Our Economy Is Mostly Services. But How Do You Design Great Service Experiences?

When overhauling a client’s relationship with its customers, Continuum’s Craig LaRosa adheres to a few core principles, from soliciting widespread input to always designing with future flexibility in mind.

Our Economy Is Mostly Services. But How Do You Design Great Service Experiences?

Every time you ship a package, withdraw cash from the ATM, or call your health insurance provider, you’re experiencing a service system. We’re a service-focused economy: In 2010, Americans spent more than $7 trillion on services–amounting to 67% of total consumer spending. Service design–choreographing the dynamic interactions between companies and people–cannot only transform a company’s image; it can improve people’s lives. But successful service design is complex and complicated, and many companies get it wrong. At Continuum, we have four rules for designing services with purpose.


1. Set the Right Expectations

Many companies make the mistake of overselling their service–a strategy that backfires when customers are inevitably disappointed. (And a disappointed customer is not a return customer.) United Airlines’s recent animated commercial of a father flying aloft on a bird paints a fairytale fantasy of modern-day air travel. Southwest Airlines has a better approach. The discount king has an ad in which a dorky business traveler at a small-town airport can’t contain his glee at having been upgraded to Business Select. (Reward points! Free drinks!) Guess which airline consistently scores higher on consumer satisfaction surveys? Southwest. Because the airline sets its expectations low, it can and does over-deliver.

2. Get the Right People in the Room

Executing successful service experiences requires all silos of an organization–marketing, operations, sales, finance, and so on. But these silos most often only connect at the top of the organization; they’re not communicating with one another at the consumer level. Successful service design depends upon getting one empowered person from each of these silos in the room. This collaboration cultivates trust and respect within the company, but it also ensures that each silo has a sense of ownership in the project. At Continuum, on every project, we advise the client-side team to include people from human resources, operations, marketing, sales, construction, and even frontline employees like chefs and front-desk staff.

We recently worked with Holiday Inn to develop their new hotel lobby experience called “The Hub,” that combines all ground-floor activities into one contiguous space: check-in, cafe, bar, Internet, lounge, and game area. From the beginning, we had every silo represented on our project team. Because we had people from operations on the team, we were able to design within the company’s operations capability, and because the marketing and advertising departments were included, we were able to pro-actively align The Hub with the companies new “Stay You” brand positioning, which is directed at a younger, value-seeking customer.

3. Design for Flexibility

How do you create a service that works in today’s context but can also evolve as new technologies and behaviors emerge? The simple answer is from one of my colleagues, Continuum Digital Design Principal Toby Bottorf: “Always be in beta.” At Continuum, we design flexibility into every project. We recently worked with a global medical diagnostic and testing service company to design patient rooms. To meet their need for flexibility, we created movable fixtures that can be adjusted or removed within hours and a customized wall system that can be rearranged overnight to accommodate unknown future services. (An added perk: If the company relocates offices, they can take their walls with them.)

4. Make It Real

Rather than delivering a splashy, innovative idea to our client and then washing our hands of it, we collaborate with the client through the often challenging process of bringing the new service design to life.

Partly, we do that by making the intangible tangible early in the process–showing our client how the final design will work and what it will look and feel like, so they can get everybody in the company on board with the idea. For the global bank BBVA, we created a series of demos in the atrium of the bank’s Center of Innovation in Madrid that showcased the interactive banking touchpoints that would be used in the new retail banking model. This was viewed by more than 1,500 people, including bank leadership, thought leaders, and members of the media. We then took a portable version of this experiential model on the road to share it with other members of the global organization. Ultimately, BBVA’s entire global management team embraced the vision and new direction of the organization.


Like any creative process, service design can be challenging to get right. But when you keep these four tenets in mind, you’ll create a smoother, more enjoyable experience. And a happy customer is a return customer.

[Images: Robyn Mackenzie, J. Helgason, and ssguy via Shutterstock]