3 Ways to Design Better Service Experiences

“Service design can feel less tangible at times, because it’s such a human interaction, but we all know the benefits of getting it right can have lasting effects for your org or brand.”
—Melanie Bell-Mayeda, Partner and Managing Director at IDEO SF

In our most recent Creative Confidence Series chat, IDEO Managing Director and Human-Centered Service Design instructor Melanie Bell-Mayeda and IDEO U’s Coe Leta Stafford shared stories and tips about how to use service design to bring more meaningful experiences to customers and organizations.

Just before leaving on a recent business trip, Melanie caught a bad cold. So she made an appointment with her doctor right away, “I was very stressed out, and wanted to prove I wasn’t feeling that well,” she says.

At the end of the appointment, after clearing her for travel, the nurse said something that took her aback. “I’d like to thank you for coming in,” she said. “Because actually having the meds you need and knowing you feel well before going on a trip is the best way that we can help to take care of you.”

Normally, Melanie would have worried that she was wasting the nurse’s time, or had made an unnecessary appointment. But not after that comment. “That struck me as an important service moment,” she says. “She flipped the script on me by saying thank you.” It was the perfect example of good service design—finding the negative points of an experience and changing them up to make it better for the user. 

Start with a Customer Journey Map

For Melanie, that process starts with a journey map, breaking down a service or experience to figure out exactly how it works, and what delights or frustrates a user. “You have to be hands-on,” Melanie says. “It makes such a big difference. That’s really the way I learn, by mapping things out and trying them on my own.”

When you dive into an experience yourself, you’ll discover what users know: that not all moments are equal. “You want to identify those moments that are sticky for individuals, that help them think about you and your service in a differentiated way, and give them that positive memory of the experience,” she says.

For example, when the company Wholesome Wave wanted to find a way to encourage people with food stamps to use them and to buy healthier food, they thought about the actual process. “The food stamp experience is actually quite broken,” Melanie says. “Most transactions happen with credit or cash.” But with food stamps, “you can’t use them as easily as you can money. There are things you can spend them on or can’t spend them on. So often, at that moment of purchase, it’s uncomfortable for the person using them.” On top of that, the healthiest foods a family can buy are fruits and vegetables, which are also the most expensive, and tend to eat up users’ limited food budgets.

To address these two broken pieces of the system, the company negotiated with fruit stands and farmers markets to make food stamps stretch a little further; if families bought fruits and vegetables, they could get a two for one deal. It encouraged them to try healthier foods they might not have otherwise and got them away from that traditional supermarket cashier experience. It was a very different solution than say, sending an email to get people to use their benefits. It’s a good reminder that a journey map isn’t just about the user—it can be about the other partners that come into play and things that happen immediately before or after an experience. “It really does help to unpack those moments that are the most critical and look at them more expansively, to see different solutions, and creative ways of expressing them,” she says.


“You want to identify those moments that are sticky for individuals, that help them think about you and your service in a differentiated way, and give them that positive memory of the experience.”
Melanie Bell-Mayeda


Prototype Your Service: Smart, Scrappy, and in a Real Context 

Prototyping a service may seem a bit tricky, or less straightforward then testing a physical product, but it’s a quick, scrappy way to see if your ideas might stick. “You really have to think about the mindset and the experience someone is in, and how you replicate that in the prototype you’re going to do,” Melanie says.

On one project, she and her team were working with a customer service division that was helping answer questions by phone and email. As new people came to work there, they had a hard time answering questions, because there was so much to learn. “They needed help,” Melanie says, “but they didn’t want to ask for it, because they wanted to perform well in the job.”


“The (prototyping) mindset is about learning. It’s not about getting it perfect.”
Melanie Bell-Mayeda


To kick things off, the team prototyped a solution. Every time someone needed help, they would hit a flashing red light, so their boss would know to come over and answer questions. It turned out to be a terrible idea—not particularly practical and a bit embarrassing. But it did exactly what they wanted it to do. “The point of that exercise was to tell people, ‘It’s not about being perfect, it’s about trying.’ It was about involving a whole group of people in an exercise that could be fun and funny. And it took a really short amount of time to see what didn’t work, so we could start seeing what ideas did work.”

Tips for Prototyping a Service

Service design prototypes don’t have to be expensive or high tech. In a project with a shopping mall, Melanie and her team worked to find out if they could create an interesting and engaging experience for people who had just grabbed coffee or food and couldn’t take it into a store. Was there a way to engage those folks who weren’t sitting in the food court, but couldn’t shop, either?

The team started with a small experiment that cost a few hundred dollars pulling clothing from retail stores, assembling a nice area with low budget furniture and a rug, and creating a place where people could check out goods, but also relax.


“You can move quickly with prototypes, especially when you have prototypes in the beginning. You have one or two simple questions and simple ways of measuring them. The risk/reward is right-sized.”
Melanie Bell-Mayeda


The team made some hypotheses about how they thought behavior might shift, and captured simple metrics—checking to see if people sat down, for how long, and if the merchandise in the area—or even a picture of it—would help drive would-be shoppers into stores. Even short-term experiments gave them real data that helped them figure out which direction to push it.

As prototypes became more complex, so did the metrics. Did some stores have an uptick in sales? Could those be connected to the pop-up space?

Co-Create Your Service

Users aren’t the only partners that can help with service design. Co-creation is when you invite users, key stakeholders, people who actually deliver a service, and clients to be a part of the process. “People use what they create,” Melanie says. The earlier on you bring people into the process, the more that they share in the ideas, and the solutions, the more likely they are to implement them. Be collaborative in that process, because you may learn things from your customers, your employees, or people who work on the front line, that you might not see yourself.”


“Bring other people into the process. Be collaborative, because you may learn things from your customers, employees, or people who work on the front line, that you might not see yourself.”
Melanie Bell-Mayeda


When it’s time to bring executives in, have them participate and observe a prototype so they can see it in action. It’s also a great way to get feedback earlier. Too hard to get them there? Give them audio or video of the prototype, with enough context to explain what’s happening.

If bringing a solution to colleagues is proving tough, start by sharing the customer’s point of view, or the problems that your team has had that have led you here. “At the end of the day, everyone wants the customer to have a great experience,” Melanie says. “If you start from that place, it gives everyone a common ground, and it lets you shed new light on the question in a way they may not have seen it.”

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