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Gerry: Hello, my name is Gerry Scullion and welcome to Bringing Design Closer, which is part of This is HCD. I’m a service design practitioner and trainer based in Dublin City, Ireland. Bringing design into organisations is hardly ever straightforward, it comes with its own unique set of problems. In Bringing Design Closer, we discuss with thought leaders around the world, what has worked for them in enabling design revolutions to occur. Recently, I received a beautiful giftbox of books from BIS Publishers in the Netherlands. I saw one book that I really liked the title of, that was: Thinking in Services by Majid Iqbal.
Now, Thinking in Services is something that the service design community have been speaking about for quite some time. What Majid has been able to do and articulate so well is, he’s broken it down into three key areas. As a result, we’re going to record a three-part series over 2019, which will allow us to go deep down into the dissection of it all. Now, let me tell you a bit about Majid, Majid is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon and is now based in the Netherlands.
In this episode, we really focus on what a service is and what a service is not. Now, it might seem like a simple question, but the answer is not straight forward, as we discuss. I have a copy of Majid’s book to give away. To be in with a chance, make sure you’re on the This is HCD newsletter, so just go over to the website and sign up. Anyway, let’s get straight into the conversation with Majid. Majid Iqbal, a very warm welcome to Bringing Design Closer.
Majid: Thank you.
Gerry: I’m delighted to have you here. Where are you coming from today?
Majid: I’m right now in [inaudible 00:01:35] Netherlands. I spend a lot of time in the U.S. as well, I live in both countries. I’ve been here the past few days. I had to teach a workshop recently.
Gerry: Nice, very good. I love the Netherlands. Let’s kick off, I received your book: Thinking in Services from the lovely guys in BIS in the Netherlands a couple of months ago. Really enjoyed it. I won’t lie, I’m a third of the way through. It’s a big book. It’s definitely one that I can’t read continuously. I have to put it down and then think. Before we get into a little bit more around what we’re going to chat today about, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today?
Majid: I’m a consultant and I work mostly with government and commercial enterprises. I’ve been doing that for the last 15/20 years. Before that, I was a product manager. In fact, I began my career in sales. I’ve had a checkered past, to put it that way. It was around 15 years ago that I got into this whole world of services because back then I was at Carnegie Mellon and we were, at that time, researching this whole phenomena called outsourcing contracts with millions and billions being signed with a lot of risk in them, so people were beginning to get afraid about this thing called outsourcing. Fundamentally, outsourcing is basically an arrangement for services and that’s how I began my enquiry into services.
Around the same time, the dean of the Hein School of Public Policy and Management and I, we had a chat, the discussion led to me creating a new course at Carnegie Mellon. I felt like for an economy that is supposedly 70 percent services, we’re not teaching many courses in services. I created a new course called managing service organisations. That’s how I got into the business of trying to explain to people what services are, what they can be, why they even exist? Went deeper and deeper into that. That’s how I became interested in the design of services.
Gerry: It’s a great topic because I’ve just come back from Stockholm, I was there for the last couple of days, I had the same conversation with lots of different people about what is service design. We can talk about that until the cows come home, as we say in Ireland, but we’re not going to chat about that today, we’re just going to chat around the definition of a service, and I think it’s a really interesting conversation because there are multiple definitions out there at the moment, what you’ve broken down in the book so succinctly is to outline the role of people, the role of things, and the role of patterns. Let’s talk a little more about what a service is.
Majid: Absolutely. As I was structuring the book and writing is, I thought, I think by chapter one, I should take that question head-on. It’s also such a difficult question, what are services? We talk so much about them. We talk about services at such a macro level. If you take this notion of GDP, you break it down into goods and services, there it seems very clear that there are goods and there are services. Two ways in which we measure economic output. Then we get into the more colloquial discussions or language, where we talk about products and services. We somehow shift without even noticing. We say, products and services.
It begins right there, the original sin, right? Goods and services are really how you measure economic output, but we switch to the marketing language of product and services. There’s almost no point correcting people that – no, it’s goods and services, services are in fact a kind of a product, they are products because we can use them. They are products because we can price them. They’re products because we can assure something will come out and it’s of value.
That’s interesting because [inaudible 00:05:33], if you look at the philosophies and frameworks of things like agile and dev ops, you hear a lot more about product owners and product backlogs and product development. People are shipping product, even when it’s services. I was thinking, like, man, how do I really address this question because, yet another definition could perhaps be futile? I came up with an idea. I came up with this in my book, we have two professional sceptics, Gerry McGuire and Thomas Doubting. I hope everybody gets the references.
Gerry: I know, yes.
Majid: Thomas Doubting and Gerry McGuire are sceptics. They’re also trained in the dialectic methods, so we give them a statement, they criticise it. In the course of this discussion, we arrive at what we might call attenuative definition. That is service are performance and affordances producing outcomes that satisfy a set of customer needs. That’s where we left it, at least in the book.
Gerry: To just go back to, you mentioned dialectic methods there. I know some people mightn’t understand what dialectic methods are. Andy Polaine has got his Power of Ten Podcast on This is HCD, as well. The different zoom levels, so talk to me a bit more about that.
Majid: Well, I believe it goes back to philosophers discussing an idea. An idea being presenting, an opposition to the idea or criticism to the idea leads to the other person revising it and going back and forth, this opposition, dialogue leads to improvement of the idea because each person counters with criticism. That’s really, as I understood it, how the dialectic method works. Though, I’m not trained in philosophy. I thought it might be a better understanding instead to, a better way to arrive at a definition, a definition that we can live with or work with because when we talk about defining what are services, or what are service design? What are we really trying to accomplish?
Are we trying to make it easier for an alien form who arrives on earth, picks up a dictionary and says, “Encounter this term called services and maybe describing it?” Is that a definition? Or, is it a definition more in terms of services are an object or a thing? That needs to have a more formulated definition. Like, define water, two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. There’s never ever debate around that. That’s a different kind of definition, which I think is more interesting from a design perspective, because if I were to design water, I have some basis on designing a water molecule.
Gerry: Do you think that’s the goal?
Majid: Exactly, that’s less subjective semantics. If I’m just curious how a discussion in Japanese would go about water or services because we’re not using English, right, we’re not prone to the same semantic traps, or in German, or in Swahili, or Bengali. Right?
Gerry: Yes. Do you think the think about trying to define service and service design is more likely to be native to the English language?
Majid: I think so because so much of literature from this area comes from the English-speaking world. There are perhaps historical reasons for that. Also, I think it has to do with the fact that the present thinking on services originates from consumer services marketing. When I had to teach such course, as I mentioned earlier, I did a literature review and there was this dominant thinking. This set the stage for some of the terminology that we use today, like frontstage and back-stage, service scape. I think the imagery leads to the language. Still, services are now seen as these performances, that’s why we use the word “stage”, right?
They’re more likely to be seen as performances that we have to orchestrate and choreograph, but then it makes it easier, the imagery makes it easier for people to understand a few very quick examples of services, but then part of my effort with the book is to broaden the definition of what services are. Oh my gosh, there are so many different kinds of services. That’s partly the problem with defining what services are. Sometimes, what happens is that it’s okay to narrow the definition because it speeds things up, it makes things clearer within a community of practice. Then that leads to jargon. Therefore, leads to more colloquial interpretations of what services are. There’s the problem there.
Gerry: There is a zoom level going on within the term service, is what I’m hearing. As it zooms out, the definition broadens?
Majid: Yes, then it becomes less useful from a practical perspective.
Majid: It becomes less useful, so the question is, should we start by broadening our understanding of services, first understanding them in the broadest possible sense, all kinds of services, right? One of the things I talk about is services that we don’t even see or take for granted, they exist, but we can’t see them. Therefore, how do you see the journey map, or who is the user there? My advice or my thinking is that, first, get a broader and a deeper – I talk about when you broaden your scope, you deepen your understanding. Then one, for example, has to say, for example, you’re a part of an agency that is leading digital transformations.
Then you necessarily have to be more specific and narrow in on those particular types of things that you’re designing. Then it’s okay to speak a language that is more specific, uses specific words. Then you do not have to worry about it. I think that’s the challenge that designers have. If I’m designing, say, for example, I’m designing a multi-million-dollar contract between a hospital and a janitorial services or laundry. At that level, I’m thinking more in terms of the contract. What are we agreeing to? What’s going to happen in the broadest possible terms? What are the financials of it? Right? In that sense, lawyers are designers of services because the contract gives shape to the actual service.
Majid: Then if you are designing making it easy for people to very quickly, if there’s a lot of work going on in especially, for example, in the UK, in the U.S., well, actually around the world with digital services. Then your definition of a service could be much narrower. Again, it comes back to that very interesting question of what is service design? It’s almost like asking, I’m going to step carefully now.
Gerry: I’m ready to pounce, go on.
Majid: I’m threading carefully here, because, say, I give this example a lot also because I’m an aviation geek. Say, you’re an agency and there is an agency, for example, that designs the interiors of all aircrafts, all Boeing aircraft. They do a great job of it. They’re specialists. There are just very few firms that are capable of taking an airframe and turning it into an environment conducive to travel, right? They design, for example, seats and the lighting systems, all the possible affordances you can imagine within the cabins. They design cabins perhaps, right? Including the in-flight entertainment. They are truly a design firm. Now, could they say they are in the business of aircraft design? You cannot say they’re not.
Gerry: Yes, they’re a contributing factor, yes.
Majid: Exactly. Then when you say aircraft design, it conjures up a different image, you first think about, Airbus and Boeing are designing the aircraft, the flight definition. That’s the thing about service design. If you’re designing something which is part of a service, say, for example, mostly if it’s interaction deign or the user experience or the user interfaces or touch points. Or the journey through an ecosystem, is that service design? Well, whatever you’re designing is, of course, a part of a service but then you do not get into the things like the contract or the financials. How are we going to charge for it? Or the staffing of it. Or getting licenses and permits to operate as an airline, is that part of services design? I noticed that you have the Power of Ten Podcast, right?
Gerry: Yes, with Andy.
Majid: Exactly. I think that might be a good way as an analogy for us to think about having the capacity to zoom in and zoom out. I think that’s a skill that any good designer has, or should have, to be able to very quickly in your mind have the agility to zoom in and zoom out and not lose your mind basically.
Gerry: I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a businessperson who hears this conversation. What is service design? What are services? Versus all the different types of design, it must be extremely confusing. If you were to describe what a service is not, how would you do that?
Majid: That’s a good question. Let me take you to a discussion. When I’m teaching this, this question often comes up. Someone will ask me. This is a chair; can this be a service? Right? I say, well, do I have to pay for the chair? Let’s start there. Do I own the chair or not? More interesting is the washing machine. In fact, one of my, I have a simple slide, it has two washing machines, one with a coin slot and one with not.
Gerry: I thought that was one of the best parts of the first part of the book. That paragraph summed everything up. It was a beautiful part where the representation of the coin reflected a very simple trade contract or an agreement between the artefact and the person.
Majid: Exactly. Sometimes I think it comes down to as simple as that. If you own the washing machine and you’re supplying the electricity. You’re liable for its upkeep, right? You don’t have to pay for it and the washing machine cannot refuse you, then it’s not a service. I found it very intriguing as I was reading about smart contracts about a couple of years ago, where this gentleman Nick Sarbo I think, a long time ago, talked about the coin slot being the precursor of smart contracts, it enforces the contract.
I think this is fascinating because I look at how part of the universe of services expanding is, if you take Spotify, it’s a great example, right? Where you go from owning records to not owning them and therefore, requiring or enjoying this service. You are literally borrowing someone else’s library and you hit play and the music starts playing. If we shift slightly and think about it, it’s a great question. What is not a service? Well, a service is not servitude, you can’t force a service. You can’t force someone to provide you a service. There has to be some sort of an offer, consideration and acceptance.
That’s the basic definition of a contract. A service has a contract. Now, whether it’s a contract between society and its citizens. Say, for example, police, it’s a service for sure, do you actually pay for the police, yes, you do. Do you get an itemised bill? Definitely not. Impossible. Did I just, for example, you and I, while we’re having this conversation, did I just enjoy the law enforcement service?
Majid: I think I did because somehow, we are in these protected environments that are maintained with a lot of effort. I think whether something is service or not, this should be a few simple rules. One of them is that are there two parties involved? Is there an agreement and is there some payment or consideration? It doesn’t have to be in cash. It could be in kind. The relationship between Facebook and us, for example. Do I pay for Facebook? I think just discussing whether Facebook is a service and for whom, will clarify a lot of things.
Gerry: It’s interesting because if you look at the premise of Bringing Design Closer, you’ve got businesspeople and sometimes designers, as well, will question: Am I working on a product or a service or how do those two intersect in what I’m actually working on within my organisation? If the designers are becoming the salespeople for a new way of thinking to bring that cultural shift in their organisations forward, it’s important that we have a better understanding and a definition of what service is, let alone what service design is. That’s what I enjoyed the most in the early stages of the book, where you covered off lots of different examples. Everything as a service, like a SaaS product. Ownership versus utilisation, everything is multiplying.
Majid: Yes, I think this is the case, our services creates their own problems. Services are solutions to our problem, in fact, services are go-to solutions to many of our problems. Think about transportation for example, right, and yet, what I shift in that, in another chapter is, after discussing why services are these marvels of design, you know, my favourite one is always be closing.
Gerry: What do you mean by that? I wanted to ask you that, as well. Tell me what you mean.
Majid: First of all, it’s another movie reference, Glen Gary Glen Ross. Always be closing. The famous Alek Baldwin meme. Also, I looked at and I looked at some of the services. Take, for example, storage on iCloud. We keep taking pictures. The more pictures we take, the more storage we need. Then this storage magically expands. Then we take even more pictures. Or the ability for services to make possible what’s impossible. Somehow things fall into place. If you need more – in the book, I talk about, especially this is true with digital services, the magic of software and technology allows services to always step in and close the gap. Do you need food on your table?
All those delivery services. Anywhere there’s a gap, services come and close the gap. I just find that very fascinating. I think that section follows the other section, which says, services are making possible the impossible. I call them this bionic exoskeletons, right? That artificially extend our range. Because of services I can talk to you right now, you’re in Dublin and I’m in [inaudible 00:19:39]. It’s possible. It’s just crazy. I talk about how our ancestors would be shocked that I can…
Gerry: That we can do that.
Majid: That I can send you a payment just like that. I just paid someone, what? Did you? I didn’t see any coins jingling. Did you reach into your pockets? That’s what I mean by always be closing. There’s so much innovation going on that if there’s a gap, if there’s an inability, if we face a difficulty in doing something, there’s some service that comes in and closes that gap. Then there are some service behind that service closing its own gap. While, for example, I have iCloud, there are some datacentres out there and there’s more bandwidth and there’s 5G. You’ve got me going here.
Gerry: It’s good. I’ll just sit back. We mentioned about the importance of a contract in what a service is, when I asked you what a service is not. If it doesn’t have a contract, it’s not a service. Can you think of anything that could also be included in that?
Majid: I’ve heard some explanations or let’s say a certain point of view, right? A certain dominant logic about services. Which says something like the chair you’re sitting on provides you a service because it creates benefit for you. I disagree. The chair has no choice but to provide benefits for you because you’re sitting on it, you control the chair, you own the chair. Therefore, I think I’m coming more from an economics point of view, what are services?
Therefore, the chair is not providing – it’s useful to me, so I think that’s really where we along the way start conflating or broadening the meaning of the word service so broadly that it became less useful. When we thank soldiers, when we see soldiers, we say thank you for your service. That’s not wrong because indeed that is a service. You see the problem there? Suggesting anything that creates use for a person, being considered a service, I feel it’s going too far. Then it loses the meaning of what even – everything is a service then.
Gerry: Does service need a human interaction?
Majid: No necessarily so. That was a question about should I use the word human or people?
Gerry: Is that semantics?
Majid: Well, it’s interesting. We have natural persons and legal persons. We are now grappling with the idea; can robots be citizens? That’s a really interesting conversation by the way happening. There’s a whole discussion about citizens as things and things as citizens. Very fascinating. Let’s take for a moment, a service being provided between two entities. Right? To what are called legal persons, two corporations. At that level, of course, these corporations are human enterprises, so to that extent you can say they are humans involved. We’re not getting into a point of my machine receiving a connection to the internet and there are services that are happening within machines.
For example, Dropbox, one thing fascinating is when I read about it, I think I briefly covered it in my book about Netflix running 700 different, roughly about 700 different microservices in the background just to make the service of streaming video to your screen reliable, convenient, pleasurable. Those are services between software agents. There are no humans involved but there are variable services, clearly creating performances, clearly creating affordances between things.
There is a clear contract, there are outcomes, but then when we get into an experience, we get into, well, what was the experience of my machine, did it have trouble connecting with that delivery network? These are services, right? You can’t say they’re not services. They fit every definition of a service but there are no humans involved, which is why deliberately I end my book with this fictional story about this cab company, where this is an enterprise entirely made of machines or non-humans, artificial intelligence. They own the cab company; they are the entrepreneurs.
They are the owners and drivers. I end with this speculation of a future in which there will be enterprises that are not human. That could be not very far away, where, for example, a machine can enter into a contract with me, a human, because a machine is recognised as a legal entity. The machine can therefore provide me a service and I can issue a payment. The machine becomes more prosperous.
Gerry: That’s true for most things. At a certain zoom level, you could imagine that kind of reality happening. I guess just going back to my thing, a designer or a businessperson sitting in on an organisation saying, are we in the middle of creating a service? Sometimes people might come up to me and say, “Will we need a website or an app?” I might say to them, well, look, let’s look at this a little bit differently. Let’s look at what zoom level, where this is sitting at. What does it look like? To give some tactical and strategic advice to people listening, try and understand the zoom level where people are sitting at, and the idea that you’re currently having. Where abouts on the zoom levels of two/four/eight, where that’s at to try and understand the relationship between the layers.
Majid: Yes. It’s interesting you mention two/four/eight. I think one of my goals, I have some moderate success, is to be able to have a discussion about services where we avoid these semantic traps. To be able to say, let me draw you a definition of a service, right? This way, it’s like how other sciences advanced, like chemistry, right, we learn how to speak in symbols and never ever be confused about are we talking about hydrochloric acid or soda. Did you mean sodium bicarbonate, or did you mean a fizzy drink? I think that’s why some of this is driven by, if I were to describe my book another way, I would call it the algebra and geometry of service design, because we say there are always two sides. That’s the two. These two sides when…
Gerry: When they’re explored.
Majid: Exactly, when they’re explored you say, there’s always demand, there’s always supply, there’s always a customer, there’s always a provider. Then they promise each other performances and affordances. That becomes four, right? When you for further into part two of the book, you learn that every service is a set of four promises. Promises of performance and affordance with respect to demand and supply. The idea is to be able to say, if you asked me, I’m a business designer, or I’m a service designer, or we are thinking of understanding or creating a new service, then the goal is to be able to very simply and clearly say, okay, so then we need to identify what those four premises are that make it a service.
Not three, not two, right? This fits very well with the very well-understood notion of services being co-productions, right? Or co-creations, and that is in-fact true. In other words, a service does not exist just because a provider is promising something, the customer has to promise something back. That I’ve hopefully clarified the idea of exactly why services are co-productions. That’s really the idea of having a discussion and going back to your question, how do we know I’d be designing your service? Therefore, what are the parts? That also leads to the more important question of, and I think this is important especially because of the reduced set of tools that a service designer is expected to have, right?
How do I know the design is complete? If you look at a service blueprint or a journey map, what constraint is telling me there is something that is missing? Something that I do not have to discover through trial and error. This brings us to the whole questions of, what is a service as a whole and what are its parts? Therefore, how do we look at services at once as a whole that is other than the sum of its parts?
I think that, for me, is very important from a design perspective because as designers, we want our designs to be complete, not perfect, which is different from being complete, right? A design being complete would mean that we have accounted for everything that needs to go into the design to produce the effect that we intend to refer to as outcomes and experiences. Those are the effects.
Gerry: I agree with you. The only thing I’d probably disagree with you there is, probably like design is being complete. It’s very rare that anything is complete, you know, by having that finite language being used, especially around services and designs and products and apps and all that and so forth. They’re never complete, they’re always evolving.
Majid: Allow me to clarify, if I may. This is the problem with words, right? When I say complete, that’s what I meant, I didn’t mean perfect or finished.
Majid: I meant that I have accounted for everything. This is, again, this goes back to the design of – say, for example, I’m designing salt, right, and I keep going back to these analogies because they’re important to see how things happen in other fields, right? Say if you’re trying to design better salt and we do not know that salt includes chlorine, we just know it’s sodium, right? No matter how much effort we put in, no matter how much of research, talking to end users of salt and the user experience of salt, we’re never going to improve salt while being completely oblivious to the chlorine atom, right? In other words, our design should include an account for everything that goes into a molecule of salt. Interestingly enough, there is something called molecular modelling of services, every now and then it pops up. It goes way back to what I call the genesis article of service design.
Gerry: Yes, tell us about that.
Majid: The Harvard Business Review.
Majid: The essay written by G. Lynch Shostak back in the 80s, who first defined the term: Service blueprint, right? Still, one of those classic articles. The shoe-shine example. In the same articles, she also introduced another concept called molecular modelling, right. If I’m using a lot of analogies of the water molecule and the salt molecule, I’m borrowing from a paper that goes way back. In molecular modelling, by the very definition, it forces you to think of the wholeness of it. It lends itself very well to the more recent realisation that services are systems and therefore, should be designed as such. That’s what I mean by complete, not in terms of…
Gerry: Not finite.
Majid: Yes, or finished, or finessed. That we account for everything that goes into a service, otherwise, what are we trying to do? We’re just trying to reduce the chances of failure. That’s all we’re trying to do. Sometimes service failing would mean a very annoyed customer with an empty plate and what are the consequences of that? You’ve caused grief, but sometimes when services fail, as you know, as in the case of, for example, Facebook or a health system going towards bankruptcy, those failures are just too big for us to somehow say, oops, we didn’t think of that to be part of the design, right?
Those are just too much, right? That’s why I’m loving the realisation and more and more I see it a lot, where more and more practitioners in the service design world are reading up on systems thinking. I’m delighted by that because from systems thinking, we learn to see services for their structures and their dynamics.
Majid: Yes, that will only lead to better skills, better practices. It will only lead to better design. I’m very pleased with that development in the last few years.
Gerry: Excellent. Majid, we’re coming towards the end of this particular episode, we are going to do three episodes so we’re going to stick on this theme because I think it’s really interesting and fleshing it out a bit more. Before we do that, I want to ask you the three questions from hell, as I call it. The first question is, what’s the one thing you wish you were able to banish from the industry and why?
Majid: The narrow interpretation of service design to be the design of experiences.
Gerry: Okay. That is a loaded question and I’m not going to ask again why.
Majid: You’re not going to ask why?
Gerry: Go on. Try and give us an answer to why.
Majid: Because the world experience is overloaded. In my book, I talked about outcomes are what we pay for, experiences are what we pay with. In fact, interpret experience is a burden. Therefore, designing better experience is releasing the burden. The world experience design leads to this unnecessary confusion that services are the designing of experiences that we necessarily enjoy. That’s one reason. Banish is perhaps too strong a word, but I would encourage people to stop describing service design as experience design or equivalent of it. I think it’s just being more careful. Let’s banish being loose with words, how about that?
Gerry: Yes, that’s nice. The next question is, what is the one professional skill that you wish you were better at?
Majid: I think when you’re designing services, one of the challenges I face and what I struggle with is, there are a lot of different levels at which people are operating. Sometimes being able to very quickly calibrate the level of thinking that is necessary, that works for the entire team, versus forcing people to think at one level versus another. That’s a challenge. I think it’s got to do with more about being better at group dynamics or organisational dynamics. It’s something that, yes, one can never learn enough of that.
Gerry: Yes, that’s a good answer.
Majid: At what level to set the level of thinking, which is very hard. If you set it too high, then you can’t be more inclusive in the design process. If you set it too low, then we’re wasting the talent that’s available to us. That is a challenge. Organising design, I think. I think there’s some good work around that.
Gerry: All right. Then the last question is, what advice would you give to design talent for the future?
Majid: To take on the most difficult challenges earlier on in your career and that will just only…
Majid: I was going to say build character.
Gerry: It will benefit you later in life I think is what you’re trying to say.
Majid: Absolutely, yes.
Gerry: Majid Iqbal, it was lovely speaking to you. Thank you for your time today.
Majid: Thank you very much for this opportunity. I appreciate it.
Gerry: There you have it. Thanks for listening to Bringing Design Closer. If you want to learn more about the other shows on the This is HCD Network, feel free to visit: thisishcd.com, where you can also sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel, where you can connect with other human-centred design practitioners around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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