"All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine." - Jeff Spicoli, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
It dawned on me this morning, just after dawn, actually, that service design is a bit like surfing. If you're not familiar with surfing, let me give you a brief summary. I'm sure you know what surfing is, but there are many intricacies to surfing that most non-surfers aren't aware of. First of all, there are many types of surfboards to suit both the surfer and the types of waves available that day, or even that hour. Surf conditions are directly correlated with the weather. Surfboards are generally built to perform appropriately in particular types of waves. A longboard (9-10ft in lefth, 2 ft wide) surfs well in smaller waves that are slower and not powerful enough to propel a shortboard (6 ft long, 18" wide). In general, bigger boards for smaller surf and smaller boards for bigger surf. Shortboards are for faster surf with more critical (steep) sections of the wave. The interesting thing, however, is that all surfboards work quite well in what are considered to be "good" waves. When you have good surf, the surfer chooses the surfboard that best suits his or her style. Styles are made up of many things, size of the surfer, personality, athleticism, hair length, you get the picture.
So, yeah, how is this related to service design? Consider that people's needs are always changing like the conditions of the ocean. In order to serve those "users" properly, you need properly designed tools. This is true whether the users are in a good mood with a lot of good energy and want to interact or they are in a hurry, want to be alone, and might pummel you if you mess up. Norman explains in the lecture at ID Chicago that people don't want the same things each time they visit a hotel. Sometimes they want service, sometimes they want to be left alone. The surfboard adjusts and fits different conditions, as does the surfer. The waves are the ever-changing customer/consumer and the service/surfboard must react quickly, changing directions, speeding up and slowing down, even "stalling" a bit to take a bigger risk and get a bigger payoff, a "barrel." There are very few sports where the conditions change as much as surfing and I would argue that service is much the same. Nothing is less predictable than a person that you don't know and you must rely on for consumption of your product. The service must react quickly to mood changes and offer choices and above all, a gnarly experience.