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What is Service Design and Why it Might Matter More than you Think

by: Karin Aue

I am a service designer and lecturer. As partner and design director of a strategic design consultancy, I have extensive experience in engaging with stakeholders, delivering workshops and lectures in front of groups – both large and small. I am accustomed to facilitating people involved in a creative process, and, dare I say, do a pretty good job most of the time. However, as for all of us experiencing the challenges of the current situation, the way we work, engage, and deliver content has radically changed. 

Chemistry team - participants card sorting during a service design workshop

I was previously working on an article on the Principles of Service Design, based on a Service Design class I am currently teaching at General Assembly, here in Singapore. Then COVID-19 happened and things have since changed. Singapore was initially lucky and kept the number of infections low and life close to normal. I was able to teach the class in person just a few weeks ago.

But things have changed since then with the case numbers rising significantly. Much like most places in the world, life has been on ‘lock-down’. As such, the work at my consultancy as well as all my teaching has now moved online. Hence, I was faced with the challenge of creating a new service experience for my students on service experience design. The irony, I know! Still, it’s a great chance to practice what I preach and apply the key principles of service design when translating the course into a new remote format. 

So let me take the chance to guide you through the principles of service design using this simple, but a very current example that many, I am sure, can relate to:

How might we translate a service from one format to another?

Identifying pain points on post-it pads

First things first – What is Service Design?

Service Design is a well established discipline. However, it still causes ample confusion and misunderstanding. At its core, it focuses on improving the interaction quality between a service provider (e.g. me as a lecturer) and a user (in this case, my students). Service design takes into consideration all channels and touch points from both the user’s and the service provider’s perspective – where the service provider might be an organisation, a government, a small business, an individual, and etc. The aim of the practice is to design services that are not only user-friendly and relevant for the end user, but also to create added value for the service provider, offering a competitive advantage – no matter if its a bank, a social enterprise, or the tax office.  

So for me, the aim is to design a remote learning experience that is relevant and engaging for my students and ensures they recommend me and my class to their peers.

A great resource for all things service design is “This is Service Design Thinking: Basics, Tools, Cases” by Marc Stickdorn.

Key Principles and Tools of Service Design

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key principles of Service Design. The good news here is that it’s, not by any means, rocket science – in fact, it’s actually mostly common sense. Still, in my experience, common sense can be one of the most difficult things to apply. Especially when you are stuck in the complex monolith of an organisation with endless layers of hierarchy and silo-ed departments. The Principles of Service Design are closely related to key aspects of any other human-centred design practice. So let’s start with the most important aspect, the user. 

Graphic lays out the 3 principles of service design

User-Centric – Start with the people that you’re designing for

People are at the centre of Service Design. Good services should answer not only to the functional, but also the emotional needs of your users.  This means conducting research, especially qualitative research. This is to truly understand what your users are looking for, what is currently lacking, and to identify the barriers that they might be encountering. 

In the example of teaching in an online, remote space, this means ensuring students are continually engaged. This entails assisting them with potentially unfamiliar tools and platforms, offering them relevant content in an easy-to-consume format. It is key to move beyond just downloading the content or reading an article (like this one!). We have to engage with them beyond simply broadcasting information, in an engaging and interactive way.

Collaborative – Work across teams and silos

The next key principle, and at times one of the most difficult to implement for some organisations, is to work in cross-functional teams and truly collaborate across departments and hierarchies. The key is to get the right brains around the table. By involving key stakeholders, especially those who are part of the service delivery, we can ensure that all the right expertise and knowledge will go into the design process. In addition, by adding in new voices, we can allow changes in perspective.

I worked closely with General Assembly to ensure that everything was well prepared on the tech-side of things. In addition, we had to prepare a detailed remote session plan that took into account the andragogy for online teaching.  I also checked through the student feedback of previous classes and spoke to my peers and reviewed other online courses to better understand what works and what could be done better. 

Iterative – Test and refine your assumptions

Often, it all sounds good and well in your head. However,  the most important step is actually testing it out with users. Before falling in love with your ideas, service, or product, we will actually need to test them in order to gather feedback, fail, and refine our assumptions. In order to attain valuable, true-to-life feedback, testing has to happen with your actual users.

After having prepared in detail and having done a dry-run, the actual test will be with my class and students. I considered this to be the actual prototype. It is about actively involving them in the content, and design of the class, gathering their feedback, and turning the class itself into a service design experiment. 

What Makes a Great Service?

Next to these 3 key principles characterising the approach to crafting services, there are a set of important aspects that characterise great services: 

Graphic lays out what makes an ideal service

SequencingGreat services are designed insequence

We should design and craft services along key moments of the user journey. Much like chapters in a book or scenes in a movie. In order to craft an experience that makes sense to our users and really engages them, we need to think about each of the steps they take.

For online engagements like remote classes, workshops, or meetings, it’s all about breaking the content into micro teachings of 15-20 minutes. These small bursts of content makes it easier to keep everyone engaged with the topic at hand. In between these sharing moments, we need to plant some interactive elements like Q&As, short exercises, or simple feedback gathering moments to ensure that no-one has dozed off! Sharing these chapters or key moments of the experience from the beginning also allows the users to prepare themselves and helps to set expectations.  

Evidencing – Users should be aware of the different elements of a service

Even if they are hidden and happening on the back-end, users need to be aware of the different elements of the service. This “evidence”, depicts the effort that has gone into providing the service and thus creates loyalty and helps bring the entire service experience to life.. 

When teaching and facilitating workshops online, a lot of work is going into handling and juggling the different platforms and communication channels in the background. Unlike real life, participants can’t see what you are doing on your screen in your home office and it is important to make it apparent to them. In a virtual classroom, it is about bringing to life the preparation going on in the background. For example, when setting up breakout-rooms in Zoom, or preparing the next exercise for the group on Slack.

Over-communicating is important. Especially when dealing with a medium or service experience that might be new to many of your users. This ensures that no-one gets lost and that there are no awkward moments of silence that leave users second-guessing the process. 

Holistic – A service takes the entire experience into account

Holistic services take into account the context of the user: when, where and how the user and the service coalesce. Context matters, and we need to think end-to-end about the user experience. In most cases, the service experience doesn’t start the moment our customer steps into the shop, clicks on the link, or picks up the phone. It usually begins way before that. 

In my case, I also needed to think about what kind of materials the students would receive before the class begins. Including how much prior knowledge they might have, and also the tools that will be used for remote learning. Prior to the start of class, I’ll be present 10-15 minutes earlier to chat with the students coming in early.  This helps me get to know them, just like you would in a real classroom.

In a Nutshell

Karin teaches a course on design thinking

These are the key principles and aspects of designing and delivering great services. The example I used might be quite simple, but try translating these principles to any other aspect of your work or personal life. From delivering financial advice and creating better public services, to simply planning the next birthday party. These principles will definitely come in handy. 

To see how well I fared in the application of these service design principles, join me for the:

Service Design Boot camp on Wednesday, the 15th of April
Click this link to find out more: Service Design Workshop – Services that Delight

<strong>Karin Aue</strong>
Karin Aue

Karin heads the communication and service design projects at Chemistry. As design director, she works with the team to craft engaging user experiences across various industries.

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