Experience, Service and Systems REDefining my role as a designer

A Little Higher, A Little Further

For my second term with Experience Institute I was ready to leap higher and further than I had for term 1. Rwanda hadn't been in my sites. But a chance discussion with a high school friend led to an opportunity to work with Earth Enable, a company focusing on social impact and international development. The company caters to the poorest of the poor, aiming to provide an outstanding service and affordable flooring product that improves health and happiness for those living on dirt floors.

Tube Heza is Earth Enable's Rwandan name

Earth Enable had just launched a new service that would reduce overhead and allow them to pass further savings to their clients. They had also just learned their product manager was heading back to Mexico City to apply his development skills in his home country. Just as the service was taking off and needing some dedicated design to ensure its success.

The timing worked perfectly. My background in project management meant I had many of the skills needed to fill his position. And what I didn't have? Well. Earth Enable takes pride in its flexibility and employee development. We agreed I could learn any skills for the role I didn't already have in my toolbelt.

This was an opportunity to leap halfway around the world. To a country whose development has only been in force since it hit rock bottom with the country's 1994 civil war and genocide. It was also an opportunity to move from luxury development to a company focusing their design efforts on the bottom quintile of one of the world's poorest populations. It would also give me an opportunity to

How often does an opportunity like this present itself? The opportunity in Rwanda came out of nowhere. And I knew I had to take it.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The day I arrived, I met with the company's CEO and head of operations. My brain was enveloped in a cloudy haze of jet lag and an almost overwhelming excitement.

That excitement faded when the CEO let me know her plans for me had changed. She now only wanted me tangentially involved in the service design. Instead, she wanted to exercise my digital design and project management skills over the next three months to get a digital platform designed and in development.


My heart sank. I had accepted this opportunity to try my hand at service design. But now - I was going to be focusing on skills I already had. The fog my brain was already resting in had paired with the beer they bought to welcome me, leaving my processing ability a few steps behind. I needed a moment to process what this meant. My new boss, however, continued to list off the needs and requirements for the digital platform without missing a beat.

I stripped the look of disappointment from my face and pulled myself back into the conversation. If this is what she needed me to do. I'd do it. These two had told me in phone calls before arriving that Earth Enable is still small and scrappy, assuring me I could dive into projects that interested me across the company if I pushed for it. I could make this work.

Make It Work!

As I dug into the design of the digital platform, I realized there was no way I could design user profiles, menus, or a digital experience when the service itself was as undefined as it was. Any time I had designed a digital platform in the past, it was to accommodate a well-defined workflow. This was uncharted territory.

This also meant I needed to be the one to figure out how the service needed to function. I was responsible for designing the experience for our customers and employees not only with the digital platform, but with the service as a whole.

What's the ideal process? Timing? Touch points? Experience?

I worked closely with the operations, management, and sales teams to understand what gaps there were in the existing service. Any time we got confused, we headed into the field to observe how our clients and employees interacted with one another and the service we offered. I learned many of the gaps we had defined within the confines of our office didn't matter and weren't gaps at all. I also discovered that people are creative. I often found that people adapted our service or product so it would meet their needs. I began to call this "crowd source innovation." People are good at taking something that doesn't quite work for them as presented and making slight modifications so that it will.

Observing the process in the field

Designer as Hunter-Gatherer

Our customers had developed so many components of the service for themselves. They defined the mason contracting service. One customer had developed a method for transporting his own building materials in a way that reduced trips to the store and ultimately his own cost. Another customer had found a way to rework our materials to use less of them but still achieve a similar outcome. So many answers were there, waiting for me to gather them and determine how best to fit them into a formal service.

Working in the field often came with... unexpected outcomes

I found respect for the power of our customer's creativity. If I had questions about something? If I didn't know how to make it work? I'd take my team into the field to observe our customers and ask them how the experience could be better for them. I spent 50% of my time with a company motorcycle, deep in the rural villages of Rwanda's Bugesera district.

The time in the office was just as important as the time in the field

The other 50% of my time was spent in the office with my team developing a service that I could then work into a digital system. I loved my time in the field. It not only improved the outcomes of the projects I worked on. It also improved my day-to-day happiness and offered many opportunities to connect with the communities we served.

Take Chaos, and Bake a Cake With It

Earth Enable threw me a curveball, but I was still able to accomplish what I had hoped to. Not only did I develop skills in service design and experience design. I learned that I'm a systems designer. When I arrived, the company's new service was inchoate and had very little consistency to it. But when I left, my team and I had filled almost every gap from customer experience and communication, to sales and quality control.

And the icing on top of this cake? I designed a digital system that would simplify and improve the service as a whole. Vastly improving Earth Enable's overall floor-building system. I had hoped to pivot out of the world of digital design and into a more human-centered physical design. Now? I see the two as inseparable in my newly found role as a systems designer.

Created By
Daniel Bender

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