Intangible Innovation – lessons to be learned from concrete design in a service-hungry world

What are you doing to capture feedback on your innovations that have no tangible manifestation?
How do you determine the value and impact of those experiences that are designed (or not) for your customers when they purchase your services? How do you know that they have had an optimal experience? Satisfaction surveys only go so far. There are other ways to capture the level of service design and experience innovation success.


As far as I can see there is little inherent in the design process that protects design thinkers from these same failures if we choose to tackle abstract, intangible questions such as services, systems and networks. Instead we might imagine how to apply the same rigor and discipline to the design process that has emerged from hundreds of years of practice in the tangible world.


We might concentrate on how to make the process of the design of the intangible as transparent and open to observation as the design of the tangible. We might develop prototyping environments that allow us to learn through failure without catastrophic implications. We might accept that we need better mechanisms for criticism and feedback so that we begin to establish a body of knowledge about what works, and what does not, in the design of these things that don’t go ‘thud’ when we drop them.

–       Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO (


In a post on a similar theme recently, Seth Godin  extolled the virtues of having the designers of services “sign” their work. The rigor and discipline being applied to product development and its attendant innovation should be applied everywhere.


Too often, we blame bad service on the people who actually deliver the service. Sometimes (often) it’s not their fault. Sadly, the complaints rarely make it as far as the overpaid (or possibly overworked) executive who made the bad design decision in the first place. It’s the architecture of service that makes the phone ring and that makes customers leave.

A catchphrase employed by a client also comes to mind. He is fond of saying, “You touch it, you own it.” In that sense all innovation should be owned. In that light if the original need is not being appropriately addressed, or the problem being adequately resolved, the recipient of the service (or new business process, etc.) can go to the design source to provide feedback and insight into what was missed. The journey to a richly rewarding innovated experience is paved with the feedback of customers and users. Neglect them at your peril.

The keys to learning lessons from physical product design are to make the intangible concrete; designers and innovators should:

  • Own the design. All designers must take responsibility for their work. The decisions made should be documented and reference-able, regardless of the point of origin. No hiding.
  • Experience the design. All designers should experience their own design. They should prototype it, move through it and live with it. And they should be the first to experience it, “live.”
  • Create a feedback loop in and around the design. Make it perpetual and make responses to that feedback a part of the ongoing evaluation process, too.

No innovator is omniscient. If experience design is not tied to results accountability for performance is an afterthought but less fleeting than the negativity associated with a bad experience.

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