What is service design (part one)

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Er, is it another word for user experience design?

Most of us who study ‘service design’ or work in this field are facing a question of what service design is.  Among ourselves, we also debate about the boundaries of service design and its core definition. Many people assume service design is just another term for UX design but I disagree. So here, I want to share some of my thoughts regarding service design, from everyday practices to academic debates. Of course, it will be an on-going reflection of my observation and practices in the field and you may agree or not. Please feel free to leave comments and I’d love to hear from you.

Service design is about stakeholders

Since my journey at the RCA, I wonder if there is another element of service design separating this discipline from others (i.e. UX design). When we work on public service projects, one of the important pieces of design is about understanding and engaging different stakeholders. Social housing and public health services (NHS), for example, often require a deep understanding of the stakeholder landscape. In those systems, different actors may have different objectives and values, and most importantly different measurements of success. In a typical service design project, one of the important aspects is to focus on those stakeholders and understand their roles and agenda in the service. Given a deep understanding of the landscape, service design generally aims to empower those stakeholders, which improves the feasibility and reduces systematic conflicts. If we apply the lens of radical innovation, the natural focus of stakeholders in service design may lead to a systematic re-construction of those stakeholders, which may in turn create competitive advantages in a single package of service. Itunes/iPod, Uber, Airbnb, for example, have seen some of those radical innovations by creating an eco-system of stakeholders and linking them into an integrated service.

Service design is about engagement

Following the focus on stakeholders, engagement is another key aspects of service design. Through my journey at the Service Design Studio at the RCA, we utilise various service design methods as engagement tools for working with stakeholders. The idea of ‘designing for and with users’ is reflected constantly in the way we approach problems and reframe them through engagement. The engagement here is not only an approach for designers to understand problems and create solutions but a key element of creating an environment for an organisation. This is conducive to different departments and stakeholders functioning holistically and integretively. Because service design is to propose a change in delivering system, it requires service designers to understand and deploy design as a new change management method to allow a new service rooting inside the organisation.

Service design is about measurement

The nature of a service means the production and consumption often happens at the same time and space. In comparison with manufacturing, ‘service’ does not have the luxury of having quality control during production (i.e. factory). It means that restaurants need to ask customers whether the food and everything else is good or not. The insurance companies need a feedback questionnaire from the customers who have just spoken on the phone with their call centre. The criteria of measurement is very important indeed indicating what employees should care about and do everyday and capturing the actual rational and irrational feeling of customers. Because service is not tangible in its nature, as service designers we are constantly trying capture the impact of the service we design and thinking about measurement.

(To be continued…)


Service design workshop and a bank project

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This is a caption of a service design workshop delivered by a London service design consultancy (‘Agency 1’) at RCA.

Tools and purpose/application

These are the tools being used by Agency 1 in their service design projects.

  • actor mapping in use. They often start this exercise with clients and help both to understand the stakeholders and their roles/values/meaning in the service. Sometimes, this tool also makes suggestions for research planning, in terms of identifying and recruiting stakeholders for design research. These give hints and suggestions for next steps.
  • touchpoint mapping. The touchpoint helps clients and consultants to align the objective of innovation and agree the potential innovation opportunities. In the case of a shopping project, Agency 1 uses shadowing technics and spends an hour to understand customers’ living context (more explanation) and another hour shopping with them.
  • problem statements. Problem statements work very well to understand clients’ objectives and agendas (i.e. financial, cultural, vision).
  • ‘future to be’ scenario. This works both for clients and consultant to picture the details of future interaction/service. It acts almost as the initial film script that helps screen writers, directors, producers and actors to figure out the roles and potential direction of the projects. Obviously, this detailed prototyping/scenario imagining could just be one single scene.

Reflection of a bank project We went through a bank project with those four tools. Here is a collection of thoughts and reflection.  

  • large timeframe in the customer journey. When we exmained the brief and mapped out the journey from the awareness of the needs, preparing for the deposit to getting the deals done, we realised the journey here could in some cases be in the time frame of more than 5 years. This create challenges for designers and businesses in understanding the details of the journey, picking out the important and relevant timepoints, and deciding on the innovation opportunities.
  • roles, powers, values, objectives.the stakeholders/actors landscape here is complicated. We are talking about young buyers, family members, current landlords, friends(peers pressures), sellers, real-estate agencies, solicitors from each party, financial advisors, middle man mortgage brokers. The power dynamic (i.e. knowledge, money), the agenda/objectives/constraints (i.e. busy mortgage brokers), the perceived/structured roles, are very interesting in terms of the relationship among those actors.
  • Information layers. contents, channels.The information you need to complete a mortgage is very diverse and almost stacks in multiple layers. There is information about legal issues (i.e. land/renting, buying, solicitors), financial issues (i.e. taxes), banks and mortgage information, your personal financial paperwork, etc. Almost every participant in the middle of the process joins the interaction because the very information of those professionals may be delivered as a part of their services. In terms of information channels, there are communication channels, such as emails, phones, faxes, etc, working as interaction mediums between actors. There are knowledge/eductional/informational channels, such as youtube, websites, twitter, schools/workshops/events, from which knowledge is gained about the subjects, helping and informing decision making.
  • Interaction. Some of the common issues in the interaction in the mortgage dealing processes are waiting time (i.e. negotiation and communication, preparation, etc), unclear processes/steps (unknown journey/blackbox), interaction channels (i.e. digital and physical), actors roles/objectives/values/agenda.
  • Market segmentation and generic design research. My assumption is that design research would form the second steps of market positioning that gives the designer a clearer focus and better alignment with organisational strategy. However, I wonder if the sequence may be different depending on the context of projects. For example, in a client-agency model, their first collaboration may well be targeting a small scale optimisation in services. The radical innovation which requires radical understanding of customers’ behaviours, i.e. their new living patterns, the new segment of customers, may produce more budget (both financially and timewise) for ‘designerly’ ways of thinking and acting. This very early stage of comprehensive design research may produce tools for imagining the strategic direction of the future.

Jackie’s experience In terms of field knowledge and potential research opportunities, we identified a mortgage broker company called, CMG Advisory (suggested by C). We talked about her experience of getting mortgage, such as time frame, steps/stages of processes, interaction, actors, issues and problems. I will add a drawing here and will not go in details here.

Life moments Designers from Agency 1 suggest that the major events of life act as the milestones influencing mortgage/housing/financial status. They suggest mapping out that big picture of turning points (i.e. age, graduation, jobs, promotion, dating, marriage, baby, etc) and think about the intervening points. We did an exercise on that and funnily enough this made us picture the financial/income curve of a young person (how they perform financially).

The element of incident Services do have unexpected incidents due to their IHIP characteristics. However, there seems to be two ways of engaging with the incident. In Agency 1, they map it out as the risk element, for which services need to build up resilience against those incidents. In traditional services, such as restaurants and hospitality organisations, they plan and design the incident deliberately, which create good surprises for their clients (i.e. complementary food, unexpected little gifts). If we apply the blueprint framework to those activities, those incidents can be regarded as plannedactivities out of the customers’ sight of visibility. This visibility line is dynamic in the process of services, in which it is revealed as a magical and happy incident.