Designing services people love

In a time where users are drowned by digital offers that they can easily obtain & discard, how can a service promote long-term engagement?

Services have transcended the traditional model of brick & mortar and call centres, while digital products are impacting life beyond the screen. The intersection of these two enables delivering services that reach many more customers at fewer costs while providing rich experiences on and off screen. However, this transition also implies a change on business models and higher competition due to the lower effort required to establish a new offer.

Users are constantly surrounded by service options and they can easily switch from one to another. The question is how can you design (digital) services that customers love and engage with for a long period of time. This is a topic I have been interested on for several years and that many have written about. Here is my take on 5 key elements that designers can introduce as part of the service experience in order to trigger long-term engagement.

1. Love at first sight — Align the service identity

We all know that a good offer goes beyond its looks. However experiences are sensorial, thus considering aesthetics on your design is a key factor to deliver engaging service offers.

In the case of digital channels much is currently done from a visual perspective but many service offers are cross-channel and therefore one needs to consider the "aesthetics" of a service beyond visual characteristics. Even when thinking about a purely digital service, new technologies are opening possibilities to provide interactions that stimulate other senses like gesture and sound interfaces.

The key lays on using patterns that align across the offer in order to establish the overall service identity. Each of the interactions should provide a coherent use experience regardless of the channel; in the end, the user’s evaluation of the total experience is based on the sum of the perceptions along the way.

A clear example of cross-channel alignment and experience delivery is Disney. From their website to their hotels and amusement parks the Disney identity is all over. They have understood that visiting an attraction does not start waiting at the cue, but that even beginning to plan a trip to the park is a key part of their service offer and of the customer's experience.

Disney's experience begins much before arriving to their attraction parks. Their service identity os clear across the user journey.

2. Delight me! — Exceed basic needs

In a competitive environment fulfilling basic needs and delivering expected features is a must. A key for service differentiation is to go beyond the fundamental and provide users with those elements that deliver an experience they were not counting on but they receive positively.

In his book Designing for Emotion Aarron Walter highlights two elements that enable this goal: Surprise and Mystery. The fist one refers to delighting users with unexpected moments of joy, which has a strong impact on memory by producing a boost of positive emotions in a short period of time; the result is a memorable interaction that contributes to the user’s attachment with the offer. On the other hand mystery means triggering the user to anticipate future benefits without being certain of how these will be presented, which encourages future interactions.

Slack and their loading messages are a great example of how to trigger joy when creating engaging experiences. When having slow connection, waiting for the application to load can be frustrating; however, they managed to introduce positive messages that users love getting while they wait.

Slack introduces messages that trigger positive emotions, even when users are experiencing frustrating moments like loading delays.

3. Make it fun — Introduce game qualities

Introducing game qualities is another way of providing users with moments of joy. Having a reward system, triggering competition, peer recognition and monitoring progress are some elements that encourage long-term engagement. Gamification is a great way to motivate users and it is usually handy when developing services that promote reaching a goal that requires strong commitment, like losing weight or managing money.

However, it is not limited to these types of offers. It can also be used to trigger customers to complete certain activities they may find a bit tedious. Look at the example of Trip advisor and how they use competitive elements to encourage customers to write more reviews, which are the service's core.

Trip advisor includes competition and progressing as elements of their experience to motivate users to engage with the service.

4. What’s in it for me? — Meeting long term expectations

When talking about long-term engagement one can say that we talk about a relationship, a commitment where both parties give & get. The different encounters with the offer should make this relationship clear; each interaction is an opportunity for the user to passively evaluate your service and the benefits of it, and like in a relationship evolving and meeting the customer's changing needs is key to stay relevant. The user can test from basic parameters like the offer’s reliability or accessibility on different locations, to deeper personal meaning like the implicit social image that the service is projecting.

No example needed. We all know how many services have died because they didn't manage to understand the user's needs on the long run and to evolve within a rapid changing and competitive ecosystem.

5. It's not just business, it is personal — Deliver tailored experiences

Simply put: the more personal the service is, the more difficult to scale it up. However, the implications of this statement decrease when services move towards the digital space. By tracking user data you can gather implicit feedback, which enables understanding of preferences to an individual level on a real-time basis and for a large set of users. Moreover, customers are increasingly willing to track their behaviours in order to get tailored experiences.

On the other hand the service can also gather personal preferences using explicit user input, or in other words just by asking the user. Netflix is a clear example of using both implicit and explicit user feedback to tailor experiences. Looking into how each customer interacts with the service and at the same time asking directly for their preferences — e.i. using ratings — helps feeding the movie recommendations.

However, creating an optimal recommendation engine is quite a difficult task. But delivering custom-made experiences starts with understanding the user's goals, set/order of actions and the context, so that one can anticipate which information is highly relevant during each interaction. A nice example to look at is Virgin America. They dilute the overall booking experience in simple steps that users can follow while predicting their actions, like with pre-filling the departing city by using the user's location as default.

Booking a multi city trip — Virgin America simplifies the booking experience by focusing each interaction on their site into one activity. They also predict the user's actions and present them with relevant options.

To sum up, creating services people love starts by getting to know your user and delivering an experience that is tailored, fun & meaningful, which is presented coherently through all interactions along the service offer.