UX to service design: Applying user centred design sensibilites beyond digital channels

At UX Australia 2014 I spoke about the opportunities and challenges of applying user centred design sensibilities beyond the design of just digital things. The following is an abridged version of the talk. The slides and audio are also available.


The premise

The inspiration for the following is fueled by two sweeping generalisations that I wish weren’t true. And hope very soon won’t be.

  1. Most people with user centred design sensibilities apply themselves predominantly to the design of digital things.
  2. Over time, those same people become frustrated at the limitations of only working within just the digital channels.

Even those doing more ethnographic or contextual research roles – with clear implications beyond digital channels, primarily see their insights being applied to the design of digital things.

Put simply, we are unnecessarily limiting the potential impact of the insights we reveal if we constrain ourselves to just applying them within a digital channels. And to go a step further, we are providing the companies we work for a diminished service if we don’t apply these insights to a bigger canvas.

Working outside of digital is different and the transition from digital to service design can be discomforting and demanding, but if you successfully make the transition, you and the companies you work for will find it highly rewarding.

The work we do

Most of the work we do at Meld Studios involves helping organisations understand, explore and design what they should do and coming up with a coherent plan for how they should do it. We are seldom in a position where we respond to a clear brief stating a desired future outcome, generally we collaborate with clients to work out what it is that they need to do.

There are many similarities between how we work and the methods applied by UX practitioners working on the design of digital things. For example:

  • We conduct contextual research to understand current experiences
  • We analyse and synthesise raw data to make sense of it – and reveal insights and opportunities
  • We work closely with multi-disciplinary teams to identify opportunities and to generate lots of ideas
  • We consciously leave ourselves open to change and learning new things for as long as possible
  • We iteratively prototype, test and refine ideas to get feedback on tangible things
  • We articulate a vision for what should be created

But there are also a number of significant differences between this work and that which most UX practitioners will regularly experience:

  • These types of projects see us working in unfamiliar domains, designing things we’ve never designed before
  • They involve looking holistically at situations and designing for the tangible and intangible things that make up a service
  • They require us to directly interact with very senior individuals within very large organisations.
  • They often involve highly ambiguous briefs – that identify problems or opportunities, but make no reference to channels.
  • They are often highly collaborative voyages of discovery involving blended teams – maybe even from multiple companies, but certainly from different parts of the company.
  • Our deliverable is often the coherent articulation of a series of different things that need to be done, rather than the detailed design of a specific thing (although we do sometimes design the detailed things too)
  • And it isn’t just about “users”, we look at the needs and behaviours of all the people involved in the service – customers, staff and stakeholders

Touchpoints, services and eco-systems

Some might call this type of work service design, design thinking, strategic design, system design, or even organisational design. Depending on your definition, the type of work we do probably has aspects of each of these. We think about this terrain in terms of the design of customer touchpoints, services and eco-systems. And throughout our work we often find ourselves zooming between these different levels of detail, cutting across channels and considering customers, staff and the implications for the organisation.

diagram play

Touchpoints are the points of interaction between a customer and the organisation. They can be digital, but equally they can be human or physical, such as a call centre or a brochure. Even though our work is often looking at a broader service, we spend a lot of time understanding and then prototyping customer touchpoints. Touchpoints are the most tangible element of a service. We often create prototypes to evaluate the underlying service proposition – rather than to refine a specific touchpoint. One thing you discover quickly is that most organisations haven’t applied user centred design to the design of channels other than digital. Many other channels remain the realm of “genius designers”.

Rather than looking at touchpoints in isolation, we look at services as they cut across touchpoints, the staff experiences of delivering service and the back of house things that are the unseen glue behind the service. I think of this as the identification of everything that should be consciously designed to make a service work in a joined up way so it delivers the best possible outcomes for customers and staff while also delivering value back to the organisation.

By looking at things in this way and holding a mirror up to an organisation, we end up looking at the internal systems, processes and environments in all their functions and dysfunctions – most of which are never seen by customers, but have a mighty impact on the experience they receive. Organisations see the business value in customer experience, but most only focus their efforts on the customer touch points, the very thin layer of things that customers directly interact with and ignore the woeful ways in which they support their staff.

Staff are often expected to perform heroics on a daily basis, but are generally supported with far from heroic tools. By looking at and understanding the staff experience and the organisation behind it – we get to understand a broader causality for the things that effect the customer experience.

There is an opportunity – providing we can rise to it

Providing we as designers are confident enough in ourselves and in design process as a legitimate tool to rise to these types of challenges, this can be the lever to drive significant change within organisations. The thing you discover when working in this space is that designing effective services has fundamental implications for the fabric of how a business operates. Projects that start off focussed on a particular service, often end up with implications for the broader organisational eco-system. Our work is often as much about change management and organisational design as it is about the design of a specific service.

Traditional management consultancies have been playing in this space for many years. Why not leave this type of work to them? Put simply, they approach the same challenges, but do so in different ways.

Organisations often don’t help themselves

Most organisations struggle when it comes to consciously designing joined up services of any scale. The organisational history of the industrial world is one of internal competition, pfeifdoms, sub-division of labour and silo-ing. Most organisations of any significance are disjointed and siloed by design. The bigger and more successful they get, the more disjointed and siloed they become. Companies don’t look holistically at things, they look at things in disjointed, siloed ways and hey ho they design disjointed and silo-ed services. And this is precisely why they create disjointed and siloed customer experiences.

There is a lovely line in the book ‘Service Design: From Insight to Implementation’ by Andy Pollaine, Lavrans Løvrie and Ben Reason – “services created in silos are experienced in bits”. This is the reality for most organisations. Organisations may craft exceptional digital experiences. The same organisation may craft exceptional non-digital experiences, but typically these are crafted by different visionaries with different interpretations of the vision – and that is assuming that a single vision ever actually existed, which is many cases is being very kind indeed. And customers and businesses suffer as a consequence.

The value a design approach has to offer

Organisations around the world are slowly waking up to the value that strategic use of design has as a business tool. How designers work and how they apply themselves to these types of challenges is very, very different from the way traditional management consultancies go about the same tasks. The iterative, open way in which we understand and explore opportunities and quickly make things tangible so that people can experience and critique them is a key differentiator.

There are many other valuable things a design approach provides organisations. I will briefly highlight two simple, but significant ones.

1) We help disassociate ideas from individuals

Most organisations are highly egotistical and competitive places. This means either things don’t get challenged or refined because they’re associated with someone senior. Or worse that because of the competitiveness in the organisation, people simply sit by or actively campaign for something to fail because of who is associated with it. The design process helps us explore multiple ideas, to disassociate them from their owners, to critique ideas and to refine, revise and reimagine things in a collaborative and open way. And all of this results in the design of better things. This may appear very simple stuff to those used to user centred design, but it is very powerful and oh so unusual in most organisations.

2) We help people understand and communicate things of complexity

Secondly, we help organisations understand and communicate things of complexity well before they are built. The size and complexity of the things we design means that organisations struggle to understand what they currently have, let alone communicate how they want to change about them in a meaningful and engaging way.

Communicating a vision for the redesign of a service or eco-system so that people can see the bigger picture and understand their place within it, is crucial to rallying people to deliver a joined up experience, rather than a disjointed one. We communicate the things we design in a number of different ways, some which you’ll be very familiar with prototyping and others that you’ll probably be less familiar with.

We create these things called service maps that situate the actors and artefacts involved in the service or eco-system in a single end-to-end map. These are very big things that enable people to see the bigger picture in a way they previously haven’t been able. In our experience people consume these things from about 10ft – they see the big picture and from 1ft they see themselves. They are great things for instigating conversations, obtaining engagement and gathering feedback. We often see clients gathered around them discussing details and capturing comments.

This results in a comprehensive vision or map for the service or eco-system, prototypes and/or detailed design briefs for each of the things that need to be designed to bring it to life, and a roadmap how the organisation should get there.

Four common challenges

The following are some of the challenges that we often see UX professionals struggle with as they attempt to make a transition from UX to service design (note: Steve also covered this topic recently).

Challenge 1: Understanding design process, not mastery of specific activities

The first challenge is mastery of and trust in the underlying design process. Few UX practitioners have formal design training – and even people with formal design training are often trained in a specific craft and don’t necessarily understand the underlying design process. Having a clear understanding of the underlying intent behind what you do is a foundation stone if you want to succeed in the type of work I’ve described. I encourage you to think not about specific activities, but the reason why you do those activities.

Challenge 2: Deep trust in the value and legitimacy of a design approach

Closely aligned to this is obtaining a confidence, trust and belief in the value and legitimacy of taking a design approach in these more lofty surroundings. How we work is the value we bring to these unfamiliar projects. We often get asked “how many times have you previously worked in this sector or on the design of this type of thing?” To which our answer is invariably never.

  • Our value is not domain knowledge. If an organisation wants insights into what others in their sector are already doing, they should engage a traditional management consultancy.
  • Our value is in the open-minded, explorative and iterative way in which we approach our work.
  • Our value is in our ability to quickly make things tangible, but also being able to quickly move on from ideas rather than getting locked in by them.
  • Our value is about our ability to zoom between granular detail and the big picture.
  • Our value is in being able to communicate to different audiences and to generate empathy for different people – both customers, staff and stakeholders.
  • Our value is in being flexible and able to adapt, rather than rigid in our thinking.

We are not designing in domains we’re experts in, so we need to be experts in our ability to apply a design approach to all we do.

Challenge 3: Designing outside of rectangles

The next challenge is slightly different and slightly more granular. What is the first thing most UX designers do when they’re designing a new solution? They draw a rectangle. Most UX designers are constrained by designing within rectangles.

I have seen many experienced UX practitioners really struggle when looking to generate new ideas and concepts in this type of work. When presented with a blank page, it is a trait of most UX people to draw a rectangle on it. Rather than creating a freedom, this lack of constraint can immobilise people.

Challenge 4: Having the endurance, tenacity & robustness to work at scale

Finally, the scale of this type of design work often exposes you to a quantity of raw data that can be overwhelming. I still remember the first time I made sense of a research study involving over 5 thousand data points. I was swimming in Post It Notes for weeks.

Endurance, tenacity and robustness for the scale of these projects are key attributes. You need to be able to keep on going. These projects are challenging because they are difficult. If they were easy organisations would have already sorted them out themselves. Reading certain articles about design thinking and other related subjects, one could be mistaken for thinking this is light-hearted, fun and easy. These wouldn’t be phrases I would use to describe our work. This work is rewarding and challenging and yes there are definitely pleasures to be had from it, but it is not simple.
It is not trivial.

This work is different from UX, but it has commonalities and the transition is possible provided you are open to the challenge and willing to accept the differences.


There is much more I could/should have said, but there you go, it is a start. Comments, thoughts and critiques welcomed.


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