Select Page

9 Principles of Service Design

by Jul 10, 2018Customer Service, Design, User Experience / UX3 comments

We all saw the videos of David Dao being dragged from United flight 3411. An entire nation watched in horror at how poorly Dao was treated. United Airlines faced a major PR nightmare and tumbling stock prices in light of worldwide rage over the incident. It is, perhaps, one of the most infamous examples of poor service design and underscores the importance of good service design in our world today.

Service design has become something of a hot topic in design circles over the past few years. The recency of the topic, however, does not lend justice to its age. Service design has existed since the early eighties – a term coined by Lynn Shostack.

Shostack was interested in what happens behind the scenes (what is typically not seen by the customers) in organizations and how those activities were managed. She believed that in managing the activities as a whole rather than as individual elements, services could be better designed.

But what is service design? According to Nielsen Norman, service design is: The activity of planning and organizing a business’s resources (people, props, and processes) in order to (1) directly improve the employee’s experience, and (2) indirectly, the customer’s experience.

It’s important to realize services are not tangible goods. An interface is not a service. A product is not a service. Shostack states, “People confuse services with products and with good manners. But a service is not a physical object and cannot be possessed. When we buy the use of a hotel room, we take nothing away with us but the experience of the night’s stay. When we fly, we are transported by an airplane but we don’t own it. Although a consultant’s product may appear as a bound report, what the consumer bought was mental capability and knowledge, not paper and ink. A service is not a servant; it need not be rendered by a person. Even when people are the chosen means of execution, they are only part of the process.”

This makes it quite difficult to design for services. Often, the design of a service is overlooked by organizations and decisions related to the service supporting a product are not routinely considered in relation to how they impact the overall design of an experience. This results, most often, in poor service design and a poor experience.

Atypically, we think bad service design is the result of rogue employees or companies that just do not care. But, this fails to adequately address the root cause. It is certain originations are comprised of individuals and these individuals are the face of the company when poor service is rendered. However, those individual employees are acting on behalf of organizational policies and systemic process put in place via those same policies. The problem with bad service design stems from systemic failures and flaws.

Let’s consider some practical examples. Over the past few years, I have carefully evaluated service design across various organizations. In the process I have found eight basic categories or ways in which organizations fail in service design.

Placing the business needs before the user’s needs

This almost always compromises the design of a service. When you have to navigate the phone maze with a robot operator or use a self-checkout, the business has essentially hired less people to provide a service to you and passed the cost of labor on to you as well. It’s a classic scenario where the business needs were prioritized over your needs. When these technologies work well, it isn’t always a major issue. But, they are usually flawed.

There are examples of this all around us. The infamous pop-up ads on websites that autoplay videos unrelated to the content on the page you navigated to, the extra shit they try to sell you in the checkout lane (ancillary services) and paying for services that should be included at cost are just a few. Someone in an office somewhere decided all of these things were a good idea to line someone else’s pocketbook. They chose the business needs over the design of the service.

An organization’s business is not to serve the business, but to serve the customer.

Making it hard to achieve the goal

It should be easy for you to cancel an account or service. It should be easy to get through the checkout lane at your local grocer (more on this in my next article). It should be easy for you to get a human on the phone who can answer your question. But, it often is not easy to do any of these things.

Opening an account is often much easier than closing one for obvious reasons. Behavioral economics dictate the more effort it requires to perform a task, the less likely humans are to exercise those efforts. Checkout lanes are often populated with “calls to action” via store credit card offers, charity requests etc. And getting customer assistance is almost always an arduous process involving either a robot operator or waiting in a long line or both.

What often happens in these scenarios is marketing or business has, once again, mucked things up (see above). Pop-up ads, accounts that are difficult to cancel, long lines and little or no customer service are all based on increasing profits at your expense and systemic failures.

When it is hard for you to achieve the goal, the customer was not considered when the service was designed. In fact, in many of these instances, there was no consideration given to service design at all.

Personalizing the service

There is nothing worse than feeling as though you are just another number on a company’s books. When organizations take the time and effort to personalize their service, it tempers that feeling of anonymity we sometimes get.

A few years ago, I had to contact iTunes because of a issue that was ultimately my fault. I had neglected to cancel an automatic renewal and was charged for the next year. So, I emailed iTunes within 72 hours explaining the situation and asking if it was still possible to cancel and get a refund. Within 30 minutes of sending the email, I received this reply:

Good day! My name is Raquel and I am an iTunes Store advisor. I understand that you have charges on your account which you would want to dispute and rest assured that I am here to help you with your request.

The email went on to state I could be refunded and this situation warranted an exception to the iTunes Store Terms and Conditions stating all sales are final. I quickly emailed Raquel back a one-liner telling her how impressed I have always been with Apple’s customer service and the support is always so helpful. Apple: They are one of the largest organizations in this country yet manage to give personal service and respond to a customer query within the hour.

Raquel emailed me back as quickly as she had the first time, responding to my compliment:

As you are a valuable part of the Apple iTunes family, it’s our foremost priority to solve the issue and see a smile on your face. Nothing makes Apple happier than to hear that we have pleased our customers. I wish you the best and hope you continue to be a valued member of the Apple family. We want you to be completely satisfied with your iTunes experience.

Note the way the email is worded above. I am not an iTunes customer. She states I am a valuable part of the Apple iTunes Family. Now, I do realize much of the communications we have with corporations involve a lot of superfluous hyperbole. But, sometimes even the slightest change of words can truly change the way we feel as a customer even if it is a little exaggerated. In this case, I actually felt special. Raquel made me feel valued and special and as though I were not talking to a machine or mindless drone.

Once again, this is an organizational and cultural aspect that has been woven into Apple’s DNA. They have placed the customer first and make a special effort to personalize the service you receive. It only takes a small amount of time and effort to personalize a service – to treat a human like a human and not a dollar sign. But, this small effort can make all the difference.

Before you even knew you needed it

I used to work as a bartender and server. I spent a lot of years working through college at various restaurants and prided myself in good service. One day, a manager admonished me for what he believed was the mindless overuse of paper goods. If the customer was eating something messy, I would drop off extra napkins. The manager instructed me to wait until the customer asked for extra napkins in order to keep our paper costs down. To me, that is the equivalent of serving someone hot wings and waiting until they ask you to refill their drinks. You refill their drinks and even double them up on drinks in such instances.

Organizational policy concerning the use of paper goods, dictated a poor experience for the customer. One small decision like this can cascade through the entire experience when profits takes precedence over the customer.

One of the primary tenants of good service design is to ensure a customer has what they need before they have to ask. Even better: Give them what they need before they even know they need it.

The follow-up

In our automated world today, it is very easy to set up systems within organizations to support following up with a customer or user. Consider a patient who is released from a hospital stay with a no medical protocol they must follow. Or, consider someone who just made a major purchase such as a car or a house. The follow-up call allows your business to ensure everything is going smoothly and to answer any questions the customer might have while also managing any problems they may be having in the early stages. It’s simple to implement and just one more way you can ensure your service stands out.

Do note: This excludes those annoying follow-up emails from minor online purchases like a $2.99 keychain you purchased via Amazon. There is a difference between truly caring for your customer and shamelessly seeking another star in a ratings engine.

Mitigating the wait

I have written quite a bit about waiting and the psychology of waiting – specifically as it relates to interfaces. But in relation to service design, waiting in line is often a customer’s largest pain point. You’re on hold for 30 minutes. You wait in line at a store where there are 30 checkout lanes and only two cashiers working registers. You’re at the doctor and still in the waiting room 20 minutes after your scheduled appointment. These are all crimes against good service design.

There is nothing worse than the PR bullshit surrounding your call is important to us. It’s bullshit because we really know what is most important to the business…and that’s the business. I don’t mind waiting my turn. But, when I have to wait excessively or routinely, I begin avoiding that business. It is especially annoying when a business attempts to assure you that you are important to them when it is obvious decreasing labor costs is more important than your excessive wait.

There are ways to mitigate wait times and different methods to leverage human psychology in relation to our perception of time. If you are going to pursue service design, there is probably no greater place you could begin than by evaluating how long customers wait for a given service.

The Alpha and the Omega

It’s amazing how our perceptions of a service can be influenced by the beginning and the end. And, it’s also amazing at how many organizations fail to realize this.

Suppose you go to a restaurant and the hostess is rude to you on top of a 45 minute wait before you are even seated. Once you are seated, you wait another 10 minutes before a server comes by for your drink order. That’s a bad way to start the customer’s experience. But, suppose the meal is the best you have ever had and after dinner, a special cake is brought out to celebrate your wedding anniversary – a total surprise to you. It is likely you’ll overlook the bad beginning and, instead, remember the good ending in your memory. This is known as the Peak-end Rule in memory where we remember the peak and ending of an experience in greater detail.

Ideally, both the beginning and the ending of an experience will be carefully designed. The beginning of an experience can flavor everything that comes after. This is called the Primacy Effect. The ending of the experience works on the Recency Effect where we are better able to remember the most recent portion of an experience.

Giving careful attention to both the beginning and the end of experience and designing the service so the peak is a positive one ensures the user remembers it favorably. (Disney does this very well.) This requires us to view the entire experience and customer journey from a systems perspective.

Keep in mind: If the peak of the experience is extremely negative, it can overshadow the beginning, end or any positive aspects of the service.

Considering the recency and primacy effect along with the peak-end rule require us to design experiences at a higher level – beyond an interface or product – and consider service design as part of the overall user experience. Instead of “spot designing,” we are now in a realm where we are truly considering the user journey in a holistic sense.

The runaround

Have you ever been shuffled from department to department and finally end up right back at the initial place you started? This seems to happen most often when we are on the phone. You call in and receive an automated operator who gives you a litany of options. You pick an option, give a lot of personal information and then the person on the other end tells you they are going to transfer you over to another department where you start all over again giving your information and nature of your request.

Good service design would dictate your contact (the person whom is supposed to be helping you) serve as an ambassador where they shepherd you through the process. Could you imagine walking into a department store and asking the person in men’s clothing where you could find a 3/4-inch socket and instead of walking you to the tool department, the salesperson states: “Not my department. Go ask Frank in tools.”

Being shuffled around is often the result of an organization that has not properly prioritized service design. The culture is usually one where employees are held accountable for some other metric such as the number of customer calls taken per hour or number of ancillary products sold. Whatever the priority, it is certain service does not rank at the top.

Duplicate efforts

The place this seems to happen the most is in healthcare because it is often such a fragmented industry. You fill out pages and pages worth of information concerning your medical history only to fill the same paperwork out again at the next doctor’s office. This even seems to happen when you are seeing multiple doctors in the same network or system. I had a hospital stay this past year where every doctor who made rounds on me asked the same series of questions.

Forcing users to duplicate their efforts is not only poor service design, but also poor systems design. If someone calls customer service and is transferred to another department, they should not have to provide the same information all over again. Those notes could easily be passed along when the person is transferred.



Most of the above scenarios could be mitigated by mapping the users’ experience. When we map a journey or experience, we begin to identify and understand users’ pain points. We begin to develop a detailed view of the entire ecosystem of the experience and where we have failed to take considerations in how the experience was designed (or not designed at all and left to chance). Shostack advocates for blueprinting the service design. But, I think mapping might serve equally well – either mapping the experience or the journey or both.

You may have the interface right or your product designed well with a suite of apps to support it. But, the user experience extends far beyond a physical or tangible product. Service design is part of the overall experience and a poor overall experience could conceivably detract from the product design you put so much time and effort into.

In short, the user experience is an entire ecosystem extending far beyond the boundaries of an interface or product. Service is part of that ecosystem. And to adequately address service design, we must map the experience to identify systemic failures along with organizational policies resulting in a poor experience for the user.


Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash