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From Products to People

Lavrans Løvlie
  • Lavrans Løvlie
  • Management

Service design is fundamentally about and for people. This has shaped the evolution of the discipline and will continue to do so. Lavrans Løvlie of service design pioneers, Livework looks at how designers can and must engage with the fundamental needs of people.
Any design discipline is a combination of values and skills. This is as true of service design’s development as a discipline over the last decade as it was for the rise of previous areas of design.

This article by Livework founder Lavrans Lovlie was originally published in Touchpoint Journal, Service Design Network (Volume 1, No 1, April 2009).

Think of how industrial design was formed in the last century. The field was defined in the 1920s, primarily by people associated with the Bauhaus in Germany, and a group of designers on the east coast of the United States. The work these designers produced was considered extremely radical, but now we look at the products they created as timeless classics. How did they manage to break with established thinking to create a tradition of product design that changed the nature of everyday life? The pioneers of industrial design worked at a time when a hundred years of industrial revolution had enabled completely new ways to approach the making of things. But they had also seen the destructive potential of industrial technology culminating in the unimaginable slaughter of World War 1.

With these experiences in mind, the generation that defined the field viewed mass production as a way to create a better life for ordinary people. Their role as designers was to unite aesthetic and technical skill in order to humanize technology. They focused their attention on basic human needs like living in a home, eating, sleeping, dressing, sitting, and traveling and worked creatively to solve the problems they found. The field of industrial design was defined by aesthetic and technical skill being applied to mass production combined with a sense of the need to humanize technology.

Can service designers, like the early industrial designers, apply their skills to solve the basic human needs of our day?

The Emergence of Service Design

After a century in many ways we operate in a similar context, one which has provided the crucible for the rise of service design. During the last five decades, Western economies have shifted dramatically towards becoming service economies. The technological landscape has also changed. The digital revolution that started in the 1970s has created fundamentally new platforms that enable services that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Data streams generate knowledge on a daily basis about organizations and their users; the Web enables us to self-serve even with complex systems like banks and governments; and the telecom industry provides us with ubiquitous communication. In this context, service design is defining itself by combining the skills of understanding digital technologies with the ability to design the user experience. The question now is which values will define service design? Can service designers, like the early industrial designers, apply their skills to solve the basic human needs of our day? There is a great deal of evidence that this is the case. The first generation of service designers have used their skills to create better transport-, health- and financial services, solve environmental problems, help people communicate better and improved public services. They work in arenas that have little experience with using designers, and open up opportunities to satisfy fundamental human needs in new ways. Service design is growing into a field defined by using technical and design skill to humanize services and improve people’s everyday lives.

Shadowing is a structured observation of a customer’s experience of a service or product. Often by watching someone use something we learn things that they would never tell us and understand why people have problems with tasks.

From Production to Co-production

The need for service design is increasingly apparent. The reality is that unlike most of the products we love to use, services are rarely designed. The leap to designing services is not actually a large one and it makes persuasive and commercial sense. Designers spend their effort making things easy to use, functionally and emotionally desirable, and to make the production process as efficient as possible. This way of working can be applied to services as well as products.

A key element in the practice of product design is to study people and how they use things as a starting point for the creative process. Since users of services are essential parts of the »service factory« (or more appropriately speaking, the »service ecology«), it is even more important to involve them deeply in the service design process. Strangely enough, we see a lot of service development today that is focused on the needs of the system and an organization’s internal processes rather than on the value created for the people who use and pay for the service. In order to build the best possible »factory environment« for the people that use the service as well as for the people that provide it, organizations need to involve them deeply in the research stage, through the creative process, and final testing. And when the service is in operation, they need to closely observe what kinds of problems and delights people experience, and work to improve quality on a daily basis. After all, in contrast to the product factory, the »service factory« can be changed every day. This makes it possible to create innovations that meet people’s real needs and motivations, and to improve services in ways that remove those experiences that confuse and irritate us all on a daily basis.

Designing Human Services

In order for us to understand why a people centered approach to the design of services is so important, it is useful to examine how the nature of services is different to that of products. One key aspect of the definition of service is that it involves users in production in a way that is impossible in the manufacture of products. Most organizations agree that their services should be oriented towards the customer. Why then, does it happen so often that we have appalling experiences when we use banks, buses, health services, insurance companies and other services? Why are they not designed as well as the products we love to use such as an Apple iPod or BMW car? One difference in the definition of products and services is that a service is produced in the same moment that it is consumed. This means that the people using the service are involved in the production process together with the organization that delivers it. When we use a cash machine, we are literally given direct access to the machine room of the bank, and we produce the result we desire. A doctor can’t give us good treatment unless we are there to provide the »specification«— and tell her how we feel. If I don’t know when to get off the bus, I’ll simply end up where I started. There is no service unless there is a user there to engage with it and help it perform by saying what he or she needs. It sounds straightforward. But – and it is a sizeable but — users are much more unpredictable than a robot in a controlled factory environment. Only when organizations learn to involve the people who use their services as valuable parts of the “machinery,” and embrace the full variety of their needs and desires, will they be able to deliver services that people find truly useful and come to love over time.

One difference in the definition of products and services is that a service is produced in the same moment that it is consumed.

Does it Pay?

Let’s move to fundamental questions. Does service design make commercial sense? In terms of the potential for improvement it manifestly does. Around seventy-five percent of the Western economy is in service, but productivity lags behind the performance of the product economy. Both in the private sector and in the public sector there is enormous potential to increase competitiveness and improve efficiency by designing services in a more human way. The commercial logic is simply that better services mean that more people use them, and pay more for them. At the same time, research shows that services perform more efficiently when they are designed so that people understand how they work and are able to use them to meet their needs.

From Products to People

When people thought about well-designed services twenty years ago, hotels and hamburgers often came to mind. Today, the technological and economic landscape has shifted dramatically and provided platforms for completely new forms of service delivery. We can pay our taxes using a mobile phone or plan and buy a trip around the world in an afternoon.

This revolution has also created even more complex organizations and systems of service delivery. The only way to deal with this complexity is to keep people’s needs and desires central to any development. Service design is part of the solution to this challenge, with deep user involvement throughout the creative process and a keen view on the functional and emotional details that enable people to enjoy the services that are important in their lives. It lies in the nature of service that a people-centered design approach drives value both for providers and the people that use services. Service design as a field based on these values puts designers in a position to tackle problems that have never before seen design as part of the solution. Service designers can — and must — apply their skills to meet the fundamental needs of people today and the future.

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