Service Design: Internal Processes for Great Customer Experiences

“You do what, again?” Service design.

When I describe what I do for a living to someone at a party, I usually get some kind of head nodding around the word “business” or around the word “design.” For those who get excited by the “design” aspect of my career, I typically rein them in by differentiating that, no, I don’t mean graphic design. Nope, not interior design. And no, not web design either. UX design? Well, sort of.

From there, we build mutual understanding of product development. There are designers, engineers, UXers, and product managers. Vigorous head nodding. Then, I say, “What if what we’re building is not a physical product, but an intangible experience, like a service?” More nodding of heads as I explain that there is, indeed, a discipline dedicated to designing experiences for consumption. Welcome to the world of service design.

Service Design: A Break Down

My favorite definition comes from Live Work, a creative agency in the UK that has played a big role in furthering the evolution of service design as a discipline: “Service design is the design of intangible experiences that reach people through many different touchpoints, and that happen over time.”

Bear in mind, service design is not new. It draws upon all the various design disciplines: graphic, industrial, information, and heavily from interaction. What is new is that the focus on the intangible experience means designers must work in new ways to collaborate with organizations. It marries human-centered design with the operational and process capabilities of organizations. That is where the magic happens.

Let’s take a familiar service—an appointment with a new doctor—as an example. There are myriad different touchpoints that influence the consumer’s perception of the service before and after the actual appointment takes place. The chain of touchpoints might start with word-of-mouth recommendations from coworkers, a glance at online reviews, or perhaps the credentials of the hospital or medical group. Then comes booking the appointment. Typically, consumers must pick up the phone during their own business day, say, during a lunch break. And guess what? The doctor’s office is closed for lunch. Then upon arrival for the scheduled appointment, what is the experience of checking in at the front desk? Does the appointment start on time? If not, how long is the wait time? Must the consumer fill out paperwork with the same information they’ve provided before? And so on.

At a high level, service design is the process of matching the experience of the customer journey—from awareness, interest, desire and action—to the internal organizational processes that enable that journey. The customer journey is often referred to as “front stage,” while the internal processes are often referred to as “behind the curtain” or “backstage” (see Figure 1).

Diagram of the layers of service design: the customer experience up front, the front stage with workers at center, and the tech-based backstage in the back.

Figure 1. The proverbial big picture exists. Service design looks at the front stage and backstage together. (Credit: Matt Morasky, XPLANE)

The purpose of service design is to improve the quality of the experience, and the application of this purpose can be vast. In the example of the doctor’s appointment, there are many risk points where the consumer could drop off or fail to complete the journey. For example, if the office doesn’t offer an easy and available scheduling process—and that causes annoyance to the prospective patient— that’s a risk point. Mapping out the backstage processes required to enable reliable scheduling provides office management with an artifact that demonstrates how an operational investment will impact the patient experience, and therefore potentially drive revenue.

Why Should You Care?

Our world has changed significantly in the last decade. In the digitized landscape, it’s becoming harder to distinguish between products and services. The original iPod and iTunes service platform are ubiquitous examples of how products and services are being integrated.

That integration provides a huge business opportunity. Eighty percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is services, and that number is poised to grow. What’s required to win in services, or “the experience economy,” is a systems-view of functionality and an understanding of how that rolls up into what customers, or users, experience emotionally as they interact with your service/product/brand.

There is also a social opportunity. Co-creation is at the heart of service design. Services are produced in the moment of consumption, meaning that the customer or user is taking an active role in creating the experience he or she is having. Think of what this could mean for the future of healthcare! What if service designers were empowered to influence the context in which patient-doctor interactions take place, such that the patient takes an active role in creating his or her own experience?

 What Does That Look Like?

It looks like taking all the lessons learned from agile and lean processes. We must accept that the only thing businesses can count on in today’s fast-paced environment is the ever-increasing pace of change.

In some ways, the idea of customers with agency over their experiences has already arrived. Corporate marketers far and wide have learned to cede control of their brand in the ether of social media. Organizations like Uber and Airbnb have further blurred the boundaries between customer and company. But on the whole, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of a co-created experience economy. I predict we will see more in the future as technology continues to drive communication channels in new ways. The increasing connectivity of the Internet of Things (IoT) for example, will increase the opportunity and frequency of touchpoints, which would therefore influence the experience, particularly on the business-to-business (B2B) side. This effect can already be seen in the healthcare supply chain industry where more and more inventory is RFID tagged to open up real-time customer experience between suppliers and vendors.

The catch is innovating management so that the user-facing front stage has the full support of the internal-facing backstage to be nimble and to change as the user changes (see Figure 2). Bureaucratic silos, departmental entrenchment and fear of experimentation will cause roadblocks at every turn.

Diagram of different types of customer communications and the backstage systems that support them

Figure 2. To be responsive to and responsible for customer experience requires open communication between different levels of the organization. (Credit: Matt Morasky, XPLANE)

At the Beginning

The foundational tool of the discipline is the service-design blueprint. The blueprint shows both the customer journey and the internal processes together on one page, typically in a grid-like format. As a visual framework, it captures the emotional understanding and the process understanding together (see Figure 3).

Diagram of the straight line that makes specific customer experiences possible, including the people and technologies

Figure 3. Service design blueprinting matches the customer journey to the internal capabilities required to produce it. (Credit: Matt Morasky, XPLANE)

What I like best about the blueprint is that it allows companies to expand their notion of the “customer.” There is the end user—the direct buyer, as depicted in the customer journey—but there’s also a vast amount of employees who use the system. The blueprint can be used as a conversation piece for staff and management to help explain the interaction between employees, systems, and customers. Developing empathy for employees is just as important as developing empathy for the customer.

The purpose of understanding how these pieces fit together is to isolate gaps, identify risk points, and generate the desired future state. A current-state blueprint printed large scale in a conference room can be a meaningful strategy exercise. Cross-functional teams can walk through the blueprint and learn which points of interaction can be re-imagined. Then, the blueprint can be overlaid with points of opportunity (see Figure 4).

Diagram showing areas in the entire process that are ripe for re-imaging and improvement

Figure 4. Service design blueprinting can provide the basis for re-imagining the interaction of people, process and technology. (Credit: Matt Morasky, XPLANE)

Conversation is critical throughout the process because service design is all about execution. Once the desired future state has been imagined, there is the task of making that vision a reality. This is where all the “designy” tools shine. Stakeholders will need solid storytelling tools to connect empathically with their users. They also will need a visual or some kind of artifact that captures the aspirational future state. Visuals, wireframes, storyboards, and personas are all extremely valuable tools in execution.

The Bottom Line

Whether internal- or external-facing, service design is about the organizational discipline required to deliver excellent experiences. It is not a “one and done” process; it is ongoing and far-reaching. Successful service design engagements build organizational muscles for both resiliency and graceful execution.

More Reading

Many practitioners and researchers are doing important work in this field and it is thanks to their efforts that service design is reaching a much wider audience. To read more: (bulleted list)

Mesing, S. (2014). Service Design: Internal Processes for Great Customer Experiences. User Experience Magazine, 14(3).
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