Service design needs a better understanding of the raw materials of service

This post is a critique on service design, and especially the thinking and talking side of it. This is based on both my own experiences as someone who has been involved in quite a few service design projects during past years and how those have changed my own view, and what I have seen and heard my colleagues around the world are doing. Of course there’s as many ways to use the toolbox of service design, as there are people who practice it. However, among those who preach and practice service design there’s plenty of enthusiasm and talking, without real life experimentation and implementation of conceptual ideas and actual proof of delivered effects. And that’s a thing I personally have been a little frustrated about.

I think that in the whole community of service designers and so called design thinkers we need a bit more self-criticism. It’s pretty easy to get excited about the healing power of customer centric approach. But at the same time we should also estimate that power based on the change that we can actually help organizations to make.

What I quite often see in many service design projects is a lack understanding of the challenges in the implementation. It’s lot of research, ideas and post-its without reality checks. The challenges that are neglected or not realized typically include challenges in behavioral change, introducing a new culture and reorganizing the structures of service delivery. This is especially common with very people-intensive services. Making a new iPhone application can be quite straightforward but it’s a totally different thing to reorganize the way the personal customer service. This is where the materials for service design start to play a role. Service designers often lack a lot of understanding in their raw materials when they set out to craft new concepts. Would an industrial designer, architect or interior designer create a concept that is based on materials that can’t be used for that purpose, or that don’t even exist? Probably not.

Of course the raw materials for service are quite complicated and often hard to handle: including stuff like time, space, people, processes… and even customers, who are part always part of the service production. In my experience a service design project is almost always about changing behavior. And behavior is something that you can really change from outside just by defining it or drawing a nice concept. It’s a common understanding that people share about what is valued, how desired outcomes are measured and how those things are talked about, among many other things.

Often the most important recourse in service delivery is people. And whether it’s the customer service staff or guys at the back stage, behavioral change always needs to start form inside, from a personal motivation to change. A when designing with people the designer can’t stay outside and craft nice models and concepts that just should be implemented. Often a service designer needs to understand how to facilitate the behavioral change and the change of service culture, which in the end is pretty much the same as the organization culture. This is, at least for me, the biggest difference between designing for services and product design. They both aim for value creation in customer experience, but the raw materials for design and process of the delivery of the experience are quite different.

In services, people, both customers and service personnel, need to be understood from holistic perspective. Because without people, there is no service. And for many designers this change of perspective is actually quite challenging. Together with the desired outcome you have to understand the limitations and possibilities in you raw materials. This requires sometimes really deep understanding and insight into the structures of service delivery and organization’s culture. You cannot be an artist type of designer who lives in a bubble and imagines nice experiences for customers. Service delivery is the core business of companies, so when you are touching it you are touching something that is quite sacred.

Still too much service design is done in meeting rooms, workshops and design studios. Playing around with ideas but not really involving those whose life the ideas will change. We designer need to learn an approach where we can’t anymore afford to be the authority who just defines how things should work. With service design we need to work with people from the very beginning and help them to realize and define the possibilities that they themselves can get motivated to achieve with the service. Actually with services co-design is the only kind of design there should be.

Surely, new ideas themselves can have a huge value to organization and lead to important realizations. However, if the goal of the project is to make a change happen – to create more value, to be more efficient, to change purchase behavior, to increase customer loyalty, to get a bigger market share, to what ever – the value of the tools, processes and ideas should be estimated against the delivered results, not the possible results.

Often the only way to really see if a concept has potential is to do experimentation in a real environment. When the money changes owner we have a proof that we have been able to change the purchase behavior, for example. Before that it’s just ideas and guessing. Real life experimentation is also a good reality-check for the materials of design. It gives valuable insight about what needs to be considered for implementing changes. Designing this “anatomy of change” should be part of the value that we think service design can offer to those who buy it. And I personally think that if service design fails to get this, it mostly has value as the realm of academia and study of new possibilities, instead of making those possibilities actually to happen. Understanding the materials you are working with is the first and foremost thing to consider when crafting a new model for service.

My advise to anyone who buys or plans a service design projects is to make sure that design of the realistic implementation is included. Or at least an understanding of the implementation challenges, that is based on real life experimentation with real people, in a real context. Otherwise it’s just thinking, talking and guessing. And where service design needs to grow is to more doing and experimenting.


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