Why UX Professionals Should Care About Service Design

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
March 21, 2011

I’m very excited to be kicking off my new UXmatters column, Service Design: Orchestrating Experiences in Context, with this discussion of the value of service design to UX professionals. In my column, I’ll explore the concepts of service design and how to leverage its practices to optimize the user experiences our companies and clients look to us to create.

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Three Essentials in UX Design

There are three essentials in user experience design:

  1. Visualizing and documenting design solutions to communicate them to others who implement them

As UX professionals, we do this really well. There is no shortage of ways to document a current user experience or what an ideal user experience should be, including wireframes, prototypes, customer maps, customer journeys, scenarios, and workflows. Oh, my!

  1. Tracing all elements of user experiences back to human needs and interactions, so we can create products that are meaningful

We generally do this well, too. We don’t design user experiences in isolation. We’re always aware that there’s a human component to them. Whether it’s primary research we’ve done ourselves or a book we’ve read about someone else’s research, we relate everything we do to human beings and their needs, behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, and emotions. We know that this is what differentiates our products from those of competitors who complain, “We have people who can do UI design, but we don’t have anyone who can help us understand our users.” To trace human interactions, we have a myriad of approaches, including ethnography, task-based interviews, surveys, remote usability testing, and analytics.

  1. Conceiving of user experiences holistically

User experiences comprise systems of elements that we should design holistically—not in isolation of each other. The broader our perspective and the larger the context of a user experience, the greater its impact and value. Unfortunately, appreciating that everything we design is a system is where I think we’ve not stepped up our game. Sure, we do a great job on a tactical, micro-level. We know how to optimize a Web site’s or mobile application’s layout, content, features, navigation, and functionality. But I’m not talking about user experience at that level. I’m talking about game-changing, human experience–altering, business-impacting system thinking.

Many of us talk the talk: “It’s the entire experience that’s important. … We design holistic, end-to-end user experiences. … It’s critical that we understand multiple touchpoints with our customers.” Sounds great, but this chatter and discourse belies a truth that we often don’t want to admit: we rarely ever get to do it.

How do I know this? Because poor experiences continue to outnumber the great ones. Every day we see glimpses ourselves or hear stories from others of customer experiences that fail at the macro-level. The disconnect between airports that led to an 11-hour tarmac delay. The insurance company that didn’t communicate the right prescription coverage to a pharmacy.

These are not the same kinds of problems that exist at the level of Web site information architecture or user interface design. The solution of these design problems requires a broader and far-reaching perspective—looking at who’s involved; what systems, processes, and communications are in place; where they occur; and where things fall apart.

To be clear, a macro-experience that you create is only going to be as successful as its supporting, micro-level experiences. The details matter. For example, making it really easy to look up and understand your medical benefits on an insurance Web site (micro) is useless if the doctors who treat you have no access to that information (macro).

I want UX professionals to avail themselves of this game-changing, human experience–altering, business-impacting, system-thinking opportunity. For this reason, I have a passion for service design, a relatively new field that I believe offers UX professionals an opportunity to have the level of impact to which we all aspire.

Service Design Primer

Service design is the activity of planning and orchestrating all tangible and intangible elements of a service—including people, processes, time, communications, objects, technology, infrastructure, and space—to create an effective service experience.

I can best illustrate service design through an example: Imagine a service experience you might have eating out. Your experience of and expectations for eating out vary depending on whether you’re buying food from a food truck, a fast-food chain, or a high-end restaurant. In this example service scenario, let’s assume you’re eating at a basic, local sandwich shop.

You enter the shop, notice a menu on the wall, and a customer who is currently ordering, then approach an employee who is waiting behind the counter, at the register. A dialogue something like this might take place between you and that employee:

Employee: “Hello, what can I get for you?”

You: “I’ll have the turkey club on whole wheat.”

Employee, who enters the information into a computer system, then asks: “What cheese would you like?”

You: “None, thanks.”

Employee: “Can I get you anything else?”

You: “A Coke.”

Employee, who again enters the information into a computer system, then says: “Okay, thanks. Your total is $6.50.”

You, handing the employee a $10 bill: “Here it is.”

Employee, gives you your change and says: “Your order number is 12, and we’ll call you when your food is ready.”

You sit down at a table and wait for them to call your number. When they do, you approach the counter again and take your tray with the sandwich and soda you ordered from a different employee.

The Sandwich Service: Tangible and Intangible Elements

Because service design is the effective orchestration of the various elements of a service, it’s critical to have an understanding of what those elements are, including those that are not readily apparent.

First, people are involved in a service. In our example scenario, the people who are most obviously involved are you, the customer, and the employees you interacted with—who are front-office employees. This co-created exchange, the quasi-scripted interaction between the customer and employees, helps catalyze the sandwich service. However, in the design of services, it is also important to consider the other customers who are in a shop, because they can impact the experience of those around them. For example, an indecisive customer who constantly rethinks his or her order delays the service of other customers and likely frustrates them. This kind of frustration is a less tangible element of the service, but it is important to manage it.

Less obviously, there are back-office employees—for example, those who prepare the food or stock the inventory. They are also important to delivering a successful service experience. After all, without them, you don’t get your lunch. If its designer doesn’t consider the back-office employees in the sandwich shop service design, they might have communication issues with the front-office employees—and you still might not get your lunch—or it might be wrong.

Second, processes are involved. The verbal exchange that occurs between the customer and the employee taking the order has a flow and linearity to it. Part of the process also exists in the computer system the employee uses to record the customer’s order, handle the monetary exchange, and communicate the order to the back-office employees who need to complete the order.

Third, the space of the sandwich shop is part of the service experience. Knowing where the menu should be, where people queue to place their order, where they can wait, and where they can retrieve their order are all spatial considerations a service designer needs to plan to create an effective service experience.

Some additional elements of this sandwich shop service include the following:

  • objects—the menu, receipt, order number, and, of course, the product itself—the food
  • time—waiting to place an order, then waiting for the order to be served
  • technology—the computer the employee used to take the order and communicate it to the employees in the kitchen

What’s so intriguing about all of these design elements is the mix of intangibility and tangibility they encompass. The overt elements of a service we can observe directly are often the easiest to intuit. However, the intangible elements of a service—the processes, time, emotions, and expectations—are equally important design considerations. Only when all of these elements come together in concert, through service design’s orchestration of these elements, is a service effective and successful.

Why Care?

If you conduct a search for service economy on the Web, you’ll find a myriad of resources that paint a picture of a world that is becoming much more heavily reliant on services. New services are continually being designed—for reasons that range from cost-effectiveness to sustainability—and existing services continue to evolve. Service design is critical, because if the elements of a service experience are not aligned, the service can fail. Services that fail to deliver what they promise won’t survive.

Service design presents interesting synergies and opportunities for user experience, because of its implicit, holistic, contextual, and inclusive nature and its potential impact. We need to look at design solutions through a more service-oriented lens: thinking broadly, contextually, and holistically. We need to consider the intangible, softer, and less overt aspects of services, just as we consider the functional, obvious, and tangible aspects of the experiences we design.

We need to tweak our design methods and forms of documentation to account for this shift in perspective. We likely need to take a more iterative and collaborative approach, exposing the insights we’ve garnered to the various people who are involved in a service. And perhaps most difficult, we need to quickly shift from user-centered thinking to systems thinking. In service design, no single element or entity is at the center, although the outcome—a successful service experience—is decidedly humanistic.

I’ve just scratched the surface here, but I look forward to exploring these concepts in more detail in upcoming columns. 

Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data

Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA

Laura KellerLaura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey.  Read More

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