Dive Deep into the Customer’s Needs

A service design project cannot succeed without deep understanding of customer needs, says service design expert Mikko Koivisto.

Heidi Hammarsten, 16.06.2015

If you don’t understand these needs, you may get exquisitely designed but totally irrelevant services.

Service design may be utilized to achieve a simple and logical user interface on a webpage, to achieve a new layout and new services in a drugstore, or to test if transit passengers are interested in yoga classes at an airport. In all cases it means that the customers are intended to get a more satisfying user experience, functionally or emotionally.

It may sound surprising, but industrial companies are the most eager users of service design in Finland. A lead service designer, Mikko Koivisto from Diagonal, can explain why.

“Industrial companies seek new growth from services. They also have a long experience from research and development. Investments in product development in the traditional service sector are minimal compared to those of the industrial sector,” says Koivisto.

Mikko Koivisto trains on the subject at Aalto EE. He is also a partner in Diagonal, a rapidly growing and award-winning service design agency in Helsinki.

Koivisto has seen both very successful service design projects and projects that haven’t fulfilled expectations. Let’s hear his experiences and learn how to do it right.

Take customer insight seriously

The service design process starts with gathering customer insight: what kind of needs does the customer have, how does he or she use the services, what problems does he or she want to solve? After that comes the analysis and then the concept creation.

Koivisto points out that often organizations would like to skip the customer insight gathering process. They think they have read customer feedback and identified the problem to be solved.

“The initial phases of service design usually seem a bit fuzzy, and they represent about five per cent of the costs of the process. Yet this fuzzy front-end determines about two-thirds of the end result, and whether the launch of the new service will succeed or not. That’s because it defines the problem or the possibility that starts the design process.”

Use various methods to gather information

Koivisto categorizes the methods of gathering user information as an iceberg. The visible tip of the iceberg, the explicit knowledge, consists of the most used customer research methods like interviewing, focus groups and questionnaires in which people tell us things they want us to hear and are able to express in words.

“Service design goes deeper than that. There are contextual methods like observation. We can’t always directly observe how services are used but we are interested in the everyday life of customers. 

The deepest levels of insight are the exploratory methods, like workshops or planning games. In those, you push people to create something and describe it. Doing that they also tell about their dreams, values and needs.

Seeing and appreciating what people dream of shows us how their future could change for the better. It is another form of tacit knowledge that can reveal latent needs, i.e., needs that are not yet recognizable.”

Another method is a probe. These are specifically designed material packages given to potential users to document their private lives, contexts and experiences. The user may keep a diary for a follow-up period or take photos of his or her doings.

Pay attention to analysis and interpretation

Customer insight is useless without proper analysis and interpretation.

“We attempt to find insights and turn them into design drivers that guide and define what we should start to create.”

It may be that the initial idea for making things better isn’t relevant at all from the customer’s point of view. Koivisto gives an example from his student days when he was given the task of redesigning the business class tableware of an airline.

“We observed passengers and personnel preparing the meal service during flights. We realized that from the customers’ point of view, glitches and problems in the services process were a much bigger problem than outdated tableware. But we couldn’t do more than make this incremental change with dishes.”

Test your concept with customers

After the analysis, it is time to create ideas about possible solutions and start to build concepts from these ideas. The concepts should be co-created and tested by users as soon as possible to get feedback and even better ideas.

“Communicating and testing of the service idea can often be challenging, because of the intangible nature of services. We use various methods of prototyping, like service evidencing, to test services. A service evidence might be a brochure. If physical surroundings are needed, we have built, for example, a cardboard laboratory and grocery store here in our office.”

This is the time to turn in and test even the wildest and most futuristic ideas. But it is also time to do the math and calculate whether the return on investment is sufficient.

“When the go-decision for a certain concept has been made, then the focus shifts to how the solutions will be made to work in practice.”

Engage your people early enough

When we are talking about services, we mustn’t forget the skills and attitude of the staff providing the service in question.

“Service design is closely involved with the roles of staff and corporate culture. You can’t just design something separately from these. You also need to let the users in the service-providing organization participate. That helps them to engage in the change and support the design process.” 

Mikko Koivisto is the Lead Service Designer at /Diagonal. He has a background as an industrial designer (MA, IDBM) and is one of the pioneers of service design in Finland.

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