You’re already doing Service Design

You just don’t know it yet

The Untangler
Published in
6 min readJan 20, 2021


Photo by Faizan on Unsplash

SSo, you thought you had Christmas all sewn up. You bought the turkey. You wanted to do beef this year, but your sister-in-law’s nearly veggie and wouldn’t have eaten it. Dad throws a fit every time you try and monkey with tradition anyway, and it’s not worth the fight. But you got a good one, from the fancy butcher, and you were going to try a special spice rub you read about, because it’s secretly better if nobody can really taste it. And, you know, it’s your house.

Your cousin was going to pick up Mum and Dad on his way over, leaving you just enough time to see the neighbours over the fence, for a hello drink, before you had to start cooking. After lunch and all the crackers were pulled, there would have been just enough time to dash back into the lounge for the presents, before he could take them home again, because he doesn’t drink. With any luck, you could have been on the sofa watching Raiders of the Lost Ark by 5 pm, with everyone else taking care of the clean-up. Maybe, your father-in-law would have even said ‘thanks’ this year.

Taking the time

Hosting Christmas is Service Design in a nutshell. You’re trying to deliver the best experience possible for a wide range of people, with high expectations, to an immovable deadline. The meal’s at the heart of it, but if you don’t take care of the before and the after, it’s ruined, no matter how well you cooked it.

Millions of people have done the same thing all around you, but the success of yours depended entirely on the specific details it’s taken you time to learn. How Dad likes his tea. Making sure your partner got some of the leg meat. Hushing up your sister-in-law if she started to talk about Brexit. The more you know them, the more you think about those details, the better it works.

You don’t have to like everyone that’s sat around your table, but when you take the time to put yourself in their shoes, to think about what they need and when they need it, you do a better job.

It’s a question of empathy. And that’s all Service Design really is.

We need empathy more than ever

We’re currently living in one of the most fearful ages anyone can remember. VUCA (Volatile/Uncertain/Complex/Ambiguous) used to be a military term for hostile environments — now it’s just business shorthand for the whole world. Even the most optimistic booster would acknowledge that these are tough times to be a CEO.

The traditional response in times of uncertainty is to batten down the hatches. Concentrate on the basics. Slim down. Limit experimentation. To treat the marketplace as a hostile arena.

Service Design is a process, a defined practice, that gives you a measurable way to do the exact opposite — to embrace the uncertainty, to remove the fear and hostility, and use that empathy to create opportunity.

Little changes work

Changing the way you work, adapting processes, altering products or services can seem like an intimidating process. The first thing that often leaps to mind is the impact it’s going to have on you — the departments you’re going to have to persuade, the naysayers you’ll have to battle. It can feel like you’re asking for the whole organization to transform overnight.

Service Design is a way to approach that kind of change with a different perspective. Examining your whole customer journey, in as much context as possible, can show you the places where the customer’s journey isn’t working — and where sometimes the simplest changes are needed to fix it.

Here’s an example. Rumour has it that employees at the early Apple stores were given an app, and they used it every night when preparing the store for the next day. They’d go around to every open laptop, monitor and mounted phone, and use the app to calculate a deliberately inconvenient display angle for every device, through the entire store.

Getting the full story

We’ve all felt the fear of facing real customers. The first time you open the doors to a new store or put an ad campaign in front of a focus group is terrifying. It’s not because customers are scary. It’s because the gulf between you and them opens up: you, isolated in the office, parsing the attractive bits out of a brief, ignoring the inconvenient ones; them in the real world, with a thousand things on their mind, caring very little about you or your brand.

All the things you don’t know, haven’t thought of, didn’t think would be relevant — they all come rushing in.

They love your new label artwork on the detergent bottle, but they’d never buy it. Why? Because the handle’s too small, and it’s hard to pick up off the shelf. The new store’s coffee is delicious, but they won’t be coming back. Why? You’re right by the Metro station, and the competitor coffee shop gives a 10% discount to anyone with a Metro pass, plus you can pre-order it through the app so it’s waiting for you. Nothing there that’s difficult to fix — but it’s a lot harder finding that stuff out at the end than it is to ask the right questions at the beginning. A total view of the customer’s journey is what Service Design is there to do.

Because that way, when a customer walks into the store and approaches a laptop, they automatically touch the device to angle the screen to suit them — as if they already owned it. That simple, intimate tweak in the user journey doesn’t mean changing designs, re-fitting stores or uprooting thousands of key staff — just an empathetic view of the customer.

One of our Untanglers looking at a complex map hang on the wall.
Service Design offers a variety of tools to map people’s experiences and have a more empathetic view.

Tiny robots

Another way companies behave in uncertain times is to go on the offensive, invest heavily in technology that will outsmart the competition. AI and Machine Learning are often referenced in those terms, like new weapons we must learn to tame.

And yet technology often makes the biggest difference in smaller, more human ways.

Here’s an example. Safety on gas rigs is absolutely paramount. So frequent inspection of equipment, gathering of data and scouting for future problems — listening for vibrations, detecting unusual sounds — has always had to be done by engineers, in person. It’s dangerous, time-consuming and a waste of engineering expertise.

Spot by Aker BP and Boston Dynamics.

Meet Spot. So Spot is being tested this year on an offshore oil rig in the Norwegian Sea. Spot can clamber all over wet, windblown facilities, look into the nooks and crannies that house delicate machinery, listen for unusual sounds, collect data…while giving the human engineers a better view than they could get themselves.

It’s not designed for growth, or efficiency, or cost savings — it’s designed by humans, for humans, to do a difficult, dangerous job better and safer than they can. The engineers whose environment it improves helped to design it. It’s that simple.

Don’t get left out in the cold

Photo by Seoyeon Choi on Unsplash

Now is the time to embrace the uncertainty, and use that empathy to create opportunity. Use Service Design to facilitate the journey between you and your customers, to help you spot what’s important to them when connecting with your brand, product or service. It’s there to help you find better ways for your employees to serve them, and make everyday feel like the perfect Christmas for everyone. That’s when you really make a difference, a Christmas that everyone would want to experience again and again. Even your father-in-law.

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The Untangler

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