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Digital Service Blueprinting at Intuit - Interview with Erik Flowers

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
October 27, 2016

intuit 1

We live in a service-based economy, yet most organizations fail to provide satisfying services. Good service design remains elusive for many providers.

Part of the challenge is that, unlike physical goods, the transitions between touchpoints in a service are intangible. Services unfold in real time, and then those moments are gone.

Creating blueprints - visual maps of the service and all of its touchpoints - let teams better understand all of the moving parts. Blueprints let teams visualize the service and take a step back from it.

Erik Flowers knows service blueprints.  As a Principal Experience Designer at Intuit, Erik creates a lot of blueprints. He is a well-known and respected service designer and head of the Practical Service Design community.

I caught up with him in an interview to discuss his work at Intuit, the importance of working visually, and how MURAL helps their teams.


JIM: Tell us a little about your role at Intuit. What do you do there? What team / department do you work for?

ERIK: I spent my first 2 years at Intuit working as part of the customer care experience team. I worked with what we call our Voice of the Customer leaders to take our customer’s top pains–usually indicated by call volume in the call centers–and map out those scenarios to define, diagnose, and remediate the issues.

This was all done in the hopes that if we could go upstream far enough, we could stop the issues before they even happened, instead of trying to solve for the customer pain with better support. Essentially, it was trying to make the product experiences better and more effective, rather than making support better.

Of course, customer support will never go away, but if we can eliminate the pain, then the care agents and managers can focus on higher priority and more complicated issues, while myself and my partners go back and do what we called the “root cause remediation.”

Erik Flowers working on "root cause remediation" with teams at Intuit

JIM: What are you currently working on?

Presently, I am working in a different space where I am trying to improve our internal employee experience and process between design and development and how those teams work together, trying to offer “efficiency as a service” by working on all our backstage touchpoints and processes to accelerate how we actually work.

Employee experience is frequently overlooked in any company, but it’s one of the core tenets of service design and can be a massive accelerator in team efficiency and output. After all, how you deliver what you design is just as important as what you designed in the first place.

Everything we do is a form of providing or performing something in service to a customer’s need. Sometimes that means working on the front stage where they interact, sometimes it means working in the backstage and improving how we deliver.

Backstage activities affect the front stage experience

JIM: It kind of sounds like you did move upstream, if backstage. Do you feel like anything you're doing now will help your (ex)colleagues in customer care?

I think everything I’m doing now will have impacts downstream in places that end up in customer care. That’s sort of the beauty of service design is that it’s timeline based – you’re looking at the customer’s job to be done, and how they are hiring your service to do it. This means that you don’t have to, and shouldn’t, just fix things at the moment of impact.

So much can be remedied at a root-cause that can be far removed from the pain. It’s a temporal effect. A customer’s experience is a collection of the memories of touchpoints they experienced along the way.

We think that what they experience is what they interact with, but it’s the cumulative memory of everything that happened, start to finish, that ends up being what a customer considers “the experience” they had. It’s subconscious and something we all do.

When asked about your Disneyland experience, how many people run down the highs and lows of each touchpoint, and how many sum it up in the overall impression that it made emotionally? Everything we build and provide to our customers is experienced in the same way, except instead of an amusement park, it’s a collection of financial products and services.

But in the end, what is looked at is the memory of the end-to-end experience, with often the first and last segments of the experience that characterize the whole thing.

JIM: How do you think your current work impacts the customer experience at Intuit?

ERIK: To bring it to my current work – I think by working on how we deliver, not just design, the touchpoints and evidences to the customer has huge impact on what is the eventual experience they have.

External experiences and systems mirror the organization that built them. You can’t separate the backstage from the front stage; the front stage is simply an output of the backstage, and the customer traverses it and designs their own experience every single time it is traversed.

Even as we work on technology and things that seem far removed from the services we perform and provide, in the end the customer “hires” what we build to help them accomplish their goal, and they create the experiences. We can only design for service.

That’s the long answer to “yes, I believe this work and service design in general is one of the primary levers for the overall delivery of how customers experiences what we make.”

Service design means looking at touchpoints across the entire journey

JIM: Great thoughts. Of course, Intuit is known for having an effective and mature Design (with a capital D) capability. What is your secret sauce? How do you guys continue to excel?

ERIK: I think the secret is the worst kept secret in the tech and design industry. It is simply a top-down commitment to the original “Design for Delight” (D4D) principles of deep customer empathy, go broad to go narrow, and rapid experimentation with customers. You can read about it in this HBR article.

Essentially D4D was a decision to be design-driven, which doesn’t mean designER-driven. It means that every employee is empowered to follow those D4D principles and maintain a customer-backed focus on everything you do and produce.

There was also an “Innovation Catalyst” program started to train people on a ‘certification’ of sorts to be a Catalyst, to help spread the training and exposure to this type of customer-backed design thinking.

It’s one of the reasons I like being a part of the design team here; it really is embraced and followed through on. There’s no lip-service. I wouldn’t do an interview like this that will live on the web forever in writing if I didn’t really believe it and want others to as well.

Even as people come and go like any other company, the principles are durable and in the DNA now. There’s no going back, and it’s that factor that lets us continue to excel and stay relevant.

Intuit has a visible, tangible commitment to designing for customers and serving their needs through various products and services. But in the end, what is important is the job the customer is trying to get done, and we are able to use those D4D principles to stay true to that customer centric vision.

One of the phrases that is said a lot is “fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” Design thinking at its core, and even though I’m a broken record at this point, the goal is to act in service to the customer’s needs–and it just so happens we perform services and provide tools to do so.

The "Design for Delight" framework was pioneered by Intuit

JIM: Against a strong, mature design culture you just described, how does MURAL fit in? What problem does MURAL address for you?

ERIK: The biggest problem that MURAL addresses is that when an organization gets large enough, it’s impossible and inefficient to try and have large teams that share total knowledge with each other. The groups have to focus on their part of the whole journey.

What I think MURAL does is allow for a space that teams can consolidate information and act as a virtual meeting space; there’s no way you could have a physical meeting space to replace it. People are too spread out and there’s only so much real estate for foam-core boards and butcher-paper taped to walls.

That’s what I love about MURAL, it’s a virtual collaboration space that is easy to use, everyone “gets” it, and it doesn’t try to reinvent collaboration – it just takes it to a new medium where there was no good option before.

That’s the trick; we were already doing what MURAL does for us, just not as seamlessly and easily over the web. The laws of physics prevent someone in Tucson from putting stickies up on our wall through space and time. Get Elon Musk on that.

An example of a simple experience map using MURAL

JIM: There are lots of way to share total knowledge with each other digital. But the WAY you do it in MURAL is different, as you point out. So what's the real value of that benefit - broader participation, quicker decisions, better quality results, or something else?

ERIK: The value is really in sharing knowledge in a way that allows you to turn a bunch of abstract concepts into something concrete. The human brain isn’t capable of thinking of that much information all at once, you can focus on some areas, but then others are lost. It’s like trying to listen and follow 4 songs playing at once.

But once it’s all up in a mural, you can then scan around, take what you need, and assemble the information in a personalized way. It’s very Edward Tufte, if you think about it.

So I am going to say yeah – quicker decisions because the information is neither silo’d or disparate, broader understanding since we can share a language, a visual language.

I mean, 1/3rd of the brain’s outer cortex is dedicated to visual processing. MURAL unlocks. Some people claim to not be visual learners, but that hasn’t been my experience. “See it to believe it.” It’s like prehistoric cave paintings; humans turn things into narratives and stories. That’s the value. It goes deeper than just business ROI, it taps into the essence of human communication.

Seeing is believing. Teams at Intuit work with service blueprints to look at the overall experience

JIM: Great stuff. It recalls some thoughts that Dr Anjan Chaterjee told me in a previous interview on our blog. He's a world-renowned brain scientist and confirms that visual thinking has neural realities: our brains are hardwired to make sense of things visually.

But apart from individual human cognition, how does this affect collective behavior and decisions? What's the effect of visual thinking on a group of people, like the teams you work with at INTUIT?

ERIK: We’re digging deep now. I thought this was gonna be softballs and you’re zinging me with 100mph pitches right across the nose! I like your style! Let’s see if I can directly address each question mark.

Regarding collective behavior and decisions, it really allows you to make a decision together. It’s a mind meld. It’s the collaborative side of the tribal leadership ethos – we win together. It’s hard for a lone hero to dominate the process when things are right there, plain as day, up on a huge printout or on a big projector. Turns the subjective objective.

And for the effect of visual thinking on a group of people, I think that answer is a part of the same one. The effect is that it’s exciting.

Visualizing service experiences helps bring teams to a common understanding

JIM: Can you give an example of how visual thinking has helped create a “mind meld”?

ERIK: Sure. I have a story of making a service blueprint and printing it out on a bunch of pieces of paper and taping them together to make a bigger artifact. I didn’t have access to our large format printer.

So I take it to my first product review with an VP, reports right to a EVP & GM, and during the presentation it became my turn to bring up this thing that no one had done before, this “blueprint.” So I lay my shoddy, taped together, primitive blueprint in front of him on the meeting room table.

This was about 2 years ago, way before I had the blueprint format down. And he looks at it. And the marketing director for this product looks at it. And the VP says, “Now this is what I am talking about when I say end to end.” What more could you ask for. In a moment–less than 10 seconds–an entire customer experience and the revealing of what we ACTUALLY have was transmitted, viscerally, visually.

And from then on out, that moment crystallized my mission at Intuit, and just in general. It’s what led to the codification of the format, which I co-wrote a guide on because of the impact.

And now, all the blueprinting projects here and elsewhere where I’ve shared the method is using Mural as the ultimate tool for letting this happen. 10 seconds in front of an VP and he got it; something that would have taken HOURS to properly explain with words, if that would even be possible.

Check out the guide to practical service blueprinting

JIM: Good answer. Thanks, Erik!


  • See some related resources on MURAL

About the author

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.