How I Teach - Reflecting on 15 years in design education
by Jon Kolko

Chapter Two: Foundational Skills

Service design

Another foundation skill students develop in my classes focuses on service design. Service design is about experiences that happen over time. In our service design class, students learn to think about problems as parts of an ecology—that when people encounter something that’s been designed, that something is part of a larger system. More specifically, students learn to show how a person interacts with a service over time, and then to show how different parts of a service come together to foster positive experiences.

Our life is made up of services. When you travel, your airline provider is offering you value through a service (the ability to get from here to there). When you go shopping, the grocery store is offering you value through a service (the ability to purchase groceries).

In both examples, the service is made up of many touchpoints—places you interact with the service. When you travel, you interact with a website, a kiosk, a mobile phone application, a gate agent, a flight attendant, an uncomfortable seat, and so-on. Each of these contributes to your overall experience.

By learning to think about and design services, students gain a deep understanding of two core ideas. First, they investigate the interconnectedness of things. Nothing exists in isolation, and our relationship with the world is impacted by the context of our interactions. This is an important principle to learn in order to deal with and manage the increasing complexity of a technology-centered world.

Next, they begin to think about the world as a series of interactions and experiences, rather than objects and artifacts. Services rely on interactions with people, and to think about the world through this lens is a form of empathy. Students need to think about people and learn about what they do, say, and feel. They then learn a diagramming technique called journey mapping to understand the relationships between those physical, digital, and human touchpoints. This mapping style can be used to illustrate both the problem (or existing) state of a service, as well as the ideal (or future) state of a service design.

To build a journey map, students start by thinking about the end-to-end experience a user has as they achieve their goals. Students observe a local business, like a hair salon or restaurant, and begin to consider the role of each person involved. What does the employee do? What are their responsibilities? How does their sphere of influence change as the day and their shift progresses?

Students also consider the various products people interact with during the experience. Does the server use a point-of-sale tool? What about handling customer’s credit cards, or the food itself? These artifacts represent points of interaction, places where designed artifacts show up. Each of these elements could be designed in isolation, but that wouldn’t support the larger ecosystem of the customer experience.

Students pay attention to both the spoken and unspoken policies that govern what the people in the system can and can’t do. They look at rules and procedures. They note power influences, such as a relationship between management and waiter, and also self-imposed policies, like showing up for work on time.

When they’re done, they’ve developed a tacit understanding of the system. They have the benefit of a “birds-eye view”; they are able to see what all the players in the system do, and can leverage their omniscience to begin to propose new changes to the system.

In addition to learning about how a person experiences a service over time, students also learn to dissect a service into atomic parts. Using the same case study of a local business, students extract out key components related to information flow, the environment, and the power dynamics between actors in the system.

Increasingly, businesses and governments are building services rather than simply focusing on products. They recognize that they can provide value to their customers and constituents by focusing on human to human interactions. In learning service design skills, students acquire the methods and vocabulary to craft strong services.