The New Software Industry: Bob Glushko and Shelley Evenson

Bob Glushko, a prof at UC Berkeley, and Shelley Evenson, a prof at CMU, discussed different views on bridging the front stage and back stage in service system design. As a side note, I have to say that it’s fun to be back (temporarily) in an academic environment: many of these presentations are much more like grad school lectures than standard conference presentations. And like university lectures, they cover way too much material in a very short time by speaking at light speed and flipping slides so fast that there’s no time to even read what’s on the slide, much less absorb or document it. If I had a nickel for every time that a presenter today said “I don’t have time to go into this but it’s an important concept” while flipping past an interesting-looking slide, I could probably buy myself the drink that I need to calm myself after the information overload. 🙂

Glushko posits that greater predictability produces a better experience, even if the average level of service is lower, using the example of a self-service hotel check-in versus the variability of dealing with a reception clerk. Although he doesn’t mention it, this is exactly the point of Six Sigma: reducing variability, not necessarily improving service quality.

He goes on to discuss the front stage of services, which is the interaction of the customer or other services with the services, and the back stage, which is the execution of the underlying services themselves. I love his examples: he uses an analogy of a restaurant, with the front stage being the dining room, and the back stage being the kitchen. Front stage designers focus on usability and other user interface factors, whereas the back stage designers focus on efficiency, standardization, data models and the like. This tends to create a tension between the two design perspectives, and begs the question if these are intrinsic or avoidable.

From a design standpoint, he feels that it’s essential to create information flow and process models that span both the back and front stages. The focus of back stage design is to design modular and configurable services that enable flexibility and customization in the front stage, and to determine which back stage services you will perform and which you will outsource/reuse from other service providers. Front stage design, on the other hand, is focussed on designing the level of service intensity (the intensity of information exchange between the customer and the service, whether the service is human or automated), and to implement model-based user interfaces and use these models to generate/configure/specify the APIs of user interfaces for the services. By exposing back stage information in front stage design, more back stage information can improve the immediate experience for a specific customer, and can improve subsequent experiences. Data mining and business intelligence can also improve service for future customers.

Evenson, who specializes in interaction design, has a very different perspective than Glushko, who focusses on the back stage design, but rather than being opposing views, they’re just different perspectives on the same issues of designing service systems.

She started out with a hilarious re-rendering of Glushko’s restaurant example by making the point that she applied colour to make the division of the co-production between front and back stage more visible.

Her slides really went by so fast that I was only able to capture a few snippets: sensors will improve the degree of interaction and usefulness of web-based services; technology influences our sense of self; services are activities or events that form a product through interaction with a customer; services are performances: choreographed interactions manufactured at the point of delivery; services are the visible front end of a process that co-produces value. A service system is a framework that connects service touchpoints so that they can sense, respond and reinforce one another. The system must be dynamic enough to be able to efficiently reflect the expectations people bring to the experience at any given moment. Service systems enable people to have experiences and achieve goals.

She discussed the difficulties of designing a service system, such as the difficulty of prototyping and the difficulty of representing the experience, and pointed out that it requires combining aspects of business, technology and experience. She feels that it’s helpful to create an integrated service design language: systems of elements with meanings (that designers use to communicate and users “read”) plus sets of organizing principles.

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