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How to embed service design in organizations [with in-depth white paper]

February 14, 2023

Now that there is extensive proof service design can have a positive impact on shaping & improving experiences, organizations started building in-house teams to foster this further, just as agencies had before them. Many industry-leading organizations are scaling up their in-house teams, they need to start managing multiple service design projects and teams across different departments simultaneously. This causes another layer of complexity and challenges. In this article, we look at 10 ways that help to embed service design in organizations.

  1. Call it what you want
  2. Start small with low-risk, stealth projects
  3. Start with your employees
  4. Adapt service design to your organization
  5. 95% of service design is not a workshop
  6. Pull instead of push service design
  7. Calculate the ROI of service design
  8. Approach from the top-down and the bottom-up
  9. Use software as a trojan horse for service design
  10. Plan for diversity in your teams

1. Call it what you want 

We like to call what we’re doing service design. However, do not waste your energy on ‘selling’ the term/name when starting to bring service design into your team or organization. There are many labels under which people do service design. Some call it (service) innovation, design thinking, service design thinking, experience design, CX design, or UX design. 

Depending on your educational background, your social context, and the media you consume,  you might use a different term for the same thing. It’s very likely that someone in your organization already practices service design, but calls it differently. 

Look beyond terminology, look at what others are doing and what they are calling it. Use whatever term works best within your organization or whatever is used already – at least in the beginning. 

2. Start small with low-risk, stealth projects 

Although it is tempting to go big right at the beginning, we always recommend starting small and then scaling fast when the momentum is there. You’ll first need a few small projects to learn how to practice service design within an organization. Plan for this and give room to fail – particularly with those small projects in the beginning. Look out for projects with low risk, but potentially high rewards. Maybe you can find a key metric that is so out of whack that people will be super-impressed if you are able to change it. However, be careful not to raise expectations before such projects and avoid projects that are already in progress.

Sometimes, you have no choice but to start with a highly visible project. This can happen when projects are assigned to you and you cannot choose which projects you work on. You might face problems, such as unmotivated team members who are there because they have to. This is hard and there’s no silver bullet on how to best handle this. All these tips are meant to help someone who might be able to influence this. If this is not you, maybe it helps you to convince the right people in your organization in a more impactful way. 

It helps when people don’t talk about these projects, and when no big expectations are raised. 

Too often I see teams work and design fragments of critical journeys and fail to have visibility of the impact the poor processes have on both their peers and their customers. I enjoy focusing on ‘process prototyping’. One of the most satisfying parts of my job is when you connect teams who rarely communicate in person, and see the effect their work has on other people. 
— Gerry Scullion, Director at Humana Design

Keep the first projects under the radar – we like to call them “stealth projects''. If needed, give them a very boring name, such as ‘process optimization of XY’ – something everyone is happy that someone takes care of, but no one volunteers to be the someone. 

3. Start with your employees 

Often, the easiest and most promising way to bring service design into an organization is not through projects that affect customer experience, but through employee experience. 

This means that instead of focusing on an initiative that has a direct impact on external customers, start with one which focuses on how employees experience their own work. 

To do research, you can simply try to find out how others go about their day and where they experience negativity. 

To prototype and test, simply ask your colleagues. It’s easy to get started, and you can have a massive impact on your organization. Think about all the little problems employees have during their day-to-day work. Think about how you book a meeting room, how you handle travel expenses, how are drinks, snacks, and food managed, etc.? 

All these little problems are relevant service design cases and if you manage to change at least one of them, your colleagues will recognize the success and maybe get interested in how you actually did this. 

4. Adapt service design to your organization 

Use these first (internal) projects to learn how you need to adapt service design to your organizational reality. 

This goes beyond what you call service design in your organization as outlined in the first tip. This is about adapting processes, tools, methods, ways of working, and language to your organizational context and the terminology you use around these. 

How easily does your organization adapt to new working methods? 

What was the approach that worked in previous situations to get new ways of working implemented? 

Can you learn from this or even use a similar approach? 

Here’s one example of how you can adapt a ‘textbook’ service design process into an existing innovation process. 

A large organization used a classic stage-gate process for innovation. There were basically no iterations, but a linear process with clear go/no-go decisions by leaders outside of the project. Instead of changing everything, they hijacked the existing process, kept the visual of a stage-gate process, but then only changed two things: First, the stages became “dominant activities” and reframed as research, ideation, low-fidelity prototyping, high-fidelity prototyping, piloting, launch, 1-month audit, 3-month audit. Second, the requirements for each gate were defined as, for example: 10 key insights, 10 ideas, 5 tested low-fidelity prototypes, etc. 

Almost all tools and methods we use in service design stem from another discipline. Therefore, there’s no fixed way of doing things or how to call what we’re doing. Look beyond your own terminology and try to discover similarities that you see in other parts of your organization. Try to adapt the language, processes, tools, and methods to your organizational structure. 

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5. 95% of service design is not a workshop 

Yes, we do love workshops. We co-create. We practice participatory design. However, when you really use service design to have an impact on your customer experience, a lot of your work will take place outside of workshops. 

To avoid the perception that service design is all workshops and fluff, find ways to show the work your service design team is doing behind the scenes. 

Be prepared that some of your colleagues and probably also your leaders know design thinking from a one-hour workshop at a conference. You’ll need to show that it is actually much more. It’s hard work that brings proper business value to your organization, by increasing customer experience and employee experience. And this doesn’t happen in a one-hour workshop.

“Something that I see time and time again, industry-wide, is improving the ramp-down from workshops. The cost (time, energy, money) of running a workshop is enormous, and as such, needs to be respected. It’s worth planning how the outputs will get used. Will they just be displayed internally or shared amongst the wider organization? Who will read them? Will they understand them? Too often, I see teams adding EVERYTHING onto the wall after a workshop, and can be confusing and overwhelming to others. I find that adding group photos of people at workshops, alongside quotes from leadership/sponsors of the project, a parking-lot for people to add comments (along with their own names) work really well to help demonstrate the value of the methods. All of this is part of service design. It’s cultivating and managing this process.” 
— Gerry Scullion, Director at Humana Design

Outsiders and the wider project team are not aware of the work that is happening, because it is happening backstage. 

If possible, move as many activities as possible onstage; invite the wider project team and other stakeholders to participate in your project as much as possible. How can you create visibility for the other 95% of service design beyond workshops? 

Always, create evidence for the work that took place backstage. Take photos and videos, collect quotes from participants as audio or video recordings, collect hard data from your research and prototyping, etc. Document and showcase all your work – frontstage and backstage – so that people outside of your core team start understanding the process and the work you need to put into it. What message do you want to bring across? What might be useful for this project and what might pave the way for future projects and budget conversations, etc.? 

6. Pull instead of push service design 

You could try to push service design into your organization by setting up a training program and training your colleagues in service design. 

You could try to get your colleagues to use service design tools after a one, two, or even three-day service design basics training. 

You could try to establish a new ‘mindset’; that your colleagues become more ‘customer-centric’ after completing such training. 

But think about how much you’ll invest and how many of your colleagues will actually do meaningful work with what they learned in a short training. 

Ask your participants for feedback right after the training and you’ll hear that it was fun and that they’ve learned a lot. Ask them again two months later if they’ve used anything in their day-to-day work and very often you’ll hear a plain “no”. 

Instead of pushing service design into an organization, think about a much slower, but more sustainable approach: pulling the right people into service design. Build your core team and establish a pool of interested people for your wider project teams. 

How do you find these intrinsically motivated people that are truly interested in service design and keen to learn and explore with you? 

Perhaps, communicate your initial internal projects through a journey map showing how the experience used to be and how it is now. For example, 8 steps to book a room that was then occupied; vs. 3 steps and the room is actually available. 

Provide information about how you worked and show the results / impact of your project. 

Add contact information and try to nudge people who are intrinsically interested in working like this to get in touch with you. 

Finding and connecting the right people is key in the beginning. You’ll be amazed when you find out who already is practicing service design under different names in other departments. 

Get a group of people together from different departments to discuss a particular topic, and be sure to include at least one person who is willing to participate but is not an expert in the area. Work on the topic using a service design approach without formally defining the approach. Eventually, when the workshop or the project arising from it is done, explain the approach and let them discuss their experience in working in such a way. 

7. Calculate the ROI of service design 

You’ll hear this question again and again: ‘What is the return on investment if we would do service design’? Try answering with a counter question: what is the ROI of marketing – in general? What is the ROI of management – in general? 

It’s quite hard to answer. The answers you’ll hear are probably something like: “Our three best performing campaigns last year cost X and we reached Y”. We need to use the same logic for service design.

Calculate the ROI for each project. Agree on what you want to impact and measure the baseline before your project. If useful you can measure during your prototypes to compare their potential impact, but then measure again after implementation. You’re aware of how much work you’ve put into a project and you know the effect of it. You can calculate the ROI. Keep an overview of these across your projects and you will be able to answer this question just as well as your colleagues from marketing or sales can. 

You might need to measure different things than other departments in your organization. 

Sometimes, service design projects impact KPIs such as churn, revenue, and the like. But they might as well impact experience values, such as NPS, process time or any other useful experience metric. Sometimes, you need to think about how much money you save your organization, e.g. by reducing the amount of support tickets for a certain topic. Think about how many tickets you were able to reduce, how long it takes to answer a ticket on average, and the cost of this. 

For organizations and leaders it’s important to measure things that are important to them, where clear consequences can be derived from. Hard facts, such as revenue or costs are usually a safe bet, so try to translate whatever you measure into a financial value. 

8. Approach from the top-down and the bottom-up 

There’s a debate about whether service design should be introduced top-down or bottom-up. 

Top-down refers to management buy-in. “Budget is how organizations express their love” is an often-quoted saying. In this context, budget not only refers to a financial budget, but even more importantly: time. If you simply add service design on top of the workload of an employee, they will have a very hard time focusing on this. That said – it’s doomed to fail. One way to start is to allow everyone in your service design core team to invest 20% of their work time for internal service design projects or to build up their skills. 

Bottom-up refers to a skilled and motivated team: your core service design team as well as everyone you involve in your wider project teams. You’ll need a team that is intrinsically motivated for this way of working. When you have a motivated team, they will build up the skills they need if they have access to resources. They will act as crowd pullers and implement service design, as well as promote it as a way of working with their colleagues. 

In my experience, you’ll always need both: a skilled and motivated team who would like to do service design, as well as management buy-in. If either of them is missing, you already know what you need to focus on in the future.

9. Use software as a trojan horse for service design 

You can observe an interesting trend in the last couple of years. Companies have started to introduce journey mapping software as a “trojan horse” to bring in service design, or at least a more customer-centric mindset, to an organization. 

For example, some of our clients introduced our journey mapping software Smaply to one of their departments. Their intention was to bring a bit more customer-centricity into this team, since all training and projects so far failed. 

So, they tried something new and introduced Smaply. 

With the software, there came some training and coaching, so participants could acquire new knowledge, e.g. how to evaluate a journey map. 

In critique sessions that the team ran, they received feedback on their journey maps. 

Later, they started giving peer feedback to each other. 

They started practicing service design and became customer-centric over time. The tools we use in service design, like a journey map, are great because they force people to see a topic from another perspective. They can act as a catalyst to embed service design and provide support to change the mindset of a team. 

In a rather unobtrusive way, implementing and endorsing single service design tools can open doors for service design in your organization. 

10. Plan for diversity in your teams

When you establish a service design team, plan for diversity within this team. Diversity does not refer to a demographically diverse team (which should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately very often it is not), but also to the background of your team. 

Service design is a team sport and you need many different disciplines, backgrounds, and experiences to make an outstanding service design team. 

A multidisciplinary team of, for example: researchers, copywriters, content marketers, prototyping experts, engineers, software developers, architects, system thinkers, business analysts, visual designers, agile coaches, sociologists, psychologists, creative technologists, scrum masters, and so on. 

If we look at experienced people in service design, many of them come from very different backgrounds and eventually moved into service design.

Besides diverse backgrounds, also look for facilitators. There are natural facilitators who just click with a group of people, who can read group dynamics and adapt according to them, and who make sure to give everyone a voice within a project. Not everyone in your core service design team needs to be an outstanding facilitator, but make sure to have at least a few. Remember that facilitation is more than just performing great on stage. It also refers to the 95% of service design work off stage, outside of workshops and co-creative sessions. There are also rockstar facilitators who are quiet and behind the scenes. These are the ones who keep a project going, who are able to connect with people from other teams and departments, who find valuable information, who constantly bring new ideas and different viewpoints to a team and into a project, and also serve as a hub behind the scenes connecting people and processes. 

You need both: rockstars on stage and off stage.

In a nutshell

The growing interest in embedding service design within organizations is a sign of service design having matured – it has become a competitive factor for any organization. 

Embedding service design is a crucial step for any organization to prepare for the future, confront competition and set the baseline for customer loyalty. Sometimes  it only takes a few tips that help you build a human-centered mindset, set up the first processes and motivate the right people for organizational service design activities. 

In any case, you need to adapt how you communicate service design to your own organization; prove the work you do, show achievements, and pay special attention to the people involved – they are the ones to make your service design initiative successful.

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