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Designing Delivery by Jeff Sussna

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In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt included a proposal for national health care as part of his presidential campaign platform. Nearly 100 years later, in 2010, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. The legislative process was highly acrimonious. After the law’s passage, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives spent the next three years trying to repeal it. Even now, the law continues to face ongoing legal challenges. The Supreme Court has ruled on its constitutionality once, and likely will be called on to do so again.

The law included two key provisions: citizens could purchase health insurance through state or federal marketplaces, and they would need to buy insurance by the end of 2013 in order to avoid financial penalties. Late in 2013, the government rolled out a website through which people could access the federal marketplace. Its initial release was an unmitigated disaster. The site suffered from pervasive performance and usability problems, security issues, and outages.

Critics immediately blamed a lack of testing. Further exploration, however, uncovered more fundamental issues. Some of those issues were inherent in the nature of government IT procurement. Siloed project management made it difficult for anyone to understand the overall goals or requirements. Various parts of the project were contracted to different vendors. Each vendor worried about its own deliverables. No one took responsibility for integrating the pieces into a working whole. To make matters worse, the Democrats had spread chunks of the project across unrelated budgets in order to hide them from Republican defunding efforts.

No one realized just how critical a website would be to one of the most ambitious and contentious government programs of the past 100 years. The IT vendors involved in the project assumed it would just be another anonymous, behind-the-scenes effort. Government IT projects failed all the time; generally speaking, no one knew or cared about these failures. As a result, no one made the connection between the project’s structural problems and the potential severity of their repercussions.

The spectacular fashion in which this failure became public reflects HealthCare.gov’s position as the most high-profile example of a defining trend in twenty-first-century society. We are entering the age of the digital service economy. Fewer and fewer of our daily activities happen without some kind of digital component. We interact with these components through services that companies and governments operate on our behalf. Software-as-a-Service is becoming an indispensable part of ordinary life.

This trend shines a very bright spotlight on IT’s purpose and its role within the organizations it serves. No longer can we treat IT as an invisible, isolated activity, hidden in the back corner. The quality of the digital systems we build, and the way in which we build and operate them, ascome critical to organizations’ ability to function and to serve their customers. When every business becomes a digital business, IT becomes inseparable from the rest of the organization. It becomes the very essence of how businesses operate, and how they interact with customers.

In the post-industrial service economy, customers engage with brands through digital conversations. Brand quality becomes inseparable from operational quality. People’s experiences with HealthCare.gov, for example, have tainted their opinions about the Affordable Care Act as a whole. IT thus needs to transform itself from a tool for operational efficiency to a medium that enables high-quality conversations between companies and customers.

The HealthCare.gov fiasco illustrates the need to broaden and deepen our definition of IT quality. That definition, and the techniques we use to achieve it, must reach further than just software functionality. They need to become an integral part of design, development, and operations. They need to concern themselves with service, not just software. Ultimately, our understanding of digital service quality must transcend the confines of IT, and become a mirror that helps the entire service organization empathize with its customers in order to help them solve the problems they face in their daily lives.

Customers judge service quality based on the entirety of their experience. They view usability, functionality, and operability as inseparable dimensions of service. They expect to be able to engage with services coherently over time, across multiple touchpoints. They expect digital brands to deliver services that:

  • Address the customer’s entire journey across all its touchpoints

  • Are available whenever and wherever users need them

  • Adapt over time to meet users’ changing needs

  • Improve over time by learning from failure

HealthCare.gov’s initial release didn’t fail just because it didn’t function well. It failed because it broke its promise to its users. That promise wasn’t just to let people find and purchase health insurance. It was to help them navigate a situation of urgency, stress, and confusion. Given the contentious environment in which the website was launched, combined with the deep impact of health insurance on people’s lives, the site’s implicit brief included the need to educate, calm, and reassure. Its design, functional, and operational problems all contributed to its failure to keep that promise.

Users don’t care about websites or IT systems. They care about their own goals. They hire services to co-create value by helping them accomplish those goals. People don’t log on to HealthCare.gov or complain when it doesn’t work because they want to sign up for health insurance. They do it because they want to be able to run a small business without worrying about being able to afford medical care if they get sick. Or perhaps they just want to minimize their costs and avoid federal penalties. In either case, their goals involve important, emotionally loaded personal needs such as health and finance.

The true definition of quality isn’t how well the software works but rather how well the service helps its customers accomplish their practical goals and satisfy their emotional needs. Service providers must address quality across all dimensions of service delivery, including the internal processes by which that delivery happens. The entire organization must align itself with users’ goals. Only when it has a holistic understanding of itself and its relationship with its customers can an organization successfully co-create value with them. The government’s fractured approach to HealthCare.gov illustrates what happens in the absence of shared understanding and cross-functional collaboration.

Twenty-first-century service providers face a conundrum in the quest to help customers satisfy essential personal needs. On the one hand, they make promises to their customers about providing continuous quality. On the other hand, the human and technical systems they use to deliver these promises are increasingly complex, uncertain, and failure-prone. Digital service organizations must understand how to deliver certainty on top of uncertainty. Quality becomes a matter of resilience rather than stability. Ensuring quality becomes a process of managing the relationship between certainty and uncertainty. It requires the ability to continually achieve success in the face of failure.

The need to continually transform failure into success is not restricted to technical systems. The design of services is a process of continual repair. No matter how well we design something, we can’t fully judge its usefulness or even how it will be used until real customers engage with it. Co-creation implies that users contribute to defining solutions through using them. In the process, they generate new problems for designers to solve.

A service provider’s ultimate promise is not just to deliver a specific set of capabilities but rather to continually design them for and with customers. When brands become digital conversations, design and operations merge into a unified, never-ending cycle. Especially given the increasingly disruptive nature of the global economy, the ability to continually adapt to changing customer expectations becomes ever more critical to brand quality. Continual co-design with customers also implies continual organizational self-design. IT’s new mandate is thus to maximize the fluidity of both internal and external conversations.

This book introduces a new, transdisciplinary approach to digital service that can help companies improve customer satisfaction and create positive brand experiences. It shows readers how to unify their approach to quality across front-office and back-office functions, and technical and business perspectives. It helps IT leaders understand how to transform their role within the organizations they serve. Conversely, it helps other business leaders understand how to engage with IT, and what to expect from it.

The book presents the need for an integrated, continuous approach to brand and IT quality, and the path to achieving it, in three parts:

  • Part I describes the transformative effect of twenty-first-century, post-industrial society on business, and in turn on IT.

  • Part II presents a new definition of quality that reflects the needs of post-industrial businesses.

  • Part III introduces a unified approach to designing and operating services that can help twenty-first-century businesses maximize the quality of their digital conversations.

At its heart, service quality is about making and keeping promises to customers. Service promises cross disciplines and organizational silos. Keeping them requires shared understanding and collaboration between marketing, design, development, QA, operations, support, and management. Service providers need a unified way to understand the explicit and implicit promises they make. They need a way to measure themselves against those promises and to maximize their ability to keep them.

Continuous design is a methodology for identifying, keeping, and repairing service promises. It unifies practices and perspectives from cybernetics, service design, and promise theory. By bringing together these techniques, continuous design offers a coherent approach to achieving continuous quality across all its dimensions.

Cybernetics is the science of adaptive, feedback-based control. The name comes from the Greek word for steersman. Cybernetics takes the view that control in complex environments must be conversational. It requires not just action but also listening and adaptation. To steer a boat across a lake, you can’t just ignore changing winds and currents; instead, you have to use your tiller and sails to adjust to them. The cybernetic model of control is thus circular: decisions about quality, success, and where to go next depend not just on how well people carry out their intentions but also on how the environment responds to them.

The cybernetic model of control underlies modern IT methodologies such as Agile, DevOps, cloud, and LeanUX. When combined within one another, these methodologies transform IT into a conversational medium that allows businesses to steer in response to continually evolving customer needs and market demands. Through self-steering, they can continually change and adapt while at the same time maintaining their brand’s essential identity.

Service design applies product design techniques to the design of everything from services to organizational processes. Its fundamentally user-centered approach redefines quality in terms of desired outcomes rather than features. Its emphasis on holistic interactions over time and across touchpoints emphasizes the view of service delivery as a co-creative journey. Its grounding in design as a creative practice enables exploration and discovery.

Service design expands the scope of design beyond being purely concerned with user interaction. In the process, it helps create customer-focused alignment throughout service organizations. It also raises design’s horizon to address the service delivery process itself as a first-class design problem. By doing so, it lets IT organizations continually improve quality by adapting their technologies and practices in response to organizational and market dynamics.

Promise theory describes human and technical systems as collections of autonomous agents that collaborate by making promises to one another. The use of the word promise represents the uncertain nature of complex systems. By their nature, promises aren’t always kept; sometimes they get broken. Making uncertainty explicit allows us to account for it, and ironically, to achieve greater certainty as a result.

The word promise also emphasizes the centrality of service and relationships. We make promises about things we believe are important to beneficiaries about whom we care. We collaborate as necessary in order to keep our promises. Promise theory thus encourages a focus on beneficial outcomes rather than organizational structures or implementation details.

Promise theory directly relates to brand quality. A brand represents a promise to help a customer achieve a desired outcome. People’s opinions of a brand reflect the history of the promises it has made, kept, and broken. Promise theory provides a concrete mechanism for understanding and managing the promises that actualize a company’s brand. Its unified view of certainty and uncertainty helps brands approach promise keeping as a process of continual learning and repair.

Cybernetics, service design, and promise theory intersect at the point of empathy. In order to accurately steer your response in conversations with customers, it’s necessary to understand the motivations driving their side of the conversation. In order to design truly user-centered systems and services, you must respect the integrity of the user’s perspective as different from your own. In order to make the right promises at the right times, you must understand which outcomes are meaningful and why customers care about them.

Empathy as the ultimate driver of brand quality is the fundamental theme of this book. Empathy allows service organizations to see themselves from their customers’ perspective. It shifts their emphasis from attachment to their own products to attachment to how useful they are in their customers’ eyes. It shifts their conception of their underlying business process from one of creation, delivery, and management to one of listening, responding, and adaptation.

Continuous, empathic design is the most fundamental competency that twenty-first-century businesses need. Quality in the service economy is a dynamic, relational process. It depends on the ability to continuously deliver customer benefit. Complexity and disruption generate ever-shifting markets and user needs. Service delivery thus becomes inseparable from service and organizational design.

In order to converse with customers and the market, digital businesses need to apply continuous design to themselves as well as the services they provide. Co-creative service value depends on internal as well as external adaptability. In order to keep customer promises, the components of a digital service organization also must keep promises to one another. Design becomes operations, and operations becomes design.

IT’s new mandate thus includes empowering organizations to continuously redesign themselves. The cybernetic, circular nature of digital service implies that customer and employee relationships continually reflect one another. The methodology presented by this book strives to help organizations pursue inner and outer quality as mutually reinforcing aspects of a seamless whole.

This circular interdependency also applies to IT itself. In order to transform itself into a medium for useful customer conversations, IT needs to rethink its role as a delivery mechanism. Enabling the delivery of continuous design becomes its core purpose. In order to fulfill that purpose, IT also needs to continuously design itself. Like any other part of a post-industrial organization, IT needs to develop the ability to adapt not just what it does but also how it does it.

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