November 1, 2016

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Whose job is it anyway?

Last week I spoke at the Service Design Global Conference in Amsterdam. Here’s a rough transcript of my talk.

Whose job is it to practice service design in a product organization? More and more, service-minded designers are finding ourselves working inside product organisations that have a different pace and way of working. We’re working alongside all kinds of other people who have service-instincts, and who are responsible for delivering user experience. How do we fit in to a world where the boundaries are blurry, and roles aren’t exactly clear?

Act One: Why can’t we be friends?

Early in my career I thought that mastering design meant building my design skills, coming up with a brilliant idea, and figuring out how to convince my fellow designers and our stakeholders to go along with my vision. What I was really doing was setting up a game of “us” versus “them.” Basically design versus everyone else – product, tech, business, you name it.

I can remember plenty of frustrated sessions my managers, rolling my eyes at the ridiculous requests from the “business” to change the text on a button, or a proposal from a developer to change the flow to something that’s easier to implement, but possibly worse for the user.

Don’t they get it? It’s about people, man. Am I the only one who cares about users?!

Thankfully my views have changed over the years, mostly fuelled by my experiences working inside of big organizations with a lot of different people.

Learning at Amex
In my past role as design director at Amex, I led a team of designers working on financial services. We worked with so many different teams – legal, risk, fraud, marketing, product, tech, customer service – and something we did really well was to use service design as a tool to bring the working team together.

Amex service design process

We adapted a simple process for service design work:
Immersion – Starting with research to get to know our users and the problem
Service Jam – Bringing all our stakeholders together for an ideation workshop
Concept development – Developing a few ideas that would meet the needs identified in research

One of my favorite projects was imagining a new future for direct deposit – it’s the way Americans get their pay check directly deposited into their bank account. It’s straightforward, and almost automatic, to do this in European countries. In the US, it can be a complicated and opaque process, especially for people not familiar with the banking system. We used our process to come up with a new vision. We started with research, talking to our users about their work and finances. The real magic happened at our service jam, when all our stakeholders sat down to come up with dozens of new ideas together. In the end, we chose a few concepts to pursue. The final deliverable was a set of customer journeys that beautifully illustrate the concepts. Everyone was excited about the work, and proud of what we had made together.

Service design proved to be a great tool to bring everyone together toward our goal. And I realized a pretty major takeaway from working so closely with the “them.” In an organization, we all want to make a great user experience, even if we have different approaches for how to get there.

Act Two: Ch-ch-ch-changes

This year I joined a new team. I’m a designer at Spotify, where we’re a team of about 60 product designers who are distributed across development teams – or squads, as we call them. Each designer is responsible for a particular part of the user experience, and everyone is empowered to make design decisions in his or her squad.

I work in part of our Revenue mission, where my squad is focused on our payments platform that enables our customers in 60 countries around the world to purchase a Spotify Premium subscription. We aim to offer the most convenient payment options everywhere, and even accept cash in Indonesia.

Everyone at Spotify uses a process called Think it > Build it > Ship it > Tweak it
For example, we might start with the seed of an idea and kick off with a brainstorm to come up with a few concepts, build one or two of them, ship them to users, and continually iterate on it until it’s the way we want it. Our process is unique to us, but borrows the same themes of learning and iteration from the Lean startup methodology “Build, Measure, Learn.”

Our process is optimised for speed and quality of the product. It allows us to experiment a lot. We can iterate on a good idea to make it the best possible version of what it could be. But, this process can make it difficult for us designers to think broadly and strategically. We’re excited to solve problems and build the next thing, and sometimes that doesn’t leave us with a lot of time to focus on the connection points between the things we already have. With all of us in our own squads, we can end up working in silos where it’s hard to see across the whole user journey.

Early experiments with service design

I thought service design might be of use to our team, but service design isn’t a magical solution either. When I describe the benefits of service design, everyone agrees it’s great. In practice, it’s difficult to get people to try a new way of working.

Service design ≠ magic

In one of my first projects I tried to make a wall-sized service blueprint where lots of designers could collaborate together. My colleagues were interested in helping, but they didn’t know how to get involved. I ended up working on it alone in a room by myself. While I was thinking about strategy, everyone else was busy shipping.

I’ve had good experiences using service design to bring teams together, but when I tried to do it at Spotify, it was a totally different story. In our fast-paced, iterative environment, I quickly realized that asking a team to give up weeks (or even months!) to do service design work is very expensive. And I’d even say it’s anti-agile. It’s definitely anti-lean. And it’s true: In our fast-moving organization, even if we did come up with a great solution using service design methods, our needs will have changed in the amount of time it takes us to get there.

Act Three: Come Together

Remember, we all want to make a great user experience. As methods of working, service design and agile (or lean, or whatever approach your product team is taking) use different tactics to get to a great user experience.

My proposal is to shift how we use service design so it fits into the process of a fast-moving team. We can still get the benefits of service design thinking: Delivering a consistent user experience, building empathy for users by making the experience tangible, and getting stakeholders to invest in design. And we can get the benefits of lean product development, too: Experiment and learn quickly.

There are three strategies that I’ve used to shift my approach from using service design as a strategic tool, to making it part of every’s work day-to-day:
1. Build relationships
2. Make things together
3. Throw away your artifacts

Build relationships

When working as a designer on an in-house product team, relationships are the fabric of service design.

One of the easiest things to do is change how we talk about other people. In service design, we refer to our “stakeholders” as the ones who are impacted by the decisions we make in the design process. When you’re in house, these people are on the same team as you. They are impacted by the work you’re doing, but so are you.

Let’s shift from calling them “stakeholders” to calling them “partners.” And as in a good partnership, take the time to learn about them: Who are they? What motivates them? What do they do for fun outside of work? What are the things that keep them up worried at night?

When I joined the team at Spotify I started setting up coffee meetings. I tried to meet a lot of different designers, and also a lot of different people. I wanted to know what our business owners are up to. What about our partnership teams? I even joined our Friday afternoon music quiz hosted by our customer service team. Admittedly this has nothing to do with our users’ experience, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to get cozy with our CS team and understand how they think about users. Plus, I picked up loads of obscure trivia about forgotten 90s bands.

Drop the idea that you need to have a formal service design practice, and just DO IT.

You can start to fill in the gaps over coffee (or beers or breakfast). Just talking to each other about the work you’re doing can go a long way to bridge the silos in your organization.

Make things together

You’ve found your allies and hopefully discovered that everyone has a vested interest in the quality of the user experience. When I start a project with a new partner, I usually start with activities that are easier to understand. My go-to is journey mapping. It’s tangible, participatory, and it’s based on a story. Everyone gets it.

Amex journey map
This is a journey map that we made with our partners at Amex. We were planning to introduce a new product into our portfolio, and it would change the service ecosystem pretty significantly for our users. So one of our designers got started by pinning up some paper on a board, and we invited a group of our partners to build it with us using post-its.

We were able to surface important questions early on, and because we were together we had the right people in the room who could help answer them. This artifact became the project’s north star. Even as our teams went off in our own directions, everyone could refer back to this journey that we were all driving toward.

Things like journey maps, storyboards or a service safari can be easier to introduce to those who are new to service design. These activities are tangible and participatory. Other activities like service blueprinting, task analyses, and even mental models, are important activities for service designers. But they’re more abstract and complex and can be tough for newcomers to understand.

Use small projects to build a service awareness in your product-minded partners.

Make things together with your partners, and over time you’ll build a service-minded alliance who can support your work.

Throw away your artifacts

Another advantage of starting small is that you can give yourself permission to make things quickly and in low-fidelity. Working in-house, you probably won’t be creating high-fidelity, polished artifacts. But it’s not about the artifact. It’s about moving the work forward.

At Spotify, recently we’ve started on a project to measure and improve the way a user purchases Spotify Premium. We started with a broad (and fuzzy) brief: “We think there’s a problem here, but we don’t exactly know what it is or why it’s happening.” Sound familiar?


Using service design as a tool, I started small with one of our product owners, taking about 45 minutes to think through our customer journey with post-its on a whiteboard. That quickly turned into a spreadsheet as our first draft service blueprint. Another 15 minutes later we had it printed on a plotter sheet and taped up in the main hallway of our office. In a short amount of time we made a tangible artifact for everyone in the working team to see.

Just seeing the blueprint on the wall made our conversations more sophisticated. Instead of “We think we have a problem here…”, now we could point to a concrete map and see where the user might be having problems.

Doing the blueprinting activity together gave us quick insights that we could feed back into the work our teams were already doing. Our data team used it to inform a project on our internal metrics dashboards. And, seeing the map with a bunch of holes in it highlighted the need for us to do more qualitative user research.

So what did we do next? Remember our process? Everything in our process is centered around “building.” And so we moved on, using the blueprint to create more detailed customer journeys that tell an actionable story about our users. Now we’re using these stories to as a map for where to focus our efforts in prototyping and building new solutions.

Be nimble; bring your artifacts to just enough fidelity to move the work forward.

There is huge value in getting something on the wall quickly so that everyone can see it concretely. But in a fast-moving organization, we have to be nimble with our artifacts, bringing them to just enough fidelity to move the work forward.


These are the three strategies I’ve used to shift the way my team works with service design:
1. Build relationships: It all starts with relationships, and sometimes these conversations alone can help bridge the gap across silos.
2. Make things together: Get your partners involved and invested in the work you’re doing. Show them how easy it is to start.
3. Throw away your artifacts: Use artifacts to start the right conversations. Don’t be precious about them when you’re done. We work in a world where things change day to day, and we have to keep our artifacts portable to match pace.

Whose job is it?

It’s complicated. As designers, it’s our responsibility to bring expertise, activate and engage our partners in service design activities, and find ways to fit this work into the cadence of product development. It’s our partners’ responsibility to join us, to participate, and to build their service awareness to bring into every project. If we work together to make a great experience, service design becomes everyone’s job.

July 9, 2016

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Meal Planning Confessional

Confession: once a week I sit down at the kitchen table with my husband and we plan.

At this point, it’s a religious habit. Every Saturday after breakfast we grab the notepad and pen and we plan. One of us says, “Okay. Let’s talk about food.”

When we first started cooking together we were passioned, wild shoppers in the grocery store. “That exotic fruit looks amazing! Let’s buy it!” and “We don’t really need this elderflower infused organic spice rub, but let’s get it anyway.” After awhile we ended up with a stocked pantry full of things we’d never use, and a large monthly tab of delivery orders from Seamless.

About a year and a half ago we changed. We both remember the moment well. It was just before the holidays. We had a few friends over for dinner before Christmas and my husband made an incredible meal. Duck confit with parsnip puree. It was divine. One of the best meals we’ve ever made. A few days later we feasted on Christmas Eve: roast pork shoulder with duck fat smashed blue potatoes, and an Italian cheesecake to top it off. And the next day we were ill. We’d finally crossed the delicious, duck-fat-infused line. A few weeks later, as part of a regular health screening at work, my husband learned his cholesterol count was high. Our time had come.

Duck, mid-confit, and ham and swiss omelette. Vive la France!

A photo posted by Katie Koch (@pixelkated) on

This. This is the reason I married @jeremydipaolo #xmasharder

A photo posted by Katie Koch (@pixelkated) on

A couple things happened.

We kickstarted our healthy eating with a hacked food lover’s cleanse. We kinda followed the instructions, generally adding more meat and oils than we were instructed to do. But it was a good transition period. We picked up a ton of new ideas for healthy recipes, and started to understand which foods would add a burst of flavour, or not. Some new ingredients we picked up from this phase of life: cacao nibs, colored rice, walnuts, and chia seeds.

One day my husband brought home a new cookbook, which we jokingly refer to now as “the Bible.” Clean Slate gave us loads of knowledge about why certain foods are good for us. Every recipe in the book uses good, clean ingredients and it’s structured to help you understand what you’re getting from each meal. We often grab this cookbook as inspiration for cooking techniques and pairings. For example: fish + any veggies baked in parchment packets, or mixed salads using any whole grain as a base, and our new favorite classic chicken (any style) + greens (any kind).

Around that time we started planning meals one week at a time. Finally – oh finally! – we had enough inspiration to require a plan for what we’d be eating. And we learned that living in NYC and trying to cook with high quality, healthy ingredients is in fact expensive. Suddenly, throwing away unused rotting food felt like real dollars down the drain. So we started small. We chose a couple of recipes we’d like to try each week and wrote down the ingredients for them. As many cooking resources recommend, we did this activity in our kitchen. We quickly learned what we had on hand in the pantry, and started to plan meals around what was available. Soon enough, our grocery bills started stabilizing. We cooked more because we didn’t come home from work and waste time deciding what to make and how much effort we wanted to spend. We planned leftovers to take to work, and saved money on lunch expenses too.

And it’s stuck. Now that we’re in Sweden our devotion to meal planning has blossomed. Saving money and not wasting food is fantastic, but there are other reasons that really drive us. Each Saturday when we “talk about food,” it’s a way for us to talk about our weeks ahead and share the activities going on in our lives. We get excited about the things we’ll cook together during the week, and after a hard day at work it’s comforting to know there will surely be a good meal at the end of it. The shared activity of planning is what enables the shared activity of cooking: it’s the chain of commitments we make to each other each week.


June 6, 2016

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Service design for product teams

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to visit Paris and give new life to a talk I originally gave last fall at the Service Experience conference.

When I originally gave the talk Putting Service Design Into Practice, I was concluding my tenure as design director on my team at American Express. The original talk was focused on my team’s work there, and the ways we found to bring elements of service design into our design process for products and services.

In my experiences at Amex, service design was a fantastic way to think about system-based problems over time. Tools like customer journeys, service blueprints, role playing and personas are great for getting groups of designers and stakeholders engaged in the design process and keep them thinking about the user over her lifetime as a customer. But at Amex we found it difficult to get buy in for large scale service design, and we didn’t have a consistent need to reinvent whole services. Most of our work was maintaining and enhancing the service we had already created.

We knew we needed to keep service design in our practice, but we needed a lighter, lower cost way of using it. We wanted everyone on the team to operate with a “service mindset.” A designer with a service mindset can:

• Consider all touchpoints in a user’s experience. If we’re designing a desktop notification, we need to know what the marketing touchpoints are.

• Thinks about UX in context of the service. If we’re creating a contact page, we need to know how the user got there and what happens when they leave and call customer service.

• Engages partners to complete the service vision. It’s not realistic for one designer to be responsible for creating all the touchpoints in an experience. We have to work with partners to get the other pieces made in a way that creates a cohesive experience for our users.

To enable this mindset, we created a toolkit that anyone could use. It’s made of paper cards that can be written on, taped up or thrown around. The kit consists of a couple pieces of documentation:

Capabilities cards show all the functions of our platform – like “reset password” or “write a check” – and can be mixed and matched to create new experiences.

Channel cards highlight each touchpoint a user may interact with – things like app, website, or retail location.


We also included artifacts that tell the story about how our team specifically works:

Engagement journey is a framework for how a user interacts with our service over time. What are the stages of getting familiar with the service and using it? How do we know a user has become an expert?

Engagement journey

Modular personas are a set of cards that take our real personas and break them apart into three categories: traits, modifiers, and drivers. In this way, we can pull a card from each deck to create a new persona each time. Instead of using and reusing 4-5 fixed personas for every project, we can create a richer variety of unique situations for which we are designing.

Modular personas

Design principles were created by the team together and then shared with leadership. Through this tool we were able to bring everyone together and create a shared north star for how we wanted each designed experience to feel.

Design principles

Having a toolkit allowed us to use service design in more ways than we had before. The tools can be used at any time during the design process, and it helped us become more flexible and comprehensive with every project. Designers working on even the smallest projects could quickly access service design tools to keep their thinking holistic and thoughtful.

Today I’m designing experiences at Spotify, where our teams are structured and behave very differently from the world I knew at Amex. Despite these differences, the same challenges exist for service design. I’m looking forward to bringing service design tools into the conversation and finding the right way to get all our teams thinking with a service mindset.

In full: the original talk from the Service Experience conference

April 16, 2016

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Välkommen till Stockholm

We’ve been living in Stockholm for three months.

When my husband and I boarded the plane from New York back in January we weren’t sure what to expect. We were anxious for plenty of reasons: Will we find a place to live? Will it be difficult to make friends? Will we be lost as English speakers in a world of Swedish?

The last few months have been a blur. It’s been both wildly fast and dramatically slow at times. Now is a unique point in our lives, where each day is filled with a hundred new experiences, new inputs, new learnings, and tiny observations added to the mental folder called “Life Experience.”

What have we been up to since January? We’ve:
– Lived in two apartments
– Lived without a paycheck for almost two months
Lived without furniture or a place to sit down for a week
Made three trips to IKEA
Lit a fire in our fireplace only to learn the hard way it isn’t open
Translated and successfully paid our bills in Swedish
Expanded our vocabulary in Swedish to pre-school level
Walked across a frozen lake!
Met hundreds of new people at work and through networks
Traveled across the Nordics to Oslo
Hiked on a fjord island and in our own backyard
Learned how to properly slice Swedish cheese and butter a knäckebröd

So far we love Sweden. It’s clean and friendly, and the city feels accessible, even as a newcomer. I’m excited to keep exploring and building the structure of our lives here, though I have mixed feelings about getting settled. In some ways it will be nice to have some stability, but in other ways it will be sad to lose that brief moment of exciting newness. Will the city be as delightful when it becomes predictable? Time and experience will tell.

January 18, 2016

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See you soon, New York

My husband and I are ex pats. Last week we broke our lease, sold our stuff, and got on a plane for my new job in Stockholm, Sweden.

We’ve been talking about moving away from New York for quite some time. Right after our honeymoon we came home and realized we weren’t loving our lives in Brooklyn. And we needed a new project. So we agreed that in a year we’d start to look at new places to live. Nine months later (instead of announcing a post-marriage baby, as many of our friends had) I started my job search with the intent to leave New York.

When you decide to leave a place, you’d better be already finished with it. Once you make up your mind and say it out loud that you’re going to leave suddenly every experience transitions into the potential “last one.” Going for a slice becomes “this could by my last time going for pizza EVER!” And sitting in a stalled train you proclaim “this could be the last time I sit in train traffic on the subway EVER!” You start counting down, narrowing out mediocre restaurants and experiences and people because you have a limited time left to enjoy everything. The kicker is that you don’t get to enjoy anything. The logistics of moving to another city (and country) fill all those moments you’d rather spend doing things for the ceremonial “last” time. You sacrifice a great meal with friends in exchange for a Seamless order on the couch because that’s all you have energy left to do.

In the end, the entire process of leaving is a blur. The “last” times don’t matter. What matters is the hundreds of times I rode the L train and stood crowded in with my neighbors, hot and angry as we collectively endured a signal malfunction. All the times we hiked up to the MoMA for a superb afternoon of art. The memories we shared at our local ramen spot. The years I spent crammed into my first apartment and the shenanigans I shared with my roommates. I won’t remember the first time or the last time for many things, but instead everything in between that made life in the city wonderful and terrible at the same time.

I read a book – Goodbye to All That – as part of my self-help between our early talks of leaving and actually convincing myself we would go. I can’t help but love New York, and I’m happy to finally have a story about leaving it.

July 24, 2015

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How to review design work

Our team has transitioned into a fairly lean UX process, and that means we’re often having quick design reviews and impromptu shares of our projects.

For some of our designers, they’re happy to shoot from the hip and explain their work freely. For others, it’s a flustering experience to have to stop in the middle of their thinking and explain where they’re at.

I wanted to put together a simple framework for sharing our work so we can effectively communicate with one another and receive good feedback at the right moments in the design process. Even if it’s a short, 15-minute review we all go through the same steps of communicating a design. The framework below can be helpful for short conversations and longer critiques with big groups of stakeholders.

1. Context: Set up the conversation
What is the problem you’re solving?
What work have you done so far?
What fidelity of work will we see today?
Recap any major past decisions for attendees who may have missed them.

2. Content: Show the work
Walk us through a flow and tell a story to illustrate how it works.
Tell us how the design solution is solving the problem or meeting a business goal.

3. Critique: Collect feedback
Come prepared with a few key questions you want to discuss.
If you’re looking to reach a decision about a design direction or detail, say so!
Ask questions about the feedback if you don’t understand it.

4. Continue: Share next steps
Tell us what you’re going to do next.

I’d love to hear other approaches to design critique, especially if you’re team has a totally different way of sharing their work!

March 15, 2015

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The Fast Route to Meaning

I just found out we can take our emoji addiction to another level by adding a keyboard of animated GIFs to our phones.

Check out Riffsy, an extension that adds GIFs to your phone’s keyboard:

At first glance, my pragmatic brain was baffled. “Why on earth would we need to send a GIF over text? How lazy are we?!” But then I saw their home page demo and it all clicked.

GIF: The internet’s gift to humanity

GIFs came to life in the days of the nascent web. They were a hack-y solution for a medium that could only hold images and text, before Flash and HTML5 made all our motion-tastic dreams come true. Even though the animated GIF’s original function is obsolete, GIFs are alive and well today. It has been repurposed as a form of art, where artists use its known constraints as a unique advantage. Read the history of GIFs here if you’re interested. There are a million sites devoted to the GIF as the kitschiest of kitsch art forms.

The more common and mass usage for GIFs is as a meme: use a sequence of images plus a non-sequitur phrase to equal new, instant meaning.

srsly guise

In fact GIFs have evolved into a complex form of language. Image + image + image + text = lol meaning. Though the intent of communication is arguably different, these GIFs remind me of Chinese characters. Each character is a complex combination of strokes that represent a bigger idea than one word or one letter alone. Because they’re so graphic, GIFs may have an even stronger relationship to hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptian language that told stories and described ideas through a series of encoded images placed together.

From Image and Language to Text

Just like the internet has advanced in its technical capacity for moving images, our communications sphere has also evolved. SMS and email (and Facebook messaging, tweets, Snapchat, GroupMe, and anything else digital) are our primary mode of communication with everyone from friends and coworkers to family. This shift has been a source of discussion for many linguists, who’ve observed the rise in emoticon usage in our written communications. The basic premise of each analysis is that this new medium for communication removed much of our emotion, and the formality (and sometimes terseness) of writing causes us to move away from a friendly, colloquial tone. People started compensating for these qualities by inserting a smiley face to make it clear they were excited or happy about the message they were sending.


But why were our messages losing emotion in the first place? Is it the sloppiness of our thumbs on a tiny device? Is it our general laziness to slog through using a digital keyboard? Though I’m a grammar snob myself I have many contacts who prefer to communicate in proper SMS language. “R U coming tonight” “Cant wait 4 dinner with U” “<3 U”

Lately, the use of emoticons has been trumped by emoji, a keyboard of complex tiny images that each communicate a single idea. Avid texters get clever and combine emoji to tell a more complicated story.

emoji phrase

This is the new visual emotional language of the text.

Make it Count

The diversity of digital communications that we have available to us creates a rich landscape for communication. We’re all becoming more adept at talking quickly through the written word, and we’re doing it more frequently than ever before. In response, our language becomes more sophisticated and our tools for communicating become even more complex.

In his book Damn Good Advice, George Lois proclaims “All creativity should communicate in a nanosecond.” This fact is even more true in a 2015 text message, where your piece of creative language has only a half moment for your recipient to glance at it before moving on to the next micro message.

Even though it seems totally excessive to me, the animated GIF keyboard is a masterful execution of image + image + text = meaning. It enables more sophisticated communication that reaches the pinnacle of emotional connection and speed of communication.

February 22, 2015

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From Startup to Stable

I recently had the opportunity to speak at Interaction15 about my team at Amex.

My slides are up on slideshare, video coming soon!