WorkPlayExperience: Bringing Drama to Service Design


We spoke with Adam StJohn Lawrence (@adamstjohn), who describes himself as a a customer experience and service design consultant, a professional comedian and an actor. Together with service innovator Markus Hormess (@markusedgar) working under the name of Work•Play•Experience, they use unique theatrical tools to help companies turn good services into memorable service experiences.

Why do you do what you do? Tell us a bit about what you do
We are known as being the theatrical ones. We are a two man company with some Associates which we regularly use when we need them. But our business is a partnership, me and Markus. His background is hard science and process consulting. Mine is psychology, marketing and theatre. And we met on stage. Marcus is also a musician and we were doing a musical together.

What we do in Service Design is based on a theatrical toolset. Theatre is not just a presentation form, it’s also an investigative, developmental tool. So we are interested in the tools in theatre, like rehearsal, where we’re trying to find out how things might be. Our basic tool in service design is to rehearse services. Which is not to practice it – but investigate what or how it might be. That’s our basic work form.

We also talk about dramatic arcs. What is the emotional journey of a service? Theatre is really the only way of modeling human behaviour that I know which can deal with emotion. So we use concepts like dramatic arcs, subtext, and the rehearsal tool. And we especially use theatrical language, so you don’t need to explain anything to anybody. If you go in with normal Service Design tools you’re explaining customer journeys, user journey, value networks, which is all very useful. But it’s much easier to talk about a scene, a prop, an actor, or character and off you go. So it saves you half a day and gives you a neutral language to use. That’s one reason we do this theatrically. It’s also fun, and it’s an investigative tool, or developmental tool that uses our whole bodies. We don’t have chairs, we are up and doing stuff all the time. That also gives a more direct channel to emotions when you are using your whole body, rather than talking about what it might feel like, you’re actually feeling it.

Drama and design, where do you see it going and what excites you about it?
I’m really enjoying the experience that I have, which is people are getting much more hands on about things. People are getting more and more co-creative. Building and breaking. Doing not talking. The idea that the prophet designer, the wizard in his high tower who gets the brief and goes away, gets a lightning flash in the brain and says “This is what you need” that really is becoming a joke now – though Apple makes billions with it (laughs). But in most of the world, people have moved beyond that and I find that exciting. I hope that will move into other parts of life as well. I’m hoping to see more of design in politics, in government, in other everyday things.

Could you tell us more about the Service Design Jams and where that’s going? We’ve had 3 Jams now. The first one and third one were Service Design Jams. The middle one we called a Sustainability Jam, which happened as an answer to a criticism of the first one.

They are brilliant. We had 59 Jams the first time around. We planned for 3 by the way, we thought we might try for 6. Then we had 59. So it ran us over a bit, the success of it. At the last Jam we had 90 sites, and over 2000 people. It had a budget of nothing and a staff of zero – so it’s brilliant how people do it. I mean we just throw some ideas out there and run a platform by the skin of our teeth.

The idea of the Jams is the doing not the talking. People are learning out of it. And it’s amazing how much you can get done when you find ways other than talking about it. Most Jammers don’t call themselves any kind of designer when they arrive at this. They are people who come along because they are curious or interested or it might be useful. So the majority of people who come in contact with it have their first experience with design, with Service Design, through doing this. There has been a monster amount of press coverage on Service Design, which was a massively obscure thing. So that’s been very gratifying as well. It’s been really, really fun. We do it because it’s fun. I think the best way to discover anything is to play with it.

Could you talk us through a general case study that you have worked on?
We typically work with a smallish team of mostly front line people, sometimes we get friendly users or customers in, but usually we don’t get them for practical reasons. So we work with these front line people. Our first big job is to establish a ‘safe space’ which is a situation where everyone in the room has already messed up so it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s a theatrical concept  – when I go to rehearsal to a safe space and I might recognise it with the broken chairs and black curtains. But people in a corporate environment are not used to permission to fail. So at a design session of seven hours, we might spend two or three hours developing a safe space, which is a lot but it’s massively valuable. So if you’ve got a safe space process people really start playing around and getting really focused.

Then we try and work on real stories we have. We use the experience in the room and then we rehearse those stories. We re-enact them, body-storming if you like. We don’t use the word role-plays because people are scared of it. We run through this, iterate, iterate, and they are in the customer mindset, rather than the worker mindset, because of the safe space, and then we put them through being customer, being workers. And they think “what if we did this?” And this is early in the procedure.

You take those insights, take them to make a prototype and you move through this. And in the normal way, the prototypes get more and more firm, or get abandoned until we find ourselves rehearsing the final design into the delivery stage. And then what that later rehearsal becomes about is discovering the freedoms of the people within that design to be themselves. That’s another a very, very big thing that we push. That’s what’s often misunderstood about theatre – that it’s about scripts and doing things the same as everyone else. But if you look at Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and then look at a Baz Luhrmann who also did Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio with a semi-automatic guns and sports cars in South America, based on the same text, you see that show business is actually finding the freedoms within the process.

So the design we’ve taken down the road with these people, it’s their design because they were there at the first workshop. So the design factor is the person, the motivational thing, and how they can make it their own.

We are using our full bodies, and we’re playing, which is energizing – you think you can change the world and do anything. There are different things happening in the brain, you are measurably more creative, efficient, productive. That should actually be a goal in every work situation. You can be extremely playful and very serious. They are not opposites. If you were serious about your business you’d be trying to get more playful.

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