Designing for Human Dignity in the New Economy

Jen van der MeerBusiness Model Practice

Competing Design Philosophies in the Two-Sided Marketplace of Time

The Sopranos series was violent. But the most painful scenes for me drew a hyper realistic version of my Northern New Jersey upbringing.

There’s that scene in season one, episode three, when Carmela hires her restaurant owner friend Charmaine to do some catering for a fundraiser. The scene is subtle. You may even miss it. Charmaine witnesses Carmela dressing down Oona, her maid. She beckons her with a hand gesture to come and take a look at fingerprints left on an unpolished glass. She is not pleased.

Later, we see Carmela summon Charmaine, her friend/helper, in the same hyper-controlling gesture. “Come here,” the gesture says, “you are working for me, “do this for me now.”

I remember that summoning hand from my first babysitting jobs in my Northern New Jersey town (not far from the fictional Soprano family). The hand would summon me, the cleaning lady, the tutor, the help. Clean this now. Control this child now. The same long, well-manicured nails as Carmela. It still makes me cringe.

Work is cultural. How we treat people that work for us is based on our own personal experiences, practices, stories, and our cultural norms. How we behave when we are being summoned is also shaped by culture, but also presumably by the fact that we want the money, so we comply.

Work is shifting. Our hours are starting to be shaped by millions of interactions in the so-called new economy. Uber. Lyft. Fancy Hands. Task Rabbit. Honor. Managed by Q. Upwork. Fiverr. 99Designs. Upwork. Instacart, Care.com.

I can press a button, swipe my credit card, turn on my GPS, and I get a ride, a home health aid, an event planner, a virtual assistant, a web designer, a stylist, a massage therapist.

All of these companies run on a two-sided marketplace business model. On one side you have the paying customer: the busy bee in a big hurry who has the disposable income to hire some help. On the other side you have the worker: the driver, the home health, the massage therapist, who is there to give up their time to help you, the customer. These marketplaces are arbitraging expertise, but mostly time – brokering those who have more time than money with those who have more money than time.

I spend a great deal of time with the business model of two-sided marketplaces, recognizing that inherent in these systems are competing design philosophies. I’m wondering, Service Designers, where are you when the big decisions get made?

1/ The Task Rabbit Design Philosophy: Your Time is My Time

You can “book” a “tasker” – just like that. If you have a box that needs lifting, t-shirts that need folding, expenses that need to be organized – just go on to Task Rabbit, select from the vetted taskers, and boom. They are booked.

Taskers can turn down the booking and refuse unreasonable requests, but the default design is to assume the Tasker already said yes.

It’s Carmela Soprano’s come here gesture in app form.

2/ The 99Designs Philosophy: The Crowd Will Help You, But One Will Get Paid

Need a new logo? Try 99Designs. 99Designs takes a practice common in writing, design, and advertising practice – creating work “on spec” and turns it into crowdsourcing.

You upload a brief, choose a level of designer like you choose a credit card (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) and your design is disseminated amongst a pool of designers. These designers produce work “on spec” which means for free. You get to choose who wins your logo design contest, and only the winner gets paid.

3/ The Managed by Q Design Philosophy: The Karma System

Managed by Q is a new type of office services company that provides cleaning, IT, and other support services to help companies grow. They follow the advice presented in the book “The Good Jobs Strategy” by Zeynep Ton, professor of operations management at MIT. The crazy concept: pay above the standard wage to keep overall costs low, and earn a profit.

Workers are not a cost, they are an investment, and Managed by Q promotes office cleaners into selling and front-line relationship manager roles, moving up in pay and benefits the more they drive the company’s bottom line.

As The New York Times reported this year, the CEO Dan Teran, “doesn’t see his cleaners as simply cleaners. Instead, they are the essential link between Q and its clients.” The traditional signals of success in this model prove to be not as relevant. Instead, mindsets of optimism and empathy tend to drive the most successful employees.

By being good to their employees, Q’s employees are good to their clients, and good for the company.

Can You Design for Human Potential?

There are certainly more patterns out there than the three mentioned in this post. But you can see through these three examples that the future is in the hands of the people who create and design these systems.

Cameron Tonkinwise wrote an extraordinary reflection on the role of service design as a practice of thinking through the intention and consequence of service on economies and ecology. Most critically, he highlighted the role and influence service designers play in redesigning work and interaction.

“Human-centered service designers must be mindful of these tactical renegotiations involved in service work. Or rather, service designers must be wary of demanding that service workers and customers seek authenticity only within the confines of utilitarian commercial transactions.”

The next time you find yourself at the helm of designing the service of a two-sided marketplace, take a moment. Ask yourself – are you merely automating human behavior, turning the task into a machine-like process? Are you taking advantage of a global, hungry, borderless world. Or are you bringing the best out of the humans engaged in your task?

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