PENN MAC Service Innovation

In 1902, the Sunseri Brothers formed the pasta manufactory now known as the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company (Penn Mac).

In the late 1940's, the family business pivoted to a retail business and soon became the country's premier Italian specialty food operation.

In fall 2021, Penn Mac started collaborating with Carnegie Mellon. I was part of the project to innovate a new service for the grocery store in the Strip District of Pittsburgh.



I worked on a 4-week service innovation challenge with our client Penn Mac, an Italian specialty food operation, in October 2021.


I practiced surveying, contextual inquiry, and guerilla user research to target customers’ needs and clients’ interests.


I was the lead researcher and service designer of a four-student team. I portrayed personas, prototyped ideas, and produced a concept video.


We brought together a desirable and ready-to-implement solution that our client felt confident to execute.

our Project Timeline

Penn Mac Project Timeline
The challenge

Service Innovation at A Hundred-Year-Old Store

In our first contact, the client made their two objectives for the new service clear:

The service should help strengthen long-term relationships with existing customers.
The service could attract new customer segments without affecting existing customers' experience.

Throughout the design process, we dealt with two main challenges:

Co-design with clients new to design

Our clients are undoubtedly experts in cheese selection and retail management. However, they were new to design practices. I worked as the bridge person and translated service design concepts into client-friendly language.

Limited time, budget & contact

Before delivering a desirable, viable, and feasible idea, we had zero budget and two chances of direct conversation with our clients. We managed to get the direction right early and make incremental changes to perfect the proposed solution.

the underlying challenge

How might we collaboratively innovate new services with a hundred-year-old Italian specialty grocery store?
The innovation

DIY Giftbox Service

We came up with the DIY Giftbox Service, which will make customers feel more engaged while shopping at Penn Mac. I made the concept video below to demonstrate how it works.

our design process in a nutshell

Illustration of my process to my service innovation

Sketch credit to Demetri Martin

THE situation

Innovative but old-fashioned client

Our clients run a historic brick-and-mortar store that provides unique grocery shopping experiences with minimum modern elements. In addition, Penn Mac employees also feel more comfortable working with pen and paper even though the company can afford new technologies.

Employees feel more comfortable working with pen & paper even though the company can afford new technologies.

Exploit over explore

Our clients prefer to exploit things they are already good at. Hence, the service we introduce should align with our client's excellence.

Penn Mac’s excellence: build trust and personal connections with customers in the physical shop.

Explore, Generate, Evaluate

We adopted the integrated service design framework proposed by Hugh Dubberly and Shelley Evenson.

We explored, generated, and evaluated diverse ideas during the fluid and iterative design process.

my design strategy

Seek the low hanging fruits

I pursued the opportunities to design desirable yet easy-to-implement new services by leveraging and repurposing existing resources.

Make abstract value concrete

I introduced short actings to pitches that helped clients empathize with their customers and recognize the value proposition behind our ideas.

Explain concepts with models

Instead of telling clients what to do all the time, I created easy-to-interpret visual models to convey our ideas and elicit clients' feedbacks.

The Explore

Surface opportunity through research

I led the field study on our clients and their customers to understand the context and discover specific, actionable insights grounded in research discovery.

Our client runs a profitable business despite being old-schooled and relying on pen and paper.

To our surprise, the customer's mental model about Penn Mac suggests it is a place of attraction rather than a typical grocery shop.

Customers purchase specialty goods for friends and families as if the goods are souvenirs.

how i explored the current state

Becoming an insider

I conducted contextual inquiries and on-site directed storytelling with Penn Mac employees. As I visited every corner of the store, including its storage and parking lots, I unveiled backstage activities.

Storage at Penn Mac

Storage at Penn Mac

No Budget, No Problem

I held inviting signage around the shop to recruit passengers and collect high-level insights. I offered tiny favors such as taking pictures in front of Penn Mac's iconic red door to earn opportunities for a quick chat with the passengers.

Me with inviting signage at Penn Mac

Me with inviting signage at Penn Mac

Research at home

My Research never stopped. I conducted desktop research and collected 163 survey responses. I made phone calls to staff members at all nearby residences to build the persona representing the population living within 1 mile away from Penn Mac.

Desktop Research on residence near Penn Mac

My desktop research on residence near Penn Mac

"When I go to Penn Mac, it is for the experience & selection. I like the strip & Penn Mac variety, but it isn't an everyday trip."

A quote from one of the survey responses


Visualize findings with a service blueprint

To capture understandings about the business's current state and detect potentials for a preferred one, I led the development of a service blueprint informed by research findings.

The service blueprint let me effectively communicate and collaboratively design with teammates, advisors, and clients.

how we generated new ideas


Discovery about today's business

We detected that the following three existing resources are the backbone of Penn Mac's business today:

The variety and authenticity of products.
The approachable employees.
The loyal customers.
In the brick-and-mortar store, these three resources determine how much value is co-created for Penn Mac.

Vision for tomorrow's business

Services are co-produced by people. We believe introducing the DIY Giftbox service would facilitate value co-creation by bringing all resources together with activity.

Co-create value inside and outside the store

The gift preparation theme incentives customers to spend more and pick personalized items inside the store. Outside the store, gift boxes get passed from customers to recipients and help introduce the store to a broader population.

Repurpose existing resource

The service comes with minimum cost as all resources are already there at the store. Besides, since customers will drive the DIY process, no additional labor from the employee is needed to provide this service.

Make care towards customers transparent

The service introduces tangible and visible peripheral evidence (e.g., flyers and giftbox) that the customers can possess. These artifacts make Penn Mac's effort in creating customer-centered service more transparent.

A carrier of goods and cares

In the end, the gift box will function as more than a container of groceries. It will also be a carrier of love, care, and message that the box giver sends out to the recipient.

The DIY Giftbox service would lead to the most significant return at minimum investment.
The Reflection

Don't bury the Lede

Getting a lot of training on design and research, I value details and appreciate insights. However, my clients might be interested in something totally different, such as funding mechanisms and ROI. Through co-designing with Penn Mac, I learned to empathize with my audience and pick up the most critical messages from their perspective during conversations. One trick I practiced frequently was to imagine what my audience would tell back to their audience after chatting with me.

Play music with audience

Pitching is like playing music in a band formed by designers and clients. As a designer, I am responsible for playing my part well by making my idea understandable. But, to my surprise, it is equally important to signal my partners when it's their time to shine. I achieve the latter by asking why. This simple magic word keeps the conversation going and surfaces clients' underlying needs.

Look for the trim tab

Design teams can't always afford pivots. I ran into this challenge after investing considerable effort in an idea while running short on time. So instead of looking for dramatic pivots, I learned to look for the "trim tab" — minor incremental adjustments that could lead to significant impacts.

Design teams can't always afford pivots. I learned to look for minor incremental adjustments that could lead to significant impacts.
I'd love to hear what you think!


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