Thoughts / Better experiences and Service Design / October 23, 2007

Service design seems to (still) be one of those things everybody wants and is doing. It has arrived from and to conferences, it is asked and sold to clients to diversify and enhance their brands while keeping the customers and users satisfied. So it might be time for everybody to think what Service design is. Perhaps a definition might be difficult to grasp, let alone to utter, and I might not be at the level to summarise it in a sentence, so I’ll try with an example, and as such I’d like to compare it to a product, its eternal nemesis.

A car is a product. Some car company designs it, engineers it, produces it and sells it to you. You now have one way to go from point A to point B and back, and even listen to the radio news while waiting in point C for that traffic jam to clear. When you buy the car, you’re buying transport, a means to an end, the freedom of being able to go anywhere whenever you want to. You’re also buying tyres that wore out, an engine that might break, a gear system that you have to switch in order to advance, windshield that might break, wipers that stop wiping, gas tank to be filled every now and then, and so on. Later, once you own the car, you’ll realise you need insurance, and if you crash into that fat guy while checking out that blonde, you also buy a device that might spend days in the car shop, while being disemboweled and reconstructed and then it might work again. You might find yourself in the middle of a highway while it rains cats and dogs, you might be robbed of your precious vehicle, you might lose it to a lucky double deuce on a frantic poker night.

So when you buy a car you buy a solution to a necessity (to go from A to B) together with a myriad of other problems (how to keep the solution from dying on you).

Cabs are a service. If you need to go from A to B, you raise your arm, hail one of those yellow/black/white automobiles, open the door, utter where B is, and sit back and enjoy the ride, or suffer it. You get to B, get down, pay the fare and run upstairs to your next life event. When you hail a black cabby, or a yellow cab, or a white taxi, you’re buying the ride. Which might be the same reason you’d buy a car, but this time without the blonde and the crash, no worries about missing the insurance renewal deadline and careless if your tyres are worn out.

So a service is that series of processes and events that allow you to get (and pay) for exactly and only the one thing you really need, and get it, no more and no less.

Most of us when talking about a service we imply what is called the touchpoints of such service: the teller on a bank, the credit card paypoint, the salesperson on a store, the McDonalds unresponsive teenager, the idiotic ever-broken cash machine, the screen of your cellphone or even the cellphone itself. A normal thought if we realise touchpoints are the service’s faces we deal with.

Essentially the service is all that makes your money be there when you need it, the burger to arrive to your mouth when you are hungry and the conversation with someone, countries away, to happen. Since a service is a very complex system of events most of which are invisible to us, I’ll divide it structurally into front-end (touchpoints) and back-end (framework).

Most companies have endorsed and advocated for their provided services by creating “better experiences for the user” and a million other marketable phrases of the same genre. Those companies have improved much, and we might even be glad of it, very glad indeed; but their reach might be that of just the touchpoints. Airline counter crew smiling more than Ronald McDonald, call centres where they seem to be so high a hysterical laugh might escape any minute, promises of “better support”, “seamless communication” and “improved interface”, salespeople that simply love to make a deal with you while making you feel “the master of your domain”. And a month after you find yourself on the other end of an hour-long call centre chat that suddenly drops down, or having at home seven versions of the same modem, all of which don’t work exactly in the same way; and you wonder where the bloody hell is that service they promised you.

The answer is nowhere. That service was never there. Touchpoints, all of them, were elegant, serviceable, happy as teletubbies and polite as grannies, but completely unsupported by a real service backbone, the framework that makes the modem arrive to your home and work, or the system that makes your call convert into the satisfaction of getting what you’re paying for.

Service design is about making things go from A to B, not to paint in rainbow colours touchpoint A so you buy it and then figure out where on earth is B and how to get to it while holding your tears or saving your bullets. Don’t get me wrong, it is also about making point A and point B as satisfactory as it’s needed for you to want to traverse them, but that need/initiative seems already embedded in the culture of currently successful service design enough not to make me worry that much. However, we might touch it in a coming post.

As an example of how services might be perceived and delivered, I’ll mention FedEx ((I am in no way advocating for FedEx as an example of good service, only using it as an example of a promise and a fulfill, relation that is the cornerstone of any service.)). The worldwide known courier post company FedEx don’t promise a nice box delivered to your home/office, it promises a nice box whenever you need it to be whenever you need it to be, “absolutely, positively overnight”. And that’s what you’re buying. That is the service. A nice anecdote on how that service was born is given by Business Journalist Roy Rowan in his book “The Intuitive Manager”:

He cites the birth of Federal Express, the company that created the market for overnight mail delivery. The idea for the business first came to Founder Frederick Smith while he was a student at Yale writing a term paper on the parcel-service system. Much later, while he was flying combat missions in Viet Nam, Smith developed his notion of an “absolutely, positively overnight” service.
Hailing the Eureka Factor

I don’t really know if that anecdote is true, but it does not need to be for the idea of FeDex service to live, as many of their ad campaigns have stated it over and over, and it has become the promise, the need to be fulfilled. If a FedEx nice-boxed package does not arrive when they told you it will to arrive, the service is broken, and you might not feel a satisfied customer, period.

In this era of so much discontent with pollution, consumism and sustainability, services are one way (the only, perhaps) to attain the most of those, so we might as well get our heads straight and our goals fair and aim for getting our users from point A to point B, “absolutely, positively overnight”. Not just giving them better experiences.

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