The Limina Podcast - Episode 7

The Future of Service Design

Guest: Thomas Wilson

In this episode, the DesignOps and Service Design stars align and collide in a great discussion with Thomas Wilson on challenges that Service Design leaders and Designops run into based on business constructs of digital and product and service organizations. If you listen to the end, you’ll hear some surprising predictions and conclusions on the future of service design and digital work in general.


In this conversation between Jon and Thomas, Jon begins by discussing Thomas’s career trajectory, which started in creative production work and creative direction. Jon notes that Thomas’s career took an interesting turn in the early 2000s when he began to focus on operationalizing and incorporating systems thinking into design work.

Service Design Epiphany

Thomas explains that during that time, he was involved in various aspects of design, including industrial design, UX/UI, product development, and creative direction. He emphasizes that regardless of the specific field or project, he noticed a common process that all designs followed. This process included:

  1. Ideation and consideration, where constraints are identified.
  2. Gathering information and sketching out ideas.
  3. Exploring design details, materials, and standards.
  4. Considering downstream efforts and visualizing prototypes.
  5. Sharing the design with those who will implement it, including developers, similar to trade workers in construction.

Thomas highlights that different people with specialized skills come in at various stages of the design process, similar to how different professionals are involved in building physical structures. He mentions the importance of having a holistic perspective, similar to Henry Ford’s assembly line approach, where you understand how an idea transforms into a final product.

Ultimately, Thomas had an epiphany when he realized that this structured development process applied to everything, from architecture to print media to creating products or media campaigns. This realization gave him a powerful understanding of the commonality in the design and development process across diverse fields.

“When I understood that it [design and development] was virtually the same for everything [all industries], that’s when I had that epiphany, moment. You know what I mean? Like, holy cow, this is powerful.

-Thomas Wilson

Brief Web History

Then Jon and Thomas discuss the evolution of web design and its parallels with other industries. Jon mentions how in the 1990s and early 2000s, web design teams aimed for unique and unconventional designs, often disregarding established design standards. This led to an era of anti-standardization.

Thomas agrees and highlights a similar trend in Web 2.0, particularly from 2005 to 2011, where designs embraced skeuomorphism and 3-D elements.

Jon draws a parallel between this trend and architects deviating from standard fittings for plumbing and electricals; opting for unconventional approaches isn’t an option. There are standards in practice and engineering for a reason: they work. For digital design to scale with operational efficiency, we need to mature our concepts of standards of practice, data, design, and governance.

Overall, the conversation revolves around the importance of customer-centricity, service design, and effective communication in overcoming organizational challenges and achieving better outcomes for businesses and customers.

“…You only go into that work if you are passionate about solving problems for people and saving people’s lives.
And everybody who goes within those large organizations and fights for change, you have to know that they are getting punched in the face all day, every day.

-Thomas Wilson

The Advent of DesignOps

The conversation then shifts to the importance of design operations and the need for standards in the design process. They discuss how design should be viewed as a pipeline of work from inception through planning, management, engineering, and beyond, with a focus on customer experience and operationalization. This perspective aligns with service design, which considers both customer experience and operational aspects.
They then touch upon Thomas’s work on projects like AIG, Experian, and AWS in the early 2000s, which coincided with the digital transformation era. Jon asks Thomas to share his favorite experiences and key challenges during this period, acknowledging that digital transformation brought unique challenges to designers.

In this part of the conversation, Jon and Thomas explore various aspects of design, customer-centricity, and cultural challenges within organizations. Here’s a summary of the main points discussed:

  1. Web Design Evolution: How web design evolved, from an era where each design team aimed for uniqueness to the explosion of anti-standardization in the 2000s.
  2. Design Operations and Standards: The importance of design operations and the need for standards in the design process. They emphasize the significance of thinking about the entire customer journey and operational aspects.
  3. Challenges in Healthcare: Thomas shares his experiences in healthcare design, where he faces cultural resistance due to traditional thinking, along with various challenges due to policy constraints, internal politics,  and government oversight./li>
  4. Tech-led vs. Customer-centric: Discussing the dangers of being product-first in a customer-centric environment, especially in healthcare, and the importance of focusing on people’s needs and experiences.
  5. Service Design: Highlighting the role of service design in addressing cross-functional challenges and breaking down silos within organizations.
  6. Overcoming Resistance: The importance of organizations wanting to change and share strategies for navigating resistance, such as stakeholder mapping, workshops, and cross-functional collaboration.
  7. Understanding Motivations: To bridge silos and cultural gaps, they suggest understanding the goals, key performance indicators (KPIs), and motivating factors of different teams and business units within an organization.
  8. Achieving Alignment: Often, teams are in agreement but fail to realize it due to emotions or past experiences. Open discussions and understanding each other’s perspectives can lead to alignment.
  9. Complexity of Organizational Change: Addressing cultural challenges and fostering cross-functional collaboration in organizations is complex and multifaceted.

Concluding Points

Concluding points from this episode:

  1. Role of Design Operations (Ops): Thomas expresses his belief that in the near future, design operations will become a core function of businesses. He envisions that design ops, strategy, and service design will work closely together and directly answer to the business, eliminating the need for them to be distributed among different teams.
  2. Transformation in Business Operations: Jon reflects on how digital transformation has changed the operational landscape of businesses. He notes that various “ops” roles, such as DevOps and DesignOps, have emerged to align different functions better and ensure they serve the digital era effectively.
  3. Formalizing Operations: Jon emphasizes the need to formalize operations to ensure they work strategically, intentionally, and without conflicts. He believes this will require aligning these operations at the right level within organizations under the chief operating officer.
  4. Design and Dev Debt: Thomas highlights the growing problem of design and development debt in organizations, where the focus on lean practices and staff reduction has led to accumulating issues. He predicts CEOs will eventually become concerned about declining metrics and demand solutions.
  5. Future Trends: Both Jon and Thomas touch on future trends, including the potential impact of AI on certain design tasks, privacy concerns, and data centralization. They discuss the evolving roles in the design field, the shift towards considering everything as a service, and the importance of addressing non-human stakeholders and environmental concerns.
  6. Hope and Resilience: Despite acknowledging challenges and potential issues, Thomas expresses hope in human resilience and problem-solving abilities. He believes that, as humans, we shine in times of tribulation and that the beauty of being human lies in our capacity to come together to solve problems.

In summary, Jon and Thomas conclude their conversation by highlighting the need for formalized and strategic design operations, addressing ongoing challenges in design and development, and expressing hope in human resilience and problem-solving capabilities in the face of emerging technological and environmental challenges. They look forward to continued discussions on these important topics.

“Humans are really resilient, and in times of tribulation and darkness, that’s when we shine and that’s when the most beautiful aspects of, of being human comes out is when we wanna solve a problem together. What’s more beautiful than that? Good luck doing that robot!

-Thomas Wilson

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Full Transcript Below

Jon F – Intro

 This is The Limina podcast, and I’m your host, Jon Fukuda. 

If you’ve been following the podcast, you know that we are leaning heavily into human-centered digital transformation. Our guest today plays a critical role in tying the work that user researchers and UX designers, who connect products and services more deeply into the customer’s lives, with the broader ecosystems to support and operationalize those experiences through service design. 

He has been an award-winning creative director, UX designer, and service designer for more than 25 years. He’s been recognized in Forbes Magazine, Best of Web, and twice in the Inc. 500. His work with Venture Design. He’s moved the needle at 52 Startups and Has worked for companies like NASA, JWT, AIG, Kroger, Amazon Web Services, as well as 11 of the largest healthcare systems like Blue Cross Blue Shield

And now, at UnitedHealthcare, where he leads the design community of practice and hosts the Friday Design Hour, showcasing research, innovation, and design for the largest healthcare company in the world. It’s my pleasure to introduce to you Thomas Wilson, senior principal service designer and strategist at UnitedHealthcare.


 Hey Jon. Nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jon F

 Welcome to the show. So before we get into the nitty-gritty, I just want to start by our listeners a little bit about your history, background, and design and a little bit about what motivates you. then we can take that and launch into the rest of it.


Sure. Well, I went to school in a time when we didn’t have a lot of the distinctions that we do now in design, you know, all of, the varied titles.  started in the traditional track of let’s get a job, let’s be a production designer, let’s, graduate to art director, creative director.

That sort of thing. And what I really recognized early on in my career is, sure, I loved the design aspect, and I love the animate and, I really liked to dip into like the video space and audio space. I’ve recorded records, and I’ve done a lot of stuff like interactive kiosks and sound design and things like that.

I started doing that pretty early on in the nascent years of the web and, of course, doing big web projects, but the stuff that I really enjoyed doing, like kiosks, and I like to do medical devices, and I started doing things for like heat exchangers, and pumps and deaerators and you know that sort of thing.

And I really enjoyed that because it was different. There were all kinds of constraints and challenges around doing that work. One of the first really strange jobs that, I had was I had to figure out how to make a kiosk a standard workstation wherein those who were wearing gloves, could operate it.

And so I had to make the touch target sizes really big and really goofy. And really easy to use. And I had to use SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) controls. And so understanding as all of those different types of color coding and how you acknowledge certain things. Because when you, understand how machines work in human-machine interaction, there’s the potential for disaster, for harm, that can happen.

And so we’re not just talking about making a website or a landing page, where you’re selling something or, even simpler, you’re creating like an online billboard for yourself or a brochure, which was in the nascent years of the web, that’s what everybody was doing, you know, from like 94 to 99. That’s pretty much what everybody was doing towards the end when the dot-coms were blowing up.

I got ahold of a couple of dot coms that you mentioned the intro to the work that was in Forbes magazine, that was listed alongside Alibaba. It was a large website that sold heavy equipment, and I got to work on that creative direction, web design, you name it. But I did everything, on that project, and so that took me into the early two thousand and the early two thousand as I started doing a lot of healthcare, a lot of oil and gas large campaigns.

Working for J. Walter Thompson, of course, really, set the tone for doing big campaign work for large brands. And so I got to work on FedEx and eventually Compact, which turned into HP, Vanguard, Fidelity, HCA, Tenant, those are the largest healthcare organizations in the world.

And so I got to do all sorts of neat stuff, and I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty and involved in all of that. 

But what I really started to notice was I cared a lot less about fonts and gradients and colors and things like that. Of course, I cared about it with regard to usability. But what I really was interested in was how things worked and how to solve really large, complex problems. So once I understood that, and I started diagramming things, I began understanding how different parts and pieces fit together and worked within large ecosystems. And once I understood that, and that not only did we have these systematic problems that we had to break down into little chunks and fix, we also had these system problems that were more holistically on a bigger zoom that was maybe more organizational or more, you know, strategic.

Getting involved in that is probably what started to set me off in the early two thousands, really caring a lot about service design and UX design and how it all intertwined. And solve problems for businesses.

Jon F.

 I want to back up a little bit to where you were talking about your work history; there’s an obvious trajectory. You went through the early creative arc of doing the production work in like creative direction. I think that was, a very common career track.

But then inside of that, something started to develop a motivation, of a sort, and things that you keyed in on.  You’re mentioning some of that as you entered into the two thousands scoping out a little bit from the detailed UI design into how you operationalize, and the systems thinking components to the design work that’s happening.

Is there anything, from your perspective or your, philosophical approach to things or just part of your nature that might’ve keyed you into that?  What did you find was a void or a gap that you were trying to connect to?


 Yeah, well, that’s a cool question too. because during that time, I did everything. I did the industrial design, UX/UI, I was doing product stuff. I was creating physical products (industrial design), I was also doing creative direction, launching campaigns with ad copy and ad units to help push these things.

But the one thing that kept ringing true was it didn’t matter if you were talking about building houses or bridges or you were designing cars or even textile manufacturing. No matter what we were doing, they all followed a similar process.

First ideated upon and considered, that’s when you’re presented with constraints. Then the second stage, you start to gather some information and you sketch out some ideas( a physical sketch or it can just be a figurative sketch). You start to spitball ideas, right? That’s where maybe you do co-design or charettes or things like that. If you’re in architecture. Then, in the third stage, you start to dig into the design. What is this going to look like? What kind of materials are we using? What are our design design standards going to be? (fonts and colors) Materials, if you’re doing a house, it would be, the equivalent to that would be, like, what kind of, tile or flooring or, paint chips. 

And all of this stuff was so similar. I started to look at how everything goes through these stages. And by the time you get to that mid-stage, you have to start considering the downstream effort. What’s it going to look like when it gets built? You start to prototype to visualize the thing.

After that, it has to be shared with people who are actually going to build the thing.  Who are gonna code it, who are gonna be, let’s just say a PM would be more like a job foreman, and then your trade workers at the end of that particular stage gate would be developers. So developers would come to be like your plumbers and your electricians and your carpenters, and the people who get stuff done and they build the thing.

When I realized that everything from architecture to print media to creating a million-dollar trade show booth creating a TV spot, or even a movie, everything goes through those stages. Everything goes through those phases of development. it doesn’t matter; the same person who draws the tennis shoe is not the same person who stitches it up. The same who sketches out the car and draws the futuristic new version of this automobile is gonna be. That’s not the same person who shapes the fender wells in the factory.  

And so understanding that different people come in and out at those different stage gates and what they do and how they do, and then having that holistic bird’s eye view approach of seeing the whole thing happen, like Henry Ford going down the assembly line and understanding how a thing comes from an idea to when it literally rolls out onto the showroom floor for people to experience and purchase or buy or, consume.

When I understood that it was virtually the same for everything, that’s when I had that epiphany, moment. You know what I mean? Like, holy Yeah, this is powerful.

Jon F.

 It’s interesting you’re drawing those comparisons too, because on the web, we went through a period in the nineties and, even into the two thousands where every design team felt like there was a snowflake of blue sky. going into, like, “Hey, I’m going to design something unique that no one’s seen before.” 

And so sort of cast aside the notion of standards. And we had an explosion of anti-standardization…


 Oh yeah. That happened in Web 2.0 too, Man.  That really happened hardcore,  I would say, from 2005 to 2011; that’s when you had all this crazy skeuomorphism; everything was 3-D and had drop shadows…

Jon F.

 And this also, know, in parallel to the other industries you’re mentioning. That would be the equivalent of an architect saying, “No, I’m not going to use those standard fittings for your plumbing and electrical. We’re gonna go huge; we want fat one-foot pipes.”

The reason I bring that up is  I think you’re alluding to, and it sounds like the advent of design operations And sort of this mindset around, “What are the things that we’re doing that are our standard? Or should be thought of as a pipeline of work from inception through design planning and management into engineering and beyond, even the operationalization and the cultural impact it has for the organization to serve that new product function or feature. It has to have to have some guiding hand on “These standards matter because we need to fully operationalize from the design through how we’re treating our customers.” 

So, I think that might be why you landed so squarely in, in service design, as a function of that, because it looks both bi-directionally, right? You care about the customer experience, but you’re also looking deeply at, well, how are we going to service yeah all of that.

So this takes you into the two thousand. You’re now working on projects like AIG, Experian, and AWS. I want to hear some of your favorite experiences that you had during this period of your life and, maybe, what some of your key challenges were. This is also at the advent of,  digitization of things at large, right? Digital transformation. I think we’re all in some stage of that which comes with a host of challenges. Designers are no stranger to those challenges.

So if you’ve run into those, we’d love to hear also, how you might have overcome them.


 Yeah, I can talk about a couple of different projects or a couple of different stints and jobs. I did a lot of work for Kroger, and Kroger is actually the largest grocer in the world. They own KingSoopers in Colorado, and Ralph’s. I did everything for 225 stores and initially designed these Unicru kiosks, where young people could sit down and apply for jobs within the store at this little kiosk. We’re talking 2003, where people still weren’t doing a lot of this online.

I also did the world’s first 24-hour career fair, as far as I know. And then a lot of people copied it, and that actually led into, you know, 24/7 chat and things like that. 

At Kroger, I did a lot of TV, did a lot of radio, and I think one of the things that was really exciting for me was the first time that my son saw me shooting a video for a big campaign. And then he saw it on television, and he heard my voice, you know, in the other room and, and came running around the corner. ’cause I heard the commercial too. And we were in the house at the same time. And so that was really powerful. It was really powerful driving down the street and seeing one of my campaigns, one on the site of an 18-wheeler and one on a billboard. And when he saw that, he flipped out and thought that was so impressive. He thought his dad was a rock star. It was rewarding spiritually and emotionally.

Doing big work for like the companies you mentioned, like AIG, and Experian. Experian was a neat project I did with project 2 0 2. And they’re now called Stellar Elements.  I came in as a co-creative director and UX lead. And it was neat because, as far as digital transformation was concerned at that time, they were only known as a B2B reporter.

And if you remember having things on your credit 10 years ago, You used to have to go through all this rigamarole, and it would take 90 days, sometimes six months, for the thing to drop off of your credit report. And it could be something as stupid as you not paying your cell phone bill on time for one month; maybe you paid it the 45  mark or something, and it goes on your credit forever.


I remember those days,  that was the epitome of customer-last thinking.


 It was a terrible customer-last, for sure, but Experian realized this, and they were real; they’re a real smart company. and they realized that Lexington Law, which was like a law firm at the time, was getting stuff off the people’s credit reports really fast, and Credit Karma was blowing up. People were really using that, and they thought, you know what? We, we can do better, and they did. 

And so they reached out to Project 202; I worked with Project 202 and of the 10 major first initial features that we did, like seven of them are still active today. They’ve had a couple of iterations and rebrands, but for them to pivot from a B2B reporter to a consumer product to a B2C model, that’s pretty powerful. it’s really a testament to the leadership at Stellar Elements.

They’ve done a lot of really powerful stuff, and they specialize in FinTech now. But, that was a really neat project I did with them.

Jon F.

Awesome. Yeah, so when you were going through some of those transformation initiatives, did you run up against any of the cultural aspects of, like, when you’re taking a consumer-led process, “Hey, let’s understand what our, what the needs of the consumers are, let’s get in through a design cycle.” Was all that stuff just open-field for you at that point? Was the leadership just there to support that, or did you run up against any cultural pushback, and whatever that old B2B mentality might’ve been?


Not on those particular projects; I have run into exactly what you’re talking about in some healthcare work. A lot of the healthcare work is really old-guard thinking. There’s a lot of slog in healthcare, and a lot of it is due to policy.

It’s due to government oversight and, things like CMSs and star ratings and, you know, caps scores and surveys. There are things that you can’t really control, and you can’t really change. And so the real task, and to me, the real challenge for everyone who’s in healthcare, which I just want to be really clear, is that I acknowledge and salute every person who goes inside of a healthcare organization, especially a payer or a healthcare system, and tries to change it from the inside out.

That is a thankless job, my friend. It’s hard to do. You’re not going to get rich doing it, and you’re not going to win any awards. And your portfolio pieces are going to look, you know, exactly like what you think they’re going to look like, a bunch of healthcare. And the thing is, you only go into that work if you are passionate about solving problems for people and saving people’s lives.

And everybody who goes within those large organizations and fights for change, you have to know that they are getting punched in the face all day, every day. And they get abused.

It’s hard work because have to balance their desire for profit. The healthcare system is a for-profit system. But the current state is, that it’s a heavily politicized contentious subject, and it’s hard. Because up until about a year ago, it was like consolidated data or non-consolidated data, and now it’s been decided. It’s consolidated, and between Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, those are the three people that own basically the healthcare data and all of the servers. 

And so a lot of health tech is coming out for therapeutics, startups, you name it. And there are these challenger brands coming up, and they’re nipping at the heels of these large payers and large systems. And they’re trying to do things differently. And a lot of them are winning. And also, a lot of them are failing right now. They’re imploding.

They’re imploding because they don’t have great healthcare leadership. inside, because they’re being tech-led instead of being customer-centric, they’re more product-first, and that’s dangerous when you’re getting into something like healthcare. You can get away with being product first if you are a singular app or a singular product, like Uber or Slack or someone like that; Figma, it’s perfectly fine to be product first because what you’re doing when you’re product first is your requirements gathering at all times to feed the product.

So when Teresa Torres says something like doing Product First Discovery, what she’s talking about is a requirements gathering for features. But when we talk about discovery, and we’re in a customer-first environment, we’re talking about learning about people. We’re not talking about having a preconceived outcome or what that solution is going to be. Whether it’s gonna be the web or whether it’s gonna be an app, whether it’s gonna be something.

Because a lot of people do not understand this thing that this point that I’m about to try to make, and that is this. You can see a billboard and make a decision. You can see a TV spot and get a phone number off of it and call in and get some type of service. Let’s just say healthcare, insurance, insurance. medicare, there are a lot of different touchpoints and ways to come into a system. My problem with the way things are heading and the way people are talking in product-first environments is that what I just said is a marketing issue. They think that what I just said it’s somebody else’s problem.

And what they don’t realize is no, it’s an experience design issue. And the product is one small part of experience design. It’s not the other way around. There’s no such thing as everything in the organization is product, but, the truth is every single thing in every large organization is a service.

And so that’s why we have to put design ops and service design first and topmost. And the reason is, that traditional product management and project management if it’s coming from a place of technical acumen and coming from a place of, “Hey, we’re always writing code, and we always need to be in Agile, and we always need to be in Jira and Confluence, kicking the ball down the runway to, launch some type of MVP or to get to some alpha, beta, whatever.”

If, you think in those terms, you are not thinking in terms of a legitimate customer journey because so few people care about your products. So few people care about your actual websites and your mobile apps, but they all care about the service and the job to be done that you are solving for them.

So if we keep that top of mind and focus on that, I think that’s what’s gonna help better businesses’ chance of creating a more desirable future for everyone. Because right now, everything feels really inhumane. And I promise the reason why it feels inhumane is because things are being tech-led, and they’re pushing us into this singularity, and they’re, and those folks are pushing us into experiences that aren’t well thought out. They’re pushing us into experiences that don’t work.

This whole self-service stuff that’s working like at Walmart. And a lot of these other grocers are picking up on this. It’s not working. They have record-breaking shrink. They’re getting rid of the human element and getting rid of people. And I have done a ton of research, man, about why Medicare, Medicaid, why people go to pharmacies. I’ve done a ton of research on why people go to grocery stores, and you would be surprised most of the people over the age of 50 go just to say “Hi” to somebody to get out of the house, to have interaction with human beings.

And all of this technology that we’re embracing or trying to embrace is isolating the hell out of us instead of bringing us together. And I think that’s what’s concerning me most is it doesn’t feel like we have a really good bead and a line on what’s actually happening to us as human beings because depression is up, suicide is up. And people don’t realize just how much. That is laid squarely at the feet of isolating technology and poor experiences.

Jon F.

 Yeah. I’m taking this all the way back to my earliest question to you about, like, what is your motivating intention? And, I think what you’re getting at and what puts you in the space of being a human-centered thinker is that you’re empathetic. 

You care about humankind, and it matters.

Peter Drucker was once quoted saying something like, the purpose, of business or a corporation is, not. To serve products deliver services, but it’s to create a consumer or a market  and who is that made of? It’s, it’s people. So if you lack the intention to connect with people at the human level, you’re actually down a dark road,


 That’s right. Tony Ulwick refers to what you just talked about as markets In a very similar fashion, just a different word, is when we do, initial discovery research and qualitative, right? We do all of our segmentation; we create archetype buckets and archetype groups, and those archetype groups and markets, people who have the same motivations, and behaviors, trying to solve the same problems that need the same things from a system or service.

Those are markets. They can be called archetype groups, whatever you wanna call them. You know, there’s a, there’s 10 different words for everything we do.

Jon F.

 Yeah, absolutely. And I heard you scratching on the surface of this, and I’ll just share it with the listeners here today that Tom and I have bantered a little bit on, LinkedIn, we even talked a little bit offline before we hit the record button here – There is a bit of a culture clash happening in the way organizations are thinking of taking all of their products and services into the digital space. What does that mean for our customers? Where is this genuine inspiration that is human-centered and human-driven coming from? Is it a place of innovation? Are you an adapter or an innovator? And I don’t think it’s any secret that there are organizations out there that are that understand these things. They’re leading their organizations around customer centricity, and they’re building the products in a way that supports their understanding. So that’s one group. There’s this whole other massive group of businesses that have been around for a while, and they’re still sort of figuring that out, transitioning through, the dynamics, culture, and politics in place that are challenging and holding back from taking a human-centered and design-led approach to running their organizations, building their products.

And some of that stuff you were talking about, I think you were being a little kind of, the product-led mentality, it’s there for a reason, agile has gotten software engineering to a certain point, but I think you’re right, about the unintended consequence of not looking squarely at the customer and taking feature led, prioritization into the customer realm. What’s that done to our products and services, and how has that impacted us?


Yeah, part of, service design and part of what we do is. How are we communicating with the customer? Meaning, what do those call scripts look like? What is the salesperson saying when they talk to someone on the phone? And other things that are really critical. What are your pricing tiers? 

And if you ask your average product owner, They don’t know about that stuff. And, and us, you ask your average developer, they know absolutely nothing about that stuff usually. And so, my issue is that is all part of the service. And so that’s all our problem, and we need to have oversight, and we need to have a POV on all of those things because they matter. It doesn’t matter if your buttons and bells and whistles are right in your mobile app, if it’s priced terribly, or if it’s, your marketing and branding and positioning it to the wrong people, or if when someone has a problem with the product, they call in and talk to somebody in a third-world country and get treated like crap because we don’t care enough to have onshore or well-educated people in call centers who know how to triage and get calls to the right type of person or advocate or second-tier or third-tier support.

And all of that is service-related. But again, for everything that I just mentioned, go ask your average developer about that. They don’t know anything about that stuff

Jon F.

 Yeah. that’s a function of cross-functional environments. We have silos that are up, horizontal stakeholders in marketing and sales to support product engineering and even design. There’s some level of siloing across those things.

And I see service design as an attempt to straddle those. And what I’m interested to hear from you a little bit is like in, in your position there, now that you’re up this landscape where you’re straddling these silos, how are you breaking down things that are, functionally barriers to seamlessly stitching together this customer journey and this operational model that spans the entire service program. What types of things are you doing to change culture and bridge those together? 


 Sure. That’s a great question.  I was just on a call with Megan Miller yesterday, and the guys at SDN and we were talking about that.  “How do you manage through and how do you design through conflict? “

First and foremost, the organization that you’re in needs to want to change.

They need to want to get things done. And, I think we can assume that everybody wants to be great at their job and everybody wants to be more effective, right? But what you just mentioned a second ago is a lot of traditional, let’s just say, legacy environments. That has these silos. Some of them are so broken and so toxic that it’s hard to navigate.

And one of the key things that service design tries to do is, “Hey, let’s get all of these people in a room. Let’s find out what’s motivating them, why they’re behaving the way that they are, and why they’re not getting their needs met. Let’s do some type of workshop or some type of co-design session.”

And let’s figure out, how to, get to the next stage. and the way that you do that is you get those key stakeholders and, and you’ve done the, that stakeholder mapping and maybe you interview them before the actual workshop and find out what’s going on. ’cause there might be, some skeletons in the closet and things that you need to unpack because.

There are a lot of people in large organizations who despise other people in the organization or there’s a lot of territorial stuff like the, “get off my lawn” sort of thing, or “That’s my job, not yours”. And so when people start to bridge those gaps, and we start to be cross-functional, and we start to come up with like standard operating procedures like you were talking about in ops, and we start to figure out ways of working across these silos and across different journeys.

And you get resistance, and you get some people who, who will fight you. You get some people who will who will kibosh whatever it is that you’re doing. And it’s hard and it really requires you to be a diplomat and very political. It’s also increasingly hard in large organizations when people are being promoted to positions that they really shouldn’t be in. They can’t necessarily do the work and they’re way over their heads, and that happens in a lot of organizations. And it happened a whole lot in just the last five or six years. 

And so you have to navigate all of those things, and you have to do it with care. And I think the best,  possible way is with strategy and service design and doing things like I mentioned, like workshops and co-design sessions where you get to the bottom of, things together, and that’s just the best path forward usually is let’s just get everyone in a room and talk this out.

Sometimes people are vocal, and they’ll share; sometimes, people won’t. But when you can establish what different teams’ or different business units’ goals are and how they’re being measured, that’s the key right there. What are those OKRs? What are those KPIs for whatever they’re being measured on? How do they get their bonuses? How do they achieve their goals within the organization?

Because once you understand that, you’ll understand a lot of people’s motivating factors, and you can address those things, and you can try to get everyone on the same page. And usually what ends up happening when you do types of sessions is at the end, we realize, man, we’re all kind of in violent agreement, and we’re all secretly on the same page.

But what was happening was a lot of emotion was being assigned to you doing something that I think I should be doing. You know, maybe I had this project a year ago, and I dropped the ball, or maybe it got shelved, and now you know, it’s coming back to light. There’s a lot of that sort of thing too.

And so just, there’s a ton of variables about what you just asked, a ton.

Jon F.

Absolutely. I think of the things that do tend to challenge, like anyone in a design leadership or whether it’s design operations, or service design leadership position, is that the lines of formal authority aren’t really there, where you need to influence or change patterns.

And I think the key word there is “change” is that most people see that if, if you’re in a service design capacity, you’re trying to do some, some change management in order to, you know, better serve the customer, to better position the product, and to better operationalize things. It takes that cross-functional collaboration.

And sometimes, you need to influence change across those boundaries. People look at change as a threat of some kind. So those biological responses start coming up in us, fight or flight adrenaline response. And so, how can you get over those just basic, fundamental things that are very human? You have to try and understand them. You have to be compassionate and have curiosity; where’s this resistance coming from? actually, make an invitation to a world that’s actually gonna be awesome for everybody at the end of your story. And it’s, not written into the job description for any service designer or design ops manager, but it’s something that, just comes with the territory, right?


 Yeah, and you nailed it. all, it’s all about being a good mediator. Understanding that those mediation techniques, it’s all about advocacy. You’re gonna need to be able to, understand, power. If you understand how power works and the distribution of power, who has the power, and what their motivating factors are, that’s critical.

Because you’re gonna, need to frame your problems based on that and based on that stakeholder management, because trust me, when I tell you service designers get abused a lot, and if you’re in a large organization, especially an older organization or a massive organization, it is not a question of if, but when you’re going to piss the right person off, and you’re gonna, and you’re gonna do it just by inviting them to a meeting.

And so-and-so’s been invited to and that so-and-so, and this, this so-and-so shouldn’t be in the same room together, and, and it just happens. And you, and you know, I, the way I described me and my partner that was on my team at UHC is we were kind of like puppy dogs just wanting people to play with us. Like, ”Hey, let’s just get all in the room and hang out together and solve problems.” 

You have to realize really fast that that’s not how other people see things. People see things very territorial. Who gave you the permission to do this? Why are you working on this project? And somebody might give you permission to work on a project or the impetus or the initial problem statement to go solve.

And you might start working on it, knocking on doors and trying to meet with people, stakeholder interviews, and internal fact-finding and discovery. And someone’s gonna be like, why are you doing this? Who told you you could do this? And they’ll say that in the meeting and they’ll shut the meeting down. Like get off the, get off the call and then they’re gonna go make calls and get on stuff. “Do you know who’s representative? Who’s this service designer that just started, and they’re doing X, Y, and Z?” 

That happens all the time. It happens all the time. But it especially happens in very large organizations where there those, you need to understand those power dynamics, Those power structures because everybody wants to look good for their boss. And if they know their bosses, know, got issues with this person over here, or that person over there, or they know that there’s some ongoing thing, then you have to be conscious of that stuff because you will step in it. 

Jon F.

Sure. And I have an underlying premise of my own, but I think you touched on this also, is when an organization is product-led, that they’ll think of service design and product design and user experience and as sub to the product. 

Line itself, which think is a key challenge to what we’re talking about right now, is that the actual function of service design work, which should be somewhere elevated to cross-silo and to look at how customer support, sales, marketing, and product all functioning to serve the customer experience and our operational capacity to do it well is a tier above.

Right, when you’re functionally sub to a product, and you’re, you’re trying to sort of move up and lateral, I think it brings a lot of question marks just out of the gates. And


You bring up a really powerful and important point, and because service design is not understood in large organizations, what ends up happening is service design teams and service service design team members; end up getting distributed to the product. They end up getting distributed and answering to a specific PM or a specific journey owner or a specific, you know, someone who owns an app or owns a website or owns this.

The thing is, you just mentioned that that is not the way to do service design, and that’s gonna be very difficult for the service designer. The reason is that they’re gonna start using the service designer for a glorified workshop person or just to do fake journeys and fake blueprints.

And most of the time, they’re not gonna see the value or understand why we need to do research. And they’re also going to expect that every single thing that you do contributes to their specific output and their app. If you were to be given a problem statement and a problem to go solve and you go verify through your service design, through your initial research, that that’s not the problem to solve. And then in fact, the real problem for this issue is over here at somebody else’s department, you’re just dead in the water.

You won’t be able to go over and solve that problem for them or have, interactions with them. They’re gonna tell you to force all of your, your outputs into whatever it is that they’re doing. That’s really problematic, and I’ve experienced that, and it’s, it does, it just doesn’t work 

Jon F.

Yeah. I said it was an underlying premise of mine, but I also believe that organizations need to really think hard about where they are placing service design and design operations in a way that can really get to the heart of matters in “how we operate and how do we do this stuff in a way that’s centered around the customer and is serving the organization’s best interests towards operational excellence is.” Until they’re figured out like what’s the right altitude for these, these functions to be serving at the organization and positioning them well there with the executive sponsorships necessary to drive the needle, you know, in the direction it should be going, we’re always going to run up against this.

I mean, it’s unfortunate, but I think, you know, this takes us to, I think, the last section of our discussion here, and I want to hear from you just your general take on the economic and technical climate. The state of service design design in general, but then also if you have any predictions for, you know, what’s on the roadmap for 2024 2025. Love to hear that from you.


 Yeah, so, I really genuinely believe that in the not-so-distant future, ops will hold all strategy and service design, and they will be a core function of the business. That you’re not gonna be distributed amongst product teams or under, a product owner or under a chief technical officer

we should be answering directly to the business, and we should be working together as ops, strategy, and service design. But also, if you do need to distribute design specifically, not ops or strategy, would say that they could also have good service designers on cx, you know, on a customer experience, of course. Yep. But yeah, it would be my hope and my dream in the future that, yeah, we answer directly to the business, 

Jon F.

 Before we go forward, I respond to that  I feel like what happened, and I could be wrong, and I could be pissing people off when I say this, but businesses went through this digital transformation piece, right?

Digital Happened. And whether businesses are willing to admit this or not; operations had to change the businesses functionally served the new digital era changed underneath them. We had technologists come up with DevOps to better serve the way products were, digitally constructed, built, and put out into the marketplace. Design ops came fast on the heels to make sure that our researchers and designers were, functionally aligned.

And so we had all these functional specific operations lined up at the mid-tier, below the vision or the visibility of the chief operations officer.  So they’re all there; we’ve got DevOps managers, design ops managers, we’ve got product ops, and you can name your handful of so many different other ops that are cropping up everywhere, not connected with a straight line. There’s a dotted line to, business operations, but need to finish the job. And I think the job is to formalize operations where these things are servicing at the right level so that they’re doing it, strategically, intentionally, and without conflict.


 Agreed. 100%. Agreed. Man. We’re on the same page, and if you want, when we get off, we can start to outline what our cult-slash-revolution looks like because we’re on the same page. 

But yeah, I think what’s happening right now, you know, unfortunately, gonna be honest about that, is the design and the dev debt is piling up. I think the reduction in staff for, the people that are staying behind in large organizations versus the people that they’re getting rid of as far as all of this bloodletting is really telling about where their head’s at. And I, that is going to fail for sure. 

And, the design and dev debt is gonna keep piling up, and eventually CEOs are gonna want to know what’s going on because they’re gonna start to see backlash, the drop in N P Ss, the drop in Employee satisfaction scores, things like that, they’re gonna keep dropping and, and eventually it’s just gonna,  drop through the bottom and it’s gonna be in such a, a state of dysfunction that it can do nothing but go up and be repaired.

But think AI is going to be a source of a lot of turmoil as far as privacy rights, and data are concerned. I think we’re seeing that kind of blowup right now as far as, let’s just say, the beginning of 2024.

I think there’s going to be a backlash against traditional, agile, safe, and product-first and the people who support that mentality in the context where it doesn’t work. Okay. So where it works, it works. And where it doesn’t is, in my opinion, the majority of where it’s being used. And so I think different types of designers are not just service designers, but service designers are changing their titles, man.

They’re calling themselves strategists, or they’re leaving the role altogether because it’s not understood, and we just unpacked why. And, and they’re, they don’t wanna work directly for, for product people, for obvious reasons. But, gonna happen. A lot of people are gonna leave the workforce, and they’re gonna transition into other roles that are in designed UX that, you know, the term UX and the, and the role of the UX designer and interaction designers all largely going away and they’re just really just being called product designers.

And so I, I think all of that is happening. I think this, and this, could be a really good thing. I think a lot of those UX designers who find themselves on the outs of, you know, not being able to get hired and things like that, I think they should transition into more design ops and PM roles, and I think they could be more beneficial there.

I think people are gonna discontinue using terms like product design, and they’re gonna see things for what they really are, which is a service. Everything is a service. And the term XaaS, X.a.a.S is gonna be used a lot more to express that, I think. Service design strategy and design ops roles are gonna, are, and they should.

If, things go well, and we start to rebuild, and we start to head out of the recession in the next year or two, you’re gonna see those roles rise rapidly. The people are gonna need those to rebuild ’cause they’re gonna double down on caring about customers. Right now, I think a lot of people are scared.

They’re trying to run lean with a skeleton crew, and that’s gonna change. It has to change. So CEOs are going to start to realize level and of design and dev debt, everything that we just finished talking about, and, and they’re gonna, and they’re gonna start to look for where that mismanagement and is, is occurring.

And, you know, where that lies. I think businesses are gonna want us, you know, try to stay afloat, and They’re gonna respect the need to work squarely on their data and the centralization of their data. So many very large organizations have of products and services, and their data doesn’t talk with one another.

They have walled gardens, and they have, no single sign-on. And yet, you know, you can come in and out of a system and need to go in and out of products and experiences, and you have to sign in with a different login.

And this is, is just a horrible experience, and this is happening to everybody. It’s happening in a lot of really large organizations. I think people are really gonna focus on that because they’re gonna need to act upon that data, right? 

And it can’t be hidden in different business units and under different people.  It needs to be in some type of centralized repository and it needs to be accessible with some type of smart database, or access. And that, and that’s a huge issue for everyone.

I think. NLP is gonna change and jumps so far in the next year that it’s gonna omit, and, I think prompting is gonna largely go away within the next year. ’cause NLP is already, growing leaps and bounds, and it’s, it’s getting smarter.  I think AI is gonna be employed to,  do a lot of the low-level call screening and triage and small tasks in large organizations.

And I think that call centers should be shaken in their boots, especially the, you know, the first tier call centers, because AI is going to replace that entire industry, and it should. And I think it’s okay to say that. I think a lot of UI design work actually is going to be made obsolete by AI pretty quickly here.

I mean, a bunch of different apps that are, that are out right now, and there’s a couple of companies where you’re prompting for them to go build,  different screen flows and different use cases and prompting.

And I, I think that that’s gonna blow up and, happen, and the change in development’s gonna happen for sure.  So, just expect all that ’cause it’s coming. Those are my predictions for the next year, man. 

Jon F.


I don’t know if you’ve already read it or if it’s on your. But thank you for being late by Thomas Friedman. He’s talking about how Moore’s Law is essentially pulling the entire world into unregulated spaces, and also us to redefine our relationships with the institutions that we’ve held

Yep. to date. And I, I feel like nobody’s safe from that, right? So, user experience workers should also be thinking about what is the actual impact and value that we’ve been bringing to the work that we do every day, beyond the pixels we push, the screen flows, and the UIs and the components. is it that’s at the heart of the matter? 

Understanding human beings and making sure that you’re looking at them as complete people. When they’re looking at your organization, what are the needs, your jobs to be done that you had mentioned earlier, and how can we align those things functionally so that we’re a part of their life in a meaningful way? I think that may be hard for AI to supplant. may not be. I’m not sure. But I’d like to think that a human in the loop is still gonna be necessary somewhere in our future. But, I also heard from you that you feel like we’re still on this downward trend, and we need to hit some bottom before we start elevating ourselves back out and getting to another point of a renaissance.


 Yeah. And, without, like, going super deep into this, if you, if you read the article that I wrote called “The Human Cost of Bad Design,” the whole first three paragraphs are all about these terrible things that have been happening that are, that’s just like riddling the news cycle from bad design

And you know, that kind of stuff is gonna keep happening and it’s gonna keep blowing up in our face, no pun intended, but it, the, these things are gonna keep transpiring and we need to address them before,  large scale catastrophic things occur.

And also, we also need to start talking about the non-human stakeholders that are, that need to be in the room. We need to constantly be talking about things like our environment, things like our natural resources. You know, those things aren’t replenished. They’re going away. 

We really need to take stock in, you know, what our brands, what our experiences, and what our needs from technology are doing, and what it’s doing to our brains and doing to one another, and what it’s doing to the planet.

Jon F.

 Well, Thomas, one, of the things I love about you and I do read your articles when you post them, the comments you post on other people’s posts, don’t hold back. You definitely speak your mind, and you’re always looking for some form of an answer, some solution.

You’re not just leaving people in, in doom and gloom. in this conversation. Like, I hear you towards some bottom that we need to hit, but I’m also hearing a story of hope.


 I have hope! Humans are really resilient, and I know that you know, in times of tribulation and darkness, you know that that’s when we shine and that’s when that’s the that’s when the most beautiful, that’s aspects of, of being human comes out is when we wanna solve a problem together.

And that’s what we do for a living solve problems. Right? And what’s more beautiful than that? Good luck doing that robot

Jon F.

 Absolutely. Well, it’s been a great hour that we’ve been talking now, and I just want to let all the listeners know have the link to Thomas’s LinkedIn in the description. free to connect with him. guy all around. Love sharing in the comment fields of other people’s posts together. And I look forward to continued conversations and out with you there.


 Good talk, Jon. I appreciate it. 

Jon F.

 Thank you all for listening.



Jon F.

All right. Take care.


Bye now.