Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.



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Designing Service Design Principles

'Principles' are a very common feature of most service design projects. Many people have even posited meta-principles (see Bove/Fullerton and Evenson) to help guide the development of services.

Principles appear at different stages of a project and can be used in a variety of different ways. Being able to develop useful principles is, in my opinion, a core skill for all service designers. In order to be able to develop effective principles its important to understand:

  • the value and purpose of principles;
  • the differences between different types of principles;
  • when and where to use these different principle types during projects;
  • the creative process that leads to effective principles; and,
  • how to decide if your principles are indeed effective.

Below I've outlined some of my experiences developing service principles. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send 'em straight via Twitter!

What are principles and why are they important in service design?


For the purposes of this discussion, I'm assuming that principles are creative generalisations that form the basis of further reasoning or conduct. Normally, these are expressed as short sentences, and sometimes even single words. Often they are supported by a longer sentence. Generally they come in sets (often between 3 and 7), ideally they are easy to remember (sometimes they are even mnemonic).



Importantly, service design principles are creative, that is they are not like scientific principles which are provable and explanatory, but rather they are intended to provoke further thought and reflection, within a set of creative parameters. Some example principles, for very different parts of different projects could include:

  • "Swift. Journey's with us are quick and seamless. There's everything you need and nothing you don't."
  • "Show appreciation. When a customer does something, smile and thank them for it!"
  • "Progressive disclosure. Only reveal details when the user requests them, but if details are requested, don't hide anything"

Good Service design principles are like miniature, robust, flexible briefs. Like all good briefs, they should both inspire and regulate decision making within the design and service programme. All designs generally benefit from an underlying order that creates an extensible logic for creativity (examples include grid systems or 'design language'), but principles are especially important in service design activity because:

  • Services are intangible and principles provide an anchor for thinking. This is especially true for service design projects focussed on behaviour and staff where there are almost no 'traditional' design touchpoints.
  • Services are designed and implemented by different teams. Designing and delivering services is the responsibility of lots of different groups. Managing design across different channels and touchpoints is challenging and principles provide a shared platform for design evaluation and reflection.

Ironically, generalising about the purpose and benefits of principles is difficult, as there are some very different types of principles used throughout the service design process.

How principles change through a project


The purpose of principles change throughout a project, and in my experience it is rare to carry the same principles all the way through the different stages of a design project. Very broadly speaking there are three different types of principles which mirror the three very broad phases of the service design process - research, design and delivery. Lets examine each of these in turn.

1. Research principles
Research principles are created during the synthesis stages of a research programme. Once observations and insight have been gathered about the service, context or users/providers they are interrogated by the team and patterns and connections are drawn out. The purpose of research principles is to summarise common behaviours, needs, attitudes and so forth into succinct phrases that can be used to inspire further design activity.



Research principles are not findings. The main difference between principles and findings is that research principles are not answers or end points in a process, but are instead a launch pad for further creativity. For example, the statements 'one quarter of users take up three quarters of staff attention' and 'half of users have needs that could be better solved by staff than signage' are findings, whereas 'reduce asymmetric attention' might be a research principle.

Sarah B. Nelson of Adaptive Path has a great essay on how to draw up these principles, which she calls 'design criteria'. As she says: "There’s an art to drawing [design criteria] up. They should give a design team clear direction, while leaving it room to explore different approaches to each problem. And they have to be clear and concise, but neither so reductive that they’re open to broad interpretation, or so abstract that they don’t suggest concrete solutions."

Research principles form a natural coda to the research phases of projects, and they act as a series of mini-briefs going forward into design activity.

2. Design principles
Design principles occur at a later stage in the project, and are normally derived from research principles and concept design activity, and they have important differences. Firstly, design principles are often intended for a more 'traditional' design audience once the overall service design concept has been developed; perhaps a graphic designer who's been commissioned to do some specific signage design work or an interior designer required to do a detailed concept for a service environment. The best principles work across multiple touchpoints.

Secondly, they are generally more focussed on describing how a service element should appear or feel rather than the getting at the functionality of the service itself. for example, our 'reduce asymmetric attention' principle may be evolved into more focused principles such as 'assume illiteracy', 'explain every step' and 'highlight delays'. These kind of principles are most common in service design projects that are essentially multi-channel design projects.

3. Service delivery principles
The final category of principles are used during the operation of the service by managers and service providers. These are often developed with staff and customers through a participatory (or co-design) process. These kind of principles are unique to service designs - whereas research and design principles are found in all types design projects.

The crafting of service delivery principles is a design activity within itself. Not only because the principles need to be easily memorised and useable by staff, but also because to be truly effective they need to be integrated into many parts of the operation - for example by linking them to KPI's or incentives. An example of a service delivery principle could be 'take responsibility' or 'be personal.'

Hang on! What about brand values?


Many people who spend a lot of time thinking about brands would argue that brand values fulfill a lot of the functions of service delivery principles. In my opinion, there are several key differences. Firstly, brand values are essentially focussed on communication, and although this is a vital part of service delivery it is just one part. Secondly, and somewhat paradoxically, brand values are also less focussed in that they treat the entire brand (or organisation) as the domain for the principles, whereas service delivery principles are just for a specific service. However, if they are service delivery principles to be used by the whole organisation, and that organisation's core competence is delvering a customer service then it is hard to discern where the two types of principle begin and end.

Certainly, well written and thoughtful brand values are a vital input into the development of any service, particularly where the service delivery is about tone of voice and style. Any service delivery principles should never contradict any brand values - if they do someone's doing a bad job somewhere.

How do you create good principles?


In my experience, creating principles is more art than science, and improves with experience. It always takes longer than you think, is mainly composed of arguement and debate between the project team, and requires a unique methodology for each project. However, there are several useful pointers that I can say have worked for me when creating principles at different points during projects:

1. Get the basics out the way quickly
There are some kind of banal principles that always crop up in all service design activity that really just describe the basics of a good experience and don't provide much grit to get hold of or any level of differentiation (although doing the basics brilliantly is a very hard trick to master!). Nonetheless, brilliant basics is an operational challenge and not always that useful to concentrate on during creative concept design phases. I find it's best to get these basic principles of the way early, so start by writing down words like simple, clear, seamless, transparent, sustainable, desirable and efficient etc. on the wall before you even get started.



2. Make it visual and make sure its structured
You need a big wall, with lots of space for post-its and writing. Ideally, you'll be working from a structured research output such as a journey map, personas or other material. Just sticking stuff on a wall randomly isn't going to get you anywhere. You should also be ruthless with time, otherwise you'll be there all day. Or week.

3. Work in a group of three
I've got no evidence here, but I find that three is the best number for debating and reflecting. Three means that one person can be thinking and scribbling whilst the others talk, and there's no weird silences when you worry you've 'lost it', which can happen in a pair.

5. Focus on the end user experience
Try to stay focussed on 'what it means for the experience'. Don't get lost in abstract words and concepts, instead always try to ground the principles (or suggestions for principles) in examples of how the principle would be translated into a tangible experience (sometimes called a use case).

4. Avoid single word principles
Single words are rarely expressive enough, and smack of advertising a-ha! moments. Instead, go for 2-3 words or short sentences. It's easier to boil down further later, rather than boil up once you've forgotten what 'diligent' was really meant to refer to.

How to judge success?


Generally, you just know when you've got the right principles, although you of course need experience of working with principles to know what's right. It's a bit chicken and egg. The most important proof is whether your audience (designers, clients, service providers and so on) think they are correct. You can improve the chances of this happening by involving them in the process of developing the principles, and making sure that they are seen as 'in iteration' for a period of time - although you'll have to lock them down at some point otherwise they're not principles.

The biggest proof is in the end-user pudding. Once the service design is operational, what kind of words and phrases to users use to describe their experience? Do they match the intent behind the principles? Users normally just say 'very nice' or 'really easy' or 'quite clear' and so on, so it's important that you control for different types of user and are creative in the methods you use to understand user sentiment.

Hopefully this has been a useful quick glance over the role of principles in designing services. If you have any experiences you'd like to share, or any other comments or suggestions for further reading and so on I'd love to hear about them in the comments or on Twitter!

**All images taken from the much neglected 'Daily Post-it blog' that I run/ignore**
April 5th, 2009 / Tags: servicedesign, practice / Trackback / Comments