Five design principles for a changed world

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As we feel our way through the Covid crisis, how can service design help organisations address what’s needed for a new reality?


Service design defines how behaviours, digital experiences, environments, and processes work together for positive customer experiences. As a discipline, it’s well-equipped to help as organisations grapple with a brand-new set of needs and circumstances. A key service design tool is a set of design principles – ideas which, if reflected throughout a service, will make it great for customers.

Organisations are shifting from frozen, to fire-fighting, to redesigning and rebuilding. By harnessing design principles fit for these unfamiliar times, organisations can restart services in the right way for their customers, employees, and operations. Every organisation will want to find its own best way to bring these principles to life, both in the short and longer term.

Enable home-centric lives

When restrictions are lifted, how often will we want or need to visit an office, shop, doctor, museum, or classroom? Increasingly, people’s homes are their worlds. What level of change is needed to reflect this? What’s the mix of online and physical experiences?

From doctors to beauty consultants to music teachers, knowledge-based services are moving online. Dixons Carphone is planning to give customers remote access to its sales staff, removing the need to visit stores for advice. Twitter’s recent announcement that colleagues can home work “forever” is an example of the permanent nature of many recent changes.

Some organisations will need a greater pivot to replace yesterday’s offer with something more relevant to a home-based, low-travel future. We see restaurants becoming stores, and stores becoming delivery and collection points. Hotels redefining themselves to serve local communities (e.g. as office space, self-isolating restaurants, or take-away/delivery food providers) are widening their value in a world with less travel. Airline AirAsia is now making home deliveries of its in-flight food. Such activities keep brands alive, provide income, and can be gradually feathered-out (or not) as original offers pick up.

Demonstrate safety

For physical experiences that do survive into the future, what will customer and employee safety look and feel like? While sectors like food retail have been able to blaze the trail throughout lockdown, other industries are searching for their best ways to supply safety and confidence. The answers aren’t always clear; EasyJet and Ryanair disagree vehemently about whether or not to fly with empty middle seats.

Initiatives being experimented with include UV light-shining cleaner robots at Pittsburgh airport, and full-body disinfection booths at Hong Kong airport. While care is needed to find the balance between reassurance and drawing attention to risks, safety credentials will be a clear point of differentiation. The airline and hospitality sectors are busy bestowing brand names on their safety and cleanliness initiatives, such as Air Canada’s CleanCare+ and Hilton’s CleanStay.

Plans for the other key safety factor – social distance – have been shared by organisations including Avanti West Coast train line. They’re asking all passengers to pre-book tickets so that trains can run 75% empty. Some organisations have turned to robots, who are conducting remote patient triage at a Boston hospital to protect health workers. Wearable social distancing devices are already being used in the construction and auto industries, including by Ford. “Covid-safe” restaurants are experimenting with environments, tools, and processes to help give people a safe night out. An attractive example of this – but one that demonstrates the challenges involved – is Mediamatic ETEN in Amsterdam, where each dining party enjoys its own private greenhouse overlooking the canal.

Help people thrive with less
In a future where people have less to spend, some services will have to become more affordable. Others will cease to be relevant. Organisations will need to reevaluate what they do and think creatively to adapt or redefine themselves for our new situation.

Already we’ve seen a surge in direct-to-customer sales, allowing businesses to keep end prices down while remaining profitable. Businesses from small farms to Unilever are increasingly looking to deal directly with customers.

The need will grow for smooth and constructive approaches to finance-related events such as downgrading, cancelling, or difficulties paying. Many financial institutions have already responded with relaxed terms.

Perversely, the troubled times may cause the return of a ‘jet set’ economy. Long-democratised institutions may morph into a new set of ‘premium physical’ experiences. Dining out, air travel, and live events will be reimagined as up-market experiences if the measures needed for safety drive up prices.

Empathise and join in
We now need comfort, help, hope and a sense of purpose. Organisations that step up practically or emotionally to recognise what we’re going through are most likely to win our hearts.

The response has been impressive. Production lines have been rebuilt to create masks, respirators, and sanitiser. Supermarkets allocate exclusive shopping times for health workers and vulnerable people. Cine Colombia shows movies on a mobile screen for the locked-down to view from their Bogota balconies. On the even more whimsical side, Brewdog is offering to “buy everyone a beer when all of this is over.”

People’s drive to be useful in this crisis has brought about new levels of ‘niceness’ in the UK. We look for brands that behave the way we feel. Those which help, and help us help. While cynicism may be tempting in relation to some corporate social responsibility initiatives, the need for help is genuine and unprecedented. Website sorts companies into “zeros and heroes” according to their “good and bad deeds.” It has had over three million page views since launch in late March.

Resurrect ease
Perhaps the most ubiquitous design principle, ‘Make it easy’, has been rightfully pushed aside by other priorities in the past few months. But the need for services to work well is greater now than ever, as they switch back on to a changed world. The organisations people love to deal with are most likely to thrive.

The challenge is to keep new requirements and measures from feeling like barriers. Multiple apps show realtime store queue times, and OpenTable is helping stores offer reserved shopping times. Salesforce has even launched a tool for helping some of its 50,000 employees book lift/elevator time slots.

Our new reality brings additional opportunities to cater to customers’ preferences. Some may opt to invest effort in a deeper, more involved experience, while others prefer a cut-down, streamlined experience. UK supermarket Morrison’s now offers 10 different pre-curated food boxes for delivery, to make “stocking up the cupboard easier.”

Key to most of the principles discussed above, is digital (re)transformation. Organisations that haven’t yet embraced ‘digital’ as an integral part of their customer experience need to take this opportunity to catch up.

As they get back on their feet, there’s a lot for organisations to consider. Creatively applying the right people-centred design principles will help them shape the best mix of behaviours, digital experiences, environments, and processes for our changed world.

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