I work as a Designer and Researcher at MAYA Design, a design consultancy and innovation lab in Pittsburgh, PA. I recently wrote an article on Service Design for MAYA Design’s blog. Check it out here: Service Design, A Game Changer  !


Often times when conducting user research we have a natural tendency to jump to solution mode. It’s understandable; when you find an issue we often ask how might we fix it. But synthesis of your observations are crucial to uncovering patterns and themes across your data that will lead to better and more thought design solutions. Read my article on using a simple framework to generate insights after conducting field research: A Framework for Generating Insights.

DSCN8856My transition to Pittsburgh has not been easy. It took me five months to find an apartment. I’m not even counting the four days when I flew in before starting my job to look for one. Pittsburgh is a city in transition and it shows in the rental market. You can find something really nice but that means you pay a ton or you can find something really cheap and shoddy. Most of the apartments I saw were pretty outdated: dingy carpet and wood paneling walls.  There is very little that falls in between.

To put my mind at ease, I decided that I needed to find a place by end of December 2012. I didn’t want to go with a management company, but my back was against the wall. My overall opinion about management companies is they are rigid and inflexible with their leases, have a host of hidden fees and don’t care about their tenants. They are about the bottom line—making money. I’ve been lucky to have really good relationship with my past landlords. And all except one were individual owners. The one management company tried to nickel and dime me at every turn.

It appears to me that the Pittsburgh rental market is run by property management companies and I felt that there was no were around it. I found a decent place that I felt I could work with, that I could ultimately make my own.

What I learned is that management companies could really benefit from service design. A couple of things that shocked me:

1. To secure my apartment, I had to sign a 15-page lease. I repeat, a 15-page lease. I’ve never had to sign a 15-page for any apartment. And this apartment was not a Donald Trump standard apartment. I ended up telling the guy I was dealing with that the lease signing was such a poor experience. He went through a laundry list of things that I couldn’t do, the fees I would incur and the consequences of, that I wasn’t even excited about moving in.

2. After I had submitted the application was when all of the other hidden fees came out. I was being charged a $15 key fee and they failed to explain why. So I asked and was told that many tenants don’t return their keys when they move. I asked if I would get that fee back if I returned mine and my question was met by a blank stare. They were penalizing me up front and planned on pocketing the money.

3. He told me that the apartment would be disinfected before I moved in. The previous tenants had a dog. Before moving in, he told me that the apartment was in good shape, but only the ceiling fans were dirty. I had to remind him that he told me the apartment would be cleaned.

4. He said the apartment was in good shape, but the toilet was broken and the stove was so filthy, ladenned with crud, and was emitting a dangerous gas. For proof, I took photos of everything. They were ultimately fixed, but I had to wait two weeks for a new stove to appear.

5. They said that I would get a welcome package of picture hangers. Because the walls are made of plaster, they wanted me to use to certain kind. I never received it and had to ask for it.

6. Less than 6 months after signing my lease, I was given a notice to renew or not to renew for the next year. In my lease, it was written that I would need to give 2-months notice. When I followed up with them, they asked me what the confusion was about and said that was how they renew their leases. They went against their word, which means I will never trust them.

From a service design lens, this management company failed to understand that what a good experience is for a tenant. Having good management practices are incentives for tenants to want to renew their leases and stay. They also need to understand what relationship building means. Don’t lie to your customers. Understand that customers, in turn, become promoters of your brand. Be more empathetic. How can one feel welcomed when all one is told is what not to do. Getting a new apartment should feel exciting and not like a big burden. Simplify content. Is a 15-page lease really necessary to secure an apartment? What should be considered are the essential pieces of information needed for both parties.

And lastly, credit scores are just one small measurement of whether someone is a good or bad tenant. I would bet that there are people with great credit scores who make terrible tenants and vice versa. In my application, I provided my rental history listing the names of my past landlords. No one of them were contacted. Stories are a powerful tool for building deeper empathy and understanding. Try to ask questions that will help you to understand your prospective tenant even more than a credit score. A credit score conveys whether or not a prospective tenant will pay on time, but doesn’t convey a tenant’s behaviors for taking care of an apartment, being respectful etc.

Searching for an apartment is not any easy process, but with human-centered design, it can be made a lot easier.

My closest friends will tell you that some of things I am passionate about are travel, food, and dining. I love to create experiences. For me it’s all in the details; placement, color, message, comfort, activities, menu, theme, etc. The last big party I hosted at my apartment in Boston, I had to tell the last two remaining guests they had to leave. Trying to be a consummate host, I held out as long as I could, but it was 5:00 a.m. and the party started early evening. I was completely spent. They said they didn’t realize it was that late. If I had not pressed them, I’m sure they would’ve stayed a few hours more.

myflowThe party was a success, but not without risk. The theme was “Meet a Friend, Bring a Friend”. My single friends had to bring  a guest (a new friend) of the opposite sex that they recently met. Married friends and those in relationships could bring either/or. My single female friends had been complaining how difficult it was to meet people in Boston, especially guys. The theme of the party was a way to create motivation by way of a challenge. Oh yes, and the dress code was ‘crazy, sexy, cool’. My friends will also tell you that this is something I normally throw in at the end of an invitation. It’s not to control what people will wear. Actually it’s the opposite. I leave it open-ended and let them have fun with the interpretation of it. I also believe what you wear influences how you feel and your experience.

Everyone thought I was CRAZY. I would get emails daily asking if it was a joke. I knew I wouldn’t turn away a friend who came without a guest, but up until the day of the party I steadfastly said that rules were rules and I wasn’t going to bend them. More than half my guests showed up with a new friend. My apartment was packed with a lot of great conversation and new friends were made.

It is no surprise then that when I learned about Smart Museum’s Feast Symposium, I was all over it like gravy on rice! The symposium was meant to take a radical look at hospitality and the social practice around dining and food. I participated in an intimate dinner at the historic Jane Addams Hull House Museum. And what a curated experience it was. The Hull House was a place where immigrants and social reformers congregated to share meals and ideas. The menu included dishes from the time of Jane Addams including brown-buttered oysters and pasta bolognese. We also ate in Jane Addam’s bedroom while we listened to a reading. Along with the delicious food and the beautiful backdrop of the museum, I also enjoyed the conversations I had around social practices and building community and networks. I learned about new services including Oh So We, The National Bitter Melon Council, The Gift Circle Network, and Time Banking Chicago that are doing just that across the domains of recycling, food, and health.

Service is a social practice. Service design is about improving and designing new social practices. It’s also about hospitality, making people feel welcomed, connected and that they belong. Just as I sought to introduce a new way to host a party and get people to get out and make new friends, service design should push those boundaries of what social practice and interactions mean.

Nearly two years ago, I set out to focus on service design because, having worked in a few traditional service organizations, I truly believe services should be designed leveraging the rubric of other traditional forms of design. Committed to this focus, I started this blog to chronicle my thoughts and experiences around service design. At the time, my goal was to give a succinct definition to the discipline because it was too elusive. The people I spoke to struggled to get it because services are not tangible like products. What gives services tangibility are the descriptions detailing what’s going in that service and ultimately how it makes one feel. Unlike product design where you can physically hold an object in your hand, in service design you cannot physically hold a process. You need to actively participate in it to understand what it’s all about.

Let’s take the Apple Store as an example. I recently had a problem with my MAC computer. I went to the Apple store, set an appointment for that day, at which point a reminder was immediately sent to my email. Before I spoke to a Genius technician, my problem was pre-diagnosed by another employee. The grounding prong of my power cord was missing and they replaced it free of charge. I needed to schedule another follow-up appointment for another problem which was done at the end of my visit. A day later, I received a survey in the mail for input about my experience with Apple Genius Byron. My verdict? Apple is on top of their customer service game.

Service design tells a story. This story gives color, context, and makes events rich and engaging. Service design aims to create stories by taking people on a journey that is helpful, engaging, exciting, and memorable. As with any story, there is conflict—some  issue or problem that needs to resolved—and a hero(es) that embarks on a journey to resolve the conflict. Service design connects the paths and events for the story.

My biggest struggle with service design is that you cannot explain it in one simple definition. You need examples and stories to root its meaning. Otherwise, it will appear elusive, far-fetched, nebulous. In the past two years, I realized that I needed to abandon my ardent attempt to give service design a formal academic definition.

My new reframe is about simplifying the understanding of service design—giving it life—through telling a story that connects with people. The irony in all of this is that services is an extremely people-centric field. It naturally makes sense that any explanation of service design needs to be able to connect with people.

I challenged myself to do just that at an event organized by the Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship (IAE) where I presented service design to a room full of independent artists and small business owners who were not familiar with the discipline. To connect with the audience, I emphasized the role that small-to-medium size businesses play in the economy and why they need to focus on the services they are offering. I delivered an abridged version of the slide deck I prepared. Technical snafus during the event prevented me from showing it, but you can find  my presentation here. This is definitely work in progress. My intro held their attention but I now know that I need to work on finding the right examples to make service design less abstract.

I don’t like name badges and I very rarely wear them; only at someone’s specific request. I’ve been to many conferences and meetings and whenever one is given to me I either throw it my bag or leave it on some table. I understand that the badges are meant to help people make introductions to one another, make identification in a swarm of people easier, and help with security-related matters. As for the first two reasons, I don’t believe it helps facilitate the best introductions. I’ve watched the interactions over and over again. You approach someone with a name badge and instead of looking at the person, you’re looking down at their name badge. It is very awkward. This behavior is so ingrained that I often find people looking at my chest area as they approach and I have to tell them that no, I don’t have a name tag and then say “Hi, my name is Traci Thomas and you are?”.  Name badges bring an unnecessary formality.  People are at these events to network and get to know one another. Why do you need all the information in advance? Isn’t that why we make introductions? To learn more about the other person?

The other reason for my disapproval is that I generally find name badges unappealing. I don’t want to put adhesive on or a pin through my clothes and I don’t care to wear something around my neck that is dangling from what looks like a shoe string. And yes, if I must choose I prefer the clip-ons. 🙂

My trip to Portugal via Madrid was probably one of the single best decisions I made this year. It did me well to extract myself from my current environment and experience something new. Europe is not new to me. I’ve been to Spain and Portugal before. But I haven’t traveled overseas in years, make that about four long years. My flight to Madrid on AA was pretty uneventful. Well, I should say entertaining. I sat next to a Spanish TV producer who recounted his month-long vacation on the east coast and his troubles with women. I was even given an exit seat, meaning more room, to accommodate a family with small kids.

My airline troubles started on my return leg. My connecting flight from London to Chicago was canceled. I had the option to either stay the night in London and arrive in Chicago really late the next day or continue on to NYC and arrive the next day in the morning. I opted for the NY leg. I was told that my luggage was on the NYC flight but when I landed my luggage was nowhere to found. The worst part was not understanding where to go and what to do after. I was accompanied by other passengers in the same boat and we circled the baggage claim area, stopping to ask airport employees, and each of us getting conflicting information. So I was told I couldn’t file a missing luggage until I got to my final destination. Then there was the incredibly long wait to get a hotel and meal voucher. When I say incredibly long, there were times I felt that I could just sit on the floor and sob. No one came out to say anything about the wait and there were only a few agents manning the desks. I flew out on Delta from NYC to Chicago. This was the itinerary that was arranged for me when my flight from London was canceled.

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