Service design research and exploration

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Design research is an implicit and inseparable aspect of service design. Traditional research skills such as listening, observing and investigating alone are not effective enough for service design.

The approach needs to be collaborative, creative and inspirational. The role of researcher and designer blur as both mindsets should be inherent in a generalist Service Designer. Service design researchers need to be able to plan the research, design effective research activities and synthesise insights systematically and meaningfully to create value.

Below we share an approach (and a point of view) on the way we do design research for service design at Engine:

Anyone can do research

Design research is a creative and qualitative exercise - it should not be overloaded in theory. Anyone can have a conversation, listen, observe, read and investigate. Design researchers need not be trained specialists. service designers at Engine are more generalists than specialists; it is they that do the research and the design.

The advantage of being generalist is full involvement across projects. During research, generalists can be goal-orientated and dig for insights that are meaningful to service design from the outset. After all, the outcomes of the research are ultimately to serve the creation of successful services.

As service design aims to create a symbiotic relationship between provider and user, research is designed to actively involve and investigate all significant people in the service ecosystem. In order to understand people, systems, strategy and business models, service design borrows from, and is, a mixture of disciplines.

Conducting design research is the foundation for building and developing any project. Research is a period of discovery and a process of realisation, formulation and refinement. Inspirational, actionable and directional research is of most use to designers. Insights, ideas and issues are uncovered at every stage of the design process. However, insights need to provide a clear route towards service propositions.

The new breed of service designer is well-rounded, has a broad skillset and doesn’t necessarily need a specialism. They need the ability to be empathetic and work across disciplines like ethnography, interaction design, system thinking and communication design.

Research is rigged

Service design research is not scientific. Service design decisions cannot be made on quantitative findings alone, as these tend not to be actionable or inspirational to designers. Ideally, a project will have a mix of quantitative and qualitative research, but it’s ultimately the qualitative work that inspires the experiential aspects of a service that will turn people from users into advocates.

We are expert at setting up and synthesising research. Rigging research means building an informed hypothesis of the project proposition and a set of parameters for the research. Parameters enable the planning of appropriate recruitment segmentation, sample and methodologies. Taking into account market factors such as changing users’ needs and trends affecting the organization or service for example.

Because people choose services based on their needs, values and behaviours; for user research we recruit a mix of people based on these criteria. To get a broad range of understanding we often look into pronounced behaviours or extremes. The idea is that the way forward lies in finding a middle path between opposites. Setting tighter parameters provides a better environment for discovery, just like scientists set the conditions for discovery to take place.

Research is designed

Controlling the dynamics of a research engagement is important to navigate tensions and to get the most out of research. Tension may arise from research participants being unfamiliar with research, feeling uncomfortable disclosing personal information or uncomfortable with the company they are in. The use of gaming distracts participants and makes them more comfortable in their interactions. At Engine, we’ve recently used games like Guess Who and Lego to provoke people to make decisions and understand challenges.

It’s important to build trust with participants; one way we’ve done this at Engine is to craft carefully considered cultural probes for design ethnographies. In research with vulnerable user groups, we’ve sent simple identity cards and introduction packs in advance.

Design research activities and tools should be enjoyable, engaging experiences for both participant and design researcher. For example, journals we’ve designed at Engine have been interactive and playful for the participant. They are also designed to feel personal and encourage self-reflection and better articulation of thoughts, needs and desires.

The secret is in the synthesis 

The synthesis of design research is often considered to be the magic part of the process. The analysis is where much of the value of our research is realised and a foundation for proposition development is built. This translation space is the most creative part of the process; managing the simplification of complexity and guiding data to insights and then to propositions and principles.

Making sense of service contexts occurs through playing with the research data in many ways, such as: deconstructing, re-arranging, filtering, aggregating, prioritising, etc. It also involves constantly reframing shifting perspectives to see things in different ways, alternating from needs to propositions. Revisiting the initial hypothesis during synthesis helps to understand, validate or disprove initial points of view and answer the questions set through parameters. A designer’s ability to visualise lends itself well to making sense of data and to quickly signify meaning.

The broad experience of service design consultants helps in knowing what to look for. From our practice, we’ve noted a wide variety of characteristics that make a service good, for example. These include being:

usable: clear, simple, intuitive, assessable and guided

useful: meaningful, practical, customisable, self-serviceable and consistent

desirable: trustworthy, enriching, immersive, fulfilling and caring.

In conclusion

The basic skills of a traditional researcher – the art of conversation, listening, observing and investigating are not enough for effective service design. The role of researcher and designer blur, as both mindsets should be inherent in a generalist service designer. Service design researchers need to be able to plan the research, design effective research activities, and synthesise insights systematically and meaningfully to create value.

Service design researchers need to be comfortable opening up their approach, sharing methods and processes in the spirit of co-creation. The role of a design researcher has shifted from being customer-centred to stakeholder-centred and from being a sole creator to a capability builder.

As service design researchers, we should embrace these responsibilities and newfound abilities to collaborate, guide and influence, playing a strategic and influential role in designing great services. It is time to measure our work not only by the degree of insight but also by the degree of impact we have on services organisations and the services they deliver.

The evolution of service design: Present & future

Originally published in New Design Magazine, Issue 90, June 2011

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