How service design helped this startup learn to tackle their business step-by-step.
As part of our continuing mentorship program at Rock Health, Cooper teamed up with Studio Dental co-founders Dr. Sara Creighton and Lowell Caulder to help them disrupt the dental industry with their mobile dental service. The startup gained early support from a successful $40K Indiegogo campaign, and for Cooper, this project has been a great opportunity to demonstrate the value of service design.
"If I were to put a finger on the biggest ah ha moment, it was probably, “Oh, services are designed!”
- Lowell Caulder, co-founder, Studio Dental
In this conversation, the co-founders share how and why Studio Dental was born, and they reveal an "ah ha" moment or two, including the discovery that the impact of service design is everywhere, and central to any industry’s success.
Cooper: Can you tell us a bit about your organization? How was Studio Dental started?
Lowell: Sara and I met randomly about four years ago at a mutual friend’s costume party. She was dressed as the tooth fairy and I was one of the Village People. A few months later, I found myself as one of her patients. I was doing Invisalign treatment which means that you have to go back to the dentist every 6 weeks so we got to know each other pretty well. We also discovered that we went to the same yoga studio. Sara knew that I was headed to business school and that I had an interest in starting a company. About two years ago, she mentioned to me that she had an idea for a mobile dental office in the city.
Dr. Creighton: My experience at my last practice told me that people want to take care of themselves, but dentists have not made that easy. Finding a good dentist, scheduling an appointment, getting to your appointment… It’s a very time-consuming process. I was looking for a way to make it easy for people to get to the dentist.
Cooper: So creative sparks really flew after that first meeting in line at the bathroom.
Lowell: It was major. The idea made so much sense to me because I was the target patient. I saw the appeal of a mobile dental office for people at work, but I also understood the opportunity to redesign the dental experience for everyone to make it an easier and more enjoyable process. I was so motivated by the idea that I dropped out of Harvard Business School to jump head first into this.
Dr. Creighton: Meanwhile I had a full time practice in North Beach, and I couldn’t do both at the same time. So I also took the plunge and left to pursue this with Lowell.
Cooper: That’s pretty courageous on both your parts. Were there any early obstacles at this point?
Lowell: Like most start-ups, our biggest hurdle was trying to get others to see our vision. Halle Tecco at Rock Health got it. She reached out to us after she saw our Indiegogo campaign.
Dr. Creighton: Right. I think the application deadline at Rock Health was something like 36 hours away, but we pulled it together and luckily were accepted to the January 2014 class.
Cooper: That must have been intense. So what has the experience at Rock Health been like?
Lowell: Getting accepted by Rock Health was an important milestone for us; it was the first in a series of small wins.
Dr. Creighton: Yes, it added fuel to our little fire, and brought is some important practical things, like a physical space to work in, instead of Lowell’s living room. And it was a nice transition back into what real work would look like, getting together and working together.
Lowell: The cool thing about Rock Health is you get eight more smart minds helping you solve your problem.
Dr. Creighton: It’s been such a gift. They do a lot of work for us. For instance they introduced us to an engineer on a Rock Health team who built our scheduler, and of course they introduced us to you guys at Cooper.
Working with Cooper has really helped us formalize our thinking around service design. They helped us see the range of possibilities and identify formerly dreaded interactions that we could design to be pleasant and smooth. We knew we wanted to make going to the dentist feel different, but Cooper forced us to be more specific about that. They gave us processes and tools to actually define what we were trying to interpret and put down on paper. So instead of just saying “I want to be different” they gave us a way to work through it – something concrete.
Lowell: Totally. Now I realize how really good service design correlates with a positive user experience. After working with Cooper I started to notice how other services around me are also designed, and I saw ways to apply that to our project. For instance, the user experience at the Apple Genius Bar starts way before you step into the door. From getting an appointment to finding the location and meeting their service providers, every step is designed, everyone goes through the process. That was something I had never thought about before, and to step through figuring that out with Cooper’s designers was super helpful.
Together we designed a process that ensures our patients get a simple text reminder 24 hours before their appointment and an email with an estimate of the cost of their treatment and insurance coverage. Every point of interaction we have with customers is carefully designed like that, and this is one of the things we didn’t have without Cooper—that process.
Dr. Creighton: I really cannot imagine an industry in more of a need of sprucing up than dentistry. Our patients’ expectations are so low because the service experiences in most dental settings is very low, so it’s fun to overturn those expectations. We’ve so dramatically changed the experience that we’ve actually gotten people excited about seeing the dentist! It’s rewarding to see people’s reactions when they step into this space.
Cooper: Have you been surprised at all by the design process?
Dr. Creighton: There was one revelation that surprised me. Starting out, I was mainly concerned with how we communicate with patients, and I had little ways to test things in my bubble, but then Cooper blew that all up and re-defined it from before a patient even sees you, from the perspective of what they are thinking about. Another realization was that there are people who won’t even be interacting with Studio Dental but who will still influence the patient experience and the impression of our brand. In terms of all that, Cooper taught us almost everything, and illuminated how big it could be.
Cooper: What are the problems you’re aiming to solve with Studio Dental?
Lowell: The insurance coverage is confusing and can be a real deterrent to seeing a dentist at all. Many people don’t know know how to find a good dentist or how often they should be going. We want Studio Dental to make all that easy and seamless for patients.
Dr. Creighton: Yes. Dental benefits are very unclear to people. Patients are often very nervous about what treatment will cost so we make sure every patient knows what they’ll owe before they walk in. We’ve found that patients really appreciate this transparency.
Cooper: Service design in action.
Lowell: Right. Typically we know what a service costs before we consume it, and the provider collects all payment at the time of delivery, which is not consistently done in dentistry. Cooper helped us think through redefining some of these interactions and delivering on what we promise our patients. It’s become part of our community rules.
Dr. Creighton: Another area we focused on is accessibility. I’ve seen patients in the last week that haven’t been to the dentist in many years, and some are coming back three days in a row now. Why? We’re very busy people, we have a million things we want to do or have to do, and dentistry is at the bottom of the list, so we focused on making ourselves an accessible presence that can’t be ignored. We took leaving the office out of the equation by delivering a dentist to where people work.
Cooper: And by all accounts it’s been a great success. So what’s next?
Lowell: There are several near-term goals. So far Sara has been the only provider, so we want to learn what it looks like to have two providers or two shifts of providers in the same day. Next, we are thinking about how to build more offices - both mobile and traditional brick and mortar. The number of people reaching out to us and requesting our services is growing every day, so we need to build our capacity.
Dr. Creighton: Also how to serve spouses and children, how to give people tons of flexibility on where or when they schedule—maybe the brick and mortar is open on Saturdays. It’s interesting to think about the combination and interplay between the truck and brick and mortar.
Lowell: And then there’s the issue of specialists—we’re exploring how to coordinate care among specialists so that you can see all of your providers under the same roof.
Cooper: Sounds like plenty ahead to work on. What would you tell others about your experience with Rock Health and Cooper?
Lowell: It’s such a valuable experience. It’s fun, hard work. We would leave Cooper meetings just shocked that so many smart, busy people had dedicated so much time to helping us solve problems. If I were to put a finger on the biggest ah ha moment, it was probably, “Oh, services are designed!”
Dr. Creighton: That’s true. And the other big ah ha after the four weeks was, “and it works!!!” It’s like we got let into a back door and saw something that is usually hidden. It was very illuminating to discover that this practice exists, and seeing people work methodically through a design practice was eye opening. Bottom line, well-designed services lead to greater success.