Olympic lessons in service design

Dressage at London 2012 Spanish duo Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz

They came, they went. And lots of us, who didn’t expect it to turn out so well, were amazed.

The London Olympics were like London in a snowfall. Articles like Charlie Brooker’s described the surprise of abandoning cynicism in the face of a compelling experience.

I only got to one event – the second day of dressage trials. We had a great time, though we didn’t know really what to look for. Still, we thought that Charlotte Dujardin and her horse seemed exceptional. (Did you know that it is a major deal for a horse to go backwards?)

It’s not just a game for the young. Hiroshi Hoketsu, age 71, from the Japanese team, was the oldest Olympian in London.

Another reason I am glad I stayed in London for the Olympics was the opportunity to look at it from a service design perspective. Here are some things I observed:

1. Event and theme-park planners are probably the original service designers. If they are any good, they think of all eventualities. When I was doing research for the Wellcome Wing, I went to EuroDisney. Say what you will about the corporate and cultural side of Disney, I admired how they put money into making people comfortable – planting large trees for shade, lots of distributed seating, and doing things like not splitting parties to use every available space on a ride; letting a family have fun together was more important than that.

Back at the Olympics, the LOCOG planners didn’t get absolutely everything right, but they succeeded at a lot. They went over the top on some contingencies, particularly around travel, as in the elaborate one-way system that ultimately did not seem very necessary at London Bridge. But it would have been worse to have not been prepared.

It brought to mind John Seddon’s remarks in a talk he gave, that his approach is to carry out in-depth research, in order to plan for maximum demand, this allows consistently high service delivery under stress.

The Greenwich equestrian stadium was well-designed, with comfortable access to the seating, and with toilet blocks built at every entrance ramp. Certainly, it would have been cheaper to do them at alternate entrances, but that would entail stress and longer queues. A design decision had been made to invest more in a positive experience.

2. Brand loyalty can’t be legislated — it needs to be earned. This is probably obvious to anyone who is reading this, but, really… only allowing one flavour of electronic payment (Visa), only one provider of a key British food group (MacDonald’s chips), threatening copyright prosecutions for combinations of commonly used English language words, potentially threatening audiences on the subject of sharing photos? In the end, common sense mostly prevailed, and where it didn’t, the Olympic “family” appeared to relax and realise that the whole experience had a halo effect that was greater than the sum of its parts.

3. The human factor in quality and quantity is a major success factor. The volunteers were allowed to be themselves. Maybe the argument was that, because many weren’t being paid, they should be able to relax and enjoy the overall event. But I think that can happen in paid employment, Zappos being the most commonly cited example, but there are others, even outside the US.

Having so many people on the streets specifically there to help was incredible; train and tube stations with plenty of helpful staff, in case anyone had a question or needed help. What a concept.

The G4S security debacle gave us the opportunity to see the positive side of public services provided by, well, the public services. Rather than feeling threatening, as I had expected, it was an interesting feature to have seamen and women staffing security scanners, infantry soldiers on site and around the city. The army people always had backpacks with them, but were reportedly camping in a failed Wapping shopping mega-emporium, so maybe that is why.

4. The absolute worst bit of the Olympic service experience was The Ticketing. The service design decision to hold back huge portions of the most popular events, making it nearly impossible for mere mortals to experience the event directly was made even more poisonous when the privileged ones failed to acknowledge how lucky they were, and show up. Yes, there was corporate sponsorship, but the majority of funding came from the UK government and other public bodies, i.e. from us, the UK taxpayers. Other countries’ teams are largely (ultimately) funded by their taxpayers, and many would-be spectators were unable to get tickets in their countries. I think this showed an absolute failure to acknowledge who were both the Olympics’ audiences and its stakeholders, a service design failure.

The ticketing website touchpoint was one of the worst examples of UX design of a ticket search and buying experience. There have been some very detailed blog analyses, like Nick Donnelly’s article on Usability Hell. Was that bad planning, or lazy design? Was it a matter of complacency? The site was powered by Ticketmaster, whose own site has been relaunched, and while not perfect, is much better than the Olympic ticket site. The entire ticketing mess was of such huge proportion that it is very difficult to understand how it could have been gotten so wrong.

There was a silver lining of the ticketing morass: many people realised that even though Olympic tickets weren’t available, Paralymics tickets were. I am really looking forward to seeing the Wheelchair Fencing.

So as long as the Olympics do not have a lasting negative impact on the economy, we will remember London 2012 fondly. And maybe more people, in all kinds of disciplines, will start thinking like event planners.