Socially Conscious Service Design

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
September 23, 2019

Looking at nine packages from Amazon in my office, I realized that I wasn’t even sure I knew what was in them—and it was only a few days ago when I used my glorious Prime membership to place the orders—so I decided to open them. “Ah, yes, all things we need for our upcoming vacation.” Sunscreen, toothpaste, and travel toys and sticker books for my kids are just a few of the items I had ordered in the week leading up to our trip.

So I began unpacking these items and moving them nearer to the suitcases I’d already started packing. Then, when I looked back and saw the carnage I’d left in my office—the boxes, scraps of tape, bubble wrap, and randomly inflated, plastic mini-pillows—I started adding this refuse to our recycling and trash bins.

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While I’m all for the convenience that we now enjoy of being able to shop online and receive almost anything we might need or want within one or two days, I must admit that I have some guilt around this process:

  • How much is my family contributing to the world’s frightening environmental issues because of the packaging, the impacts of shipping and transporting these items, and manufacturing the actual items themselves?
  • How much is my family contributing to the poor welfare of the people who make this possible: the overworked warehouse workers at Amazon’s distribution centers—or even further up the supply chain, the workers who manufacture these items?

I’m not the only one who is questioning the impacts of spending decisions on the environment and other people. A growing number of consumers want to understand more about the process that enables them to obtain a product or service. Some are actually activists who want to influence this process for good. As service designers, we need to better understand these consumers and the impacts of the services we help design.

Consumers Who Care

Historically, businesses have been concerned only about their own internal business results as an indicator of their success. Now their social impact is another qualifier of their success. “Unlike any other time in history, consumers are truly demanding more from the companies with which they do business. Today’s shoppers are looking for ethical, eco-friendly brands that put people and the planet ahead of profits. … In 2018, 59% of people bought goods or services from a company they considered socially responsible, and 32% of Americans plan to spend even more this year with companies that align with their social values. What’s equally important…is that, in the same timeframe, 32% of Americans refused to support a company that they felt was not socially responsible.” [1]

Consumer activists essentially have two avenues for expressing their approval or disapproval of brands’ values:

  1. Buycotting—They can buy only from companies they believe are aligned with what’s important to them—which is called buycotting.
  2. Boycotting—They can boycott companies whose values they feel are misaligned with their own values—often by leveraging social media.

While both approaches can be effective in influencing companies to change their business practices, buycotting is quickly becoming the preferred method over boycotting. In a survey of 2000 US and UK consumers who had taken at least one of nine different actions toward a brand or company that had done something with which they didn’t agree, “fifty-nine percent of these more activist-minded consumers said it was more important than ever to participate in consumer boycotts, while far more—83 percent—said it was more important now to support companies they believe do the right thing and buy from them.” [2]

So who are these consumer activists? Millennials, unsurprisingly, have the highest expectations of brands, with seven out of ten of them actively considering values when making a purchase. But other generations’ concerns are growing exponentially, with four in ten Younger Boomers tuning into company values, along with a third of Older Boomers. [3]

What consumers are looking for from socially responsible companies really depends on what individuals are passionate about. However, we can classify most activism into the following five categories—although there may be some overlap among them:

  1. Environment—Important issues include the waste a product creates and its carbon footprint.
  2. Health—One issue is the ingredients that make up a product, which might put employees or consumers at risk of harm.
  3. Human rights—This category includes issues such as equal pay for employees and the humane treatment of workers.
  4. Animal welfare—This includes testing on animals and the use of animals in producing a product.
  5. Political impacts—For example, the imposition of more regulations or offering financial support for a political party.

Interestingly, regardless of the specific issues, most consumer activists fundamentally care about something that designers also care about: the end-to-end journey of the product or service or its supply chain.

“From pre-production, to post production, to packaging, shipping and retail, consumers not only demand to know where the product came from, but how many individuals were involved in the process, their work conditions, quality control, sustainability compliance, age, pay, rights and so on. The new age of concerned consumerism is upon us. Consumers’ mindsets are moving from ‘how do I buy that’ to ‘how did I buy that.’” [4]

Figure 1 compares some old consumer concerns to those of today’s consumers.

Figure 1—What matters to consumers
What matters to consumers

Impacts on Companies

It’s still too early to tell whether consumer activists are having their hoped-for impact on social issues. However, it is clear that companies are getting the message that they have to find a greater good beyond their own financial success. Otherwise, they risk losing key consumer groups.

“This rise in consumer activism brings a host of new risks and challenges that brand managers ignore at their peril. An increasingly energized citizenry is part of a new reality that calls for new rules for managing brands and reputation…. More and more, purchasers expect to see businesses put their values on display and do more than simply sell products and pursue profits. Remaining silent on the sidelines is less and less of an option, as silence can be viewed as complicity, a social/political statement in itself.” [5]

Almost 200 American CEOs agree with this sentiment and recently signed a Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which indicates that shareholder value cannot be the only corporate objective. These CEOs have identified some new stakeholders to whom they are also accountable: [6]

  • customers—Meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
  • employees—Compensating them fairly, providing important benefits, supporting them through training and education; and fostering diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
  • suppliers—Serving as good partners to other companies, large and small, that help them to achieve their missions, and dealing with them fairly and ethically.
  • communities in which they work—Respecting the people in their communities and protecting the environment by embracing sustainable practices.

These companies have their work cut out for them. While consumer activism has great momentum and has undoubtedly made corporations look at what they sell and how they produce it through a closer lens, there are still many consumers who want to be socially active, but aren’t following through.

“In 2018, 40% of consumers couldn’t name a socially responsible company. Meanwhile, 29% admitted not doing any homework to determine which companies were socially responsible. Those who did their homework were most likely to rely on product packaging to evaluate whether a company was doing good work. Passing judgment based on marketing copy from the back of a box or label isn’t exactly a CSI-level investigation.” [7]

Lack of education or knowledge about how to evaluate a company appropriately may be one reason for their lack of follow-through. However, it also could be for the following reason:

“We are hardwired to shop for the best deal and to satisfy our inner longings. For generations, we’ve been programmed to consume, and from fast food to fast fashion, we have mastered the practice of instant gratification. The psychology of shopping and consumption is something that runs counter to the social responsibility movement.” [7]

Another barrier to doing the right thing? Money. Buying from socially conscious companies often translates into significantly higher costs to the consumer.

“While consumers are willing to pay a premium for socially responsible products, the rub is that the average consumer can’t afford to spend $250 on a handcrafted pair of dress shoes or $65 on a bamboo T-shirt or $20 on a pair of socks. Yet, a growing number of socially conscious products are priced as luxury brands and are out of reach for many Americans. This past year, price emerged as the number one reason Americans aren’t spending more on socially responsible products and services.” [7]

Finally, and this should be obvious, companies who want to be more purposeful about looking beyond their profits must do more than just talk about the issues they’re addressing. They must take action internally and externally. For example, it’s insufficient for a company to promote its vehement stance on equal pay on social media, while continuing to pay their own employees unfairly. The public uses the term woke-washing to describe those companies who capitalize on an issue to create brand awareness and consumer support, but exhibit behaviors that demonstrate the opposite. Consumers are savvy, especially those who are passionate about social causes. The lack of authenticity can permanently hurt a company’s reputation and consumer trust.

Why Service Designers Should Care

Consumer activism and the changes that must consequently occur within companies present some intriguing opportunities and considerations for service designers. Such changes could include what products and services a company sells, how they develop those products and services, the lasting, post-purchase impacts of those products and services on society, and how they treat people along the way.

As service designers, we have become accustomed to our primary role being to make sure the experience of interacting with a brand—whether that of internal employees or external customers—is easy, seamless, and meaningful. The meaningful aspects of what we do present some of the greatest opportunities to address consumer activism because consumers are looking for more than just a high-quality product or an easy-to-use service. Consumers have redefined meaningful to include their social causes, so we must do the same.

As is the case with most design problems, looking at them from both outside-in and inside-out perspectives results in the best solutions. Companies certainly need to understand what their customers care about and help address the world’s most pressing issues. But they also need to look internally at what their employees care about and what they stand for as an organization.

“Quietly ground in values. Document the core values and beliefs you hold as an organization. Instill these throughout the organization as your internal moral compass.” [5].

Social Objectives and Journey Mapping

Service designers can help organizations to define their own moral compass and understand where their moral compass and their consumers’ passions intersect. We can help leadership to identify what these intersections mean for an organization and what they must genuinely change to address social issues—whether in operations, supplier management, human resources, or any other aspect of a business.

We can achieve this by applying the same methods we always use and broadening their purpose. Rather than creating journey maps solely for our external customers’ experience of interacting with a brand, we must map the experience of the product or service itself, while identifying any points of conflict, as well as opportunities relating to the company’s social objectives. In addition to identifying where an experience causes friction or frustration for customers, we must also identify any aspects of the end-to-end product or service lifecycle that don’t support the company’s social objectives. To do so, we must answer the following questions:

  • What ingredients are there? Do they present health risks? If not, who decides that is so?
  • Who are all the people who are involved? How are you treating them? How do you know this?
  • What waste does the process create? How do you remove or recycle it?
  • What is the product lifecycle for customers? What are the environmental impacts once they purchase a product?

Just as journey mapping can uncover the parts of an experience that need improvement, journey mapping an actual product or service can help a company to discover where they need to focus to prioritize their efforts to fulfill their social objectives. Business and customer experience KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are no longer the only drivers of decision-making. Metrics that show an organization’s progress toward meeting its social objectives and making positive social impacts are becoming equally important.

Service designers continue to help businesses answer questions such as, “Did we meet our business goals?” and “Was this a good customer experience?” But just as importantly, we’ll be answering questions such as, “Did we have a positive social impact?” and “Can our customers feel good about themselves?” 


[1] Anderson, Anna-Mieke. “Do Ethics Really Matter to Today’s Consumers?Forbes, August 20, 2019. Retrieved August 21, 2019.

[2] Jena, McGregor. “Why Buycotts Could Overtake Boycotts Among Consumer Activists.” The Washington Post, February 28, 2018. Retrieved August 18, 2019.

[3] Lai, Anjali. “Millennials Call for Values-Driven Companies, but They’re Not the Only Ones Interested.” Forbes, May 23, 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2019.

[4] Jenks, Sam. “Supply Chain Transparency: Addressing Consumer Concern.” Medium, January 20, 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2019.

[5] Horst, Peter. “Rise of Consumer Activism Spells New Risks for Brands: Here’s What You Can Do Now.” Forbes, April 9, 2018. Retrieved August 21, 2019.

[6] Fitzgerald, Maggie. “The CEOs of Nearly 200 Companies Just Said Shareholder Value Is No Longer Their Main Objective.” CNBC, August 19, 2019. Retrieved August 20, 2019.

[7] Shackleford, Heath. “We Need to Debunk Some Big Myths About Conscious Consumers.” Fast Company, February 22, 2019. Retrieved August 18, 2019.

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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