Back in October, I traveled to Berlin and Cambridge, Mass., to attend the annual conferences of the Service Design Network, an international organization for professionals and academics working in the field of service design.

Um . . . What’s service design? 

Great question! Service designers broadly define what they do as a collaborative process of researching, envisioning, and then orchestrating experiences that happen over time and across multiple touchpoints. Unlike traditional design disciplines, service designers typically examine — and often re-engineer — the strategy behind a service as well as the operational systems, processes, and resources that deliver it.

Um . . . Can you give me an example?

Sure! There are lots of examples in my latest report. But one story in particular stands out because it includes some very cool design solutions for a very unsexy industry: utilities. When the UK recently mandated that water billing switch from estimated to actual use, English utility company Southern Water faced a massive meter installation project. The company turned to service design agencies for help and through several interrelated projects that spanned roughly 18 months, the Southern Water team explored how meter installation could be a positive experience and how consumer behavior toward saving water could be influenced.

In the end, they streamlined the rollout of 500,000 new water meters. (That’s about 400 new meters a day over a period of five years!)  Here are some of the project highlights:

  • The Design Council introduced a customer-focused approach to Southern Water and facilitated the multi-agency service design program. The Design Council also developed an educational program that encouraged kids to figure out how much rain water was hitting their schools — and to then come up with ways to collect and reuse that water. But the real goal of this program was to have kids, in turn, teach their parents about saving water at home.
  • Research firm STBY conducted ethnographic research in customer homes, creating personas that outlined customers’ attitudes toward using, saving, and paying for water.
  • Radarstation explored the existing meter installation process from Southern Water’s perspective and mapped out internal processes like taking customer calls, picking up parts, and informing customers about completed installations.
  • IDEO designed the “meter-to-me” installation experience, which started with a welcome packet that emphasized two key messages (“a new meter is coming” and “metering is a fairer process”) and explained what customers should expect during the installation process (like needing to move their cars or having their gardens dug up). IDEO also defined what should happen in case customers weren’t home during the installation or hadn’t seen the instructional signs posted in their neighborhoods.
  • Boag Associates redesigned the water bill with graphs that show normal water usage for families of different sizes, descriptions of water amounts in common terms (like pots of tea instead of cubic meters), and water-saving tips.
  • The teams also developed a “mobile information unit.” No, it’s not a mobile phone app, but a mobile truck that follows the meter installation teams and provides answers to customers’ questions right outside of their homes.

One of the most interesting things to me about service design is that it really shakes up corporate strategy. Case in point: The Southern Water meter project shifted the company's focus from the technical aspects of delivering water to the service experience. It gave the company a much better understanding of its customers and increased the number of considered touchpoints from two — the meter and the bill — to many — including the shower, toilet, kitchen faucet, and dishwasher.

Has your company engaged in a service design project like this? If so, I’d love to hear about it!