The designs of services have become more important than ever – we depend more on more kinds of services – and therefore the designing of them. Too small to notice or too big to fail, when services fail they have far reaching consequences, affecting even those who do not use them. We have to be less innocent about why services fail to meet expectations, despite the efforts that go into designing them.

Why do services fail?

Because of gaps and conflicts: Something is missing in their designs, or what is good for the customer may not be for the provider. Good design produces superior sets of outcomes and experiences for both sides at the most attractive prices, without false choices or compromises. Developing good designs is hard enough – requiring the most objective modeling of the subjective realities of the two sides.

Even good designs are, over time, no longer good enough. This is due to changes in their market spaces. Customer needs may change, competing services become more compelling, or do-it-yourself more attractive. Good design is hard enough, making changes is even harder. The designs of services are not only live (in operation), improving them requires customers to make changes on their side.

Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions. ~ Peter Senge

As changes accumulate in backlogs on both sides, the push for ‘lean and agile’ implementations often creates new gaps and conflicts. New types of failures invisible on designs and waiting to happen. Some failures are so removed from the design decisions that create them, the undo button is out of clicks.

Thus the need for a more expansive organizational memory system to store the collective intelligence that goes into designs.

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. ~ Herbert Simon

Designing is not a profession but an attitude. ~ László Moholy-Nagy

Design is too important to be left to ‘designers’, especially when it comes to services. Efforts toward developing and improving designs should therefore insist on the creative intelligence of several functions and disciplines.

However, there is a downside to broader participation. The eyes only see what the mind is prepared to understand. We prefer to understand and interpret designs through own ‘best and most helpful’ models – ones that make us smart and efficient.

To make the design process more open and inclusive, and to implement changes while minimizing the risks, we need to represent designs in a format everybody can work with – read and write, analyze and interpret, criticize and correct – regardless of their function or discipline. That is the story format.

According to the historian Yuval Noah Harari, humans are hard-wired with the basic intelligence for listening to and telling stories. Economist John Kay says, it is through stories that we best absorb arguments and make sense of a complex world.

We prefer to tell stories than to use analytic models, and the best and most helpful models are, at their root, narratives. ~ John Kay

However, stories are not very useful for communicating designs when they are too unstructured, have weak plot lines, or are incomplete. According to Kay, since stories can inform as well as mislead, they should be based on evidence. And the evidence is scattered across the service-designing and storytelling enterprise.

How do we get out of this cycle?

A few Fortune 500 firms and agencies of the Dutch government have taken a novel approach: developing narratives that communicate the designs of services.

Their stories have a certain structure: 16 sentences, eight threads, four characters (dramatis personae), and two sides. Each thread stores a part of the design in the who-why-how-what format. Every sentence is a statement about one of the 16 elements of design found in every service. Telling such a story is equivalent to sending design. Listening to one is receiving it.

How do we come up with a story like that?!

By solving a design puzzle called the 16x frame — a 4×4 matrix that organizes the 16 elements into a ‘supersymmetry’, based on a design logic that defines services. Solving the puzzle requires conversation amongst the various stakeholders in the design. This leads to greater buy-in, consensus, and commitment – critical to give implementation teams the high degrees of confidence and control they need.

Learn how.