What the startup world needs: service design

We're in danger of forgetting the user in a whirlwind of product-focus, aquihires and pivots. Perhaps the time has come to think more about the user than the product - and that means service design.

Google’s sense of timing has never been worse than when it decided to launch its new note-service Google Keep within days of the news about the doom of Google Reader breaking.

The reaction was inevitable and predictable. On Malik was, in particular, vocal about his lack of interest in using the service:

This is what I said: It is hard to trust Google anymore to make rational and consumer centric decisions. I said — nuanced as it might be — that I don’t trust Google to introduce new apps and keep them around, because despite what the company says, these apps are not their main business. Their main business is advertising and search — regardless of whatever nonsense you might read. They will sacrifice anything and everything to keep those businesses intact.

There’s data to back this up. Once you move beyond Google’s core businesses, their product only last a handful of years. Charles Arthur at The Guardian ran the figures:

According to data I’ve gathered on 39 Google services and APIs – ranging from the short-lived “Google Lively” (a 3D animated chat introduced on 9 July 2008 and euthanised just 175 days later, on 31 December) to the surprisingly long-lived iGoogle (a personalised Google homepage, to which you could add RSS feeds and data, introduced in May 2005 and due for the chop in November after 3.106 days) – the average lifespan of products that don’t make the cut is 1,459 days. That’s just two days short of four years.

What was once Google’s strength – the sense that it was playful, experimental and interested in providing tools for web users – is rapidly becoming a weakness, as the company’s lack of interest in supporting those users long-term becomes clear. Once bitten, twice shy. This product- rather than user-focus is far from unique to Google, though.

There’s a danger that the startup world becomes a game played for the participants, not the users. The more it focuses on products and teams, the less important the user appears to become. The focus on finding an exit is all about pleasing investors or acquirers rather than building a sustainable business for you customers.

The acqui-hire – where a product is bought, shut down and the team put to work improving the products of the acquirer – is a particularly egregious example of this. The decisions works well for users of the acquiring product, the team acquired and the acquiring company. Users of the acquired company? They’re out of luck. Their product is shut down, often at very short notice.

Companies that resist acquisition, provide means for users to become customers, and appear to be trying to build long-terms sustainable business are becoming the exception rather than the rule. But when the exceptions are market-leading companies like Evernote and Dropbox, I’m surprised we’re not seeing more people imitating them.

This is why I’m so glad to see service design back on the agenda at NEXT this year. As last year’s special Service Design event made clear, this is a discipline of building products – great products – while still keeping users in mind at every step of the journey. The events of the last few weeks have made it plain that we need to see more of that.