Future of Work: Interview with Hugh Dubberly: Founder of Dubberly Design and Service Design Thought Leader

Awhile back, I was asked to develop a product strategy for a company that manufactures electronic vehicle charging stations. After my first client meeting, it was clear that they really wanted me to develop a variety of services to be marketed every time a customer interacted with product, most of which would be delivered via the Internet in the following four different places: In a person’s home, at their desk at work, in their car, and at the station itself.

Recently, I decided to learn more about Service Design, an area companies such as the electronic vehicles station manufacturers are just beginning to understand. So, I reached out to Hugh Dubberly, founder and CEO of Dubberly Design Office (DDO), Hugh is someone that has been thinking about the impact design can have on organizations since he led creative teams at Apple Computer and Netscape in the early 1990s.

Interactions, a well-known publication that focuses on the intersection between design practice and research, points out that “Hugh Dubberly’s models are increasingly important in design—as design, in collaboration with other disciplines, increasingly deals with systems and services. Many aspects of the customer experience unfold over time and location, and thus are intangible. With their ability to visualize and abstract various aspects of a given situation, models become tools for exploring relationships in ways that are not otherwise possible”.

Dubberly’s design shop focuses on the business of designing software and services, which is a field that has greatly matured since the days when a company launched a single product and reviewed sales on a weekly basis. Now, continuous improvement and ongoing engagement are required. As Dubberly and another leading service design guru, Shelley Evens0n (who I hope to interview later on) wrote,

We view designing for service as Meta activity: Conceiving and iteratively planning and constructing a service system or architecture to deliver resources that choreograph an experience that others design. When a company provides the optimal mix it will have produced a resonating service system and that delivers an experienced advantage.” (Evenson, 2005)

Thinking in terms of a single product no longer works.

Dubberly explains “Thinking (in terms of) stand-alone products is increasingly a risky proposition and that there are a series of sort of changes that have happened similar to when manufacturing quality has ben really important and then everybody’s learned to do that.” He continues “as hardware becomes increasingly commoditized, services offer an opportunity for differentiation. A customer’s experience with a brand may extend across a family of services, each with a collection of touch points. These touch points are increasingly networked, and thus customer behavior may be logged, analyzed, and used to drive improvements.”

Everyone in manufacturing needs to consider themselves in the service business.

Service Design is especially important because today 80% of the US labor force is involved in service delivery and knowledge based information services. The chart below highlights this point:

Therefore, it is imperative that companies focus on service design to gain competitive advantage.

Tim Misner, a colleague of Dubberly’s, has a great aphorism explaining the reason for this phenomenon. He believes “All hardware products want to be websites.” What this mind bender phrase really means is that all products, especially consumer electronics, will be connected to the web and thus greatly change the design process. Instead of launching and moving to the next project, designers will be engaged with a product that requires their ongoing attention.

Automobiles exemplify this. Today, cars provide a suite of services such as GPS navigation, OnStar in-vehicle security, communications, diagnostics systems, and even access to the Internet. Their customers also expect them to respond to issues as quickly as possible.

Dubberly explains “Thinking about a continuous and holistic customer experience allows for a lot more experimentation and makes everything direct response.” All of this requires processes to gather information and understand the “no-so-obvious” ways customers interact with a brand. As a result the brand is more than a logo and tagline. Dubberly also goes on to say “the logo is merely an identifier of a brand; it’s a symbol of the quality, not just of the product, but of the experience you have with the product.”

The Big Data revolution and CRM’s evolution now enable companies to capture enormous amounts of data and conduct machine learning on it. They see patterns that humans can’t easily see, are quick to make connections, do personalization, and have a more personal relationship with the customer and others in the ecosystem. Dubberly states, “By creating a portrait of various individuals in a company’s ecosystem can create huge promise in the Health Care industry, but maybe not so for some people in the world of government.” Companies therefore need to prepare organizationally for this change.

This new-networked world, for example, will greatly impact health care, which is an area that Dubberly’s firm focuses on.

Individuals will have a view of their own health. It is also clear that there will be sharing with support groups like family, friends, and health care professionals. Then you get into patient population management where you have health care paid for on a different basis on a basis of outcomes, but you have the data to really be able to know what the outcomes actually are.

Companies need to design for and be organized for this “continuously on” environment.

All of this will impact how certain jobs are preformed. To sustain competitive advantage, the practice of software and service design—indeed most design practices—will be ad-hoc, performed on an “as-needed” basis and adapted to whatever context designers encounter. This is akin to the Agile product development process. (see my Ron Lichty interview).

According to Dubberly, designers can no longer focus on finished products and say “Okay, here it is: it’s finished.” Now, they are required to architect things, which are never really finished and continuously improved. Therefore, designers need to be conversant with Systems Dynamics, which according to Wikipedia, is the process of defining and developing systems to satisfy specified requirements of the user.

The role of the product manager also needs to evolve. They need to be experienced in managing and building teams consisting of people from different disciplines. A phone can be designed more or less by an individual, but according to Dubberly, “The design of the phone as a system is something, which certainly requires teams. It very much becomes more like movie making where you have to assemble groups of people to develop products and product systems. And that requires some different ways of working.”

“It’s about having a team of people that trust, a team of people that you’ve hopefully worked with before so you understand the language, you understand who’s good at what and having the right variety, having the right set of skills and discipline at the table. And that’s the thing which is going to make the product successful. Unfortunately, Dubberly believes “that product management is taught in only the most modest way in business schools. In many cases simply as a sort of appendage on marketing and it’s taught not at all in design schools.”

After having personally worked with four of the top software companies in the world in the last two years, I have witnessed this first hand. I have seen many lead product managers ‘learn on the job.’ While this is not always a problem, the lag time of a product manager getting up to speed can be expensive.

A s Dubberly states, “The smartest newly hired kid from a top business school does not really know how companies work or what really motivates people in the organization and simply where the bodies are buried. You can’t know that.” According to Dubberly, “The real issue is product management is taught in only the most modest way in business schools. In many cases simply as a sort of appendage on marketing, and it’s taught not at all in design schools.” A shorter-term solution might be having a product manager doing an apprenticeship with a more experienced person in the company. Attending a boot camp might be one way to address this. A product manager, however, needs to have a bias towards action, which requires experience, confidence, and leadership.

In a great article in Interactions entitled “On modeling, what can Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive teach us about,” Dubberly stresses the importance of “having design conversations.”

Understanding the soul of a product (or of an organization) requires a conversation—about what you believe in, about fundamental values, and about quality. These ideas must be argued and agreed upon. Likewise, expressing the soul of a product requires still more conversations, still more argument and agreement. At this level, design is conversation.

As he told me, “Everywhere where you’d see great design in the world over a sustained period, you have fanatical founder, like Steve Jobs, plus a great designer, Jonny Ives, and they have a conversation that extends over time.”

(Interestingly, Michael Eisner in Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed , which I also recommend, highlights this for the business as well by describing his own collaboration with Frank Wells as well as other famous successful partnerships.)

Dubberly highlighted Autodesk, a company heavily influenced by architecture, as a leader in service design, and Samsung as a company investing heavily in this area. For the later, a huge cultural change is required, moving from a highly paternalistic Confucius culture to a more dynamic and design driven environment.

Dubberly believes, however, there is a signifiant culture shift happening which goes beyond design:

There’s an almost millennial shift in the way we think about our relation to the world moving from a view of the world in which a central metaphor is the motion of the gears that run a clock, the clockwork mechanism… based around this causal clockwork that A turns B turns C turns a kind of chain of commonality…. The mechanistic metaphor assumes you know what the outcome will be: That there is no ambiguity. However, in reality, today’s more like “gardening or farming” with multiple potential outcomes, some which are not very when you launch a product.

As Dubberly highlights “There’s a notion that engineers in particular and engineers as managers have about managing the development of new products which would like there to be one way, one fool-proof recipe for how to do that. .. Unfortunately there’s not a one fool-proof process for doing that and there are many factors that come together that make a lot of things kind of conditional”.

So, I asked Dubberly “where is this all going?”

With the rise of consumer electronics products like the iPhoneand the rise of well designed, highly functioning web-based applications like eBay, Google and Amazon have set standards for not only for consumer products but also for business to business products. Dubberly believes design has ways to go:

It is nowhere near being a science and it probably never should be. But it’s a little bit like geology in the early 19th century. We know there’s some things going on here, and they’re kind of related to each other and some of these rocks look like other rocks but we’re kind of not sure why… so my approach is, well, it’s very much the 19th century British theologist approach. Like, let’s wander around Britain and collect some rocks and we’ll label where we got them, put them in a collection, and that will have some value. However, on a more practical level the place where the model is, where you can drag models into a real serious client engagement, is when they solve a problem.

Dubberly’s writes extensively for Interactions. His models and didactic articles can also be found on his company website.

Leaders in the systems and service design industry discussed during the interview:

Transcript of interview

Design Programs mentioned:

Thank you Nation!

Interview conducted on June 11, 2012 at Hugh Dubberly’s office in the Mission District in San Fancisco. The write up was started at Starbucks in Laurel Village on July 7th and finished at Starbucks in the Presidio on July 9th.