Reflections on service design

Last week I realized several important things about service design.

First, the modus operandi of service design is to create conditions for summoning and sustaining benevolent collective being (a.k.a. egregores). We arrange the roles, the rules and the material artifacts required to receive a collective animating spirit in which those receiving, delivering and supporting services participate. I cannot talk this way in a professional setting, but knowing this helps me feel the full importance of my work.

Second, I am realizing that one effective way for me to explain what service design does it do point out the contagiousness of feeling. The best strategy for ensuring any one person has a good experience is to ensure that every person has a good experience. A miserable clerk will darken a customer’s experience. And too many miserable customers will sour a clerk’s experience, and over time, it will sour their life, and that clerk will darken the experience even of cheerful customers. Only by baking mutual benefit into our social systems can we ensure that the primary contagion passed in our interactions is good moods.

Third, in any organization, the less direct control it has over the behaviors of its customers, employees and partners, the more it can benefit from service design.

All design is an appeal to freedom. Design assumes choice — the choice to attend or ignore, the choice to select or reject, the choice to cooperate or rebel, the choice to invest or divest, the choice to advocate or denigrate, and so on. Only organizations with coercive power over people do not need design.

Wherever an organization must persuade, design can help. Design helps organizations understand what is persuasive to those people it wishes to persuade, helps it produce the most persuasive options, and helps it ensure that these options stays the persuasive option available.

The design industry has gotten pretty good at producing persuasive options for particular types of people. Witness the prevalence of X disciplines. UX (user experience), CX (customer experience), PX (patient experience) are established industries. Employee experience and citizen experience are becoming more common.

But now, increasingly, organizations face the challenge of designing for multiple types of people. To make it even more complicated, these types of people often interact with each other, on behalf of the organization, but not under its control. Think about platforms like Uber or AirBnB who mediate services exchanged between providers and receivers, but whose brand depends on the quality of these service exchanges. The organization cannot directly control what happens, but must instead create conditions where each participant in the service benefits by benefitting the other.

Organizations who must compete for employees, motivate them and retain them, while simultaneously competing for customers, are also in this boat.

Organizations who produce a product that is a component in a partner’s service, whose product is experienced in the context of this service are in this boat.

Organizations who produce a product but who depend upon partners to present, recommend, distribute, deliver, install, customize or support that product are in this boat.

Organizations who coordinate networks of partners to achieve some greater good are in this boat.

Elected officials who oversee public services, whose careers depend on the votes of an alert, informed, critically-engaged public should be in this boat, at least in theory.

When an organization finds itself in this general position, where it must persuade multiple kinds of people to interact with one another in mutually beneficial ways that support the goals of the organization — that is when service design is most valuable.

I’m thinking about all these things because I am working on designing an online course called “What the Actual Hell Is Service Design?”

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