In Part 1 of this series, I defined UX strategy, described some of the typical skills of the UX professionals who fill UX strategy roles, and posited some reasons why it will be increasingly important for large companies to bolster those skills as they evolve their business to orient more toward SaaS (Software as a Service) and the cloud, while acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Now, in Part 2, I’ll take a similar approach with service design, another skillset to which companies must pay close attention as they evolve their business to meet the increasing expectations of their customers and users for cloud-accessible solutions, which also necessitates improving the employee experience.
What Is Service Design?
The term service design has been around for quite a while now. It’s widely accepted that bank executive Lynn Shostack coined the term back in the early 1980s. Service design comprehends the ways in which behind-the-scenes processes interact and potentially break down when organizations focus too much on individual pieces of an experience rather than the entire experience.
Frequently, disorganized, suboptimal backend services and processes that negatively impact the employees’ experiences are to blame for the incongruences that rear their ugly head to customers or users at various points in their journey using a company’s service offering. The individual products that are part of that offering may be responsible for these incongruences. All of us have likely experienced an awful customer-service call, during which a company transferred the call to different departments, each of which asked us to restate the same information we’d already shared their prior customer-service representatives. The inefficiencies that the company’s representatives had to deal with—likely through no fault of their own—got passed on to us, as customers.
In her Nielsen Norman Group article, “Service Design 101,” author Sarah Gibbons defines service design as follows:
“The activity of planning and organizing a business’s resources—people, props, and processes—in order to (1) directly improve the employee’s experience and, (2) indirectly, the customer’s experience.”
Gibbons actually leads with the employee’s experience over the customer’s experience. This makes sense because a high-quality user experience for employees likely results in better experiences for customers and users. But, as a UX design professional who takes a user-centered approach to everything you do, centering this discussion on the employee experience might seem like brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand. We simply don’t do this very often—especially in large, enterprise environments with legacy processes and well-established career paths and organizational hierarchies.
Services are also intangible—even, at times, to behind-the-scenes employees—which is another reason why it can be difficult to frame a productive discussion around a service much less design for its improvement. As Shostack points out in her 1984 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “Designing Services That Deliver”:
“Services are unusual in that they have impact, but no form. Like light, they can’t be physically stored or possessed and their consumption is often simultaneous with their production.”
Examples of Services from a Front-end Point of View
In the same HBR article, Shostack later points out the following:
“When we buy the use of a hotel room, we take nothing away with us but the experience of the night’s stay. When we fly, we are transported by an airplane, but we don’t own it.”
When you purchase a ride through Uber or Lyft or even use a bicycle-sharing program, you’re not purchasing the actual vehicle or any physical product. You’re purchasing a service that a company renders. However, the service still involves products, or props. When using Uber or Lyft, you download a mobile application to schedule a ride, which also helps you to identify a spot to meet up with the driver’s vehicle, pay for the ride, and later, rate the driver, the vehicle, and the overall experience. The vehicle and mobile application are props that, in isolation, do not conspire to create the desired experience for the customer or user. This requires some connective tissue, which is where service design resides. Other examples include lodging-rental services such as Airbnb and VRBO. Although neither company owns any of the actual properties that they rent out, you use their Web site or mobile app, which are also props, to make a reservation for those properties and carry out all other related transactions such as paying for your stay, rating the experience, and providing feedback.
Examples of Services from a Back-end Point of View
As Gibbons’ article contends and I described earlier in this column, service design does not simply mean designing a service that focuses solely on the user- or customer-facing outcomes. The back-end processes; people, or employees; and props must also come together to dictate what happens on the front end. In other words, the employee’s experience matters just as much as the customer’s or users’ journey because it directly influences their journey.
What would be a practical example of this? Consider the third-party applications you use every day in designing solutions that your customers or users will ultimately experience. The intent of the process through which your organization purchases, licenses, and distributes such an application—that is, a prop such as Figma, Axure, or Sketch—is to help UX designers work more efficiently and effectively when creating robust, reusable design solutions that the organization eventually provides externally to the customers and users of these solutions. If breakdowns occur in the back-end processes, which might result from design deficiencies or technical debt—for example, the inability to obtain enough seats or to enable IT (Information Technology) to make an application available and support it at scale—the products that an organization’s UX designers create could be subpar, inconsistent, or slow to evolve. The organization would then pass such deficiencies and debt on to customers and users.
What Types of Deliverables Express Service Design?
Because service design is a broad, multidimensional discipline that represents aspects of an employee, user, or customer journey that are often intangible, service-design deliverables and outputs are also broad and less concrete than those you might be used to creating. The article, “Service Design,” by the Interaction Design Foundation, describes the following types of deliverables:
journey maps—These help designers to discover users’ and customers’ touchpoints, barriers, and critical moments.
personas—These help designers to envision a service’s target users.
service blueprints—These express an elevated form of customer-journey map that helps to reveal the full spectrum of situations in which users and customers could interact with a company’s brand. These artifacts can be useful in identifying where an employee’s back-end experience could influence a user’s or customer’s front-end experience.
As with much of the work we do as UX professionals, adhering to certain key principles helps us to continually recenter our mindset and processes, optimize our approaches to design, and maximize our impact. This also applies to service design. In their book, This Is Service Design, authors Jakob Schneider and Marc Stickhorn state that service design should be the following:
user-centered—Use qualitative research to focus on all users during design.
co-creative—Include all relevant stakeholders in the design process.
sequencing—Break a complex service into separate processes and user-journey sections.
evidencing—Envision service experiences that are tangible to users and help them to understand and trust the organization’s brand.
holistic—Design for all touchpoints throughout an experience, across all networks of users and the interactions between them.
These principles are user focused, which makes sense because our users are often the people on whose experiences we primarily focus during optimization. However, we should also consider the customer experience. Our customers and users are not always the same people—especially in the world of enterprise software. A customer may be an executive who is purchasing an application for distribution across their enterprise, while users are the people who ultimately use that application and would either benefit or suffer from the experience it provides. Even though the customer who purchased the application might never use it, the deficiencies of the customer’s experience in acquiring and purchasing the software demand our attention, too. The customer’s empowerment impacts the empowerment of users.
The same principle applies to the employees who designed the software a company is selling to the customer. Their empowerment impacts the empowerment of the customer to choose and acquire the best solution for the people who will ultimately use it. As you can see, the principles of service design jump quickly from the employee’s back-end experience to the customer’s and the user’s front-end experiences and vice versa This is why broad, multidimensional thinking and skillsets are necessary—especially for the future.
Why Service Design Is Becoming Increasingly Important
Now, let’s get to the crux of my reason for writing this column to begin with: service design—and the thought processes and skills that it comprises—will only increase in their importance. As the authors of “Service Design” stated:
“Designers increasingly work more around services than around physical products—[for example], SaaS (Software as a Service). Meanwhile, with advances in digital technology continually redefining what users can expect whenever they proceed towards goals, brands focus on maximizing convenience and removing barriers for their users.”
At Rockwell Automation, my colleagues and I are not immune to this paradigm shift. In fact, we’re doing all we can to embrace it. Our unique users and customers experience the same types of services as everyone else. When they complete their shift, they go home, and might use their smartphone to purchase a meal for delivery to their home by DoorDash. They might use the Uber app to schedule a driver to take them to a downtown pub on a Friday night, to meet up with their friends.
The examples of such services are now endless. At Rockwell, we are seeing similar expectations from our customers, who want to reap the benefits of such advances in their operations. Regardless of their industry, they want to see the convergence of IT and OT (Operations Technology) and use cloud-based solutions that reduce the technological footprint of their operations. As I described in Part 1, of this series, many companies now want to jettison on-premise, installable applications that require physical machines and servers. Such solutions add bloat to an operation and are costly and difficult to maintain over time. It’s much simpler to host fewer instances of an application in the cloud and let users access it in a wide range of contexts—assuming the right security and privacy measures are in place.
This new level of simplicity also raises more complexities though—the same complexities that probably impact your company’s business goals, too. The connective tissue that holds all these new, often ephemeral, touchpoints together is still very fragile and underdeveloped. Many of the solutions we’ve developed in our industry have become prop oriented over time—such as the sovereign-posture applications that require installation on individual PCs. There are certainly people who design and develop such software solutions, too. However, the back-end processes through which we enable our employees to create meaningful solutions for users and customers must mature quickly enough to keep up with the rapid pace of advances in both technology and customer demand. You might have noticed how I’ve gone from talking about front-end experiences in this paragraph to ending with employee-facing, back-end experiences. Such is the nature of service design. The lines that separate employees’ back-end experiences and users’ and customers’ front-end experiences are very easy to step across and may even escape our notice. Going forward, we must keep a foot firmly planted on either side of these lines.
To help our UX designers both keep up with the back end and meet the demands of our users and customers, we’ve been designing and creating robust props, including a design system, Figma design kits, and actionable design guidelines. But the processes that connect these props demand our attention, too. We must enable them to benefit our people in the most efficient, effective, and satisfying ways possible—and eventually, our customers and users, too. While we’re making improvements to our design processes—for example, by finding more streamlined ways of giving feedback to one another and conducting critiques within our now mostly virtual working environment—we have found it difficult to mature these new approaches at the same rate at which products emerge on our radar—these user-facing props. In our Amazon Prime–dominated world, it has now become second nature to expect increasingly fast results. Edge-to-cloud solutions were nonexistent just a few years ago, and the term Software as a Service had never crossed the lips of anyone in our industry. But now, they’re everywhere, here to stay, and the skills and thought processes of service design are becoming increasingly valuable. To support the connective tissues that hold together our customers’ fragile operations, we must strengthen and mature our organization’s connective tissues. This requires hiring people to focus on those connective tissues, both behind the scenes and in front of our customers and users.
Broad, strategic thinking might seem to be only a mindset, but as the principles of service design show us, there are actionable measures we can take to ensure that we create holistic solutions and enable employees to pass efficiencies on to their company’s customers and users. It all starts with empowering people to do this important work. If you work within a large enterprise and are facing some of the challenges I’ve described in this column, I recommend that you do the following:
If you haven’t hired a service designer, consider doing so. Service-design skills are likely to demand someone’s full-time attention.
Consider promoting a senior UX professional—who has demonstrated the ability to think broadly and has a passion for improving employees’ experiences, too—into a service-design position.
If you have people focusing on design operations, consider broadening their purview to encompass aspects of customers’ and users’ journeys as well. Although design-operations professionals typically focus more on optimizing back-end and internal processes, designer enablement, and standardization—which are aspects of service design—these two skillsets are congruent and could cross the line to the front end.
As many companies adjust to an increasingly cloud-based world, they’ll find certain skills and capabilities in short supply—unless they take measures to anticipate their impact on the employee experience, which impacts the customer and user experience and vice versa. As with UX strategy, service design is becoming one of those important skills in which we must invest as experiences focus less on props that operate discretely and in isolation from one another. Individuals who can take a holistic, multidimensional approach to design—across the entire employee, customer, and user journey—can bolster an organization’s service design capabilities and drive significant value into the organization.
In Part 3 of this series, I’ll cover UX writing and content strategy, which are also becoming increasingly critical skillsets in which we need to invent going forward.
Director of User Experience at Rockwell Automation
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Jon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. Jon joined Rockwell Automation in 2013, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell in 2020, balancing design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals, then became a full-time User Experience Manager in 2021. In 2022, Jon was promoted to Director of User Experience at Rockwell. Read More