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Amazon, Airbnb, and Asos are all investing in this one simple design idea

Service design has revolutionized our lives. Here are 15 principles for getting it right, as illustrated by some of the world’s most prominent companies.

Amazon, Airbnb, and Asos are all investing in this one simple design idea
[Source Images: JohnnyGreig/Getty Images, Swillklitch/iStock]

Service design has been one of the greatest disruptive forces in our lives over the past 20 years. Everything from how we shop for food to how we move around cities to how we interact with government has been transformed to put the customer’s experience first. Name a successful new company, and it has likely invested in service design: Airbnb, Asos, Thinx, Wayfindr, and more.

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But many services remain frustrating. Think about how you receive deliveries or the last time you had to replace your debit card.  This is partly because there is still little clarity on what makes a good service.

Shared principles and standards are vital to the practice of service design just as they are to the other industries that underpin our society, such as medicine or law. They help designers spot mistakes, speed up their work, collaborate, and, crucially, create a benchmark for quality that companies should meet. Consumers, too, are left vulnerable, without the same basic standards and regulatory authorities that have protected consumers from faulty or harmful physical products.

I have worked in service design for roughly half of its life as an industry, and I’ve seen every kind of service. Here’s what I’ve learned based on years of working on bad services and trying to build good ones. A good service should:

[Source Images: JohnnyGreig/Getty Images, Swillklitch/iStock]

1. Let a user do what they set out to do

This should be an obvious one. A good service enables a user to do the thing that they set out to do from start to finish–be that start a business or learn to drive–in as much of a seamless stream of events as possible.

For example, the app Citymapper realized that when it comes to getting around, people often don’t care what method of transportation, just as long as it’s the fastest and meets their needs. The company developed a platform that aggregated travel estimates for every mode of transport available in a city to help travelers do the thing they wanted to do, by whatever means necessary.

2. Be easy to find

The service must be able to be found by a user with no prior knowledge of the task they set out to do. Someone who wants to learn to drive must be able to find their way to get a driving license as part of that service unaided.

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For example, as the home for all of the U.K. central government services, Gov.uk has to deal with millions of users trying to do complex tasks for the first time, so they recently changed the architecture of the site to enable users to find the task they were trying to complete, and navigate the various forms and guidance that are required to complete that service in a simple step-by-step guide–like learning to drive.

3. Clearly explain its purpose

The purpose of the service must be clear to users at the start of using the service. That means a user with no prior knowledge must understand what the service will do for them and how it will work.

For instance, there’s been very little innovation in menstrual tech in the last 100 years, so when your product is out to disrupt the tampon, you need to be really clear about what you’re there to do. Thinx clearly explains the proposition of its service as “period-proof underwear that works” and does exactly this for its customers.

4. Set the expectations a user has of it

The service must clearly explain what is needed from the user in order to complete the service and what they can expect from the service provider in return. This includes things like how long something will take to complete, how much it will cost, or if there are restrictions on the types of people who can use the service.

Airbnb clearly explains what is expected from both homeowners and visitors well before check-in and negotiates the risk of the transaction on behalf of both users.

5. Be agnostic of organizational structures

The service must work in a way that does not unnecessarily expose a user to the internal structures of the organization providing the service.

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For example, Thriva is a service that helps you understand your health over time with finger-prick blood tests you take at home. They make use of commercial blood testing in laboratories to do their blood tests, but provide a seamless service to users when they receive their results.

[Source Images: JohnnyGreig/Getty Images, Swillklitch/iStock]

6. Require as few steps as possible to complete a task

A good service requires as few interactions from a user as possible.

For example, Amazon Dash allows users to pre-program a physical button to order a specific product from Amazon. No browsing, buying, or checkout required.

7. Be consistent

The service should look and feel like one service throughout–regardless of the channel it is delivered through. The language used should be consistent as should visual styles and interaction patterns.

For example, Monzo is an online bank and prepaid card that helps people track and control their spending. Because they own the entire end-to-end customer journey, the complete experience of using Monzo is consistent from the (bright orange) card you use to the app for tracking your spending.

8. Have no dead ends

Regardless of whether or not a user is eligible for a service, it should direct all users to a clear outcome. No user should be left behind, or stranded within a service without knowing how to continue, or being provided an easy route to do so.

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For example, in the U.K. Sh24 is a service that provides home sexual health tests through the mail. If you test positive for a sexually transmitted infection, it’ll help you to get treatment, and forward you on to their partner SXT, which will help you to notify your previous sexual partners anonymously and help those partners get support.

9. Be usable by everyone, equally

The service must be usable by everyone who needs to use it, regardless of their circumstance or abilities.

In London, Wayfindr uses Bluetooth beacons on the underground network to help travelers navigate the tube through audio descriptions. Originally designed for people with limited sight, the service has now allowed people with memory and cognitive disabilities, as well as tourists, to navigate the tube more easily.

[Source Images: JohnnyGreig/Getty Images, Swillklitch/iStock]

10. Respond to change quickly

The service should respond quickly and adaptively to a change in a user’s circumstance and make this change consistently throughout the service. For example, if a user changes their phone number online, their phone number should be recognized in a face-to-face service.

Trov is an on-demand insurer that lets users insure specific items for specific periods of time from a simple-to-use app. So if you suddenly decide to take your guitar on a camping trip at the last minute, you can insure it.

11. Work in a way that is familiar

People base their understanding of the world on previous experiences. If there’s an established custom for your service that benefits a user, your service should conform to that custom. Users who have signed up to a new service often expect an email confirmation acknowledging their sign up. Avoid customs that negatively affect your user (such as pre-selecting a “send me marketing emails” tick-box) or following customs that are inefficient or outdated.

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For example, Asos replicated the in-store behavior of trying on clothes and moving around in them to see if they fit by allowing users to see simple videos of people walking around in the clothes they sell. They then increased speeds of delivery and returns to match the physical in-store experience as closely as possible.

12. Encourage the right behavior in users (and designers)

The service should encourage safe, productive behaviors from users and staff that are mutually beneficial. For users, the service should not set a precedent for behaviors that may put the user at harm in other circumstances–for example, providing data without knowing how that data will be used. For designers, this means they should not be incentivized to provide a bad service to users.

In 2011, Australia introduced plain cigarette packaging that has reduced cigarette sales by 12% per year by removing all marketing and replacing it with “the world’s ugliest color“: Pantone 448 C “opaque couché.” The U.K. and France followed in 2017 and have removed all marketing from packaging and stores.

13. Clearly explain why a decision has been made

When a decision is made within a service, it should be obvious to a user why this decision has been made and clearly communicated to the user at the point the decision has been made. A user should also be given a route to contest this if they need to.

For example, Deliveroo is a simple way of ordering food from your favorite restaurant. Occasionally deliveries will fail to be made. Rather than issuing a standard response, Deliveroo will tell you what the problem with your delivery is and how you can fix it.

14. Make it easy to get human assistance

A service should always provide an easy route for users to speak to a human about an issue if they need to.

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Some services make it so hard to get human help that other services have to be developed to support them. Cleo is one of those services. Their AI chatbot sits on top of your bank accounts and allows you to review your spending. If you’re not happy with what’s happening, you can speak to a person anytime you like.

15. Require no prior knowledge to use

A service should not use language that assumes any prior knowledge of the service from the user.

Making a will isn’t something that people do very often, and the first time you make one it can be hard to know where to start. Farewill is a service that lets you create a will in minutes, with no prior understanding of what a will is or how it works.

If you’d like to contribute your thoughts to this list, here’s an open Google doc to start the conversation.

Lou Downe is a designer, writer, and director of design and service standards for the U.K. Government. They’re on a mission to make services better for everyone. You can read more about them at louisedowne.com, follow them on Twitter, or email them at louise.downe@gmail.com. 

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