What Instagram Forgot: It’s Service, Not Software

Yesterday Instagram introduced new Terms of Service that quickly set the Twitterverse on fire. People felt that the company was adopting a manipulative, disrespectful attitude towards the vendor-customer relationship. Some questioned whether the announcement was Instagram’s “suicide note.” National Geographic threatened to close their account. What happened? Instagram forgot that they’re in the service business, not the software business.

A service is something experienced over time, through multiple touchpoints. Customers judge services by the entirety of their experience across touchpoints. You don’t just judge a restaurant by the quality of the food. You also judge it by things like the ambience of the room, the courteousness of the staff, and the convenience of the location. A bad interaction with the maitre’d may overshadow a good interaction with the meal. As IT more and more becomes, not just a business enabler, but “how we do business,” and as human interaction more and more becomes Internet-mediated, we may start to believe that software is the entirety of the service experience. Instagram reminded us that it’s still not true.

Amazon Web Services, for example, provides a highly automated infrastructure service. AWS goes out of its way to minimize direct human interaction. They have not, however, automated their Evangelism program. Jeff Barr and his human-authored blog posts are a key part of how AWS communicates with its customers. AWS’s Reinvent user conference wasn’t automated. Nor was Werner Vogel’s keynote speech. The decision to hand out $5 gift certificates instead of free Kindles at the conference wasn’t automated. The writing of thorough, transparent outage post-mortems isn’t automated. These human touchpoints play important roles in contributing to customers’ understanding of, ability to use, and attitude towards AWS.

Current software trends such as Agile, DevOps, and Continuous Delivery have integrated Quality Assurance more deeply into the software delivery process. QA has gained new respect as being critical to delivering software-mediated business value. QA’s job is to represent the user. In a service business, it must represent users’ entire experience, not just their interaction with the software at the core of that experience. Clearly, Instagram failed to properly QA its new Terms of Service.

To their credit, Instagram listened to the harsh feedback. They quickly issued a mea culpa and didn’t try to shift blame away from themselves. Their apology was well written and created a positive service moment. It remains to be seen whether that moment can stem the tide of account cancellations. Perhaps, if they’d written a hypothetical mea culpa as part of their internal QA process, they wouldn’t have had to write a real one.

The need for user-centered service design goes beyond QA. Everyone involved in delivering software services, whether development, operations, marketing, or legal, needs to understand the entire customer journey. They need to remind themselves that all of their customer interactions are part of the service, and that service is what they are delivering, not just software.

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