Illustration Tilman Zitzmann

Service Design

A holistic approach to drive innovation and business growth.

Service Design is gaining momentum across various sectors and industries this year. Raising awareness and a better understanding of what this approach can bring to an organisation is critical to its continuous development. In this article, I explore why Service Design has become so indispensable for businesses seeking innovative service solutions based on customer needs.

Service Design to orchestrate a cross-channel experience

The recent rise of digital channels has driven organisations to focus primarily on designing products. Minimalist and easy-to-use interfaces have been all the rage in an ever growing digital industry, but less resource has been dedicated to understanding how these products fit into the wider context of a service. Biased assumptions led to allocating all the skills and budget towards the development of the end product. Over time, this phenomenon has resulted in unbalanced services. What’s the point of having an award-winning digital product if the customer support, the delivery service or the product availability fall short of the original proposition?

Without effective service design, many organisations fragment into clunky business processes and disconnected channels with no one overseeing or orchestrating how customers move from one channel to another (digital and non-digital).

Service Design to collaboratively create solutions

For a long time designers, art directors, architects and to a wider extent the creative industry has prided itself in working in isolation for the sake of inspiration. This behaviour often resulted in accumulating concepts and mock-ups based on mere assumptions until the anticipated reveal in front of a skeptical client. Often these meetings would end-up with executives having a completely different approach to the problem or making unusual requests to satisfy their egos. The resulting decision-making process has often been reduced to a financial battle. These battles have occurred for decades, as colourfully illustrated by the TV series Mad Men.

In his book “The Edifice Complex, the Architecture of Power”, Deyan Sudjic explains how the design of buildings was often deeply influenced by wealthy clients and ruthless politicians, leaving the architect with no choice other than trading off on his original social aspirations.

Service design takes a completely different approach to the creative process. Developing innovative solutions is no longer one person’s role, because at the outset of the project, service design teams bring in people with diverse expertise that normally work in silos and level the organisation’s traditional hierarchy. The project becomes a shared responsibility and this approach completely changes the way interdisciplinary teams work together. Suddenly the traditional battle of egos and fear of being sidelined gives way to a more collaborative and trusting culture of improving outcomes together.

Service Design to look at the end-to-end customer lifecycle

To truly understand customers’ behaviours at different touchpoints, it’s essential to see all of the stages of a service from an outside-in perspective (the customer’s perspective) before trying to improve anything.
If we take the mortgage process as an example, one of the most common complaints from buyers is the lack of status updates from their bank or solicitor at key stages in the process. Viewed in isolation, this frustration could easily be seen as nothing more than a typical lengthy legal process issue. It doesn’t really resemble the kind of updates customers expect in the delivery of goods. However if we take a step back and investigate the initial triggers for people to get a mortgage, we find that the personal involvement, the symbolic value of getting on the property ladder, and the large financial commitment all contribute to customers needing more re-assurance throughout the process. Evidently, updates and notifications are especially critical for mortgage customers.

The above-mentioned holistic approach and the resulting ability to see the wider context allows organisations to discover such customer insights and uncover gaps and opportunities for the business to develop.

Service Design to design iteratively

Iterative design processes are now widely recognised as the way forward. Service Design is no different but puts a fresh spin on this approach. By encouraging organisations to regularly assess their customer needs and expectations, Service Design embeds the iterative process in the organisations’ DNA. While service designers develop concepts iteratively and refine them based on users’ feedback, business strategy, and organisational capabilities, it is vital that this iterative process continues after the completion of the initial project.

Often organisations rely on external consultants to assess their service. Ongoing customer research should also be an essential component of the roadmap in a Service Design project.

Service Design to build trust with customers

By involving staff members that are in direct contact with customers, in addition to more senior managers, Service Design brings a customer-centric shift in the solutions that emerge during the ideation phase. Businesses that were traditionally primarily focused on “how to increase revenue” now start thinking “how could we improve our relationship with our customers”.

Engagement is a useful concept when working with customer-driven approaches. It is often very hard to get people who are deep in the operations of a business to step outside into the world of customer experience. Customer engagement brings insights closer to home as it is about “What do we do to interact with customers?” Most colleagues find this is a more accessible conversation.
Ben Reason, Lavrans Løvlie, Melvin Brand Flu — Service Design for Business, , 2016, Wiley

Customer-facing staff deal with angry customers on a regular basis and have a direct interest in solutions that could reduce customer irritation. Co-created solutions serve both business processes AND customer needs. Stakeholders with a more traditional approach might be uncomfortable with this outside-in perspective at first as they don’t always see the connection between improving customer experience and increasing profits for their business. Many of the most visible business success-stories with the likes of Apple, Netflix and Über are perfect examples of how building ideas based on customer needs and wants is key to creating innovative concepts.

With a holistic and customer-centric approach at its heart, service design is a proven approach that enables long-term business growth.

Special thanks to Gene Libow, service designer at Livework London.