Goal-directed service design

Most people think of Goal-Directed Design techniques as focused on product design, but they work equally well for services. A service is comprised of the various "touchpoints" between a customer and a business. Touchpoints include public-facing systems such as web sites and web-enabled software, but can include other channels as well, such as brick-and-mortar stores, points of sale, interactive voice response systems, email and postal mail, too.

A service model best fits offerings that are intangible, distributed in space, or play out over a length of time, especially on a routine basis. Some obvious examples include: electricity, hotels, mobile phone service, or even a government. The touchpoints you design as part of your service are critical to the user’s understanding of your brand. Increasingly, many touchpoints are interactive systems rather than human contact, so paying careful attention to the design of these things from the user’s goals is vital.

Thinking about your company’s offerings as a service can result in business-defining opportunities. Some quick examples illustrate this point.


  • The television industry had already adopted a service model with cable delivery when TiVo took it a step further. They looked at users’ goals in watching television, and came to pioneer the digital video recorder service to deliver near-demand programming that has redefined the home entertainment sector.

  • When Netflix introduced their popular DVD-through-the-mail service, they addressed the movie-renter’s goals so well that they’ve sent older brick-and-mortar rental companies scurrying to copy the model.

  • ZipCar is another recent example of satisfying the user’s goals. Especially in large cities with usable public transportation, people may only need a car a few days out of the month. For these people,car-sharing makes much more ecological and financial sense than car owning, and ZipCar has risen to meet that need.

  • Even a business in a seemingly-mundane industry can reinvent itself as a service. Atlanta carpet company Interface Flooring Systems asked itself how to better address the goals of its customers,and realized that they needed to replace only the small, worn parts of their carpet at any one time,even though wall-to-wall coverage requires complete replacement. So Interface began to install "modular carpet squares" on a service basis, routinely replacing only the worn parts as part of their offering.In so doing they reduced the amount of carpet they replace at any one time, cutting costs enough that they can offer more frequent service on a subscription basis and still significantly increase their margins.

Each of these companies could have focused on refining their customer’s old tasks: television watching, movie rental, car ownership, and carpet purchasing (and in fact each of these has some interesting interface challenges worth tackling); but had they just stuck with tasks, they would have missed satisfying the customer’s goals, and missed the accompanying business opportunities.

A perfect fit

Goal-Directed design is all about discovering opportunities for directly meeting users’ goals in potentially new ways, rather than simply improving the same old tasks. By performing first-hand, qualitative research we seek to uncover the broadest reasonable context for the relationship between a company and the users we observe and interview. Our personas embody real users with a clear emphasis on the goals that define them. Scenarios and the Goal-Directed design approach keep our focus on these personas with a continual check against their goals.

So if you’re using Goal-Directed design you already have the basic tools to uncover goals and use them to design services. What remains, of course, are the differences in the thing being designed.

A broad framework

Most companies benefit from longer-term relationships with their customers, and so the framework of questions that follows is built around the subscription model. They are organized roughly along time, like a large-scale collection of scenarios. Though a few of the questions are for marketers, some for business analysts, and some for interaction designers, all are best answered with a Goal-Directed method to keep them focused and unified.

  • How do customers find out about the service?
  • What’s their first-time experience of it?
  • How do they sign up and configure it?
  • How do they interact with it routinely, e.g. making requests and modifications?
  • How do they pay?
  • What motivates them to share the service? How do they do it?
  • How are they informed about changes and expansions?
  • How do they disengage from the service?

The answers depend on the service being designed, and which touchpoints best fit. Different touchpoints will be designed and documented differently by various specialists. Marketing and print touchpoints will be specified with visual drawings. Custom hardware is documented with blueprints and physical mockups. Interactive voice touchpoints are specified with response systems with flowcharts. Retail store design requires a combination of architecture blueprints, interior design, routing projections, wayfinding, and environmental graphic design documents. Interaction for software design is documented in scenarios, flowcharts, and screen mockups that specify how systems behave and respond.

In the Goal-Directed design process, the interaction components are included generally in the Form & Behavior Specification. Supporting documents are delivered alongside. In your process they will be the guidelines you give to developers and implementers.

Interaction design is about specifying the best fit between users and a system. Since a service is a system distributed in space and time, it falls within the purview of interaction design. So, next time you’re thinking about how customers experience your services or your company as a whole, why not give Goal-Directed service design a try?

Chris Noessel

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