor quality.

You don’t need more information. You need understanding.

Asking a thousand people for input will give you zero ideas.
Talking to 10 people will give you a thousand ideas.

In-depth customer interviews yield both information and understanding, because the conversations allow you to understand your customers’ motivation for decisions. Uncovering why customers are choosing a particular convenience store or bank or restaurant is invariably much more valuable than the information, that they chose it.

Management often, and incorrectly, presume that in-depth conversations with customers will be very expensive and time consuming and that a questionnaire answered by a much broader group of customers will yield more information. The thing is, there is not a need for a great many interviews. The interviews have to continue until the answers start repeating themselves and usually this is achieved by 5-15 interviews conducted in-depth.

Once the key issues are outlined by in-depth interviews, validation of the key issues through quantitative research provides an additional layer of understanding defining how wide spread the issues really are.

Take it easy. And listen.

Understanding customer input requires empathy and patience. The goal is a deep dive into understanding their motivation and reasoning behind decision making. In order to get real insight from customers, you must be able to put yourself in their shoes, and see the world with their eyes. Furthermore, you have to be able interpret what they are saying into a context that makes business sense. This is especially important when you are working on innovation projects, where the goal is to deliver a new quality or experience to customers. After all, you can’t ask them what they want nor what is wrong, if there is nothing obviously the matter currently. Translating weak signals and amplifying them so they come out of the research is crucial, if you want to capture real insight. This again requires time to listen, to talk and to ask them to elaborate and explain anything that doesn’t immediately make sense. Or you’ll miss it.

The title is a contradiction. If it is unforeseen, then it cannot, by definition, be avoided.

However, as Einstein pointed out, “imagination is more important than knowledge” and that gives us hope, as we are in a creative business. On the other hand, Niels Bohr said that “predictions are difficult. Especially about the future.” So how should a humble service designer make an impact in situations where geniuses fear to tread?

In some ways, the tools are quite simple. The first is a consideration for the environment as a whole. Ensuring that the delivery of a better customer experience doesn’t mean more wasted resources, packaged products and pointless stuff. Secondly, the business model needs to become inclusive for all stakeholders, rather than one serving the other. Thirdly, there has to be a focus on delivering lasting or fundamental value, rather than just transient benefits.

The environment

No news here: there is no planet B and we’re screwing the one we’re on quite royally. The good news is, that the planet and life will survive. The bad news is, that if we humans want to also be part of the great circle of life next century as well, then how we live and consume will need to fundamentally change. This primarily means creating no more waste. Either solid waste or through combustion.

For industry this means embracing the circular economy and ensuring already in the design of products the means for reusing the products. Recycling, up-cycling and down-cycling allow us to consume products without burdening the environment unduly. Moreover, these products are of higher value and, eventually, lower cost than today’s versions, which should be more than enough incentive for business managers to start making a change.

Reducing waste and improving product quality makes for less things and better things. Which can be sold at a price premium, thus not impacting the bottom line negatively. However, it requires a fundamental attitudinal shift, where all industries start valuing quality over quantity. Mindless consumption must end.

Inclusive business models

The gig economy is an interesting phenomenon. Ownership of the service has been decoupled from delivery of the service. AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Bolt, Taskrabbit,, Ebay, PayPal, WeChat, Apple Appstore etc all have one thing in common: those that deliver the end benefit to the customer are not actually employed by the brand. More and more integration and organisation brands are separating dedicated service providers from their beneficiaries. Freelancing, when you cannot control your means of income as you have no direct influence over who is buying and how and when leads to perpetual subservience.

Technology is disrupting more and more professions and futures. What should a 16 year old learn today, which can be beneficial for him/her for the next 10 years? How will he/she re-educate him/herself at age 30 while trying to pay a mortgage? How will work and the work-life balance need to be redesigned, if we want everyone to have a better future on a sustainable planet? Lots of questions. Few answers. But, in the design of organisations, businesses, products and services, it is a start already to just ask these kinds of questions.

(Read also a blog entry from a long-long-time-ago: What will the machines eat?)

Lasting value

The fact is, that good stuff costs money. Crap can be had for peanuts. That’s why junk food is so cheap but real, sustainably made food, is expensive. Of course, junk food isn’t food at all and healthy food is much better for everyone (including the person who eats it:) But why is junk food and cola available everywhere but fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t?

Lasting value is expensive. A proper table sustainably made costs a lot of money initially, but can last generations. By far the cheapest option, in fact, if measured in dollars per day of use. But (in case you read the first article of BM Bulletin #57), this really requires organisational change. Where improving the customer experience is considered from the whole lifecycle of the product as well as customer needs, to change the whole business model how lasting value is delivered by making less things, but better things.

Delivering lasting value, in products and services, really means making better things and convincing customers, that they don’t just need more stuff. It means taking a shot and marketing industry’s need to peddle more to the masses and turn that on its head. Quality instead of quantity.

Responsibility for the commons

The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource through their collective action. It was first mentioned in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd while making his point on grazing land use in England and Ireland.

However, while the commons was then perceived locally, we now know that it is global and interlinks everything. Our actions in our organisations and businesses impact the commons, which we all share. And while it sounds altruistic to consider something that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone, it is in fact, just good marketing. Aware consumers (a group that is growing rapidly) is choosing products and services that do less harm. They choose employers with principles and refuse to blindly follow the loudest voice in the room. So while all of the above is hard to do and requires more than just making money, it is also the best way to ensure that your company and organisation keeps on making money.

The reason most products are alike is that they are the first thing that came to someone’s mind.

Or in some cases the second or third thing, which is invariably still a variation on the theme of the first thing. This is why most cars look broadly alike, most ads on TV (if you still watch that kind of thing) feature a product and a price, and why all our smartphones are slick rectangular slabs.

Now, you might argue that this is because it is an established product (or service). That it is a standard and that deviating from that standard would make it unrecognisable for the customer and therefore a flop. Consequently, the logic goes, developing a product or service that in broad terms is exactly like that of the competitor, is a safe and brilliant idea. After all, why stick out in the market place?

Don’t stop at 1-2-3

Developing a new idea, one that is not just a variation on the same theme but really new, requires you to force yourself to iterate. To not stop when it is comfortable, but to keep going until you are in uncharted territory. This is hard, but rewarding.

Try this exercise

It is called crazy 8’s and we’ve run this in all kinds of workshops with all kinds of people. Take a piece of paper, fold it three times in half and you end up with 8 rectangles. In the first draw and apple. In the second draw a completely different apple. In the third an apple that is different from the first and second one and so on. What this exercise clearly demonstrates is that everyone’s first apple is exactly the same. The second is a variation on the theme and so is the third one. By the fourth rectangle people are generally running out of good ideas of how to draw an apple and start clutching at straws. By drawing a pack of apple juice instead. And then the floodgates of ideas hit them as they realise, it is also possible to draw apple pies, apple trees, apples seeds, happy worms in apples, I love NY symbols and computer company logos.




The thing is, that not everyone can do this the first time. It requires you to be fairly comfortable thinking laterally about things, not just literally. Working in a group with critical colleagues, it requires real courage to zig when everyone else is only zagging. Within a real brainstorming session inside an organisation, when you have only two hours to come up with new ideas, where you have to be “creative”, it might just be impossible to stick your neck out with an abstract concept when everyone else is sticking to safe and proposing a new and better colour for the shoes, that will really make them stick out in the sneaker category.

Forcing yourself, and your organisation, to really iterate and develop a theme until it is only connected in thought to the initial concept, is difficult. However, as the crazy 8’s exercise clearly demonstrates, if you don’t iterate further, then all you’ll do is end up in exactly the same place as your competitors. Because they didn’t push ideas further either, and came up with the same variation of theme as you did.

Same shit, different channel

Playing it safe is the least safe game you can play. While inside your organisation, it affords you the comfort of not sticking out, in the market place the safe play will disappear on the shelf with all the other safe bets. Consequently, since nothing is really sticking out and making a difference, a lot of effort and finances will be spent on advertising the same-old-same-old product in a new and creative but still safe manner of showing the product at a discounted price, making the only thing that is unique about the product how cheap it is.

Since cheap products cannot be really good products (or services), then you need to sell more and more, which drives consumption but in the end creates very little lasting value for anyone. Which will inevitably lead to another “product innovation workshop” where you have to be even more creative to come up with the next new exactly the same product as your competitor, but now in a nicer package.