The Service Design Global Conference and Redefining Service Design

By Laura Keller

Published: January 7, 2013

“Much of the work of service implementation is in understanding how employees need to change. … Applying service design methods to the roles of employees within an organization can help uncover and address barriers to change that may be systemic within a culture.”

The theme of the Service Design Network’s Global Conference in Paris, France, was Cultural Change by Design. I had the opportunity to copresent at the conference with my colleague Lisa Woodley. In this column, I’d like to briefly recap some highlights of the conference as a foundation for sharing the service design community’s upcoming task of redefining service design.

Companies and Change: Service Designer as Group Therapist

Lisa and I kicked off the two-day conference at the headquarters of La Poste, the French national postal service, with our topic “Companies and Change: Service Designer as Group Therapist.” Implementing a new or revised service in an organization is not as simple as creating a clear articulation of that service in a blueprint, then hoping that it suffices to bring that service to life. Rather, much of the work of service implementation is in understanding how employees need to change. Our topic concentrated on the idea that applying service design methods to the roles of employees within an organization can help uncover and address barriers to change that may be systemic within a culture. We believe the service designer’s role in a helping an organization to change is similar to the role that a group therapist plays when working with families who are trying to change their behaviors. Both service designers and therapists

  • are neutral and problem and system oriented
  • focus on communication, empathy, common goals, and tangible next steps
  • want people to internalize and sustain change, so they themselves become redundant

The concept of culture or organizational change is quite complex, but Lisa and I feel that professionals who do service design are the ones who are best primed to effect change.

Future Service Design: Empowering Service Design to Improve Outcomes

“It’s critical for service designers to quickly move on from initial exploratory phases to tangible outcomes, especially in government work where change inherently takes longer.”

Cybelle Buursink, Director for Future Service Design for the Australian Government Department of Human Services, is applying design-thinking approaches to the country’s civil services. She and her team are creating new, people-centered service concepts that will ensure all Australians can access the vital government services they need, in a timely and effective manner. Through her work, Cybelle has learned the following lessons:

  • It’s critical for service designers to quickly move on from initial exploratory phases to tangible outcomes, especially in government work where change inherently takes longer.
  • It’s necessary to balance the integrity of the design process with the reality of the bureaucracy and know when it’s important to be a purist and when to change an approach to meet the unique needs of a culture.
  • Leadership must understand that a specific change won’t be perfect at its first rollout. This is a significant mindshift for organizations who expect to encounter no problems when doing something new.

Meaning Plus Metrics = Magic

“Marry a service’s value to the business with its value to customers.”

Another highlight of the conference was the idea of demonstrating the value of service design to a business. While numbers and math are typically frightening words to designers, Zilver Innovation’s Erik Roscam Abbing did a fantastic job of removing fear and anxiety from these topics in his presentation “Meaning Plus Metrics = Magic.” He outlined the role of a service designer in ensuring the business value of their work, as follows:

  • Marry a service’s value to the business with its value to customers.
  • Focus on parts of the service experience that really matter.
  • Set clear service goals and measure their effects and impact.

Erik then detailed how to measure the impact of service design on a company, as follows:

  • Happier customers help promote a company’s services to others, buy more and linger longer, and become easier to serve. You can measure the success of happier customers through metrics such as net promoter scores, brand preference, cross-sells and up-sells, and churn.
  • Efficient processes enable companies to sustain low costs, keep current customers and gain new customers, lead to fewer customer complaints, and leave room for personalized customer care. You can measure efficiency through call resolution rates and times, employee satisfaction, and case times.
  • Aligned internal organizations allow cooperation between departments, increase creativity and efficiency in solving issues, and integrate better with partners and suppliers. You can measure alignment through supplier satisfaction and the numbers of cross-departmental initiatives, internal or external complaints, and innovations.

The Importance of Redefining Service Design

“Historically, the focus of service design has been on the customer. However, … Birgit saw the need to shift our focus to the value service design brings to a business.”

The last conference presentation that I think is important to summarize is that of the SDN’s founder, Birgit Mager. She recapped the conference talks by defining themes that she believes the organization and the service design community will need to explore in the future.

She began by explaining that, when she first started defining the concept of service design years ago, she searched on Google for service design and garnered zero results. Now, there are almost 1.5 million results. However, these include a mixed bag of IT companies, marketers, and architects who all claim to do service design. Therefore, Birgit believes that the edges of the current definition of service design are fuzzy, so the SDN and the service design community need to begin fine-tuning its definition. One critical first step in this process is reassessing the value that service design brings to an organization.

Historically, the focus of service design has been on the customer. However, in many of the conference presentations, Birgit saw the need to shift our focus to the value service design brings to a business.

Another theme Birgit noticed throughout the presentations was that the interface level of service design is becoming a commodity—for example, a car-sharing digital service. The strategic level of service design is the level at which the service design community needs to function to illustrate its true value.

The Downside of Popularity

Service design … is quickly becoming all things to all people. … Without a clearer definition of service design and a tangible anchor to which practitioners can align themselves, the information that gets propagated about service design may be inconsistent….”

Sometimes, when I hear myself talking to a potential client about what I do, I begin questioning it myself, “We can help you define your processes, your technology, and the communications and interactions among your employees and customers. We can also establish success metrics that will tell you whether it’s working. Oh, and can we create the change that is necessary to get people to adopt these new processes, technologies, and so on? Yeah, we can do that, too!” Essentially, by doing all of the above, we can become an organization’s CEO, CFO, CTO, CIO, and Human Resources Director. I’m not surprised that there are 1.5 million results when I search for service design on Google because it is quickly becoming all things to all people.

One might imagine that this potential pervasiveness would be music to a service designer’s ears. In many regards, yes, service design is quickly becoming the cool kid in town that agencies, design firms, and consultancies who are aligned with its goals can help propagate and evangelize. The idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats” can make it easier to capitalize on a client’s awareness of service design and create opportunities: “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of service design. Let’s talk.”

On the other hand, to Birgit’s earlier point, without a clearer definition of service design and a tangible anchor to which practitioners can align themselves, the information that gets propagated about service design may be inconsistent among all those companies that do service design, ultimately leading to a diluted version of service design and its potential.

A Common Misconception

We are currently working with a large global organization that has mandated all employees working on digital projects must include user experience and leverage partner firms. This mandate is part of all employee scorecards. On one hand, this presents a phenomenal opportunity for us, “Leadership is mandating UX and the use of consultancies, great!”

On the other hand, the common organizational response is that employees run around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to integrate “user experience … whatever that is” into what they do. They solicit partner vendors to pitch on opportunities, gaining a wide array of theoretical and practical definitions of what user experience is. They may decide to engage a vendor to provide UX services, but many opt to own it themselves.

In either case, they take away some concept of what doing user experience is. Maybe it’s doing wireframes. Maybe it’s doing usability testing. Maybe it’s just thinking about users while developing a Web site. They then apply that concept to their project and proclaim that they’ve done user experience on their project. At the end of a year, the organization has a showcase of “successfully completed projects,” and employees breathe a sigh of relief regarding their performance scorecard.

So. What’s the problem with this situation? Because every team’s application of UX strategy and design is different, the overall organization has no clarity regarding what they’ve actually gained, has no central knowledge base of UX standards and practices, and is no further along in understanding how to integrate user experience effectively in their business. Did applying user experience have business impact and improve the business outcomes? Are there repeatable processes the overall organization can use? Could one group gain from another’s experience?

Without having a more tangible definition of what user experience means for an organization, clear expectations of the employees who must integrate user experience with their process, and ways of measuring success across the organization, leadership has posited a meaningless mandate wherein employees are simply checking off a box.

Does establishing an organizational definition, an overall approach, and success metrics mean that a project team cannot step outside those boundaries? No. It just means that there is a framework, or anchor, in place for the base requirements of doing user experience. People have the flexibility to go outside of those bounds.

Redefining Service Design: Creating the Anchor

“We should not stifle or inhibit the diverse nature of service design.”

Over the next several months, the SDN organization has an interesting challenge: to begin to redefine service design and establish that anchor on which service design practitioners can align. Part of what makes this a fascinating challenge is that service design is almost a melting pot of diverse disciplines who all find something about it that resonates with and applies to what they do: industrial designers, product designers, ethnographers, interaction designers, user experience designers, communication designers, management consultants, human resources professionals, and people in business operations.

We should not stifle or inhibit the diverse nature of service design. As my friend and head of the Northeast US Chapter of the SDN, Marshall Sitten, said, “Service design still needs the fuzzy edges.” Therefore, the process of creating its anchor should ensure that it capitalizes on this diversity. I’d like to share some of my thoughts on what I believe SDN and the SD community need to do to start the process.

Who Does Service Design?

We need to evaluate who does service design, how we define it, what our current perspective on service design is, and whether it seems to be a success. All types of organizations believe they do service design. For example, interactive agencies are rebranding themselves as digital service designers. Are these agencies doing something dramatically different from what they were doing before to explain this shift? Are their business model and sales strategy aligned with working solely with clients in the services industry? Or do they consider every digital interface a service, making any company that creates digital interfaces a purveyor of digital service design? These are the types of questions the SDN and the service design community need to begin to ask.

What’s the Value of Service Design?

We need to find out from customers—those who have been on the receiving end of service design—what value they gain from service design. What problems is service design really helping them solve? Is it the ability to problem-solve complex issues at a strategic level? Is it the ability to visualize complicated solutions and make them meaningful? Is it the ability to innovate new revenue streams that an organization couldn’t discover on its own? Is it the ability to garner insights through user research methods?

What’s the Core of Service Design?

“Having an anchor definition of service design … would mean that everyone who is interested in service design would have a foundation upon which we can build and improve the profession of service design.”

Then, we need to vet what we’ve learned, measuring it against the purist ideals of service design, finding the areas of overlap and incongruity, and determine what the core of service design is. Is service design a field or a school of thought? Is it a set of methods and approaches? Is it a certain perspective that practitioners of service design must have—regardless of service design’s tangible outcomes? Is someone a service designer or does he do service design? What are the things that practitioners of service design must do for us to consider their work service design? What are the musts of service design that differentiate it from, say, user experience design?

The goal of defining the core of service design is not to make service design become elitist, with prescribed ways of doing things that might make people with other approaches feel shunned. Rather, the outcome should be the opposite. Having an anchor definition of service design that is based on all of the great work and different perspectives of practitioners, the value service design provides to organizations, and the original ideals of service design would mean that everyone who is interested in service design would have a foundation upon which we can build and improve the profession of service design.

2 Comments

Dear Laura,

Thanks for sharing this—especially the “Group Therapist” part I like the most.

I have also published on the relation between design and change Please read UX Design and Change Management: Introduction, which is the start of 10 articles on that matter.

For the power of service design, read Part 8.

Cheers, Gerjan Boer

@gerjanboer

Thanks, Gerjan. I’ll take a look!

- Laura

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