Natasha Barrett | 04.06.16 | Insights

Being a Service Designer at a Digital Product Agency


  • service design

My experience at Smashing Boxes has been more exciting and boundless than I could have ever imagined. Smashing Boxes is more than just a digital product agency. It’s a place where people across various design, strategic, and software development backgrounds are well-fostered to solve human problems and bridge gaps between business and technology, each in their own way. For me, it has been a diving board into beginning to shape my own professional identity.

My area in the field of design is as a service designer. If you are caught off-guard by the name of this discipline, it’s okay. I promise it’s easier to grasp than you may think. Just as products are designed and buildings are envisioned by an architect, the services that you can’t necessarily see in plain sight on a store shelf or on-screen in an app store need to be designed as well. Services are the systems of human interactions, physical artifacts, and technologies that enable the majority of the world’s GDP to come to life. Service delivery systems include hospitals, restaurants, banks, schools, concerts, grocery stores, pretty much everything except agriculture and manufacturing.

If you haven’t heard already, Google has ventured into yet another industry by launching their own internet company called Google Fiber. Service design is realizing that there is more to Google Fiber than internet. Holistically, Google Fiber is an internet service provider. A quick way to understand how businesses are more than their products is to understand ‘touchpoints’, a design term used to indicate the moment in the service period in which the user makes a connection with the service provider. Google Fiber has outlined five service periods, including Exploration, Design, Construction, Sign-up and Installation, and has goals to connect with their customers along each service period. When Google Fiber begins setting up shop in your city, they collect your residential information by welcoming you to receive a promotional t-shirt in the mail. In a few months, once they are all done building, they make contact once again by placing a bouquet of flowers at your doorstep reminding you to make the switch from your current internet service provider. Service design uses a human-centered approach to orchestrate those internal and external touchpoints to produce the most desirable service experiences. Check out more examples of service touchpoints by viewing an extended journey map for a Durham, NC service provider, The Scrap Exchange.

Prior to working as a User Experience designer at a digital product agency, I’d had minimal experience and knowledge of what goes into creating a user interface for digital products. I was trained to be a service designer during my BFA in Service Design from SCAD. This foundation of human-centered thinking and design methodologies gave me value as a User Experience designer, which is generally a product-oriented position. Jumping into projects, soaking up amazing mentorship from my co-workers and generous support from my Design Directors has helped me to apply new skills to my work. I’ve quickly learned about interaction design and visual design, as well as some mobile and web development best practices to further help me set the context on projects that come my way. Through my experience, while being exposed to this whole new world of digital product design, the realm of service design thinking has not left me. I am still a service designer at my core. And my approach to keeping it that way is by acknowledging the small victories, such as occasional customer journey mapping and service blueprinting on digital product projects. I try my best to continuously share my service-oriented point of view with my project teams and company wide.

It’s important to make sure we are putting people at the center of business and technology. If you think about it, people are not naturally product-oriented, people identify with service value first. For example, many are satisfied with listening to their favorite artists with music streaming services such as Amazon Music rather than only having the option to purchase albums. Others may pile all of their junk into a storage pod on the front lawn one weekend instead of using their own garage. Whether it’s for its first release to market or many versions thereafter, clients negotiate a contract based on their value factors or system of services to be delivered. They want to make sure that what they are paying for will be of value to those expected to use it, will not have any gaps for accommodating expected behaviors or major customer goals, and will be unlike any product that is already out there. If the client and the users are service-oriented, it makes sense to base our methods, processes, and production frameworks on the same approach. Most of the companies we partner with have recognized that customer experience is a primary critical success factor alongside product leadership and operational excellence.

As a service designer at a digital product agency, I seek opportunities to look beyond product functionality and towards the larger context of service systems. One of the key activities of service design is systems thinking. This involves applying creativity to produce less disjointed experiences, more effective business models, and more efficient products that support the service being delivered. Incorporating service design into project initiatives from beginning to end, from sales to development, from business strategy to delivery, is feasible and entirely promising.

Once, I worked on a project for a client that envisioned a service platform to connect personal trainers to their trainees through an ecosystem of unique outdoor fitness activities. Of course, the client came to us to execute an app to facilitate most of the interactions between personal trainers and workout participants. Very early on, we decided to use a service design approach to further uncover opportunities to bring our clients’ idea to life. Instead of only spending our time developing wireframes for the app, we allocated time to address this business opportunity holistically. We created a service blueprint to map out the actions of personal trainers, workout participants, and digital interactions, as well as processes occurring frontstage and backstage. Just like in a stage play, there are front stage actions that are visible to users, and backstage actions that are not. We were able to see direct paths from a user touchpoint directly down to backstage processes. For instance, workout participants take part in their post-workout “cool down” by enjoying refreshments offered by local vendors on the front stage, while further below, the blueprint shows the backstage processes in which vendors are sourced by regional service facilitators. We imagined the user journeys inside and outside of the app to help us plan the best service touchpoints. This helped us think beyond just the functionality of the app and allowed us to make better design decisions moving forward and to be better partners with our client. We established a shared understanding of the complete user journeys and service delivery system, not just product workflows.

Every day I come into work, I am so happy to contribute my perspective to trigger a transformation of production processes and product outlooks. A new frame of mind is created when we realize that products are simply artifacts of a service being delivered. Framing problems as services allows for a more holistic approach to solving them resulting in more valuable experiences.


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