Take the Service Design Challenge: Q&A with Marc Stickdorn

In customer experience, experts will tell you that the North Star is to deliberately deliver services to meet customer expectations and delight them along the journey. Sounds simple enough. But when companies begin to explore customer experience transformations, it can become daunting. You need the proper tools and methods to define customer experience practices to intentionally design your services and shift company culture to meet customer needs.

This requires service design, which is built on the principles of a human-centered and iterative design process. While it borrows from a variety of disciplines, service design brings an organized and holistic approach to create improved solutions, services, and interactions for people. And those people include both internal employees and end consumers.

This is Service Design Doing, by service design expert and trainer Marc Stickdorn is one of the best textbooks on the practical application of the method. As co-founder and CEO of More than Metrics, a service design software company based in Austria, Stickdorn helps organizations build expertise in the field of service design to sustainably integrate it into their overall business structures and strategies. I had the opportunity to catch up with Marc on a recent visit to San Francisco and asked him a few questions about how businesses, which often have an institutionalized operation, can incorporate a service design framework to transform and innovate services for their end consumers as well as culture for their employees.

How should contact centers use service design concepts to improve customer experience?

Marc Stickdorn: Contact centers are a classic example of service design projects. Just do a quick online search and you’ll find many cases in this area. In this context, we often start with the employee experience as many problems arise from the system in which call center agents and customers need to operate. It is often not that agents do not want to help customers, but it is the system that simply does not allow them to help customers. So, we need to start with an in-depth understanding of the relationship between agent and customer and all the structures and processes that impact this relationship.

We often start with an onsite visit to the contact center and do work-alongs with the agents working there (i.e., overt participant observation of employees). Sometimes, a first look at the workplace and the dozens of small notes and post-its around the monitors give you a good indication of workarounds or shortcuts that employees found for certain problems customers regularly have.

We then try to understand behaviour patterns of both employees and customers, and which impact certain SOPs [standard operating procedures] have on their work. Only once we’ve really understood this, can we start trying different ways to handle things in small-scale prototypes. We always try to test our ideas as quickly as possible in the reality and learn from the results. Sometimes, this means changing a SOP, modifying KPIs, giving employees more freedom to come up with creative solutions themselves and then sharing their learnings or changing the software system in which they operate.

When organizations use service design to transform their business to be more customer-centric, what role does it play in driving change management and engaging employees?

Stickdorn: When organisations truly embed service design, it often triggers organisational change that should be planned and managed carefully. Embedding service design means that projects will happen that cross various departments, that question existing processes and structures, that challenge existing KPIs, and that really involves customers and employees throughout the entire process in a sequence of co-creative workshops. Service design cannot be done for the users of a service or the employees, it always needs to be done with users, customers and employees. Iterative co-creation and cross-disciplinary work are substantial pillars of success for any customer-centric innovation process.

This often contrasts existing ways of working in organisations and, at first, might cause friction. Hence, you should start small; learn how to adapt service design for your organisational context—to your organisational processes, structures and culture. Be aware that your first projects might fail simply because you need to learn how to adapt standard tools and methods to your organisation. Once you see successful projects, start documenting these and measure their impact so that you have case studies you can use as examples when you start scaling service design in your organisation. At this stage it is important to standardise tools, like how you do your personas or customer and employee journey maps, to ensure that different teams can build on top of the work of others.

Sometimes agreeing on a standard for this early, e.g., by agreeing on one journey mapping software for your organisation, can help you to bring service design unobtrusively into the organisation. Software can be a great vehicle to bring customer-centric thinking into an organisation. People often do not question a new software and training for it. The software training then also includes training on the underlying tools and methods. And without explicitly mentioning it, you brought some customer-centric thinking into your organisation.

Service design, when implemented correctly, improves customers’ lives and the efficiency business operations. How does it ensure we become customer-centric when designing these new processes for efficiency?

Stickdorn: There is a saying in service design, ‘When you only do two things in service design, do research and prototyping. When you only do one, do research.’ Understanding the customer, their needs, their problems and certain behaviour patterns is at the core of service design. Implementing service design often gives customer insights that are based on good qualitative research a better standing in organisations.

In the beginning, organisations like to evaluate their qualitative research findings with evaluative quantitative research. That’s fine in the beginning—but you’ll quickly realise that this is a waste of time and budget. The reasons for this is that service design constantly includes users, customers, and employees, and the iterative service design process continuously tests ideas through concepts and prototypes—both regarding customer or employee experience and operational or business efficiency. Adding extensive quantitative checks in between only slows down the process.

The critical aspect of this process is to continuously include the people you are designing for: users, customers, employees, and citizens. To ensure that you are designing with them and not only for them, you include them in various explorative activities, such as research, ideation, and prototyping as well as decision making and taking.

A simple tool to exemplify this is the idea portfolio. It maps multiple ideas with two dimensions: the potential impact on customer experience on the one side and feasibility for the organisation on the other. Tools like this bring together an inside-out perspective (impact on customer experience) with an inside-out perspective (feasibility). The key to successful service design is a skilled facilitator who can guide a multi-disciplinary team throughout the iterative process and who knows when to use which tools and methods.

In both the customer experience and service design worlds, we see more technology innovations like artificial intelligence (AI). Do you see AI taking over any of the service design practices? Where does that leave the human potential/touch?

Stickdorn: Certainly, AI has increasing importance for customer experience. We already see applications of this today through chatbots and IVR systems, but also in marketing communications we see a growing impact. We also see the first applications of AI in service design tools and methods. For example, we’re currently working with a university in a joined research project to embed AI into ExperienceFellow, our mobile ethnographic research software. One big drawback of qualitative research is that the data analysis often takes a lot of time and, to a large extent, is manual work.

Analysing qualitative research data is subjective and depends on the experience of researchers and a good process that, for example, uses researcher triangulation to overcome such subjectivity—just like method and data triangulation. In this use case, AI can play a very interesting role, and our first results are very promising. AI can identify patterns in qualitative data that researchers did not find or that included a lot of manual work and time. We will certainly see very interesting developments in this field in the nearer future.

Designing Deliberate Experiences

As companies scramble to adapt in today’s era of digital transformation, adopting a service design framework will help innovate and deliver more personalized services. It brings clarity, collaboration, and alignment. And it enables all areas of the business to understand that the human is still paramount in making key business decisions and in innovating technology to transform employee and company cultures. It drives forward the work of customer experience to truly improving people’s lives.

Look at how you’re designing your services and consider whether you’re intentionally and mindfully designing your services and products. I challenge you to adopt a human-centric design practice, such as service design, to better understand how your consumers interact with your organization—from your employees to your products or services—so you can improve their lives.

For additional resources on customer experience, check out the CX educational resources.