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Throwing Bodies at Gaps in I.T. Systems

Across industries, we run into numerous systematic issues with I.T. The current solution is throwing people at the problem until they burn out and are replaced. How can we change this flawed structure? Service Design.

Words By Yasmine Khan, Visuals by Kate Degman

The U.S. needs Service Design. Without it, we’re throwing bodies at gaps in I.T. systems. It sounds gruesome and, in a way, it is…

Imagine you’re a parent and your kid is diagnosed with asthma.

You call your insurance company to find out how much rescue inhalers will cost out-of-pocket. After several menu selections and holds, you finally speak to someone. You explain your situation and ask your question. They put you on hold. For a long time. They come back apologizing.

The information they got doesn’t exactly answer your question. They’re not incompetent, but your confidence in them is flagging. They put you on hold again, giving you fifteen minutes to think.

Your kid needs rescue inhalers. Having to worry about the cost hurts. Then a voice. Sincere apologies, the voice says. They’re working hard on their end. But the answers aren’t complete or certain. Thanks for your time.

The next day on a call with your child’s nurse practitioner, they recommend a treatment you’ve already tried. Aren’t people paying attention? Listening? Don’t they look at their records? They’re sorry. They didn’t see that.

More precisely, their “system” didn’t make it clear. On the other end of those calls, their system has problems. Gaps. It's actually several archaically convoluted I.T. systems that your information is scattered across. Fragmented. Sometimes duplicated, conflicting, with no source of truth.

These are the information gaps that quality, safety and efficiency fall through. To fill the gaps, they train people to learn the I.T. systems’ quirks—throwing bodies at the problem.

On each "Hello", service staff need to be ready to connect with people, understand their needs and resolve issues for them. It often comes down to heroic levels of unappreciated intellectual and emotional multitasking. The employee rapidly clicks through tabs, collects a cryptic bit of information about your situation and writes it down in a note—being a present listener while navigating the peculiarities and limits of their I.T. system. They do this numerous times with varying results until they burn out and quit.

On average, it costs employers over $4k to recruit, onboard and train new hires.

Then there’s the cost of sabotaging team culture and service quality. There’s the clinician who feels ashamed to have lost their patient’s trust. The staff who see daily how system screw-ups have real consequences for patients.

In focus groups, colleagues share that their I.T. systems’ complexities get them so frustrated it creates palpable tension. They turn on each other and feel like they can’t rely on each other, because none of them can rely on their I.T. Like open wounds, system gaps make organizations and the people they serve vulnerable.

It’s not just in healthcare. I’m sure you, the reader, can come up with a dozen other institutions that operate with these convoluted I.T. systems. Banking and lending systems. Utility providers. Social services. Taxes. Justice systems. Education systems.

Why are we like this?

With one tap you can watch people from all over the world do everything from short comedy videos to live tarot readings. In a handful of swipes and taps you can do a 3D walkthrough of a house on the market, get directions to the open house and find a gas station on your way there.

Technology can do so much cool, useful stuff gracefully, efficiently. But for some reason, it rarely does theboring but essential stuff well. Like, make it easy to see multiple doctors using multiple difficult EHRs, file taxes, or file for unemployment without being charged with fraud.

In my experience, most orgs that create products and services want to treat people right. But as large groups, we don’t instinctually distinguish between making and designing things.

Anyone can put a pen to a page and make a mark. Just as any group of people can come together and make a piece of software. Or decide on how a workplace and its processes are set up.

Designing is when you observe carefully then compose a response. It’s qualitative research and responsive creation as a single process.

Whether it’s a house, a dress or a digital service, when you design you:

  1. Work to understand a situation deeply on a qualitative level. Not just what is happening, but also, how and why.
  2. Envision its potential to be different in a meaningful way. Something that really responds to the heart of a situation. In Service Design, that means making it easier for employees to feel comfortable and supported to do their best work.
  3. Create something that actually brings that vision to life.

Most people don’t get to see the understanding and envisioning steps. They see the thing that got made. They notice the way it looks. They equate design to what the designer did making it look polished.

Hell, so many UX researchers and designers are on a team of one or under four. Without experienced representation, they’re easily overcommitted. Overworked. More easily pressured to take requirements from PMs. Polish their wireframes.

After all, if design leaves a vision vacuum, someone has to fill it. It's a vicious cycle of setting UX teams up to fail or implode. Within this vicious cycle, folks are ok with research happening in a vision vacuum. Or skipping research altogether. Without good qualitative research, there is no Service Design.

What is service design?

Service Design improves the employee experience. This improves service quality and cost. Service Designers examine what employees do front stage as well as backstage to deliver a service.

If you build tech in the U.S., Service Design is probably unfamiliar to you.

[Service Design] has reached a ‘new normal’ in Europe. However, it has not yet reached this level of maturity in the United States. As described by Jamie Nicholson, the Product Research lead for Product Experimentation at Facebook, ‘In the US it’s all about innovation, whereas in Europe it’s more about service design.’

-Myrthe Montijn, The State of Service Design 2021 - and beyond

In the case of employees using creaky old IT systems, Service Design would apply human-centered research & design to improve outcomes.

But because of that “vicious cycle”, human-centered design is regarded as an optional luxury. It’s only resourced for some software.

I once heard someone say their dev team didn’t need ux research & design because the I.T. they were building was “only” going to be used by employees. They felt ok saying this because we don’t have a culture that treats service employees like important people. They accept the idea that it’s their job to deal with a crappy I.T. system UX.

This mentality dehumanizes and devalues employees. And it makes everything more expensive, risky and crappy for everyone.

Enterprise products have many masters and few resources

Most dev teams don’t build consumer-facing software products. They build enterprise software. Enterprise software is paid for by a customer and used by its employees. The disconnect between those two parties makes understanding users’ needs a difficult and delicate process.

It’s not uncommon for a company’s sales team to become the ones who inadvertently dictate what gets built. I love sales folks. They make sure we all go home with paychecks. Yay. But investigating and understanding meaningful user needs is not in their wheelhouse.

Yet, so many enterprise software teams are pressured to make what buyers ask for during the sales process. Executives end up creating feature requests that internal teams have a hard time negotiating. Employers may believe they know what their employees need, but few actually do unbiased research to find out.

Dev teams without proper qualitative research and design resources (UX) are often inundated with an unfiltered inflow of feature requests.

There are the feature requests that trickle in slowly. Death by a thousand papercuts style:
  • A million small requests submitted by diligent customer service folks, customers and others who escalate bugs and other suggestions.
Then there are the fire drills:
  • A suddenly urgent massive package of requests from the top brass. Sales team closed a buyer with promises for custom features. So you need to fulfill that contract asap.
  • An executive or existing buyer is blowing up your proverbial DMs with their own views for what needs to be changed.

Taking ad hoc requests creates a reactive, heinous space. Teams burn out trying to keep their fingers in the dyke. Talented people try to make space to build something that’s fundamentally better. But can never get enough time or energy to get it moving. Job satisfaction drops.

Creative thinkers move onto novel pastures. They’re often missing out on how damn impactful this enterprise space can be.

If ad-hoc papercuts & fire drills are driving away your talent, I’d wager you’ve got an under-resourced UX team stuck in that “vicious cycle.”

With human-centered research and design, you can replace that endless stream of ad hoc feature requests with a vetted set of insights, hypotheses and concepts to test. The big mindset shift is bringing human-centered research & design to the enterprise space. Also known as: Service Design.

Let's stop treading water and build a raft

User Research is a tool of the proactive. It’s about planning ahead. It prepares the table for good design. For good engineering. For good product management. Being buried under a pile of feature requests is the plight of the reactive.

Proactive groups
  • Understand that user research is not just user testing a design. Research is something you do before you start sketching. To identify or refine your premise. If you want to put out the fire drills and stop the papercuts, you need a strong premise. Unbiased proof that you should be addressing X before or instead of Y.
  • Have qualitative researchers that talk to people and observe them in an unbiased way. There are a variety of ways they capture qualitative stories: diary studies, interviews, focus groups. And many tools they use for analyzing and vetting take aways methodically.
  • Understand that quantitative data can tell us what happens. How often. When. Where. But qualitative data tells us the why and the how. And the why and the how are what we need to create meaningful change. Even if you have loads of quant data, without qualitative research, you’re less likely to see what’s meaningful. You’re less likely to create and vet a meaningful vision.
Reactive groups
  • Without a vetted vision for how things could be, they rely on asking buyers what they want. Build it for them. Custom. Won’t work for anyone else. Won’t drive scale. But here you are.
  • Grow faster than their infrastructure can support. Tech gaps affect more and more people. Creaky IT systems moaning and threatening to break out from under you.
  • Groups struggle to keep their heads above water. Building a raft isn’t in the cards. It sucks.

Personally, I’m done with being reactive. Because we can do better.

Being proactive comes easier when you center on human experiences.

Things fall into place more naturally when there are shared human-scale stories. So, give struggling enterprise dev teams simple human stories to refer to.

The best way to start is to invest in qualitative research. Then use the findings to develop a Service Design strategy.

If it’s something you’re interested in for your organization, here are some things to think about:

1. Since your users are employees, they have leaders.

Approach Service Design as a way to establish a partnership between enterprise development teams and “users’ leaders.” You’ll need their approval to enroll your users in qualitative studies.

  • Make it safe for employees to participate in qualitative research. Give them ownership in how their stories are shaped and shared. Work with experienced researchers who know how to protect and honor this vulnerable group of participants.
  • Don’t rely on self-reporting. Observe. Observe. Observe. Get screen recordings of what that I.T. looks like in action. (Did you know dscout is HIPAA compliant? If it’s secure enough for healthcare studies, it’s pretty damn secure.)
  • Employee users have very little bandwidth. You have to make joining qualitative studies as simple and quick as possible. dscout makes everything about qualitative research operations and analytics run more smoothly and ridiculously quickly. Also, great research talent is going to go with the teams who support them with tools like this.
2. Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to face the inertia.

Changing the status quo takes long-term commitment. You’re going to come up against a lot of signals that people are weary about the commitment and risk of big change.

  • Change is uncomfortable. Give people grace. Being human-centered in the enterprise space will feel weird to people. They already have ways to make decisions. Brace yourself to fight against the urge to revert back to what’s always been done.
  • Lean into how exciting it is to lift the hood and see what’s happening on the ground up close. Video reels of diary studies and screen recordings make a huge visceral impact. It gives people what they’re missing. Use user-videos, quotes and human stories to attract people to Service Design.
  • Give yourself grace and support. Whatever you do for self care, keep it high on your priority list. Find people in your org with like minded goals. Keep the conversation going with them so that you can help cheer each other on.
3. Find ways to speak to business concerns.
  • “Toil” is work that interrupts a service. It’s usually automatable. It takes away from the valuable contributions only humans can make. Use qualitative research to quantify how much is wasted due to toil. That way you can quantify the ROI on improving employee facing technology.
  • Keep an eye out for gatekeepers who want these old systems to stay broken. Some can’t see past the status quo. Others see their convoluted I.T. system domain knowledge as their primary value add. If you’re changing people's world, find new ways for them to add value.
  • Once you have some qualitative studies done, people will be excited. Don’t let it become a flurry of feature ticket writing without due diligence. Work with skilled Service Design talent to translate research findings into design hypotheses. That should give you a strong sense of what’s important and why. And what design principles to apply in different scenarios.

Get help with service design

Service Design Republic offers professional development courses as well as research & design services. We’re committed to social principles of anti-oppression, anti-greed and anti-smokescreen.

Our professional development courses are small, live and hands-on. Students examine and respond to real case studies about the efficacy of an important service.

We are currently running a case study on K-12 teachers and parents. How they think about signals of learning. And how well their grading I.T. system supports meaningful learning. You don’t have to work in education to benefit from this case study in class. You’ll learn how the insights were gathered. Then practice directly responding with design hypotheses and sketches. Every quarter, we do a case study in a different industry.

Research & Design Consulting with a 3 part offering:

  • We use dscout to perform rapid unbiased research on your “front of house” and “back of house” experiences.

  • We host a hands-on ideation sprint for your team. We’ll rank the issues that cropped up in research. Then shake out all the best ideas for process and product improvements.

  • We deliver concepts and prototypes that have been user tested and evaluated for ROI.

Learn more about Service Design.

¹ADP “Calculating the True Cost to Hire Employees” It costs employers an average of $4,129 and 42 days to fill an open position according to a report by the Society of Human Resource Management

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