In services, things are for the welfare and well-being of other things. Through performances and affordances they they fix shortcomings and shortfalls, leading to the the enhancement and enrichment of those paying for the service.

However, things have a finite capacity. During performances and affordances, they spend their superpowers and surpluses. The electricity charging the kettle, at the same time can’t charge a phone. The stock on a store shelf that fills one shopping basket cannot at the same time fill another thing. When a washing machine works on a load of laundry, it consumes water, electricity and detergent. It also consumes a bit of itself because of wear and tear, depreciating in value like mileage on a vehicle.

Even if the asset itself is durable, performance and affordance are consumable because time is a perishable. Which is why airlines find it difficult to offer a refund to passengers missing a flight. A bike locker storing and protecting one bike, may not be able to do the same for another at the same time. Things have opportunity costs.

Since things spend their superpowers and surpluses for the benefit of other things, there should be some form of compensation, incentive or reward. At the very least, there should be goodwill. Between the washing machine and the load of laundry, goodwill may exist from both assets belonging to the same household. There is no need for a financial payment. Hotels often have their own laundry operations to handle large volume of linen. At laundromats, goodwill is replaced by coins, notes, or pre-paid cards. Wi-Fi connections are available free of charge at airports, cafes, and trains because people pay for other stuff. Wi-Fi is on goodwill.

Which is why arrangements between things require agreements between people. Customers are those with things in need. Service providers are those with the things in deed. The outcome of every service has a payoff and a payment. The payoff is in the form of enhancement and enrichment for the customer. The payment is to compensate the service provider.

Services as a set of promises

Every service is a set of promises for a job to be done. Each promise covers motivations, expectations, arrangements and agreements. The motivations and expectations are from people and things. The agreements are between people and the arrangements between things.

Together the promises set up the performances and affordances that fulfill needs as and when supply engages demand. The engagement defines the experience each side goes through, and the fulfillment produces the outcome each side gets. Engagement leads to fulfillment, and experiences lead to outcomes. Thus, every service is a set of four promises.

  • Demand for performance, or the task to be performed
  • Supply for performance, or the activity that performs the task
  • Demand for affordance, or the need to have access to a resource
  • Supply for affordance, or the resource made available for access

Each promise is itself a subassembly of four parts covering the prospects, the potential, the actual and the material, or quite simply the matters of who makes the promise, why they make it, how the promise is kept, and what each side goes through to keep the promise, and what they get.  Below is a rough sketch of the concept of service in graphical form.


When services fail to meet expectations

Why do some services succeed where others fail? It comes down to the promises being made. Services are a set of promises made by two or more parties on two sides. These promise need to come together to be kept. This coming together of all the different parts is not without uncertainty and risk.

The whole is other than the sum of its parts ~ Kurt Koffka

A service is other than the sum of its parts. That is, it can be less than or greater than the sum of the four promises. Each promise as itself as a whole is other than the sum of its four parts: Who, why, how and what, or prospect, potential, actual and material. Thus every service has 16 elements or logical parts (or thoughts as per the fourth order of design) making even the simplest of services a complex system. Through dialog and interaction the various elements of supply and demand influence each other, co-producing the performances and affordances that produce the outcomes and experiences.

When any one of the 16 parts fail, one of the four promises fail, one or more of the promises fail. That means a failure in demand, supply, performance or affordance. That means the service as a system fails.  Therefore, it’s not only possible to approach the design of a service from a systems perspective, it is also necessary. That makes systems thinking useful in the design, development, and implementation of services.


Why thing-centered design matters

To improve the design of services it is important for us to better understand why services fail. To understand failure, we need to be able to ‘see’ the systemic structures and behaviors that make any service a whole that is other than the sum of its parts. In doing so we’re able to better grasp the reality of what services are as objects of design. With autonomous vehicles, AI, cryptocurrency, and the Internet of Things, the universe of services continues to expand in new and unexpected ways, and with it the problem space for design, with new types of failures.

The precepts of human-centered design may be necessary but not sufficient to design for new futures. Not as the boundaries become blurrier than before between humans and machines, and between the tangible and the intangible. The precepts of thing-centered design may therefore be a timely addition to form a stereoscope of sorts with human-centered design, for design teams to be able to see with new levels of clarity and depth what it is they’re designing when they’re designing services.

2017 definition of what services are

Services are agreements between people and arrangements between things. Things are tangible or intangible. People are humans or machines. They agree on how performances and affordances (arrangements) produce the outcomes each side gets, and induce the experiences they go through.


Book abstract; feedback welcome

(Below is the abstract of the book I’m writing, titled “Thinking in Services”, to be published in June 2018 by BIS Publishers, Amsterdam. Please let me know what you think).

Services are part of the daily life of individuals and organizations. A day without paying for or providing them is inconceivable. They come in all shapes and sizes, and some we don’t even notice until something goes wrong. [With this book you can create your own field guide]. Too small to notice, or too big to fail, changes in technologies and societies are making the universe of services expand faster than ever before, and with it the challenges and opportunities for design. [This book is the Hitchhiker’s Guide].

New kinds services and new modes of failure expose customers and service providers to new kinds of costs; the unexpected, unpredictable, and unacceptable kind. [The book shows how to cope with the uncertainty and risk embedded in design]. That’s why, more than ever before, we care about the design of services we pay for or provide.

But perhaps we don’t understand services as much as we think we do. That limits our understanding and appreciation of their design. [Imagine physics before Niels Bohr’s atomic model]. Even simple services are complex in nature because of the way supply dynamically meets demand, in physical and digital spaces, across which humans and machines try and have meaningful dialog and interactions. And, while discipline of interaction design is more advanced than ever before, the thinking is still limited to the surface layers of touchpoints and interfaces. [This book helps you go beyond, with systems thinking for service design]. This book provides a universal model for services, and a new way of explaining their structures and behaviors through the language of design [Design thinking for services].

This book introduces a simple and elegant framework [based on a 4×4 grid called ‘a 16x frame”] for developing news ideas and concepts for services; for critically evaluating their designs; and for developing today’s solutions that don’t create tomorrow’s problems. So, whether developing a customer journey map, that could be particularly complex, or negotiating a billion dollar service contract, that somehow must leave all parties better off, this book shows how with bit of creativity and imagination, we can systematically get it done, frame by frame. [The book teaches you how to “read and write” a 16x frame, and provides 16 examples from across industry and government].

Design implements policy and strategy. Therefore, it requires effective collaboration between functions and disciplines that (unfortunately but understandably) speak different dialects of engineering, finance, and operations. Not just that, most projections of the future suggest humans and machines need to communicate with each other about design. Therefore, with inspiration from biology and computer science, this book introduces [what could be] a basic language for service design.

Four types of stakeholders in services

Every service has four types of stakeholders, whose interests define the outcomes and experiences, and give shape to the contract.It is these stakeholders you’re designing for. Payers and enterprises are entities that define the outcomes. Users and agents are personas that define the experiences.

Four types of stakeholders and how they’re related

In general there can be 1…N entities and personas on each side of the service contract. In the simplest cases there is exactly one entity and persona on each side, as in the case of the a single-person household hiring someone who is a solo act to clean the house, or fix the plumbing.

payer:user :: agent:enterprise (entity:persona :: persona:entity)

In the most complex cases, there are multiple entities and personas (NNNN), as can be found in government services paid for by taxpayers, made use of by other taxpayers, operated by a collective of government agencies, who employ civil servants to deliver the service.

1 1 1 1

1 1 1 N

1 1 N 1

1 1 N N

1 N 1 1

1 N 1 N

1 N N 1

1 N N N

N 1 1 1

N 1 1 N

N 1 N 1

N 1 N N

N N 1 1

N N 1 N

N N N 1


Entities and personas are driven by their respective motivations and expectations.  It follows that there are can be up to four different sets of motivations and expectations. There are two sets when users are the payers, and the agents are the enterprise. For example, Peter pays Paul to cut his hair. Paul is a fantastic hair stylist and a solo act. He promises and then he delivers. Otherwise there may be three.  From a design perspective, even if their interests aren’t in direct conflict, it’s problematic enough if they’re not incongruent. The more divergent they are separate, the greater the agency problem.

The agency problem will be lesser, since the agent acting in their own self-interest will still be acting in the best interest of the enterprise. The problem in the case of an incompetent, irresponsible, or unethical agent, there is no recourse with an enterprise. Also, such service providers being so dependent on usually a single person, are usually unable to assure continuity or scale.

The good news is, there is less likely to be a conflict between the motivations of the buyer and that of the consumer, assuming people know what they want. Negotiations can be quick and simple, not consumers have just as much the right to be fickle-minded or unsure. It is easier to get consumers to check a box and click to accept a service agreement without reading the fine print.

Humans or machines

Entities and personas can be human or machines. By machines we mean autonomous agents embodied in hardware and software, capable of projecting both presence and intelligence, capable of dialog and interaction, and vested with responsibility and authority. 2017 saw the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning, both, in the consumer and enterprises segments of markets such as healthcare, transportation, and financial services.

















Say something

For selfish and unselfish reasons, close the loop. It is critically important to give service providers feedback on the quality of their service, even if it’s awkward and inconvenient, and especially when they don’t ask. Why? Every piece of feedback is like pixel being updated. The service provider gets a more complete and updated picture of the design of their service may be lacking. The picture emerges over time and changes as the service encounters new challenges and opportunities. Services are complex products that even when designed, take time to evolve in way that is more continuous than the manufactured product. Services are products of materialization.