The Case for Pruning

Pruning, or the selective removal of specific branches or stems, is an important maintenance practice that helps to keep your trees healthy for many years to come. Important reasons to prune mature trees include controlling size, providing clearance for foot traffic or vehicles, removing potentially hazardous branches, and improving appearance. - University of Maryland, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

I've noticed a concerning trait among product teams I've been a part of. That is, there's a goal to "grow a tree" (i.e., create or improve a product) without taking the time to systematically re-evaluate the heath of the product and prune unhealthy or unhelpful capabilities. These teams continuously build upon a minimal viable product (MVP) so that the product meets the broader needs and goals of its customers (or the business). container ship stuck in Suez Canal To use another metaphor, we might start by building a rowboat, and that gets our customers from point A to point B, but it's not good enough. Perhaps it's too slow, so we build a speedboat. But that cannot carry enough customers at one time. So bit by bit we grow our boat until it becomes a cruise liner. This cruise liner has every amenity known to humankind. Music. Food. Activities. Wifi. Window views. But have you checked to see how long it takes for a rowboat or speedboat to change course compared to a cruise liner? We learned just how nimble a container ship can be.

I have a colleague who works in the real estate investing space. He purchases distressed homes at a discount, often from homeowners who have neglected to care for them and upkeep them. Some homes were filled from floor to ceiling by hoarders who refused to purge. Other homes were a Frankenstein-assembly of antiquated and garish upgrades and adornments, fitted on top of previous design decisions. Although my colleague wisely buys homes at a deep discount, he knows the secret sauce for making a profit on his fix and flips: Strip the home of anything unnecessary, start with a good set of bones (and foundation), simplify the design, and modernize the fixtures.

kitchen before and after photos living room before and after photos

Reasons Businesses Do Not Prune

As professionals who deploy products and services for our customers, how often do we stop and make decisions to prune or simplify? Is the deck stacked against this behavior? A few observations may shed some light on this phenomenon:

  • It's not how we're wired – According to a recent Nature article, the authors observed that "people are more likely to consider solutions that add features than solutions that remove them, even when removing features is more efficient."
  • It discourages job security – Removing features and capabilities means more people will be upset, and upset customers could threaten my ability to work, right?
  • It's not how we're accustomed to working - Developers develop. The creativity is in building code, not destroying it. Removing features might increase technical debt, and technical debt is seen as detrimental to the success of a product development initiative. Further, what would product demos look like when pruning means teams have less to show?
  • It's not incentivized - When was the last time you read product release notes that reflected reduction instead of expansion? When do you hear the Steve Jobs of the world host an annual conference boasting of removing or simplifying capabilities? We reward progress. We reward creation.

How Might We Become Pruners?

So, how do we change business behavior to value pruning? I offer a few suggestions, including:

  • Measure the Customer Experience – Create recurring customer feedback loops that map to customer experience touch points. It might mean tracking the number of subscribers and looking for changes after features are released. It may mean collecting satisfaction data about a recently released feature. It could mean tracking usability data such as task completion rates or time to complete a task. You cannot prune your tree if you are not actively monitoring its health.
  • Build it into Project Plans – Whether you follow agile or waterfall approaches to development, there should be triggers or milestones where teams can pause, review, and make decisions about what aspects of the product should be simplified. For those who follow agile approaches to development, this reflection activity could occur during the innovation and planning sprint. Or maybe Product Owners could create "simplification" as its own feature, giving teams planned focus on reviewing the product for opportunities to simplify.
  • Potential Future Enhancements - Did you know that the act of reduction could be considered an enhancement? Many teams add specific types of stories to their backlog, including targeted work for testing or technical debt. Why not add an "enhancements" story type in the backlog that consistently provides focus for teams to simplify so they can begin to see reduction as its own type of development activity?

Celebrate Simplification

A simplification mindset is hard to adopt. As indicated in the Nature article, perhaps it's not our first instinct. Perhaps it's not behaviorally reinforced. But I remember a time when I was really young being invited to a home that was planned to be bulldozed in order to build a new home. We were given all sorts of tools to choose from for destroying the home, including hammers and pickaxes and told to "have at it" - destroy anything you want. What freedom there was when simply being given permission to destroy, to simplify!


Have you ever seen those videos where a building is loaded with TNT and after a moment, the building falls to the ground? It is fun and satisfying to watch, isn't it? So how can product teams channel that same feeling, not as a destructive tendency, but as a way to elevate the value that subtraction is just as valuable as addition? I encourage you to add Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less to your reading list, as will I.

What is Service Design: Part 3 – Service Blueprinting

Service design is the process of understanding and refining an organization’s people, processes, systems, and policies to improve both the employee experience and, directly and indirectly, the customer’s experience. I communicate to clients a simple 3 step approach to service design including:

Personas -> Journey Maps -> Service Blueprints

In Part 1 we defined customer Personas and in Part 2, stressed that a Journey Map reflects a specific Persona’s experience with an organization. To close out this series on service design, we will discuss what we do with this gained empathy for the customer experience.

Service Blueprinting: Visualizing the Employee Experience

Think back to the pre-COVID days when you could get a reservation at a nice restaurant. Chances are, many “cooks” contributed to your dining experience. From the line cook and sous chef to the executive chef and baker, all of these functions contributed to your culinary experience, for better or for worse.

sous chef preparing plates

Yet if we took the role of food critic, our review would reflect our experience in the dining area, not what may or may not have happened in the kitchen. While a journey map reflects the customer view of the “dining room” experience (i.e., what the customer sees), a service blueprint is an artifact that visually describes the “kitchen” - how the people, processes, and physical (or digital) resources ultimately supports a specific journey.

Think of service blueprints as the flip side of the same coin, yet representing the employee experience. So what is this artifact and what do we do with it? A service blueprint provides details about how employees support a specific customer journey. So, what types of information should a good service blueprint include?

service blueprint

A service blueprint recipe of basic ingredients should include:

  • Evidence – This represents the physical and digital touchpoints, or focal points for interaction. Following the restaurant scenario, evidence could be a billboard or menu or emailed coupon.
  • Customer Actions – A slimmed down representation of the steps, choices, activities, and other actions a customer takes with an organization to reach a particular goal.
  • Frontstage Actions (what the customer sees) – A customer does not just act – they interact with you, so this layer should reflect what the customer sees during touchpoints along the journey. Who do they communicate with? What tools do they use to transact with the organization? What is the trigger? What happens next? How is the transaction completed?
  • Backstage Actions (unseen steps and activities that support Frontstage) – This is the most important information in this artifact, reflecting the actions taken by employees unseen by the customer (e.g., cook in the kitchen) or a frontstage employee who does something unseen by the customer (e.g., waiter entering order into a touchscreen system)
  • Support Processes – This reflects the steps that must take place internally in order to fulfill the customer journey. This typically reflects actions from employees who do not regularly interact with customers.

Service blueprints must be created by pulling frontstage and backstage inputs from real employee accounts and validated through internal research. This research and validation will likely need to traverse functional groups across an organization. Some key benefits of this work and the resulting artifact(s) include:

  • Uncover systemic organizational weaknesses and inefficiencies
  • Identify opportunities for optimization
  • Assign areas of ownership for the experience
  • Flatten silos by sharing responsibility for the customer experience
  • Helps organizations make decisions that matter

What is Service Design: Part 2 – Journey Mapping

Service design is the process of understanding and refining an organization’s people, processes, systems, and policies to improve both the employee experience and, directly and indirectly, the customer’s experience. I communicate to clients a simple 3 step approach to service design including:

Personas -> Journey Maps -> Service Blueprints

In Part 1 we covered the topic of Personas and the important practice of identifying, defining, and gaining empathy for the specific customers of your products and/or services. Today, in Part 2, we explore the second step of service design, which focuses on customer Journey Mapping.

Journey Mapping: The Voice of the Customer

Once upon a time, I fathered a wonderful girl who, at this time of writing, is four years old. My daughter’s favorite Disney movie is Cinderella. If we flash-forward to the ending of the story, Prince Charming wants to marry the unidentified maiden he met at the Grand Ball. Unfortunately, she leaves in haste before he learns her name. His only clue to her identity is that she leaves behind one glass slipper. The next day, the King sets the Duke on a mission to have the slipper fitted on every girl in the Kingdom. And of course, when the Duke places it on Cinderella’s foot, it fits perfectly!

Cinderella trying on the glass slipper

Too often organizations focus on creating great products and services in a one-size-fits-all approach. That is, we take the time to create a great product (e.g., glass slipper) but we do not thoughtfully consider the unique customer needs and goals – will it fit? We often, like the Duke, try to forcefully stuff oversized feet into a dainty glass slipper. We seek to solve the problem rather than to first understand or reframe the problem.

You will create innovative solutions if you first develop a deep understanding of your target customers (see Part 1 – Personas). Note that I use the plural “customers” because your solution should never be one-size fits all. In fact, one way to gain empathy for your customers is by developing a customer journey map.

journey map

A customer journey map is a visual artifact representing the customer’s perspective of what their experience is like with you, the organization. This does not reflect the organization’s perspective. Rather, it is what I call an “empathy artifact” – a tool to reflect the voice of the customer. Empathy artifacts lead to businesses solving the right problem the right way, significantly increasing their return on investment for upfront costs.

Here are the basic ingredients of a good journey map:

  1. Context – Set the context by addressing:
    • Persona – Which type of customer is represented? Be as specific as possible.
    • Time – Does the visual represent one customer interaction with the organization or does it reflect all touchpoints over an extended period of time?
    • Goals – Why does this customer want to engage with your organization?
  2. Journey – The core content of this artifact should reflect a persona’s:
    • Milestones – what are key chronological events that represent a persona’s interaction with the organization?
    • Doing, thinking, feeling – What activities or motivations does this persona have when interacting with the business? Are these interactions positive or negative?
    • Touchpoints – How does this persona interact with the organization? Email? Phone? In-person? Desktop? Mobile?
  3. Opportunity – Organizations can leverage this artifact for advantage by identifying:
    • Pain Points – Where in the journey are there problem spots, as identified by the customer?
    • Opportunities – Where can businesses find areas of the journey to improve, or even create new products or services that can address opportunities highlighted by their customer?
    • Ownership - Your customer does not care about your org chart, so their experience may traverse multiple parts of your organization. Use this artifact with problem solvers and leadership to identify areas of focus and people willing to take on the challenge.

Although we haven’t addressed how a journey map is constructed, it should go without saying that if you’ve created it without any customer research, input, and validation activities, you’ve done it wrong! A good journey map should act as the customer voice when the organization makes decisions that will impact its customers. Think of this artifact as your “Fairy Godmother” that can help usher in a fairy-tale ending for your organization.

What is Service Design: Part 1 - Personas

Service design is the process of understanding and refining an organization’s people, processes, systems, and policies to improve both the employee experience and, directly and indirectly, the customer’s experience. I communicate to clients a simple 3 step approach to service design including:

  • Persona – Identify, define, and prioritize the customer types impacted by an organization's products, services, and policies;
  • Journey Map (customer viewpoint) – Research, document, and validate the persona’s experience (journey) with the organization over time and touchpoints; and
  • Service Blueprint (business viewpoint) – Document how the organization currently supports the customer journeys and use these artifacts to identify opportunities to improve the customer experience by creating new or improving upon existing products, services, and policies.

rubber stamp

Personas: What and Why

Today we focus on personas, artifacts that are a fictitious, specific, and concrete representations of a target customer group for a product, experience, or policy. Personas provide an actionable narrative that leverages both qualitative and qualitative research. First and foremost, a well-crafted persona allows the business to gain greater empathy for the customers who will benefit from the initiative.

Personas are artifacts created early in a project when teams are gaining a better understanding of the problem they are looking to solve and the people (customers) who are impacted by a new or improved product or service. The recommendation is that employees spend 2 hours every six weeks observing their customers as they use their products and services; this cannot always happen. HCD, as a philosophy, argues that understanding informs solutions, but many times businesses rush to a solution and make risky assumptions in a one-size-fits-all approach.

Rather than making business decisions based only on what is viable or feasible to the organization, a well-crafted persona allows organizations to inform their decisions based on what is desirable to their customers. For personas to be useful artifacts, please do not treat them as an unchangeable fact. Instead, personas tell the story of a customer type based on what the organization knows now, which could be subject to change the more they learn about and involve their customers in the process. Further, useful personas should not be customer stories or pretty pictures that collect dust on a shelf somewhere. Smart teams may create trading cards or full-size cardboard cutouts, whatever it takes to channel the customer perspective across levels within an organization making business decisions that impact these key stakeholders.