Taking Back The Touchpoint

Note: This piece was written for and first published on the Service Design NYC blog on Nov 11, 2015.

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up a group project advising a library client on ways to increase usage of the library. During the final meeting, the topic turned to JSTOR, the industry-leading academic database that is part of the library’s digital services.

The librarian scoffed: “Well, we all know the JSTOR interface is awful.”

It didn’t sound like she thought the JSTOR experience was an integral part of the library user’s experience. Or, if she did, it sounded like she was resigned to having a database with a poor interface as part of the library’s overall service. And I do empathize with her: JSTOR is frustrating, and it isn’t the only frustrating touchpoint in the library’s ‘arsenal.’ You could test your patience with the EBSCOhost Academic database. Or take on the real challenge of find a book through the Voyager online catalog.

The overwhelming EBSCOhost Academic search interface.

As designers, we strive to create a coherent experience across all the touchpoints within a service interface. Yet across industries, service providers are settling for a poorer experience when it comes to touchpoints that they feel they have little control over.

Another case in point: the frustration that career services offices in universities have with their job listing portals. I’ve looked at job portals out there and they are universally terrible. Symplicity’s CSM software is probably the most popular solution, yet I’ve seen career services officers tear their hair out trying to figure out simple features in that system.

Service designers versus service designers

What makes this especially interesting is that these touchpoints are provided by vendors whom are themselves service providers. The Voyager library catalog is a service: it’s a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product sold to 1,300 libraries around the world (including the Library of Congress!). Let’s call these services-within-services ‘sub-services.’ What we’re seeing here are sub-service experiences impeding their parent services’ experience. It’s service designers versus service designers.

Service providers should care that sub-services are ruining their offering. When a sub-service gives users a tough time — especially one that is as central to the service as the catalog is to the library or the job site is to the career office — users blame the parent service. They don’t point to the catalog and go: “Oh, Voyager makes terrible library software.” Why would they seek out the source of the catalog? Instead, the first instinct is to complain about the library’s terrible book search experience.

The ideal situation is one in which services have in-house control over all their touchpoints. However, that is constrained by time and resources: most services just do not have the money nor the engineering staff to build proprietary touchpoints that completely align with the overall service experience. So they outsource control of touchpoints to specialist vendors at a much lower cost. Today, more and more touchpoints are entrusted to external vendors: we see business services emerging around everything from customer help centers to third-party logistics (3PL) to card payments. This is a growing trend: external services are taking over more of our work.

What then?

What can the service do? At first glance, several solutions present themselves, but each option is problematic in its own way.

One solution might be to build touchpoints in-house to get them exactly right. Many companies with significant resources have taken to doing that. Tech giants like Facebook and Google definitely build their own customer support tools, and Amazon handles its own logistics. Large hospitality chains invest significant amounts in proprietary in-room systems. But Facebook and Google and Amazon and large hotel chains are anomalies amongst the many services out there that are battling every day to keep costs down in competitive markets. The average service simply cannot afford to do everything in-house.

Another solution might be to set your service apart from the vendors you use: make it clear that when users are engaging in a sub-service within one of your touchpoints, it’s the vendor’s service they are experiencing and not yours. The library could tell its visitors that a vendor is to be blamed for the poor experience. Doing this might preserve the library’s reputation for good user experience, but it all sounds a little petty, doesn’t it? Users would come away baffled by your choice to outsource your touchpoint and then blame the vendor for the lack of quality.

A third suggestion might be to have a stringent process when it comes to selecting a sub-service vendor. That is often the job of the IT or purchasing department — request for quotes from potential vendors, and then pick the vendor that would provide a touchpoint that most aligns with your service experience. But what can you do if your options are limited to a small number of equally unsatisfactory vendors? That is often the case: JSTOR is the standard in academic databases because it provides access to the largest selection of academic sources. Institutions all subscribe to JSTOR because they have no better option, even though JSTOR’s UX leaves much to be desired.

Even when you’ve conducted a thorough process and successfully picked a vendor that aligns well with your intended service experience, this remains a static approach: there still is no way to guarantee quality over time. The vendor might make changes to its service during your contract that harm your UX, or be acquired by a company that does so. It is also difficult to ensure that the vendor will maintain your touchpoint over time to keep up with the needs of your users.

Working together

Before service designers throw their hands up in despair, perhaps there is hope in working more closely with your sub-service vendors. Putting more thought into selecting the right sub-service might give you more control over the resulting experience, but as we have seen, it is hard to guarantee a coherent service experience. Sub-service vendors often offer “enterprise plans” that give businesses greater customization of the vendor product: if your service has the resources, consider working with the vendor to tailor the product as close to what you want as possible.

At the same time, “enterprise plans” are often prohibitively expensive. Vendors do not really want to invest a significant amount of their own development resources into customizing their own product for the client. When the sub-service vendor proves inflexible, it might be necessary to evaluate your other touchpoints to find areas where your service might be able to “raise its game” to counter the poor UX provided by your vendor within that one offending touchpoint.

Implications for customer-facing sub-services

I previously worked at an enterprise messaging company where we saw numerous requests for our app to be white labeled. (White labeling means customizing the look and feel of your product to fit the client’s branding, and slapping the client’s logo on it.) There is understandably great hesitation on the vendor’s front towards white labeling: for a sub-service that has put much effort into perfecting their product, white labeling the sub-service is equivalent to taking away a major part of their brand. However, I’d like to suggest that white labeling might be emerging as a necessary feature for a good business service vendor, especially vendors that provide services that are user-facing touch points for their parent services. For every business client, the service design movement is going to make them care more about unifying their touchpoints, and clients might vote with their (imaginary) feet and choose a competitor that is more open to acceding to their customization requests. For service designers at sub-service vendors, the challenge could be to craft a white labeling experience that both sweeps your clients off their feet, yet is repeatable enough that it does not take up a disproportionate amount of your business’ resources.

As services everywhere focus more and more on serving up a coherent service interface to their clients, service designers should pay special attention to the touchpoints that are in the hands of vendors. As for sub-service vendors, prioritizing the client’s UX concerns might very well be emerging as a key area of differentiation.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Kohzy’s story.