Posts Tagged ‘ Service Design ’

Failure is always an option

We talk about failure a lot in design – we embrace the idea of making mistakes and learning from them as a fundamental part of the design process. Simply, we strive to fail early on, so those who use our creations don’t have to experience what it feels like to have a process or product fall to pieces on them. With this in mind, it makes it all the more infuriating when you see a situation where the very idea of failure has not been considered to the level it should have been – we can’t cap off every possible problem, so shouldn’t we be assuming that failure is always an option, and design for it?

Recently, my bank pitched me into a well-worn friction point, which casual conversation reveals as something that a lot of people have faced at some point or other. My debit card got declined online, and so began my stumbling trek through a catalogue of missed opportunities, where my bank could have knocked my socks off with their insight and a kick-ass response to my problems. Instead, they screwed up my whole week.

It turned out that the bank had put the block on my card due to their assessment that it was at risk of fraud. They couldn’t tell me why – as in, it wasn’t even on their screen, and there was no way for them to find out. The computer said ‘no’. When pressed for more, they gave me a series of reasons why they weren’t allowed to tell me, veering from the insulting (that my account could be under police investigation), to the downright infuriating (they were concerned about defaming a retailer that could turn out to be innocent), of which all or none could be the reason for my woes. So, they seemed happy to vaguely imply that my account could be involved in something worthy of the police taking a look, but weren’t comfortable pointing to a potentially dodgy retailer that might be responsible for my card having its wings clipped. As much as the customer service agent was polite, courteous, and genuinely apologetic, she seemed as much of a passenger in the whole thing as I did.

The solution? Issue a new card, canceling the old one – immediately. To go from a casual phone call to find out why I couldn’t complete an online payment, to finding out that I was having access to my current account pulled out from under me was like a check-up at the dentist turning into full-blown root canal treatment. Having to exist in the cardless netherworld for ‘7-10 days’ was a bit of an issue, given we’re talking about my main bank account. Add in the fact that the account’s still registered to an address back in Scotland, and in the blink of an eye, I’m in the run up to payday with no way of getting to my money, with auto-topup on my Oyster locked out, and unable to book train tickets for my trip back up to Scotland at the end of the week. For an industry that is so heavily interested in online banking and paper-free billing, there’s a still a horrible reliance on inflexible postal addresses when things fall outside the scope of a digital solution – add in the rise of the Early Learning Centre-style card reader as part of online security, and the inherently mobile concept of mobile banking is suddenly tied to the arbitrary address where I’ve left that little plastic artefact.

In contrast, consider Kuoni, a UK travel agent – a couple I know flew out with them on honeymoon in December, during the infamous snowy weather that shut down Britain’s airports. Their flight was delayed, and eventually cancelled, meaning they left a day late from Scotland, and had a day cut off their holiday – throughout, Kuoni were constantly in contact by phone, keeping the couple up to date, rebooking their flights repeatedly as the situation changed. When they eventually arrived at their resort, Kuoni informed them that as a result of the lost day, they’d be happy to reschedule all their return flights to a day later than planned, and give them an extra day’s stay in the hotel to ensure they didn’t miss out on any of the holiday they’d booked – if that suited. The couple tell that story more than they talk about the holiday itself, and I tell people about it because it’s such a fantastic example of unexpectedly superb customer service. The failure that they handled so well is now the very reason I’d recommend them, and I didn’t even go on the trip.

Although I’ve pulled together a fairly specific group of events with the banking example (and thrown a spanner in the works by not keeping my bank-registered address up to date), they’re all things that should have been considered independently as entirely plausible problems that a customer could encounter – a card being blocked due to fraud, a customer only having one card when it’s going to be cancelled, and the idea that someone might not have access to their registered address to receive a replacement. These are common failure situations – pathways through a part of the service that the organisation might not want to happen, but must accept as real possibilities – something which Kuoni have clearly done. Spend time making these experiences as good as the ones you want your customer to go through, and you’ll have people singing your praises. It’s not just about avoiding a problem, or using customer feedback to shape your services, it’s about dealing with the unfolding situation in a way that makes that customer stop focusing on the negative issue, and on their surprise that you’ve dealt with it in such a seamless, elegant manner. Do that, and it’s less likely a customer’s journey is going to end in what they recognise as failure.

Designers are comfortable with failing because we learn from it every day, and use it to evolve our work. Companies need to learn in the same manner, and turn the dead ends in their service provision into moments that their customers will remember for all the right reasons.

Image courtesy of Patrick Lauke. Please note: I don’t bank with HSBC, and this article isn’t about them – I’ve declined to name the bank in question.

Taking the shine off the silver screen

Back in the day (‘the day’ being circa 2000), I wanted a Cineworld Unlimited card. Badly. Well, I say that – at the point I wanted that shiny little ticket to a bottomless cup of celluloid goodness, it was a Virgin Cinemas card, and I was too young to get one. Realistically, it wasn’t worth the cash for the number of Saturday afternoon cinema trips I made, but the notion of being able to see as many films as I could cram into my spare time was so effortlessly cool. I swore that one day, I would have one.

By the time I got my wish, I was about 18, and it had all begun to make a bit more sense. I had free time, but most importantly – I had a car. My card, adorned with the only ID photograph I’ve seen in my life that features a man in a hat, became one of my most prized possessions. Through university, it totally shone – I blasted through more films than I knew what to do with, saw films I liked two or more times, and often ended up seeing a random movie if there was nothing on TV. My friends caught onto how much of a good deal it was, and signed up with me. We began to go to late-night showings on the weekend, seeing films whenever we had a spare bit of time – truly, it was great. And it was a complete steal, because we rinsed our cards for all they were worth.

Thing is, after a while, I began to feel that Cineworld didn’t really give a crap about us Unlimited Card holders. The price went up and up, and despite relentlessly promising unique deals and great offers on things outside of the cinema foyer, all I remember is an odd cheap popcorn voucher, and some truly lackluster local deals. Even they’ve dried up completely of late, and all the correspondence I’ve had is the regular letter informing me that I’m going to pay more for my card. While the core service is undeniably good, there is a feeling that you aren’t being rewarded for your loyalty, so much as paying the price for it.

Firstly – you can’t book. This is the single biggest problem with the card. Despite the fact that you have unlimited access to films, you’re stuffed if you want to make sure you get a seat. Whilst every other paying customer gets the opportunity to book a pew for the next blockbuster, those most loyal to the company can only turn up in person and use their card to ‘buy’ the ticket, there and then. Want to go with your friends who don’t have a card? Well, if they’ve booked, then you better get there early in the day to make sure you get a ticket for the same screening – if it’s a popular film, you’re going to be queuing with everyone else, as at both the Scottish Cineworlds I used, they did away with the Unlimited Priority line a long time ago. When Inception came out, it was near enough impossible for me to go and see the damn film with my card-carrying mates.

Secondly – Cineworld now seem more interested in rewarding those happy enough to sign up for their new MyCineworld service. Fill in some details online, and you’ll be rewarded by not paying a penny in booking fees and get cheaper tickets in Scotland. It’s pitched as a more personalised approach to the company, but just smells like a grotty little data collection project on their part, where the customer is being given a straight-off discount for handing over their personal details. MyCineworld and Unlimited seem completely at odds with each other, almost to the point where it’s like the company doesn’t realise they’re both running.

Honestly, it wouldn’t take much for me to be a completely happy Unlimited customer – I have been in the past, and it still represents great value. However, given the well-documented rise in online video traffic, and the introduction of to-TV film streaming from companies like Sky and LoveFilm, Cineworld should be looking at their service a little more closely. It’s not hard to imagine a great online Unlimited offering, where cinema lovers can track the films they’ve seen, build up reward points for concession purchases, and above all, BOOK A DAMN TICKET.

In a climate where the customer is becoming less and less loyal, your company must rise to the occasion. Don’t assume your customers will take crap just because it’s cheap, because someone – in this case, any of the other big chain cinema operators – could come along and very easily offer your customers exactly what they want. And then, just like that, they won’t be your customers any more.

Photo courtesy of Cian Ginty

The long and short of it

My role as a service designer – albeit one that’s very fresh out of university – is consistently difficult to explain to others. Amongst those who have studied some form of design, it’s usually simple enough to explain, approximating what we do with services to what they might do with their chosen speciality. But try telling a friend or family member, and you’ll likely feel as if you’re giving confusing directions. In French. To a pet. I fully believe that initially, my dad had no idea what I do for a living, and I can’t help but feeling it’s was my fault for the clumsy way in which I attempted to explain myself.

The thing is, I started out studying product design engineering at GSA, which was remarkably easy to articulate – the product design aspect teaches you how to design things (at which point I would usually grab a phone, and brandish it like a game show prize), while the engineering side means you have the knowledge of mechanics, materials and production techniques to allow you to bring your concepts to market. In those days, I’d also throw in a couple of cheap shots at the product design students from the other studio, just to push home how good my course was, and how absurd not knowing how to finite element analysis was for a designer. This was, of course, before my defection to product design. Fate, it seems, has a very dry sense of humour.

Weirdly, I still describe my current job in the same manner as back then. Not by wielding someone’s Nokia like a Generation Game floozy, but still using the same method – telling a story. Not the one in the picture though. That’s a photo from Flickr, by a gentleman called Gene Wilburn, of one of his stories.

Service Designers love a good story, and we use them in frequently in so many ways – they’re a method of getting to the root of a problem, by asking people to take you through their everyday experiences; they’re used to make sure we’re sticking to the needs of stakeholders, through the use of detailed personas as a constant design reference, and they’re even a potential solution to problems, by helping others to understand the reality of a situation through detailed case studies.

If you let me run with this a bit – and given you’re reading my blog, I’ll assume your permission – then it makes sense to apply this logic to making someone familiar with an unfamiliar situation, like me, and the apparently unfathomable way in which I earn a crust. My role in the world is best explained through stories, and my ability as a designer is best defined by my capability to make them engaging and relevant, and to tell them in a clear, interesting way – and by paying careful attention to the tales that others tell me.

So, while before I’d be left holding the phone, nowadays, I’m more inclined to reach for an Oyster Card or the stub from a boarding pass… but hell, stories are best heard, not read. If you want to know what service design is, then give me a call, and we’ll have a blether. Mobiles are still good for some things.

Taking the Mickey

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a big kid at times. I make no apologies for this – I like having fun, and I think finding enjoyment in everything is an important part of being a designer too, especially in consideration of services and experience when good design should deliver an engaging, and ultimately entertaining solution.

I’m recently back from a family holiday to Walt Disney World in Florida, where my inner child is allowed to run rampant, and the rest of me can switch off, relax, and not think about work. Except, it’s hard to forget about design in a place like WDW, surrounded by the work of a company who essentially wrote the book on experience design. Determined to have my time off, I put my mind to remembering the things that struck me as being the best examples of their creativity in design, and partook in a selection of rollercoasters and relaxation. So what caught my eye? Well, it’s not the brightly coloured fibreglass, or even the main mouse himself, but a couple of things that many people will use, but not give much consideration to the thinking in their creation.

Losing the line


Queuing is boring, and everyone hates it. You can dress it up all you want, making the places where you have to stand look stunning, even drenching them with information, narrative or spectacle, but at the end of the day, you’re still just standing around, waiting for the thing that you came to do, regardless of whether you’re at the bank, or waiting for a rollercoaster.

To solve this friction point, or at least reduce its impact on user experience, Disney implemented a system called FastPass at their parks, which allows the user to pick up a free ‘queue-skip’ ticket instead of actually lining up for the ride. The guest is invited to return later in the day, within an hour-long designated period, where they will join a substantially reduced queue line, and usually only have to wait a few minutes to get on the ride. Of course, the user is limited to one FastPass at a time, and there are a limited number given out per time slot, and therfore, per day, meaning they do run out.

Other parks have implemented similar systems, although in a different manner – Universal’s Express Ticket costs money, and only allows one entry on each ride per day (and currently excludes their newest attraction), and their hotel guests receive unlimited front-of-line access, while Sea World’s pass costs $20 for unlimited use. Disney’s FastPass, however, is a free system – which makes you wonder why the other two charge. This creates an interesting situation – there are different hierarchies of guest at these Orlando parks, whereas at WDW, by and large, everyone is equal.

Although the system offers obvious benefit for the user, the park also benefits. Clients standing in line are not able to spend money on food, drink, or merchandise – they are essentially out of play for the duration of the time they are on the ride. Offering Fastpass means these clients are released into the park, where they are able to spend more money, and are then only recalled to the ride for a hugely reduced period of time. The client is happy because they aren’t queing as long, and the park operator is happy because their customer is more likely to be spending money. It is brilliant service design, and it also conveys a feeling of equality amongst guests – nobody can buy their way into a better queue position, but everyone can get to the front of the line quickly, if they so choose.

Road to nowhere


Like most things in Disney, the scale of the organisation’s transport operation is huge. Roughly 300 buses, 11 monorails and a fleet of various watercraft provide guests with free transport around WDW property, running between hotels and the theme parks all day. All of this adds up to one key fact – once on Disney property, you don’t really need a hire car.

The weak link in this has always been getting to and from the airport – getting two 20 mile cabs is expensive, a hire car even more so, especially if it’s going to sit unused for most of your trip. Disney have again stepped into the breach, creating a new service that not only transports you to your chosen WDW resort, but means that the last time you need to worry about your bags is when you check them in to the airport before you get on your flight – the next time you see them is waiting in the room of your hotel. And it’s all provided free of charge.

It’s another very clever service. The guest receives great customer care, and the concept removes the miserable wait for bags that everyone goes through when they’re at their most tired and irritable – indeed, on the way home, the client checks in at the hotel, and their bags aren’t seen again until their arrival at their home airport. In essence, it removes a number of friction points in the client’s journey, giving them a strong initial and final impression of the quality of service provided by Disney.

And for Disney? Well, if you’re getting a coach to and from WDW, you’re not going to be getting a hire car, and that’s good news for the company whose property you’re staying on. Given the cost of taxis to get to surrounding parks and amenities, providing guests with the Magical Express service means that they are less likely to leave Disney property, and therefore more likely to visit restaurants and shops on site, keeping their holiday dollars circulating inside WDW. Again, the user is receiving a great service, but the company providing it is also ensuring that they are getting more out of it than customer satisfaction alone. Crafty? Damn right it is.

Essentially, I’m writing this blog to suggest that Disney are fantastic at design of most types, and seem to be incredibly clued into my areas of interest – namely service and experience design. But for me, the true craft in what they do relates to their ability to balance the needs of their clients, which the innovations above all address, with the need to strive for the financial integrity of the company. Capitalism in relation to design seems to frequently be seen as a dirty word amongst some creatives, but it’s difficult to deny the quality of the thinking at work, and as such, hard to begrudge the company making money as a result of it. If both user and provider are seeing real benefits from the service – and in both these cases, it’s hard to argue that they’re not – then surely that’s the ideal balance?

At any rate… I’d have your hand off if you offered me a job working on any project like these with Disney, in a second. Oh, and they do awesome firework displays. So if you know anyone…

Thank you to Joe Penniston, Samantha Decker and Sam Fam for their photos (all used under a Creative Commons License).