New professor studies the subtle nature of service

Miso Kim, a new Professor in the College of Arts, Media and Design, poses for a portrait on Sept. 8, 2016. Kim’s primary research interest is in designing for service, an aspect of product design that focuses on interactions between multiple stakeholders within a system. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

To explain her field of study, Miso Kim tells a story about a bad service encounter.

A few years ago, Kim and some friends purchased tickets to see a movie inside a New York museum and were then ushered into a small room with no seating.

“Then a preview of a movie with the same title as the one we were supposed to see started to play on these small screens,” she recalled. “The movie continued to play and we were just standing there waiting, not knowing what to do next. Everyone was quite confused, and then people started saying, ‘Well maybe this is it, this is the movie we were supposed to watch.’ We had no idea where to go or what to do next.”

Eventually an employee entered the room and opened a camouflaged door on a wall, revealing a beautiful theater that screened a “wonderful” movie, Kim said. But this was after a handful of people, frustrated by the lack of information, left the waiting room altogether.

“The room was nice, the carpet was clean, the screens were clear—the physical objects in the room were nicely designed, but there was something missing from the whole experience, from a service design perspective,” Kim said.

When people tell these stories about having a bad service experience, it’s almost like they’re indignant, like they take it personally.
—Miso Kim, assistant professor in the College of Arts, Media and Design

Kim, who earned her doctorate in design from Carnegie Mellon University and has worked in Cisco Systems in the Silicon Valley, joins Northeastern this year as an assistant professor of experience design in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

Her research focuses on service design, a branch of product and experiential design that, she says, “pays attention to—instead of a tangible product, like a chair—a broader and more abstract perspective: a system of communications, or an experience, or a community.”

In her example, she wouldn’t just design the shape and function of the waiting room, carpet, and cinema screens, but instead the entire customer experience from beginning to end. As she put it, “We may end up still designing a chair, but it would be a series of chairs and posters together that work better to accommodate the user.”

Kim’s work in the past has included redesigning an information system for the U.S. Postal Service and researching how to best preserve human dignity in various service fields.

Everyone has had a bad service experience, she says, an experience whose memory is often still fresh even after an extended period of time.

“When people tell these stories about having a bad service experience, it’s almost like they’re indignant, like they take it personally,” she said. That realization prompted her to consider how human dignity can be impacted by service design more broadly.

Now that she’s at Northeastern, Kim said she wants to continue to study and better define the sharing economy—a broad term used to describe everything from renting out a room on AirBnB to offering rides with Uber.

“Technically when someone is using my room on AirBnB, I’m not sharing it; I’m making money because they’re renting it,” she said. “So I think we need to look a little more closely at calling it a ‘sharing’ economy.”

She is also interested in new technologies like augmented reality and how they may impact the future of service design, and she wants to continue to study the nature of service.