Graphing Complexity and Autonomy with Service Slices

Part Three: Using Service Slices to understand Austin Parks Foundation users

This is Part Three in a Service Design Project for Austin Parks Foundation. For Part One: Stories from the Field, go here. For Part Two: Finding Themes, go here.

Since August, our team (Kyle, Michelle, Laura) has been working with Austin Parks Foundation to help them better understand the feelings of ownership over green spaces; specifically how those feelings of ownership can develop and drive behavior. 


Our earlier updates focused on telling the stories of people we observed through contextual inquiry and the sense-making process of theme-finding. Through these processes, we unpacked the experiences of visitors and stakeholders in Austin Parks. Storytelling led us to a heightened understanding of what was unique, evocative, and compelling about each person. 

Before moving on from those themes to insights and problem statements, we want to reexamine our data in a new way through visualizations. We call these constructions ‘Service Slices.’

IDSE101_service slices presntation graphic blog


Service slices are a tool for turning the invisible into a tangible artifact. While our research looked at 3 distinct behavior groups, we focused specifically on Park Adopters to create service slices. Park adopters are APF volunteers who take on leadership roles within their park.

Kyle and Laura constructing Service Slices
Kyle and Laura constructing Service Slices

We went back to our transcripts, line by line, and used them to create four service slices:

  1. Behavior and Information Exchange: To understand the actions and interactions of our participants, we diagramed their behaviors and the information they exchanged with others through the course of implementing improvements in their park.
  2. Power, Policy, Influence, and Emotion: We graphed the relationships of power and influence amongst the people, organizations, and policy players in each park adopter’s world. We also noted emotions that our park adopter expressed about aspects of their volunteer work. 
  3. Artifacts: We documented the physical tools and objects relevant to park adopters.
  4. Environment: Creating detailed diagrams of each of the adopted parks helped us understand any spatial dynamics at play.

The first two are invisible systems: workflows and power dynamics. We make these systems explicit and visual by building two distinct representations of these interactions. The second two are re-creations of physical systems: objects and the environment. While we have photos of their objects and environments, rebuilding these with special attention to how the participant relates to and functions within these systems allowed us to focus on the unique functions for this person, at this time, in this space.

Constructing one of Robert's Service Slices on the whiteboard
Constructing one of Robert’s Service Slices on the whiteboard
Developing Artifact and Environment Service Slices
Developing Artifact and Environment Service Slices

At each step, we noted opportunity areas that would be fruitful places to explore when considering design ideas. While we noted these opportunity areas, we will not start ideating design ideas until later stages.


Creating service slices allowed us to focus on specific dynamics that are elusive in a sea of transcripts. Questions start to emerge: How do they feel about this interaction? Are there larger policies guiding their actions? Are their behaviors different than their beliefs?

The process of making service slices was more valuable than the diagrams themselves. Being able to revisit this data through a new lens helped us further understand our participants, and patterns start to emerge that otherwise would have been difficult to distinguish. 

Service slices are incredibly complex in both content and visuals. Arriving at peak complexity and then simplifying these slices to make a functional artifact also helped us describe phenomena that developed. 

Below, we describe three park adopter’s experiences and opportunity areas that emerged while creating service slices. 


Touring a park with Rico

Rico adopted his park last year and enthusiastically embraces making positive changes despite not having a clear understanding of what pathways he should use to achieve results. He relies heavily on Austin Parks Foundation and 311 to get things done, but uses the organizations in ways that do not reliably further his goals. When trying to get dog waste stations installed at his park, he started to apply for grants–the process he thought was correct–only to be later told by “a park’s department manager” that the Watershed Department can actually provide them for free. He discovered that the City of Austin had a “warehouse full of them” and that the time he spent applying for the grant had been pointless (Line 142). 

Once he had requested the dog waste stations through the proper channels at the Austin Watershed Protection Department, he didn’t know how to follow up on the installation, so he fell back on contacting 311 repeatedly.  “I call 311 again if the report doesn’t go through to find out what happened. ‘Oh, well, this guy said that it’s been serviced,’ I’m like, ‘It can’t be serviced. We don’t even have the dog waste stations’” (Line 77). Despite the lack of information that 311 has about his problem, he reaches out to them because he doesn’t know who else to call.

He also believes that the incessant 311 calls will show PARD and APF that he is doing a good job. “[Calling 311] shows that you’re not gonna give up and quit. You’re steady. You gotta be consistent. And I think [PARD and APF] know that from the reports at 311” (Line 66). Absent evidence to support his theory of a direct line of communication between 311 and APF, Rico is optimistic that his efforts will be seen by someone and rewarded.

Once he knew that there was a warehouse full of dog waste stations, he began to wonder what else might be hiding away in warehouses. Maybe benches? “I’ll ask, ‘Can we get an extra bench? Did you see all the cleaning we did on the side?’ Maybe it’ll work. What do you think? Worth a shot, right?” (Line 140) His theory of how resources are allocated to parks is based on his efforts being seen by faceless bureaucrats who will reward him with what he needs to make improvements.

Rico spins his wheels constantly, unsure what is actually working. But, in only one year as a park adopter, he still has a fresh excitement about his duties as a park steward. He’s gotten lights and dog waste stations installed, cleaned up abandoned homeless encampments, mobilized neighbors to volunteer, solicited opinions and feedback, and is working on getting new benches and bike racks. He’s proud of what he has accomplished and not yet burnt out by the work that doesn’t yield results. “I’m learning as I go. And then I use all the resources” (Line 142).


Robert walks past an encampment in his park
Robert walks past an encampment in his park

Robert has been the steward of his park for several years — but was actually unclear if he was the official park adopter.  “I think someone, I think our neighborhood has adopted it, but I can’t be sure. Because there are a lot of programs… I think I’m supposed to be in charge of that. Is that with APF?” (Line 123)

Regardless of whether he was the official adopter, he functions as one organizing clean-ups of his park, coordinating with external groups to direct the development of the park on behalf of his neighbors. Priorities for him range from reducing the recurrence of overflowing trash piles by getting more trash cans to adding a walking path around the pond to make it more accessible and enjoyable.

Despite his inspiration to make big and small improvements in his park, Robert is easily annoyed by the many bureaucratic processes that have stymied his progress. He prefers to connect with people in person or by reaching out directly, and it a bit put off when the response he gets is, “Could you fill in the form, please?” He told us, “It seems like their connection with the public is quite automated, which keeps life simple, but it’s not a personal thing” (Line 119).

Over time Robert has become aware of the many city agencies and nonprofits that can facilitate projects in parks. He knows that Keep Austin Beautiful and Austin Parks Foundation both have tool libraries that he can borrow from for clean-ups (Line 47). He has coordinated with city employees at the Watershed Protection Department (Line 32), a city arborist (Line 72) and PARD maintenance workers (Line 113). He attends neighborhood association meetings (Line 30) and understands their role in advocating at the city level (Line 56). He communicates with the managers of an apartment complex (Line 92) and Public Storage franchise (Line 37) that are adjacent to the park. He leverages the police (Line 40) and EMS (Line 78) for support in addressing issues relating to people living in the park. He is aware of potential funding sources for park projects such as Texas Conservation Corps (Line 84) and Austin Parks Foundation (Line 48). 

Robert’s experience as a Park Adopter is one of ever-increasing complexity. As he becomes more savvy about navigating the appropriate channels for actions he wants to take, he discovers exponentially more avenues to pursue. Rather than being empowering, this broader perspective is overwhelming. He has been trying to build a trail around the pond at his park — and he knows that there are a lot of organizations he could partner with to make it a reality, but he hasn’t actually taken action to make it happen yet.

Right now even just getting a new trash can installed seems like too much effort. “Installing a new trash bin has to go through many bureaucracy layers…It’s very difficult. There’s litter everywhere and no bin.” Rather than deal with the various agencies that need to be involved to make the change, he’s willing to pay out of pocket and do the labor himself to install some cheap unofficial trash cans.  “I keep meaning to go to Lowes and just get two big plastic bins and chain them to a bench. I might do that tomorrow.” (Line 138) He hopes that the maintenance workers will service them like they do the officially sanctioned trash cans. 

The best strategy Robert has to exit this web of complexity is to rely on his mentor, Daniel. “It’s still quite difficult to navigate who to talk to. That’s the nature of dealing with large organizations, I suppose. If I hadn’t spoken to [my mentor, Daniel], I’d still be floundering because he is laser-guided.“ Robert’s serendipitous encounter with Daniel, and Daniel’s generosity with his mentorship are the pathway out of complexity that Robert needs. 


The road that Daniel wants to have removed from his park
The road that Daniel wants to have removed from his park

Daniel has been a park adopter for over a decade and when he walks through his park it shows. During our visit to the park, he knew almost every person there — giving them updates about park improvements, asking them about their families, making polite conversation. It’s clear he’s become a staple in the community.

He’s been leading a renovation project for over 12 years and over time he’s developed sophisticated methods of getting things done. Unlike Rico, our younger park adopter, Daniel rarely mentioned receiving help from Austin Parks Foundation, Keep Austin Beautiful, or 311. Instead, he’s learned how to go above these groups to interface with decision-makers directly. 

Rather than just trying to get more lights, trash cans, or benches like Rico, Daniel and his neighborhood association were thinking big: they wanted to shut down an entire road and turn it into a walking trail. A huge ask for the city, they built a case that by removing the road, they’d be protecting the creek right next to it. Because of the road’s close proximity to the creek, it had also experienced a minor collapse which meant emergency vehicles like EMS could not use it. 

“And if the city can’t use the street, then we had a much better argument to say, the rest of us don’t need it. [. . .] The city kind of bought the argument. There’s less for them to maintain.” 

Not only has Daniel become sophisticated with making his arguments for park improvements, he knows where to focus his efforts. Unlike Rico or Richard who interface with a complicated web of 311, nonprofits, neighbors, and grant forms, Daniel leverages his neighborhood association to lobby his City Representatives to enact change. 

In one instance, his group convinced the city to add sidewalks to make his park ADA compliant–  a “$600-$700,000” project. Yet despite these investments, he still feels his park is not receiving their fair share as city funds flood to parks in Circle K, or other emerging neighborhoods on the edge of the city.

“There’s a measure of resentment towards people west and southwest . . . who have absorbed a lot of resources. . . .A lot of these existing infrastructures have been really neglected . . . and we put money into these in lieu of funds that are supposed to be used in this neighborhood, but then they’re kind of somehow siphoned out to sprawl.”


When we visualized all of the levers each adopter pulled to enact change, a strong pattern emerged: 

IDSE202_01_service slice diagram 2

Over time, park adopters develop more and more resources they can use. Rico, a young adopter, has relatively entry-level connections and relies on them exclusively to make changes. Robert, an intermediately experienced adopter, has developed even more connections– so many that he’s unclear of which program owns what. He’s at peak complexity. Then we have Daniel, an experienced adopter who fully understands the landscape and is targeted in where to apply his efforts — choosing to interface with only a couple groups to help make changes.

This pattern follows the simple model of a complexity curve. Over time, park adopters gather more and more information and resources, reaching peak complexity (Robert). Then they start to truly understand their role and the programs around them, being able to navigate a complex system through simple measures (Daniel). 


IDSE202_01_service slice diagram 3

With this increased understanding also comes more autonomy and potential for gatekeeping. As a novice adopter, Rico relied on his community and nonprofits for changes and asked for feedback constantly:

“You can see the progress in the rating. I get some people here to rate the park from one to ten. ‘How clean do you think it is?’ ‘Ten.’ ‘Ten.’ ‘Ten.’ So it’s a big improvement.” (Line 86)

Meanwhile, Daniel and his neighborhood association were so sophisticated in their efforts, they were able to limit “outsider” access to the park by removing a road and parking: “There’s some concern that when we close this road, that there’s not enough parking, and this will be sort of pulling up the ladder [. . .] that it will be less welcoming to people from the outside of this neighborhood.”

Despite this concern, they are moving forward with the road removal anyway, which Daniel justified by saying:  “I don’t want to be harsh about it, but you know, we pay our taxes. We choose to live here because of the parks. We should have some first dibs on what happens in those parks.” (Line 145)

As park adopters become more sophisticated and autonomous, there is clearly huge potential for gatekeeping public spaces.


In the next few weeks, we will use our utterances, themes, and service slices to support the development of Insights and Problem Statements that will help us further define the problem space so we can start to create design ideas for APF.

Want a deeper look at our interview process and stories from the field? Check it out here