Tweet for service

I was in San Francisco in August to attend the UX Week conference. At about 3.30pm on the last day of the conference – Friday – JetBlue sent me an email to say they had cancelled my flight to Boston on the Sunday.


I had accommodation booked in Boston, and in New York, where I was supposed to be on the following Tuesday. Not sure what to do, I immediately rang JetBlue’s customer service number to find out what my options were. The call was answered by a machine (as most incoming – and even some outgoing – calls are these days). The voice recording told me that the JetBlue customer service hotline was too busy to take my call, and that I should try again later. And then it hung up on me.

Double damn.

Ringing a call centre is rarely fun, even at the best of times. But to have them hang up on me when I needed help left me pretty angry. I didn’t know why they had cancelled my flight, or what my options were.

I scanned the internet and found that JetBlue had, in fact, cancelled over 1200 flights for the forthcoming weekend due to the impending arrival of Hurricane Irene on the east coast of the United States. I was just one of thousands of JetBlue passengers (and thousands more passengers on other airlines) who had been inconvenienced by the hurricane. Not wanting to be stuck, I quickly found a ticket out of San Fransisco to the east coast with US Airways for the following Tuesday – the first day that air travel looked like it would resume normal service.

So I had a ticket out of San Francisco, but I also needed to see what I could do about my cancelled JetBlue ticket. The JetBlue website said that they would offer full refunds for flight cancellations. I looked up JetBlue on Twitter. They appeared to be active and responding to mentions (of which there were not that many). I tweeted for help.

@ My flight from SFO to BOS on Sun has been cancelled. How can I organize a refund/reschedule? Your call center disconnects me…

Not long after, JetBlue tweeted back, requesting me to send a direct message with my booking number. After a few messages back and forth over a ten-minute time span, my refund had been processed. And only a few days later, the full cost of the ticket was refunded to my credit card.


With 1200 cancelled flights and many more disrupted passengers, the customer service hotline was unable to cope with the instant spike in traffic and left me (and surely others) frustrated and anxious about my travel plans. By employing Twitter as a customer service channel, JetBlue was able to be responsive to customer demand where customers were requesting help.

While unanswered calls to an organisation’s customer service hotline can disappear into the ether, tweets for help are harder to ignore, especially as tweeters can instantly take their dissatisfaction to a wider audience. It’s good to see organisations becoming more aware of the conversations about the their brands happening in the online world, and best of all, to see them being responsive to facilitate better customer service. Good work, JetBlue!

Update: Sounds like this kind of help is typical of JetBlue. Check out this Harvard Business Review blog post for another view on great customer service during Hurricane Irene and another great save during ‘Snowmageddon’ 2010.

customer service

Is this jaywalking?

Pedestrian crossing at tram stopNear my office there is a tram stop located in the middle of the road. You can access it from the street crossing at the intersection, or from the other end of the platform, further up the road.

At the end of the platform furthest from the intersection (shown in the pictures), there is affordance for crossing the street to or from the platform – it looks to have been purposely built to enable people to access the platform. However, there is no pedestrian crossing (zebra stripes on the road) to allow pedestrians to safely cross the lane of traffic between the footpath and the platform. As it stands, cars or bikes have right of way over pedestrians.

Pedestrian crossing at tram stopElsewhere in the city, similar styles of platforms have zebra-striped pedestrian crossings, giving pedestrians the right of way. People are often rushing to catch the tram, some even dash across lanes of traffic to avoid missing it – so it seems to make sense to give pedestrians the right of way.

But who has right of way at this crossing? Furthermore, is it even legal for pedestrians to cross the street here, given there is an intersection with crossing lights located only about 20 metres away? Is this institutionally-encouraged jaywalking?

There is a danger that this inconsistent implementation could lead to some confusion, and maybe some nasty accidents.

What do you think?

user experience

Service innovation lost in the wild

I find shopping for shoes notoriously difficult. I only tend to buy them when old pairs are falling apart. I generally prefer something not too flashy, not too high, not too sparkly, and not too expensive. Imelda Marcos I am not.

Walking past a shoe shop in the centre of Melbourne, I saw something sufficiently plain and moderately priced. It fit, so I bought it. The sales assistant put through the sale and handed me my bag of shoes. I walked home across the city.

That looks cool…

When I got home, I opened up the bag to have another look at the shoes. When I pulled the shoe box out of the bag I saw something a bit unusual:

Shoe box

There was some sort of elastic band sitting on the top of the box. Intrigued, I opened it up to see what was going on. Inside, I found a statement from the shoe company regarding their efforts towards conservation:

This unique shoe box has been designed to minimise the need for shopping bags and thus, help the environment! We care about the environment and are implementing new strategies to help preserve it as best we can for future generations.

Shoe box

I thought that was pretty cool – a company making a concrete effort to innovate on the periphery of their core line of business. Personally, I can’t remember seeing anything particularly new around shoe packaging since…well, forever! Not only had the shoe company taken steps to reduce its impact on the environment, but the elastic was a cool way to make their service a bit more memorable.

Shoe box

So what’s the problem?

So, you might be wondering where I am going with the service design angle?

Well, it was only when I got home that I saw that shoe box has the elastic handles – the whole point of the service innovation had been lost. In this case the shoe company had not been able to “minimise the need for shopping bags”, as they had claimed they do – I had come home with yet another shopping bag, and only discovered their service innovation out of my own curiosity.

I interpret this as a service design disconnect. The shoe company, an Australian family company, is a successful one. The company’s website says that the business was founded on the principle that customers should be satisfied with the service provided (incidentally, there is no mention of the shoe box innovation on their website). The management of the company has taken a positive decision to be more environmentally conscious, and although the physical manifestation of this decision – the shoe box – has been implemented, the communication around it is lacking.

Service delivery on the front line

The service innovation has been ‘lost in the wild’ – that is, the employees on the front line have not delivered on the promise made by the company. No matter what decisions are taken at management level, unless the front line service staff deliver them as they were intended to be delivered, the service offering may as well not exist.

I guess that this service disconnect has occurred for one of the following reasons:

  1. The sales assistant forgot that the new boxes don’t require bags
  2. The sales assistant was under too much time pressure to point out the features of the new box (not true in this instance – I was the only customer)
  3. The sales assistant had not been made aware of the innovative boxes
  4. The sales assistant did not like the new boxes (the elastic was kind of hard to get around the box the first time I tried) and so did not use them properly

If the sales assistant forgot to explain about the new boxes, that’s unfortunate, but then we’re only human, so it can be excused every now and then. But if any of the other three reasons are true, then there is an issue. It makes me think that the change to the new boxes has not been properly designed and/or communicated.

In a perfect world…

In a perfect ’service-designed’ world, this change to the service surrounding the purchase of shoes should have been designed with input from the customers (of course!) and all parts of the business, including the sales assistants. The new boxes would have been prototyped and tested in all sorts of service environments. The sales assistants would have understood the reason for the change, and hopefully be ‘on board’ with the new direction.

The bottom line is that without the buy-in of customer-facing employees, this shoe company has missed an opportunity to capitalise on this valuable touchpoint with service innovation.

What about you?

Can you think of any other reasons why the sales assistants might not have used the cool new boxes as they were intended? Have you noticed other good-intentioned service providers fall short at the final, customer-facing hurdle? Tell me about it in the comments!

customer service, service design

Passenger safety has a price

A few months ago, I praised what I saw to be a great safety improvement in the way Yarra Trams highlighted doors so that passengers and drivers could see them more easily.

Photo of the new Yarra Trams livery

See how clearly marked the doors were.

As my tram approached this morning, I was a bit surprised to see that the doors on the tram were now positively camouflaged. Can you find the doors on the tram?

Yarra Trams full-body tram advertising

In fact, I was pretty disappointed. To see the tram covered in advertising to the point that the doors were no longer discernible seemed like a massive regression on great progress. Not only that, but it said to me that passenger safety has a price – it is only a priority if advertising dollars cannot be secured.

On the Yarra Trams website, Your new look Yarra Trams (PDF) (published 2010) contains the following:

“To further improve safety all door frames will be enhanced with highly visible yellow vinyl as well as an additional reflective strip. These increase visibility for pedestrians and drivers to improve safety across the network.”

They left out the caveat: …only if we can’t make some money out of them. Shame, Yarra Trams.

customer service

Ezio Manzini on sustainable design, or, dinosaurs had their day, too

Ezio Manzini is a leading Italian thinker in the domain of sustainable design with a focus on social innovation. I won’t bore you with all his credentials (you can read about them in his CV), suffice to say he has been around as a student, lecturer, and professor across the world for a long time!

Ezio is in Australia as part of the Social Innovator Dialogues series, presented by ASIX, TACSI and CSI. The Social Innovator Dialogues aim to “challenge us to think differently about the big issues affecting our nations and communities and to find practical ways to integrate innovative approaches into our responses to unmet social needs”.

On Wednesday night as the rain poured down, Ezio addressed an eager audience at Treasury Theatre in Melbourne to talk about Designing innovation. Here are a few of the thoughts I noted down:

The basics of civilisation under threat

Ezio opened the evening with the idea that many of the things that a healthy society needs to function are under threat from our current way of living.

Quality of relationships

We must move towards recreating trust, rebuilding communities
De-mediated interactions are imperative

Quality of space

Public space is diminishing
We need to re-conquer public space, re-generate it and improve it

Quality of time

‘Fast’ has it’s place, but ’slow’ is valuable too
We need time to contemplate

Quality of being capable

People have skills and capabilites that must be used and valued
There is pride in being able to offer a skill to the community

On this idea of capability, Ezio said that over time, the idea of welfare has become quite passive. He believes that instead of passively accepting welfare or the notion of wellbeing, citizens should become more engaged and activated in creating their own wellbeing – co-creation as a means of engagement. People should be encouraged to use their capabilities. With over 6 billion people on earth who are capable of solving the world’s problems, we need to ensure they have the skills, knowledge and tools to participate in the journey towards sustainability.

The answer? SLOC

Ezio believes that in reaction to these crises of quality, some deep trends are emerging – namely, a transition to a society more focussed on the concepts of small, local, open and connected. He says that the interplay of these four concepts is the way forward to sustainable social innovation.


Small used to be a synonym for inconsequential in a more hierarchical structure. In the networked society, small just means one part of a larger organism; small still has the power to make things happen and influence those around it


Increasing globalisation has reintroduced the concept of localisation. Our local identity is important, as we often define ourselves by who we are in a place, in our surroundings. The ‘local’ can be leveraged to affect change on a small scale, and then to influence the greater society.


Be open to new ideas, share with others
Don’t become so focussed on the ‘local’ that you block others out


Connectedness allows for a flatter structure – nodes can talk to each other, and there is no need for top-down dissemination of information

The future: Distributed systems

To make the switch to sustainable lifestyles, Ezio suggested that we need to challenge the hierarchical, top-down nature of society and transition to a world in which networks are distributed.  Distributed networks, he argued, are more resilient and adaptable. Hierarchical, pyramid-style structures are fragile and break easily, whereas distributed networks are better able to deal with complexity and turbulence as any issues that are arrived can be dealt with locally.

Similarly, infrastructure is beginning to become more distributed – think of domestic water tanks, solar power generated by individuals that feeds back into the grid, peer-to-peer computer networks. We are finding that by connecting to each other we are more efficient than relying on a single, larger source.

Ezio says that these distributed networks will succeed in recruiting members of society when their alternative ideas/methods/outcomes are successful – people will not be forced to join, they will want to opt in to these new ways of thinking because they are appealing.

But how?

Ezio cited several concrete examples of people innovating sustainably in different (and appealing) ways:

And the dinosaurs?

After Ezio’s speech, some audience members asked questions, mainly to do with the practicalities of innovating. Someone wanted to know how we could possibly hope to persuade large corporations and governments to adopt a more sustainable and/or socially innovative perspective.

Obviously this is not a straightforward question, and Ezio began by reminding us that dinosaurs, too, had their day. He said there is a tipping point where the minority becomes the majority, and there is no reason to think the transition to sustainability will not happen – most of us would agree it is a question of when, not if. Every empire eventually falls, and it is the idea of distributed networks that is important in overthrowing the current, unsustainable way of operating. Making connections with other like-minded people and continually finding and advocating for more innovative solutions is the way forward.

Hear for yourself

I managed to find Ezio Manzini on Youtube so you can get a feel for the man himself. In this video from 2009 he is talking about social innovation, so there are many similar ideas.

What next?

Listening to thought-provoking talks such as Ezio’s always leaves me wondering how I can make a difference. With my skills in user experience, I am working with a team on an online platform to bring together and strengthen real-world groups. It’s a spare time project, but we’re making slow progress! I’m always on the lookout for other cool ideas that are happening, particularly around inner Melbourne, where I live.

What are you doing to to make your life and the lives of others around you more sustainable? Do you know of any exciting social innovation projects in your area? Share your story in the comments.

Update: Searching for more information on Ezio Manzini, I came across Suze Ingram’s fantastic Service Design Hub post about Ezio’s talks – she also links to the same video. Check out her post too!

events, service design

Trains, trams and customer experience

Whilst in Japan in January, I used the train services quite a lot. Japan is a very densely populated nation and major cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are particularly crowded. However the country is somewhat legendary for its efficient and effective train services. Trains are a popular, reliable and speedy way of travelling between major cities in Japan; the trains are clean, signage is clear and you feel safe.

Check out the following two videos showing how Japanese trains stop precisely where they are supposed to (also, I have no idea what the Italian guys are saying…):

Much of this efficient and effective service undoubtedly comes from outstanding infrastructure, timetabling, technology and diligent employees – all of which fall under the responsibility of the operating companies and/or the government. However for the train services to run as planned, it requires passengers to co-operate with the system and other customers.

Customer experience

In the case of public transport, a good* customer experience is often reliant on the behavior and attitudes of other customers. Public transport is a relatively unique situation in our lives when personal space is not respected. No matter how good the public transport service is, if another passenger in our immediate area is disruptive, rude or abusive, the journey experience will be poor. What’s more, a passenger on another train, or on another line, can also affect someone’s journey, such is the interwined and inter-reliant nature of train travel.

(* For the purposes of public transport, I am classifying a ‘good’ experience as one that is happily uneventful!)

The Japanese rail services set clear expectations of passenger behaviour, and these are most often respected. Though I believe some of this behaviour can be attributed to cultural conditioning (cultural/social anthropologists – feel free to step in!), rail passengers understand that respecting the requests made by the rail operators will contribute to a journey that runs on time, is free of disruptions and pleasant for all passengers.

Or maybe they are just shamed into it (see photo below)!?

Photo of a sign in a Japanese train: It's painful to get caught between the closing doors. Even more so are the eyes of those looking at you.

These are some of the ways in which Japanese rail operators facilitate a good customer experience, and encourage passengers to respect each other:

Photo of the back of a train seat with a map of the surrounding carriages

Photo of people queuing in a line to board a train

Women-only carriages

Marks on the ground indicating position of train doors

[As an aside, I noticed a similar floor-marking concept to this Japanese one has been introduced into Paris' metro, whereby yellow marks on the ground show commuters where to stand in order to board the arriving train without getting in the way of people getting off. In typical Parisian fashion, no-one was paying attention to these marks, and it was just as difficult as it always has been to fight your way into the carriage! Granted, this is a new concept, but I find there is a large gap between the efficiencies found in the way Japan manages their population (as well as the citizens' acquiescence) and the French culture.]

Recent improvements to Melbourne trams

Anyway, this leads me to something I noticed after arriving back home in Melbourne. Yarra Trams have recently revamped the look of the trams’ exterior (or livery, which I believe is the technical term).

Photo of the new Yarra Trams livery

The main difference between this new design and the older one is that the doors are now outlined in yellow. Not only is this new design safer for customers, but it also gives them more information about the location of the doors so it is easier to work out where to stand in order to board the approaching tram.

Melbourne is nowhere near as densely populated as Tokyo, but as we move towards the future with a greater focus on public transport (and a rapidly growing population!), it will be important for the network to become more robust, efficient and effective. Not only that, but greater respect of passengers for each other (and the rules!) should be encouraged to help us all to get where we’re going just that bit faster.

I’d be interested to hear what measures public transport organisations are taking in your city to improve the experience of the commuter. Tell me about it in the comments!

service design

Improving the taxi experience for the vision-impaired

On a recent trip to Canberra I noticed that taxis now have the vehicle number printed in braille next to the passenger door handles.

I have to say, I had never particularly thought about the taxi experience of a vision-impaired person, but like any other taxi cab customer, vision-impaired people may need to take note of the taxi number in order to report a complaint, find lost personal belongings or even register a compliment about the driver.

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Will you help me App My State? – Victorian Government’s Gov 2.0 initiative

Last year I enjoyed participating in the Lonely Planet / GovHack Hack Day where the team I was in created an application to get people to convert to solar power – mySolarSaver. We were lucky enough to win the Gov 2.0 prize, and got to meet Nicholas Gruen, the head of the Australian Government’s Gov 2.0 Taskforce.

I’m hoping some of that good form will rub off for the Victorian Government’s App My State initiative – the concept is the same, but this time there is $100,000 on the table! The government is encouraging web (and ideas!) people to work together to come up with innovative ways of using and displaying public sector data to the benefit of citizens.

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Joinedupdesignforschools – public sector innovation in the UK

Whilst in London over the holidays, I accidentally (and happily!) ended up at the Sorrell Foundation’s Young Design Centre at Somerset House on the banks of the Thames. A fantastic display is presented in the What’s Next for Schools? exhibition, a product of the joinedupdesignforschools program.

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events, service design

The right direction for good service

This Christmas I’ve decided to leave the warm temperatures in Melbourne and spend the holidays in sub-zero Europe (it almost sounds a bit crazy, really). Those of you who have ever done the Kangaroo Route will know it’s a long trip! Approximately 24 hours in the air with a brief stopover, and you’ve just about had it – I normally just want to find my hotel and have a little lie down.

As such, I have been investigating how best to get from London Heathrow airport to my (budget) hotel, using the good old London Tube. I want to get there the cheapest and most efficient way; I’ll be laden down with suitcases, backpacks and a sleepy head! So I looked up the hotel’s website to find out where they were, and how to get there.

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customer service, service design