A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Designing for Services Beyond the Screen

The producer-consumer model is so ingrained in our society that we tend to treat everything like a product—a one-and-done offering that can be pushed to the market and forgotten.

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Online experiences are rarely so simple.

Imagine taking a flight from London to New York: you book a ticket on the airline’s website, use an online check-in and ticketing system, interact with gate staff and other passengers, and deal with third-party airport services like ground transport and security. Suddenly, that plane ticket isn’t just a purchase online, but an ongoing service experience—and one where a hundred things could go wrong at any step along the way.

Let’s say a family has to check in at the airport instead of online because the web system wasn’t able to handle a seat booking for an infant. This seems like a small, one-off issue, but aggregated with other “small” problems, the stress induced when traveling long-haul with a young family becomes enormous—big enough that they may never fly that airline again.

You might be brought in by the marketing department to redesign the website for this airline, but who is designing the check-in machines, the CRM systems used by call center staff, the print materials, or the policies the cabin crew must adhere to?

Are you thinking through these broader service contexts? You should be. Because even if your “job” ends at the design for a specific channel, your users’ experiences don’t. Your website or mobile app might be wonderful on its own, but customers experience services in totality, and base their judgments on how well everything works together. This means the transitions between channels and over time become crucial.

When no one is designing the rest and taking care of how it all connects together, then there is a danger that many parts of the service experience will “just happen.” If we care about our users as much as we say we do, this isn’t good enough.

Single-Channel Thinking
Single-Channel Thinking
Multichannel Experience
A Multichannel Experience

Services aren’t assembly line products

How do you know the quality of a product? You can pick up an iPhone, inspect the stitching on a suit, or test drive a Mercedes. But services are often intangible. You cannot hold your bank or cell phone accounts in your hand. These accounts grant you access to infrastructure, such as the ubiquitous “cloud” or the bank’s ATM network, much of which you only ever see a tiny amount of. This makes it hard for potential customers to evaluate quality.

Many critical services, such as insurance and healthcare, are long-term investments in a possible future scenario. In these cases, the customer does not even discover the quality of the service until long after they have paid for it, and often at the very worst moment—when disaster strikes.

Services are not totally intangible, of course. A customer might not be able to hold her bank account in her hand, but she will interact with many parts of the service. The ATM card, online banking website, smartphone app, branches, staff, marketing material, and tedious security shenanigans are all tangible touchpoints of the service.

Somebody has to design all of those touchpoints, and you’ve probably even designed a few of them yourself. But often they are not designed as a coherent whole. Instead, each touchpoint channel is the domain of a different silo within an organization.

Many business are arranged in silos.
Many business are arranged in silos.

Dividing businesses into silos, with each silo reporting back to management, worked well for industrial product companies: on an assembly line, each worker works on building the same object, such as a car, that never changes its planned final form over the course of assembly. Each task is repeatable and requires little or no interaction with other people—so much so that factory workers can be replaced by robots.

But services aren’t made on an assembly line. They are complex and difficult to get right, because your users might interact with the service across a wide array of touchpoints. You can’t predict precisely which of them each user will need, in what order she will encounter them, and who will help her along the way. The service is experienced differently by every person, because every person is different.

Services are ecologies
Services are ecologies.

Many of these channels also involve interactions between people. Although branding folk like to speak of products having personalities, your car does not wake up with a hangover, and your iPhone does not hate its boss and act surly with its user all day.

In contrast, your interaction with someone in your insurance company’s call center is the value of the service, and interpersonal interactions are messy and unpredictable. Relationships do not break down into manageable silos and units in the same way as products. This means designing with people and not just for them. The back-end systems and services that staff use are just as important as the customer-facing ones.

If each channel is also owned and managed by a different organizational silo, it is very difficult to deliver a coherent customer experience—because the people working on the various parts of the project make decisions without understanding their implications outside their group. Or, the decision falls between departmental domains and no one makes them.

Either way, a crack in the customer experience appears.

Time and place affect service

Service experiences are also very much affected by when and where they happen. The most amazing thing delivered at the wrong time can be more frustrating than something average delivered at exactly the right moment.

Think of a couple arguing in a restaurant when the violinist turns up to serenade them, or a helpful nurse arriving with a meal just after a loved one has died in a hospital room (something I once experienced). As with a great deal of design, some of the best service experiences are like the ideal waiter—there to fill your glass when needed, but somehow invisible when not.

The key to a seamless service experience is taking care to understand the contexts in which users interact with touchpoints and services and how they transition between them.

After a recent upgrade of the Deutsche Bahn train ticket machines in Germany, for example, the graphic design of the screens is more pleasant, but the overall interaction flow is much slower. The interface feels like that of a website, but in the context of rushing for a train, its time-consuming, tab-by-tab sequencing is totally frustrating.

Sequenced tabs make for slow going with the new Deutsche Bahn ticket machines.
Sequenced tabs make for slow going with the new Deutsche Bahn ticket machines.

The other context is the maintenance of the machines themselves, usually carried out by third-party contractors. Even when it is clear to the designers and researchers that the ticket machines are a problem, the company supplying and maintaining those machines usually resists changes, citing IT support issues. On one project I know of, the only things the design team was allowed to change were the graphics; they were not even allowed to touch the layout of the buttons, despite research evidence showing that this was a source of confusion for customers.

Something as small as a change in an organization’s policy, third-party partner agreement, or even a single UI element can have large ripple effects that always relate back to real people with real emotions.

Think of service interactions in terms similar to any other relationship. An individual’s lack of basic personal hygiene or punctuality is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it does reveal how much that person cares about the people he interacts with.

The same goes for services. All the small glitches—delivering letters to the wrong address, billing errors, customers having to repeat details multiple times—damage people’s trust in a company. They make people wonder whether similar chaos is going on behind the scenes. If the airline’s web systems don’t work, how well does it maintain its aircraft? Fixing the small glitches can have a big impact on the level of trust and the overall experience.

Start designing beyond the screen

Experiences are not bound by media channels. Designing for complex services is both an opportunity and a challenge for web and mobile designers.

We say we’re great at empathy for users, but designers are not so good at turning that lens onto their clients. We often see our role as protecting the end user from corporate short-sightedness. Why don’t we also ask, “So, turning around a company with 5,000 employees must be difficult. Would you tell us about it?”

The same methods and attention we use to advocate for users can extend into the structure of the organizations delivering those services and beyond. Think of it as UX for the entire organization.

Designers also excel at making the intangible tangible, and are well suited to visualizing and communicating the interdependencies of a system to others. We can do this for service ecosystems as well as we can for website architectures by creating artifacts like service blueprints, customer-journey maps, storyboards, and prototypes. These all help those delivering services understand what the experience will feel like—and highlight where things might go wrong.

For example, Norwegian energy company Haflsund was experiencing a high volume of call-center inquiries. The company could have hired more customer service staff, but it discovered that the source problem started well before the call center: 30 percent of calls were from customers simply confused by their bill. A prototype helped shape and test a solution—and implementing it cost a lot less than a staff increase.

Although not all clients are interested in breaking out of their own silos, don’t let that stop you. The better you understand how the channel you are designing for fits into a broader context, the better your design will be. You might not be able to influence the other channels, but you can ensure you are using the same language, and create smooth “on- and off-ramps” to your channel.

Designing for change

Many organizations do know their customer experience is lousy, however. They just don’t know how to go about fixing it.

Help them get out of their old industrial mindset by using the screenwriter’s maxim. Show clients how other parts of their organization have an impact on what they are trying to do, don’t just tell them about it. This might just be the evidence they need to persuade others in their organization to change.

This isn’t only a job for designers, of course. Professionals in change management are as essential to this as experienced designers are to a good website. But our visual skills are powerful.

Many executives are more comfortable talking about business cases in Excel than experiences, because numbers feel objective. What everybody really wants are assurances that the project is not going to fail, either from the business side or the design side. Breaking away from the screen with visual and tangible artifacts that can be experienced and tested creates a bridge between the two.

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