What I mean when I talk about “the design of services”

I’d like to propose that Design has ceased to be a useful word at operational levels in most mature service organisations. Design is now recognised as contributing to a wider set of outcomes than at any point in its history, yet it’s grown up in the process and doesn’t fit its teenage jeans any more. It’s my view that we need some new tailoring, so we can stretch our legs and take on the next stage of life.

So here’s my tuppence on how I think we could start talking more clearly about what I’m calling “the design of services”, so that we can better understand how each of our different design practices can work together to help the customer achieve progress.

What I’m not saying

Before I start, in the hope of avoiding some of the possible counterpoints coming my way, let me be clear what I’m not saying:

· I’m not saying that one sort of designer is better or more superior than another — I embrace the variety of design specialities. I am all for a broad church.

· I’m not saying that one label designates that practitioner forever to that label — I was once an Information Architect and UX Designer, and now I’m a Service Designer who’s moving into Strategic Design. I have always been on teams that design services.

· I’m not saying that certain stratospheres are owned by certain disciplines and that others need to stay in their domain. The joy of the sort of agile, tightly collaborative working I spend my time doing, is exactly the melding of all levels into a singular approach. In the past week, whilst designing a new service, I’ve created prototype mobile interactions, prototype video, prototype conversations, and prototype chatbots. All forms of design, collapsed together, in a sprint.

· I’m not saying that design is the province of designers. The word design matters less than we think. I have had some of my best times designing services with engineers, who these days tend to be Solution, Business or Technical Architects. I am myself proof that you don’t have to have design training to design services.

In writing this, what I am trying to say is that we need to go a level down in how we talk about designing services, otherwise we’ll further confuse each other and everyone else interested in working with us.

I also need to recognise the great people who evolved aspects of what I’m covering here, on whom I am indebted. Ben Reason at LiveWork, who first introduced me to thinking in levels this way, and Alan Klement who I’ve never met, but whose When Coffee and Kale Compete book blew my mind.

Thinking more simply about services, humans and designers

My career commitment is to design better services and it’s my belief that almost all designers are also in the business of designing services. Services make up over 90% of UK businesses, so it’s more than likely that your brief is coming from a service client. To take an example: although my role might be to design the bottle, yours to design the label, hers to design the ad, and theirs to design the online shopping site, we are all in the business of helping people progress to a less thirsty state. People hire services for outcomes, and the sub-elements are all geared to achieving it.

I am passionate about service and how human beings interact with them. To serve is a very ancient human instinct that outruns digital, management and pretty much all of modern culture. I think we’ve massively cluttered things as a result of the complexity of our very large corporate services. It never ceases to amaze me how useful design is at cutting us back to that simplicity.

Let’s examine how people interact with services day-to-day and use that to reflect on the fast evolving role of design.

As a person out in the world interacting with services, I am continually and simultaneously interacting at four distinct levels — human, consumer, customer and user.

The Human Level

At this level the service is helping me to self-actualise. It is fundamentally helping me progress to being the better human I aspire to be.

Very few services truly operate in this area. The church has dominated. Also the military. Think of any occupation that is inherently tied up with the word ‘service’ — ‘joining the service’, ‘military service’, ‘civil service’ — and you will find services that immerse the human to fulfil deeply human ends — working for the common good, protecting one another, and providing for one another. For me this reflects that giving service is deeply human, to the degree that it’s almost primal and holy. We serve our parents, our children, our colleagues — and recent research indicates that service is the seat of wellbeing.

What’s interesting though is that, as a human being, I myself mostly don’t know what I’m looking for at this human level. I’m a terrible predictor of what makes me happy. We all are. Things at the human level are confusing, irrational, chaotic and plagued by bias. It’s also where the most compelling and life-changing services can and do exist. Not enough services aspire to this lofty terrain, which is a shame.

Design at this level is about designing for human progress. This is a pretty abstract level of design — where the intent is helping people see something they wouldn’t otherwise see, into which they can vest themselves, committing to progress to a better life over the long-term. If you’re designing at this level you’re helping customers organise their own heads and lead them forwards in life. As a designer, there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing the results of this.

Why there aren’t more big brands working at this level, I don’t know. I continually disappoint myself when it comes to my long-term financial planning, yet no-one has yet designed a service to help me tackle that in a holistic way. Yet…

For want of a name, I’d call this the level of designing strategy. Every designer wants to be upstream on this stuff, but the skills required are pretty rare, as are the organisations willing to let them do it. Outside of established businesses this is usually the role of the entrepreneur. They hold the full design in their head and execute on it ruthlessly. Within established service businesses, this role has all but vanished, instead replaced by Proposition and Strategy teams. But my view of these is they are very consumer focused and neglect the human need I’ve set out above. There’s too much of a reliance on cold hard segmentation data and a ‘if we build it they will come’ attitude. We are seeing the rise of strategy design through roles like Chief Design Officer, which is a good thing.

Note: this has historically also been the level of brand design, but I don’t think it can still hold that throne. The main reason being that brand is essentially about designing a promise, usually of some life-changing experience, these days associated with having an extra blade on a razor. Rarely do brands deliver the experience they promise. Brand design is not the same as designing strategy, which is about working out both the promise and how to deliver on that promise.

Design skills at this level are: Understanding and applying human psychology to help people make sense of their lives. Being awake to the macro, tectonic murmurings and cultural dynamics at play, and leaning into the darkness to find new questions to answer for people. Deep anthropological research. Speculative design that ranges far beyond the next year. Application of deep empathy for messy humans. Being able to tell a damn good story to senior people with money in their pockets. Comfort with ambiguity and fuzzy problems, that tend to make analytical answer-oriented brains shiver.

The Consumer Level

Back to me as a human being using services, and our second level — the Consumer Level… When I’m operating at this level, I’ve at best worked out what I need, or at least been persuaded I need something. Either way, I’m in the market. I’m looking to find a solution I like, for the human need I think I’ve defined, in a way that works for me.

This is where innovation tends to happen. Some of it is pretty novel, but I’d argue that, when you stand back from the hyperbole, it doesn’t actually improve the human condition much. As Jaron Lanier puts it: ”these companies who don’t really do anything are the biggest in the world”. The best minds of our generation are basically trying to get you to look at things, as part of a global “behavioural modification machine”. It’s all exciting and cash-rich, but we should aspire to do better.

The integrated design of services at this level is improving, but remains pretty fragmented. If you’re lucky, someone has designed the strategy and now the proposition based on rich and authentic human insight, though, in my experience, usually someone in strategy thinks up a proposition and validates it through market research. Then someone else prices it. Then someone advertises / communicates / markets it, etc. A stream of disconnected design decisions, based on loose and fast assumptions and corporate bias that rarely gets challenged in our command and control environments. It usually ends up with a load of failure demand hitting the call centre.

This is where the design of service propositions lives. At this level the following is getting done:

1. Designing a proposition that delivers an outcome the customer needs in such a compelling way, that they want to hire it, such that the provider can benefit too

2. Designing a series of service elements that are experienced across multiple channels, along stages of a lifecycle, over time, to help customers progress through a positive change in behaviour.

3. Employing the very latest in service infrastructure to define how to realise that design — tech, digital, data, physical, voice, paper

4. Prototyping at a conceptual-yet-tangible level to prove or disprove the anticipated behavioural outcome

5. Applying this approach to all human interactions, on any service — B2C, B2B, B2Employee — public, private or third sector

Skills at this level are: inventing compelling end-to-end service propositions that meet identifiable customer needs. Considering what interventions will make people hire and keep hiring the service. Innovating a business model that creates the cost and revenue conditions to generate profit. Engaging a group of customers and colleagues by making the intangible tangible, via strategic prototypes. Ethnographic research. Understanding and applying behavioural psychology to help people overcome their choice anxieties. Working with a broad range of capability owners to work out whether a desirable, feasible and viable service can exist.

The Customer Level

Now to our third level — the Customer Level… When I’m at this level I’ve found the service provider I want, and I’m theirs. This is a critical change from a designer’s perspective. I’m now in the customer journey. The set of motivations and barriers are fundamentally different now.

Up to this point our design work has been focused on what the customer wants. If we do it well, we’ve persuaded the customer to sink effort, money and time into engaging with our service.

From this point, we’re focused on how the customer wants the service. The same designers can be working on this stage as did the last, but I can’t stress enough how the form and focus of the work is likely to be quite different.

My view of the design market at the moment is that 75% — 90% of design work is being applied to how customers interact with services at this level, which is why so many incumbent services are at risk. First Direct has been shouting about winning a ‘best bank for service’ award, but I’m still leaving them for Starling and Cleo. Because Starling and Cleo are two of a bunch of challenger fintechs who have spent time on strategic and service proposition design, working out what I actually want as a human and consumer — I want help progressing towards prosperity. Instead First Direct are locked into the customer and user levels, where they think great equals a great call centre where the phone gets answered promptly. For me, they’re doing a great job of delivering the wrong service, and my view is that people will soon realise that, and at that point all bets will be off.

For me the customer level is where we design service experiences. For me designing experiences is about designing the specific detail of multichannel and omnichannel experience to make them simple, easy to understand, intuitive, seamless and fun for customers to engage in, day-in, day-out. It’s also about designing the customer service experiences — the ‘unhappy path’ that people find themselves in when they ‘fall off the service’.

The experience is usually set out as a series of journeys over time, that all add up into a customer lifecycle. Along that journey experience designers can invent new features and functions, as well as polish existing ones, to improve the customer’s overall experience of being a customer — either to retain them, to reduce the cost to serve them, or to persuade them to fork out more cash, or interact in a certain way that benefits the provider. Either way, the experience drives a behaviour that profits both the provider and the customer. Thus leading to a sustainable, mutually beneficial service relationship — something that’s still way too rare.

The design of great experiences is essential, but if it’s not downstream from the design of a great strategy and service proposition, then the customer is still at risk of leaving it tomorrow when a better service proposition shows up solving their human need better than is being done today. There are so many examples of this. A good one is Uber and Addison Lee. Both are digital businesses in the job of getting people from A to B in cars, but I’d suggest that Addison Lee innovated digitally at the customer and user levels, whereas Uber innovated at the service proposition level — creating an entirely different proposition that works as a platform for both provider and consumer. Uber is winning out globally. (Though I’d also argue that they have failed to truly innovate at the tricky human level, as recent leadership issues and strikes demonstrate. I like Uber, but I feel a bit dirty about the gig economy.)

Design skills at this level: turning service data into insight, creating and applying design patterns for consistency, prioritising backlogs of change, running field research, mapping customer journeys, ideating around touchpoints, creating research operations, running research labs with a high level of customer contact.

The User Level

At this last level I’m usually trying to just get things done. I’ve committed to you and now I need to do some things to realise some value: fill out a form, read something, submit something etc. My interaction occurs at some sort of interface with your service and that interface needs to usable — by which I mean predictable, reliable, and understandable.

Success here requires a growing myriad of design skills: user experience design, interaction design, information architecture, content design and increasingly conversation design. There’s also communication design, print design, graphic design, store design and information design. Then there’s the growing domain of DevOps, where a design and agile working model is being applied to the practice of engineering.

One quick note about ‘product’. I think the current language of product is pretty confusing to many. Financial products and digital products aren’t really products at all. Customers experience them as services, often in combination over time. The term is a result of the prevailing logic of most corporate management thinking and education, which has evolved from 50 years of manufacturing logic. We’re now fully in a service economy, and making customers jump across products to achieve an outcome isn’t helpful. I do think that most people talk about product when they actually mean service, so I don’t want to get hung up on it, but it is an oddity.

A few things to note about the levels

As people, out in tge world, we all operate simultaneously at all levels, pretty much all the time.

· If my human need changes then I will likely change my behaviour at every level — we should be helping customers through this transition. It’s a good change, even if it means they leave our service. I’m definitely stumbling through the zone of mid-life crisis and I can almost feel my compass points changing by the day. My choices at every other level will change as a result of this period.

· I might be a happy customer and user, but if someone offers me a better solution to my consumer need, I will drop you like a stone. See my previous note on Starling vs First Direct. There is a black swan coming for any market that relies on customer inertia.

· Your customer and user experience might be fantastic, and score well individually on NPS, but I might still hate you at a human and consumer level. And it works the other way. I love amazon and uber at user, customer and consumer levels, but something about the way they treat their employees feels very ‘not right’ to me at the human level.

Merging jobs-to-be-done with this four-tier framework shows how people continually move across the tiers in search of services to help them progress in life

The fluid agile, integrated design of fluid, agile integrated services

I’ve segmented my thinking out into levels to make a point here. But in reality people aren’t either a customer or a user. They are fluidly all of these states at any given point. So the model is wrong, but useful nonetheless.

Equally I wouldn’t want people to think that this article is a call to people segmenting design practice in a different way. My reason for writing this article is the opposite — to champion the idea of the fluid, agile integrated design of services. This requires a recognition that many skills and aptitudes are required, and that success comes from integration, so that we can:

· Build better customers — who tomorrow are closer to their better selves than they were yesterday

· Create the conditions for prosperous customer behaviour — so that both the customer and provider benefits

· Apply technology in intriguing and magical ways — so that every touchpoint helps me to better my human goals, and not feel like some sort of zombie interaction

· Help people in organisations work better together to achieve this — by focusing on the common goal of being in service of the customer, and those that serve the customer

This is the work that gets me out of bed in the morning.