Gaining Control Over Chaos: Designing the Emergency Service Experience

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
February 20, 2012

I watched the water come into our finished basement during Hurricane Irene. I don’t believe it—not again, I thought, as my husband and I quickly prioritized which of our remaining belongings from the last flood, only 17 months earlier, we wanted to salvage as the water rushed in. Thirty minutes later, the water stopped rising at four feet—a foot higher than the last time. My husband cautiously turned off the circuit breakers and determined whether the water had reached the gas line. I was seven months pregnant, so could help only by asking our less-affected neighbors for some assistance. The following weeks were all too familiar: filing a claim with our insurance, calling remediation experts to dry out the basement, calling plumbers for quotes to replace the hot water heater and boiler, calling electricians to replace outlets—the list went on and on. Throughout this entire experience, all we wanted was to get our house and lives back to normal.

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Discussions about service design often occur within the context of a service offering that simply provides an amenity or adds value to someone’s lifestyle. Whether it’s a cup of coffee, a mobile data plan, or a vacation, these are services that improve a person’s basic quality of life. Of course, people’s perception of their basic quality of life is relative: one could argue that a morning cup of Joe is a requirement, not an option. Regardless, people usually have choices they can make: In my example, between Starbucks or the new coffee place that just opened up. Their loyalty can waiver—for example, they may change their mobile providers. And services are generally supplemental to their basic needs for safety, security, and comfort. These choices are also predictable and within their control—in other words, they decide that they want coffee, then engage with a purveyor of coffee.

But what are the design considerations for a service that isn’t supplemental, or just about adding value to one’s life? What about service situations that aren’t in the customer’s or service provider’s control and are completely unpredictable? Emergencies lead to fascinating service design challenges, for which aligning the service experience between service providers and their customers and strong leadership skills are critical.

The Service Experience of Emergencies

As with non-emergency services, we can map the service experience for emergencies against an overarching framework or journey:

  • identify—As comprehensively as possible, define what emergencies may happen, their likelihood, the scenarios under which they can happen, and their potential impact.
  • prepare—Based on the emergencies and scenarios you’ve identified, begin to plan and prepare for the necessary actions to begin recovery and mitigate risk, damage, and so on. Think about processes, people, infrastructure, equipment, and any related service elements.?
  • event—The emergency event occurs.
  • assess—Determine what scenario occurred, which drives the appropriate recovery actions to take.
  • recover—Begin recovery activities or delegate them to task owners, and determine appropriate check-ins for status and updates.
  • strategize—Understand the degree to which the service was successful and identify areas for improvement. Then, initiate the identify and prepare phases again—for the next time an emergency strikes.

Hurricane Irene: Getting Our House and Lives Back to Normal

I’ll use my personal Hurricane Irene experience to illustrate our service journey in getting our house and lives back to normal:

  • identify—My husband and I have become knowledgeable about the circumstances under which we may have water in our basement—for example, if it rains more than an inch per hour, we know that our sump pumps may become overwhelmed. Therefore, we knew that Hurricane Irene might cause a scenario in which we’d be coping with flooding issues.
  • prepare—Once the hurricane approached and forecasters were quite sure that it would hit our area directly, we began moving items upstairs and purchased equipment to help manage the water—a gas-powered pump.
  • event—Hurricane Irene hit and water came into our basement.
  • assess—We had four feet of water in our basement, so we knew we needed to begin the water-removal process and the insurance claims process.
  • recover—I began calling remediation services, plumbers, and general contractors to start the recovery process and called our insurance company to begin the reimbursement process.
  • strategize—We determined that we most certainly can get more than three feet of water in our basement—which we had previously assumed was unlikely—and began work on tiling our basement walls to prevent future water damage and redesigning our front yard and sump pump area to more effectively manage water.??

This story illustrates an emergency service experience in which I served as both the service provider and the customer, orchestrating all of the interactions necessary to be successful in getting our house and lives back to normal. But this overall service journey actually comprised several different service journeys and involved distributed service providers—for example, there were separate service exchanges with the remediation provider and the plumber. I served as the central service hub—for instance, ensuring that I had receipts from the plumber to submit with my claim to the insurance company.

Design Opportunities

In situations where one is at the center of an emergency service experience and interactions with service providers are distributed, the service design issues and opportunities are complex because of their variability. For example, one design opportunity could be to make submitting a claim easier. What if the plumber submitted his bill himself? I wouldn’t need to do anything—other than coordinate the appointment with the plumber to do the work. Unfortunately, every vendor and insurance company has its own service design—including technology, infrastructure, and unique employees—making coordination nearly impossible. The design opportunities lie instead with service providers’ and their customers having a common goal and aligning the service journey with their customers’ needs.

For example, Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G), a utility company in New Jersey, employs a service journey that they’ve aligned with the needs of their customers, as evidenced by the email messages they sent during Hurricane Irene. Two days before the hurricane, during the identify and prepare phases, the communications focused on how PSE&G had secured supplemental contractors and was preparing for the storm. The messages also covered how customers could minimize damage and ensure their own safety. They also described how customers could stay up-to-date on the post-storm restoration progress—for example, using the company’s Web site or subscribing to its Twitter feed.

During the assess and recovery phases, they sent daily email messages out to customers, providing updates on restoration progress, including specific locations and areas of prioritization:

“PSE&G expects to restore electric service by Friday at midnight for remaining customers in Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Passaic, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Mercer counties. For remaining customers without power in the central New Jersey counties of Union, Middlesex, and Somerset, where power restoration has been hampered by severe flooding, restoration is estimated by Sunday.”  

As the impact of the hurricane became clear, they also included specific instructions for generator use and coping with floodwater. A final email message expressed their appreciation to a variety of service constituents—

including customers, municipal partners, industry partners, and employees—

exemplifying the intricacies that are involved in effective emergency service design.

Not only was PSE&G’s service experience aligned with that of their customers, so was the mutual goal of personal safety:

“The safety of our customers and employees is first and foremost. We will begin restoring service as soon as conditions are safe to do so. We appreciate the patience and cooperation of our customers as we deal with what may be an unprecedented event.”

In contrasting the PSE&G emergency service experience with that of other utility companies whose goals and service journeys were not aligned with the needs of their customers, we can see the dramatic difference in outcomes. New Jersey’s State Board of Public Utilities singled out Jersey Central Power & Light for their poor performance, with 139 people contacting the Board to complain, four times as many as for PSE&G. The BPU reported, “Certain practices of the electric utilities, particularly JCP&L, must be reexamined, and the planning and preparation scaled up to drive a higher level of performance, particularly in the area of communications, estimating outage restoration, supplemental crew mobilization, and mitigation of tree-related damages,” [1] areas that mirror the phases of the overall service experience and service design.

In Connecticut, while hundreds of thousands of customers were without power, Connecticut Light & Power chose to announce that they would need to increase service costs to pay for restoration, causing frustration: “‘I'm not happy,’ said Marlborough resident Enza Dandeneau, in response to a possible rate hike. ‘Not only do we not have power, but we’re going to be lucky if we get power by Saturday. We already pay exorbitant rates.’” [2] The company’s leadership should have first proceeded through the recovery phase with their customers—getting people’s power back—before making and communicating any decisions about strategy—how the organization would pay for recovery.

Leadership and Emergency Services

This Hurricane Irene scenario illustrates a service experience that’s distributed across individuals and numerous service providers. However, some emergency situations involve a centralized authority taking a more active leadership role in the overall service design.

For example, Japan has received praise for its disaster preparedness. After an earthquake occurred in 1923, killing over 100,000 people and devastating the area, the Japanese government took significant measures to mitigate future destruction and deaths in the earthquake-prone region, and after each earthquake since, they have continued to refine their emergency management approach:

  • They continually update strict building codes to ensure structures are earthquake resistant.
  • Conducting preparedness drills is critical. Every September 1, the anniversary of the 1923 earthquake, the government conducts a drill with school children. A drill even exists for helping stranded commuters who have left work to return home.
  • Early warning systems are elaborate and well coordinated. There are hundreds of sensors around the archipelago that can recognize a tsunami before it hits and help predict its height, speed, and arrival time.

Although almost 20,000 people died as a result of the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the number could have been much higher, and experts agree that, in any other country, the impact would have been significantly more devastating. However, Japan’s handling of the disaster was not without criticism. The?Fukushima Daiichi plant meltdown has led to a cleanup nightmare, and the long-term health effects are still unknown. Currently in the strategy phase of the overall emergency experience, the government is working with the UN to mitigate the effects of similar disasters in the future.

Creating an Emergency Mindset

For Hurricane Irene, people—both customers and service providers—were mentally prepared for an emergency situation. They had the time to develop the right mindset for dealing with the emergency event and its aftermath. For the Japan earthquake, although it was more sudden than a hurricane, citizens knew what was happening and how to handle it.

But what about the service experience when people do not have an emergency mindset—for example, in the recent Costa Concordia cruise ship accident off the coast of Italy? On a cruise vacation, passengers’ mindset was not emergency preparedness. They may have been having drinks, unpacking their swimsuits, or looking through the excursion brochure. The passengers were focused on the pleasurable service experience of taking a cruise, not the emergency service of surviving a shipwreck.

The crew of the cruise ship may not have had an emergency mindset either. When the Costa Concordia hit the rocks off the coast of Italy, chaos ensued. Passengers believed the crew had difficulty controlling the crowds. Was this the result of inadequate or ineffective training in the maritime industry? In this excerpt from a Newsweek article that identifies problems with emergency training on cruises, Shari Cecil, a former merchant marine with Norwegian Cruise Line America, “describes safety drills where crew members had no clue about their responsibilities—some were so nonchalant that they didn’t want to take off their high heels when boarding inflatable safety rafts—and the crew would be handed safety-reminder ‘cheat sheets’ ahead of U.S. inspections. ‘I passed them out myself,’ she says. ‘We’d even shut down the bar for crew so no one would be hung over.’” [3]

Another hypothesis regarding the problems ensuing after the Costa Concordia accident lay complete blame on the Captain’s leaving the ship, causing issues in what otherwise could have been a smooth evacuation process. Quite honestly, that shouldn’t have mattered. What matters is ensuring an emergency service design encompasses comprehensive preparedness for all possible scenarios and leadership whose mindset is always on safety, especially when that of passengers isn’t. Leadership on the ship, within the company, and within the maritime regulatory boards need to standardize and regulate their emergency training practices, including contingency plans for when a Captain is absent.

Rescue and recovery efforts for Costa Concordia survivors also left much to be desired. Carnival Cruises, owner of the Costa Concordia, is being criticized for their handling of the situation after passengers were rescued. They were not quick to make a public statement, they were vague about how they would help the passengers, and they didn’t offer any reassuring guidance on how to prevent such accidents from happening again. At a time when the cruise industry is struggling financially, potential travelers need to know that Carnival is acting accountably, because in a travel service experience, customers can choose either Carnival or its competitors.


Successful service design relies on aligning the service goals and journeys of customers and service providers, appropriately setting people’s expectations and their mindsets for a service, and taking a holistic view of orchestrating all of the elements of a service.

When service design is done well, the outcome may be a memorable vacation or a perfect latte. On the other hand, unsuccessful service design leads to unhappy customers, disgruntled employees, and often a floundering business. However, such outcomes pale in comparison to what’s at stake when designing emergency services. When emergency services are successful, their outcome is much simpler: people are safe and secure. After all, isn’t that what’s most important? 


[1] Bulger, Adam, and Colleen O’Dea. “State Board of Public Utilities Makes Recommendations for JCP&L.” SpringfieldPatch, January 11, 2012. Retrieved January 26, 2012.

[2] Federico, Hillary, Christopher Keating, and Janice Podsada. “As Power Is Slowly Restored, Question Arises: Who Will Pay For Repairs? Hartford Courant, September 1, 2011. Retrieved January 26, 2012.

[3] Conant, Eve. “Costa Concordia Disaster Brings Hard Look at Cruise Ship Safety.” The Daily Beast, January 23, 2012. Retrieved January 26, 2012.

Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data

Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA

Laura KellerLaura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey.  Read More

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