August 3, 2011

What is Service Design?

We’ve written previously about why Reboot focuses on services as a practical approach to achieving social progress and human rights. Inevitably, the next question that arises is: how do you create these effective and accessible services? This is where the principles and process of service design come into play. In this post and others to come, we will discuss the value of service design and how it can shift the focus of project design from building ever more tools and technologies to developing solutions that nurture people and relationships.

An emerging field, service design is a multidisciplinary approach to creating more useful, effective, and efficient services. Service design, therefore, isn’t aimed at creating tangible products, but developing better ways for people to access the services they need. These might range from the most mundane (renewing a driver’s license or figuring out which subway to take in the morning) to the life-altering (accessing quality healthcare or crop insurance to protect against a flood). These services are often so everyday that it’s easy to forget their existence. But consider how different your life would be if it took you 15 hours to reach a doctor that could see your sick child, or if you had to spend the equivalent of a half-year’s salary to obtain a passport? These are realities in some parts of the world, and realities service designers address to make services more intuitive for both the user and the service provider.

A key aspect of service design — and one we feel strongly about — is the value of understanding the user experience. This means a focus not on the institution delivering the service — which service providers sometimes forget — but also on the person using the service. As Laura Forlano writes in Urban Omnibus, “services require designers to empathize with users, to understand interactions as a series of ‘touchpoints’ and to develop a holistic understanding of the ways in which our relationships to services govern everyday life.” Service design values users, conversations, relationships, and context, using empathy to make sense of them and their interplay.

At Reboot, we employ this user-centric philosophy. We believe empathy is the foundation of good solutions. We take great time and care to understand the disparate groups who use each service. We immerse ourselves in our target communities for weeks at a time, gleaning intimate knowledge and understandings not otherwise available. Armed with original, research-sourced insights, our experts, business analysts, designers, and technologists work together to develop services and service improvements that better serve people.

We’ve applied this approach to tough problems of development and governance the world over. In Pakistan, where 90 percent of the population lacks access to affordable basic financial services, we worked with private sector and non-profit partners to design branchless banking programs for marginalized citizens. Often, branchless banking solutions center around product and policy. Yet, after extensive service design research, we discovered the optimal solution wasn’t an innovative new product, but instead a reorientation from product strategy, to service strategy.

By approaching the fields of international development and governance from the perspective of service design, we’re articulating a systematic method for documenting, improving, and implementing critical social services. Our over-arching goal is to help our clients create services that are inclusive, efficient, technologically appropriate and, ultimately, empathic. Service design has the potential to shift the focus from tools and technologies to people and relationships — a reorientation that can help create lasting change.

Next week, we’ll dive into the nitty-gritty of service design, from key definitions to a more in-depth exploration of the design process.

Special thanks to Jim Nuttle for his wonderful illustration.

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