Urban Technology at University of Michigan Week -33
Service design + voting
This week you can’t not think about voting, so let’s lean into it. But what does voting have to do with urban technology, you ask? It’s a perfect example of service design or, in the case of the US this year, the extent to which a service like voting has not been designed coherently. We’ll take a closer look below. If you’ve had enough vote talk for the week, skip to the Links at the bottom.
I’m Bryan Boyer, Director of the Urban Technology degree at University of Michigan. This newsletter is about cities, technology, and design. While we launch the program, we’re detailing the process of working toward the day when we welcome our first students. Thanks for reading. Bop the button below if you know people who would enjoy this.
🗳 Try Voting in the US and You’ll Wish for More Service Designers
Voting is enshrined in the law of the federal, state, and local governments (and, it must be said, subject to attacks through those same means). In an election year, advertisements and public service announcements show up, aimed at informing citizens about where and when they can have their say. The actual vote can happen in a handful of different ways, including in-person ballot casting as well as mailing in absentee ballots or dropping those same ballots into special drop boxes.
If you go to a polling place, you might be arriving to a building that you have little experience with, like an unfamiliar school somewhere in your neighborhood. Navigating from the front door to the room where voting occurs is hopefully easy, but not without some effort by poll workers to put up temporary signage. Inside you will be asked to show identification—were the requirements communicated to you clearly and accurately in advance? Is it easy to mark your selections? And after you drop off your ballot, are you able to follow its progress? Do you get any kind of notifications that it has been received and counted? How do you find out the results?
The paragraphs above describes voting as a type of service which Lara Penin, author of Designing the Invisible, calls “the soft infrastructure of society.” Riding the bus is a service that helps you get across town. Utilities like energy and water are services that make your home comfortable. Tinder is a service that helps you find a date. Mail is a service that helps you communicate. Enjoying a meal at a restaurant (or via delivery) is a service that helps you find nourishment and joy. Creating services is the practice of designing everyday experiences.
To connect this back to last week’s look at designing interactions, service design is the art of connecting multiple interactions into an overall experience. If interaction design is about the instrument, service design is about the orchestra.
In Lara’s book she interviews Birgit Mager, cofounder of the international Service Design Network, who says it more clearly:
“Service design is the activity of choreographing people, infrastructure, communication, and material [components] in order to create value for the multiple stakeholders involved.”
How does one do that? It starts with creating a map of the status quo experience, called a “journey map.” Below is an example of what such a map looks like in the context of veterans’ experience, from the work of Public Policy Lab (disclosure: I am on the board). A map like this makes something as complicated and intangible as assisting veterans become more clear so that a group of people can work together to improve it. Look at the timeline closely and you’ll see that it spans from the moment someone joins the military until their death, so this is a broad length of time that’s being considered. Interactions tend to be fleeting. Services are persistent and users typically have multiple interactions with them at different points in time and physical contexts.
If an interaction designer spends a lot of time with wireframes and mockups, the service designer’s basic tools are the user journey, service blueprint, and the ability to facilitate conversation and help people work together.
Returning to voting as the example, voters participate in a service (voting) where they contribute something of value (opinion) and receive something of value in exchange (a say in who leads the community/country). Voting is experienced over a series of physical touchpoints (advertisements, polling booths, ballot trackers, etc), via multiple channels (mail, online, in person), created and managed by myriad stakeholders (voters, civil servants, voter education non-profits, political parties). The effort of making sure all of that work adds up to more than the sum of its parts? That’s service design. To the extent that people feel voting was a pain, that’s because the service of voting wasn’t designed. It has instead been shaped by disconnected decisions or, worse yet, decisions that are intentionally disconnected with an intention to fragment and complicate the voting experience.
Let’s not pretend that design can “fix” or erase politics, but it can and should be part of whatever the US does next to make sure that future votes are more smooth than this one. When that happens, service design abilities will be among the most necessary.
🗺 Where is Service Designer Applied?
For a small business, like a restaurant, the service they offer is essentially synonymous with their business itself, and so the line between service design and entrepreneurship can be very blurry. Plenty of entrepreneurs are good service designers without even knowing it.
When it comes to large organizations, like a city government, services are knitted into systems, like the way bus transportation is part of a larger network that might include trains, paratransit, micromobility regulations, parking, and so forth. In that case it’s often an executive, director, or chief something-officer who has the responsibility to make sure that everything works coherently, and thus many civil servants operating in those roles are also fantastic service designers because of their deep experience and care for outcomes.
In the context of technology, service design is applied through teams like the Service Design Studio in Philadelphia's City Hall who help make government more responsive to people. Director of the studio, Liana Dragoman, has been building capacity there for years and it’s exciting to watch her work grow. A similar group can be found in New York. At a national level, Singapore and the UK (among others) use service design to improve government technologies.
Inside a private company like Uber or AirBnb, work that looks like service design is often called “product management.” Product Managers are the “CEO” of the product and they hustle to identify market opportunity, conceptualize the product itself (like a new app), and coordinate the engineers, designers, and business people needed to collaborate toward making a new app or major feature. For example, if AirBnb launched a new service called AirBunny-n-Bunny that let you borrow a rabbit for the weekend, the product manager is the one who would see that (not so) brilliant idea from start to finish.
When any of the folks above need help, they might call professional service designers, where there’s a growing field of design studios who consult with the public and private sectors. Firms like Idean in Helsinki, Fjord and IDEO with offices around, and non-profits like Public Policy Lab are great places to be a service designer.
☔️ File under Everything Is Connected. COVID impact to air travel has resulted in less accurate weather predictions.
🔋 Battery supply chain issues are causing issues for Tesla. Will automative giants be able to overcome these challenges? The link points to a good video summary of Tesla’s problems and battery supply chain in general. h/t Andrew Salzberg
🌉 Follow the US Open of Bridges to determine the Best Bridges in America. Also on Instagram. Next let’s do a bracket for local NPR morning show jingles. Stephen Henderson’s Detroit Today is going to win.
This week: De-murking the murk, un-mucking the muck. Rewiring admissions to make the process more straightforward. Almost done. Curriculum. Working on an animation! 🏃♂️