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Service Design Thinking

Alejandra Rodriguez


March 20th, 2019

Today, the design of user experiences and services is becoming more important than ever. Companies are realizing the potential and significance of placing the customer at the center of their practices in order to add value, build brand awareness and offer an experience that will persuade users to choose their service among the plethora of services and companies available in the market.

As a result, the terms Design, User Experience, Service Design, and Design Thinking are becoming a must in the vocabulary of executives. But, what are the differences and similarities between these concepts, and how do we use them?

Do I need to be a designer to apply Design Thinking?

Let’s start by establishing the difference between design and Design Thinking.

One one hand, design is a discipline that aims to build creative and innovative solutions that fulfill user demands. Depending on the field of specialization, designers develop specific skills that range from visual design, interaction design or UX design.

On the other hand, Design Thinking is a user-centric approach to address and solve a problem using creativity and innovation, usually through the work of cross-functional teams who contribute to the development of the project from their specific areas of knowledge. This means that you don’t have to be a designer in order to apply Design Thinking. As this article from Karel Vredenburg highlights, Design Thinking is a cross-discipline approach, while design is a specialized area.

Put simply, if you want to solve a problem from a customer-centric approach, you can put in practice the principles of Design Thinking, even though you are not a designer. They will help you develop the sensitivity required to empathize with your end users to fulfill their needs.

In the case of organizations, applying Design Thinking across a company means there is a democratization of some of the aspects of design. This ensures that people who are not designers are following customer-centric approaches and are asking themselves what are the human needs behind business and technological needs.

How are Design Thinking and Service Design different?

Now, let’s talk about the relationship between Service Design and Design Thinking. As mentioned, Design Thinking aims to place users at the center of every practice. It can be applied to a variety of fields, but not necessarily a service.

What is a service? Services are economic and intangible activities that deliver value to customers. Education, medical assistance, or transportation are services. As opposed to goods, customers cannot have ownership of them, cannot store them, nor resell them. Let’s see an example: if you reserve a couple of nights in a hotel, you don’t become the owner of the hotel chain or the room you are about to use. What you get is the experience itself, the comfort of the beds, the room service, the view. If you want to explore in depth what Service Design is, click here to read our whitepaper “Service Design: Providing meaningful end-to-end experiences “.

In this order of ideas, while Design Thinking focuses mostly on people (users) rather than in the internal process of organizations to create a product, Service Design focuses on orchestrating resources and infrastructure in order to build a brand experience, maximize the business potential and most importantly, provide a service that aligns with the motivations, expectations and needs of customers.

So what is Service Design Thinking?

Service Design Thinking uses the principles and processes of Design Thinking and guides these efforts towards the creation of optimal interactions between customers and brands. This means that it not only involves design itself, but also other variables such as technology, engineering, business strategy, among others.

Let’s explore the three main aspects that Service Design Thinking orchestrates in order to achieve the best service possible. Firstly, it analyzes the desirability of a service. This means it uses a series of methods to know whether a service will add value to a customer and what is the best strategy to deliver it. This analysis requires contextual research, interviews, and surveys to reveal customer insights first hand. Secondly, it evaluates the feasibility; it analyzes if the technical and organizational resources and infrastructure are adequate to build and deliver the service. Finally, it examines if the service aligns with business needs and strategy.

Source: TEDxHamburg – Joost Holthuis – “Service Design”

The following images from a TEDx event show a very interesting approach to meet customer needs. The first image highlights the top left section of the comparative chart, a section where organizations can simply maintain existing relations with their users by means of creating services that users like and that they expect organizations to deliver. We could call them “predictable” services. Following this approach enables organizations to maintain their current customers, but it’s not very helpful in addressing new ones.

The next image, on the other hand, highlights the top right section, where unexpected and desired services unite. When organizations are able to discover the hidden desires of people, they can create innovative services that will open opportunities and build new relations. Surprise your customers and augment your target audience.

Predictable services:

Source: TEDxHamburg – Joost Holthuis – “Service Design”

Innovative services:

Source: TEDxHamburg – Joost Holthuis – “Service Design”

The double diamond diagram

Service Design Thinking follows a series of steps in the process of building a service. As we mentioned before, organizations need to make sure the project is feasible, desirable and viable, which is why the process needs to start with a discovery phase, where a wide range of possibilities and variables are considered. This first stage is divergent as it needs to capture as much information as possible.

In the next stage, the define phase, people organize and select the most relevant information and insights that align with a business strategy. This second step is convergent, as it needs to narrow down possibilities.

In the developing phase, the objective is to iterate and prototype until you have a closer version of the final service.  Finally, in the delivery phase, the service is launched. Here, possibilities narrow down again as this phase aims to refine the service. Bare in mind that services are a work-in-progress and feedback from customers is vital to keep improving.

Source: TEDxHamburg – Joost Holthuis – “Service Design”

Visualizing the customer’s journey

There are a variety of practices available in order to carry out a Service Design Thinking process. We will focus on customer journey mapping and service blueprint.

How do they come into play in the design of services? As the core of Service Design relies on the orchestration of touchpoints to meet the needs and expectations of customers, service blueprints and customer journey maps are methods that capture in detail the process of how customers interact with the service, and how the service itself is delivered. But what is the difference between them and how do we know which one best fits our interests?

On the one hand, a customer journey map documents the experience and interaction of customers across touchpoints from their point of view. This includes actions, feelings, and thoughts. Journey maps aim to reveal the internal dialog of users when interacting with a service.

On the other hand, a service blueprint focuses on describing and documenting the front stage, backstage and behind the scenes, which means, all the internal processes and operations needed to deliver a service. In this case, the priority isn’t to examine the customer’s perspective, but to build a clear picture of how services are being delivered.

A service blueprint is useful when people want to improve the service offering and there is a very complex network of interconnected services. Knowing exactly how touchpoints relate to one another enables companies to improve the overall service. A service blueprint is also advisable when organizations want to introduce another service or integrate digital and physical touchpoints. Another ideal scenario to create a service blueprint is when organizations want to transform services from high-touch to lower-touch forms, which means their services will go from needing a salesperson or other intermediates to deliver the service, to services that people can acquire on their own.

A customer journey map is recommended when organizations want to rethink their strategy focusing on the user, when they want to address more specific audiences, or when they want to reveal the internal dialogue of their customers when interacting with their service.

The takeaway

Service Design Thinking enables organizations to develop the sensitivity and empathy required to build customer-centric services while taking into account technical, organizational and financial aspects. It uses a set of methods such as customer journey maps and service blueprints which are ideal to understand the chain of production and delivery. This holistic approach of design will make your organization go beyond predictable services to offer innovative solutions to customers. Successful organizations are transitioning from traditional practices to Service Design and customer centricity, and despite the challenge this represents, they are building and providing services that make the difference.


Also published on Medium.

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