Weatherhead Q and A with Dick Buchanan, the design thinker
Weatherhead catches up with Dick Buchanan, Professor, Informations Systems, and manages to talk about everything from the United States Postal Service's financial troubles, to his personal summer project - reading Winston Churchill's six volume memoirs.
W: The U.S. Postal Service is in financial trouble, and some are speculating that it will cease to exist. You have unique insight into the USPS. Can you describe the project you conducted for them?
DB: It started with a phone call from the Chief Marketing Officer at the central office of the USPS in Washington. They were having trouble developing a new product line in small packages because of the complex legal rules governing their operations. The USPS operates based on rules set down by a Commission operating under Congressional authority. They’re a quasi-government agency and they don’t receive tax dollars directly.
We started out with a pilot project focused on developing a strategy for redesigning the core legal and operational document for the Postal Service. In the process of shaping a strategy, we found it valuable to develop a prototype document for ordinary post office users. Using a variety of design and research techniques, we mapped all the different ways to mail a simple package. By studying a concrete case, we became immersed in the entire system and came to an understanding of the core ideas and capabilities of the Postal Service.
W: You were the head of the design school at Carnegie Mellon at the time.
DB: Six graduate students from Carnegie Mellon worked with me for 12 weeks on the pilot project. We divided up into teams, developed two booklet prototypes, and presented both of them, as well as a hybrid version, to the Chief Marketing Officer and her lieutenants. It was clear that they liked it, but we figured that was that. We thought they would then go to one of the large consultancies for the larger implementation of the strategy we proposed.
Shortly after we completed our work, the tragedy of 9/11 took place. I assumed that this project would be put aside. However, within two weeks they came back to us and requested a proposal for the bigger project. If anything, the events of 9/11 actually elevated the project’s priority.
W: How did the project expand on the pilot?
DB: The USPS at the time was very serious about moving into package mailing. They were certainly focused on letters and on what are called “flats”—objects such as magazines, manila envelopes, and catalogues, items that are three-dimensional and thicker than a letter. But they saw the trend to fewer letters caused by the rise of email in particular. For this reason, they wanted to expand the quality and volume of package mailing while, at the same time, improving the efficiency and ease of mailing all items.
One thing we learned very quickly is that the Postal Service is highly adept in engineering. We toured their plants; they have the most advanced robotics in the world for handling all types of mail. The problem was, however, that as they became more and more adept at logistics, they paid less attention to people and the “user experience.” So our proposed strategy was to turn to a design focused on user experience. The chief marketing officer knew that was the way to go forward.
W: What was your process?
DB: We employed a dozen design research methods. We developed a wide variety of scenarios to understand the architecture of decision-making, we used extensive role playing, and we employed a variety of techniques in user observation. We sent students to photograph people at work at the Postal Service. We assigned students to go into local branch offices and pose questions about rules and processes. For example, one student went to a post office and spoke only in German in asking questions about how to mail a letter.
W: How did that work out?
DB: Well, it turned out that the postal worker behind the counter happened to speak fluent German! But we tried that with Korean and other languages, too. We experimented with all kinds of scenarios. We were gathering experiences. We would then assess the learning and interpret what we’d seen and heard. In all cases, we wanted to know what information people needed and how we might best structure access to information for improved user experience.
Interpretation is a key part of the process. It’s not enough to do surveys and observations. This is a mistake people make: You can go and shoot photos of people at work and think you know what it all means, but there are subtle aspects that need sophisticated interpretation.
For example, we observed postal workers at their workstations in many post offices around the country. They all had lots of little pieces of paper taped to the wall above their workstations. Every so often, someone would get a call about some kind of mailing and holler over the partition to their neighbors: “Hey, what do you do in this situation?” When they got a reply, they’d note it down and stick their note on the wall. All of those scraps of paper? They were signs of a system that was broken, because everyone was creating their own subsystem.
W: What fixes did you provide?
DB: We produced three fundamental documents. The first, “A Customer’s Guide to Mailing,” is 24 pages long and is aimed at ordinary citizens; it documents all of your interactions with the post office—how to mail letters, buy stamps, and so on. This serves the needs of 80% of postal customers—who provide 20% of postal revenues. The next piece, “A Guide to Mailing for Businesses and Organizations,” was for small businesses and was about 200 pages long. This was for users in organizations of small and moderate size. We also redesigned information for large bulk mailers, a small percentage of postal users that provide a huge portion of postal revenues. Rules, rates, and regulations for these organizations—for example, Time Life—are exceptionally complex.
All of this had to be approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission, appointed by Congress, and lots of lawyers and trade unions, because work rules were also embedded in these documents.
We also recommended that the USPS adopt a visual style for their materials that involved lots of photos of people using mail services. We set out to build an archive of photos—a little girl opening a mailbox to find a letter inside, a customer and postal worker interacting across a counter—that sort of thing. We’ve noticed that that visual style has spread to other postal services around the world.
W: What do you think the USPS could do to improve their chances for survival today?
DB: I think it’s time for them to undertake a new design research project. They’ve encountered new circumstances, new technology. There’s been the move in banking to allow online bill pay. Email and social media have eaten into their margin. That’s why they’re now trimming employees and hoping to change to five-day delivery. The Postal Service has developed a lot of electronic tools. You can do a lot online that you could not before. But they need to use the internet more effectively.
W: Some people say that if the USPS goes under, companies like FedEx and UPS could just step in and replace them. What do you make of that?
DB: That would be impossible. People do not realize how small FedEx and UPS are compared with the Postal Service. The USPS is the seventh largest employer in the world and has the largest civilian fleet of vehicles in the world. At the time when we worked with them, they did $70 billion in annual business. FedEx and UPS, on the other hand, account for only about 2% of the mail and packages moved in the United States.
Furthermore, much of country is knitted together by the post office. For example, there are places in Alaska that would not have any contact with the outside world if the USPS did not fly there. All of that is not going to be picked up by FedEx or UPS.
And the post office is part of our cultural life. Mailing letters is fundamental to the culture of the U.S. It predates the Constitution. Ben Franklin was the first postmaster general, and mail was being stamped and delivered up and down the colonies before the Revolutionary War. The ability to communicate this way is part of what we think of as freedom.
W: You also did a user-centered design project for the Australian taxation system. You’ve had a lot of experience navigating complicated bureaucracies.
DB: Over the course of my work on these projects, I gained great respect for bureaucrats. These are dedicated people with incredible levels of knowledge. The people I’ve worked with over the years in government agencies are among the most intelligent and hard-working people I’ve ever met. One hears stories about the failures of government and its bureaucrats, and there are failures. But that is not the norm. For example, the individuals in Australia working on the taxation system are among the most intelligent and committed individuals one could ever meet.
W: Bureaucracies have a reputation for being difficult to deal with, though.
DB: All of these are systems needed to keep society functioning. Their policies and procedures make things happen. When bureaucracies don’t work, I think it is often because of a failure of management and leadership. Organizations—particularly in the emerging world we see today—have to adapt and change their systems to meet the new world. In the past, organizations expected people to adapt to the organization. That time is past. It is the organization that must adapt to the needs and capabilities of people.
W: User-centered design is not just for private companies trying to attract customers, then.
DB: Government is the biggest purchaser of design in the United States—mainly in the areas of engineering, defense, health, and other services. But what kind of design is needed today? With our project for the USPS, design penetrated to an agency directly involved in serving people. From that has come a lot of work in public sector design in the social services and medical fields, among others, in the United States as well as in other countries around the world. Government has been bringing design in to make a difference in everybody’s lives.
W: What makes the difference between a functioning and a non-functioning bureaucracy?
DB: There are three levels. You need leaders who hold and create a vision, managers who execute the vision, and bureaucrats who create rules and processes. Each of these parts is essential.
W: On a personal note, what kind of music do you listen to?
DB: My tastes are eclectic, but I listen to a lot of jazz. Lately, a pianist I really like is Aaron Parks. His debut album, Invisible Cinema, is a breakthrough record. I’ve also been listening to Tineke Postma. She is a saxophone player from Denmark.
W: What are you reading at the moment?
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of history. I think it’s because I want to understand how people work together—and how they don’t! I’ve enjoyed the work of Barbara Tuchman, like her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. The Guns of August is her book on the First World War. I’ve also read some of Hew Strachan’s books on the First World War recently.
Right now, I’m finishing volume five of Winston Churchill’s memoirs – it’s been my summer project to read the six volumes.
W: Churchill is a good example of the visionary leaders you were talking about a moment ago.
DB: Tom Brokaw discussed this in Their Finest Hour, a TV documentary that aired before some of the Olympics coverage recently. If it hadn’t been for Churchill, I don’t know what kind of a world we would live in today.
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