At your service: designing the customer experience with intent


Chris DonnellyPrincipal UX Designer
Michelle MulveySenior UX Designer


efining and understanding service design: a valuable discipline that lifts the lid on the invisible processes that feed into a customer’s experience of a product or service.

As we pay more attention to customer experiences, we believe it’s going to bring the discipline of service design to the fore.

Service design, at heart, is about optimising that experience by understanding all of the processes that go into delivering it – many of which are often invisible to the customer.

Whether you sell pens or build an interface for an app, service design looks at much more than the individual item the customer is handing over their hard-earned cash for. It applies rigour and process thinking to the entire customer experience, and helps businesses to understand the context for how their product or service is delivered and managed and – most importantly – how it feels for the customer.

What is service design?

As people’s standards and expectations are growing, and as they’re exposed to more services than ever, a positive customer experience will often push them towards choosing one brand over another.

Service design is not a new concept – it’s been around for 40 years – but there are so many definitions that it’s worth exploring what it is, what it isn’t, and how it can help your business.

It formalises how you think about your products and services. It is a close cousin of design thinking, which takes a customer-centric approach to problem solving. The distinction is that service design focuses on mapping and understanding all of the elements of a service. We see service design as a method of being thoughtful about the processes that put a product or service in front of the customer, in a way that all of the parts work together as a cohesive whole.

Front stage, meet backstage

One of the most common terminologies you’ll hear with service design is ‘front stage’ and ‘backstage’. Front stage is everything the consumer experiences, while backstage refers to the processes that bring everything to the front stage. A classic example of this is a restaurant: the diner doesn’t talk to the chef or speak to the suppliers. Yet everything that goes on in the kitchen impacts the experience of the person sitting at the table.

No matter how good the end product may be in and of itself, if the backstage processes have loads of cracks in them, issues tend to emerge at the front stage sooner or later. Maybe the quality of suppliers has dropped, or maybe there’s a deeper cultural problem.

However, many companies tend to deal only with symptoms of service problems. So to go back to our restaurant analogy for a moment, a small detail might be the glasses on the table not being polished. That could actually be a sign that the backstage processes are broken somewhere else, such as members of staff not being trained in this small but important step. What it’s really telling us is that the level of service to the customer has dropped because the people working backstage aren’t living the values of that service.

Identifying customer experience problems – and solving them

So how do we identify those problems in the business, and how do we go about solving them?

The best way to start with service design is to pick a focused problem. Sometimes, a business leader intuits on some level that the service isn’t working as well as it should be. If it’s an online store, maybe customers are abandoning their shopping carts before a purchase: that’s often a useful trigger to ask where things might be going wrong. Look for the points of failure, and work back to identify what’s going wrong and where.

Service design can help to diagnose the problem. We’ve found it’s really useful for solving system-level problems that span multiple teams.

The (process) map is not the territory

The key to making service design a success is to be specific. Unless you have identified a process you want to focus on, you’ll come out with a lovely map of how your business works in theory. That can be beneficial if the leadership has lost touch with how things are working. In such cases, maybe overall visibility is needed, but we’ve found clear intent is where service design is most effective.

If a process is not working well, you need to join up the dots. You need to dig deeper by honing in on one particular area, while thinking about how it impacts the whole service.

A lot of organisations already have a process map but let’s be honest: the humans who deliver the process aren’t robots. And when there are humans in the mix, things get complicated. A service design approach captures the often undocumented cultural levels that don’t appear on a process map – yet they often impact the service and can surface user insights.

Unearthing tacit knowledge

Service design exposes tacit knowledge in the system. Someone who has been working in a company for years will have a lot of lived experience, and it can be a valuable exercise to bring that experience to the forefront. They’re really bringing something to the table in terms of service.

Suppose you as a customer were in a shop where the person serving you was sharing their knowledge, and it led to a memorable sales experience. Creating a service blueprint can bring this knowledge to the fore, so that it’s organisation-wide, not just unique to one person. Maybe their knowledge can be used in training others on the team – or maybe that knowledgeable expert could get involved in delivering the training.

Talk to employees and many of them will say “oh well actually I have my own method”; they’ve figured out hacks. Those people have on-the-ground qualitative data and tapping into their experience is a great way to change how a system is run in the company. Doing that service design research can really expose invisible flaws and bring to light all kinds of workarounds that otherwise might stay undiscovered: for instance, maybe your business bought a really expensive software package to manage your inventory, but people are still doing it the old way.

The people on the shop floor or on the manufacturing site are the ones that have the context that maybe middle or upper management aren’t exposed to on a regular basis.

In a recent project, we unearthed that managers in specific geographies were having to do workarounds using staff overtime to plug gaps that their budgets wouldn’t allow for. Part of our recommendations to the client was to give the managers the autonomy to move their headcount budget around to account for busy periods. This gave the managers a greater sense of empowerment in their role while also allowing the client to save money on expensive overtime costs. A win-win all round that only a careful system mapping was able to expose.

Making service design work for you

If this is starting to sound all very Lean Manufacturing, let’s just bring things back to first principles: service design is qualitatively different to Lean, which focuses on process efficiency. Efficiency is implied in what we’re doing, but service design never forgets the human element. We’re always thinking about and focusing on the experience: what does it feel like to interact with this service?

Providing a joined up experience across all channels
A particularly useful point From GOV Uk’s service standard, applicable not just for public services, but for any large business with multiple touchpoints
Service design is also an excellent way of bridging silos that build up over time in an organisation. We recommend reading the UK Government’s service standard, which includes 14 principles of service design. This is a useful reference: point 3, for example, talks about providing a joined-up experience for users. Public services by their nature tend to be connected to others, but the same is true for many businesses too.

Right now, we’re working with a client on a backoffice process for hiring new people. As a group, they sense that it’s not working properly; it’s taking 26 weeks when it should take 3. We’re using surveys and interviews to collect the necessary data. With a clear intent and brief, we can expose the complexity of the process, identify where it’s broken, and figure out ways to fix it.

Service design gets everyone around the table and creates a collaborative atmosphere. A lot of design methodologies do that, and it’s a good thing. It builds understanding. It can reveal a department that might be holding on to part of the process instead of sharing for the benefit of solving a customer’s problem faster.

When we can diagnose what the ‘illness’ is, it becomes easier to prescribe a cure.

Mapping the design of a service serves two purposes: it improves the experience for the customer, and unearths insights about whether your internal business processes are working as they should be.

Businesses are complex systems – and often more complex than we realise. The service design process brings this complexity to light which is the first step to solving problems.

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