Seek the Magic with Service Prototypes

To design an offering that customers will love, start with a rough draftand co-create

Studies show that people gravitate toward products and services that make them feel good, safe, calm, or happy. Yet the traditional foam core model, created in a design lab and proudly displayed on an executive's desk, can neither capture nor demonstrate the sensory and emotional state of a customer experiencing a company's service.

Think of GM's (GM) On-Star in-vehicle security and communications system. A physical model of the blue OnStar call button doesn't begin to convey the relief a lost or injured driver would feel on hearing the operator's voice. Marketing departments get this, it's why an OnStar ad focuses on the customer rather than the button, yet the distinction is too often overlooked in the development process.

With this in mind, it is strange to me that common practice in the service sector is to still test potential innovations with simple, written concept statements. Worse still are the companies that follow with an expensive pilot only to find that their promising concept missed the mark—because it had focused on the button rather than on what the button meant to the person pushing it.

Looking for Customer Delight

These practices are a terrible waste of time, money, and other valuable resources—including the careers of those brave enough to try new things. Service prototyping is a way to transcend these issues while at the same time improving quality and decreasing risk.

Rather than defining a service by what it does, think of it as the reaction it elicits from the people using it. This is because a service is essentially an experience. Experiences draw on our senses and our emotions, making their creation much more complicated by comparison to the average product you can hold in your hand. As such, more issues must be carefully explored before you can hope for customer delight: What constitutes value? Does the service integrate easily into the customer's lifestyle? What are the brand connotations?

Visualization and prototyping techniques that inspire concept development and iteration by development teams are important tools to aid in this process. When a sensory demonstration of the customer's response to a service comes to life, everyone involved can share the vision. Here are a few guidelines to consider as you strive to understand how your customer's emotions and value systems might interact with your new service.

Rough Draft Must Be Rough

At the front end of innovation, the "rough draft" must be rough. That means prototypes that are cheap, simple and quick. To be effective service prototypes, they should inspire your audience—from beta testers to C-suite decision-makers—to assess the service through the eyes of a customer. How does it make them feel? Is it engaging? What's missing? These early concepts should be unfinished and malleable, inviting improvement. Most importantly, these visualizations should create white space so the user can imagine the concept evolving into a service offering with which he or she would love to engage.

When innovators at the Mayo Clinic wanted to create a self-service check-in experience as part of its world-renowned health-care service, they worked with paper and patients' imaginations to understand how users would expect it to work. Learning as they went, they then deployed simple screen menus on a PC mocked up like a touch screen with someone beside it typing the system's response. During this process the team constantly watched and interviewed patients for the types of interactions, both human and machine, that would improve their overall experience, noting their pain-points and emotional wants and needs along the way.

Good service prototypes appeal to the emotions and avoid drawing attention to features, costs, and applications that can clutter the conversation and derail the excitement factor. Storytelling, vignettes, cartoons, amateur videos—all are low-budget tools that bypass the intellectual "gristmill" and go straight to the heart.

Letting the Customer Get Creative

Scott Stropkay and Bill Hartman of Essential Design in Boston use a technique that involves old magazines, scissors, and glue. In a throwback to kindergarten days, target customers are asked to cut and paste pictures, articles, personal thoughts, and feelings about a topic that relates to a new service idea.

Using this type of technique, if you are exploring the viability of a new cell phone service, and your target market is teenagers, a group of 13- to 19-year-olds might be individually asked to create collages about how they feel about their phones. The key at this stage is to encourage free association by providing a minimal amount of instruction.

Next, one of the teenagers talks about his or her cut-and-paste self-portrait. Can't you just hear that conversation? As the teenager describes her artwork, personal feelings about her cell phone become almost palpable.

"I want to keep my phone on, but then I have to answer when my mother calls. She calls a lot and it's embarrassing."

"I left my phone at home once. Wow, was I ever lost that day!"

"I got 52 text messages one day. That was a good day."

Exploring New Services

The power of the collage simulates her feelings and the environment she wants when using the service. Not only does this provide a healthy check-in on current offerings, but, more importantly, it creates the opportunity to explore new services that will excite, satisfy, or relieve anxiety.

"The idea here is to encourage the customer to co-create and help design the service," says Stropkay. At this point in the exercise, colorful cards with a variety of service ideas can prompt the teens to talk about how a service would make them appreciate their cell phone experience even more. As the research continues, the cards can be ranked or modified and new ideas that emerge added to the pile.

The unchecked emotions that surface during this hands-on experience help validate—and build a business case for—new ideas. Imagine trying to gain these insights through a survey, or around a company conference table. The collages have the added benefit of allowing you to see patterns emerge, and serving as visual talking points that designers can use to generate breakthrough ideas.

Expect and Plan for Iteration

Service innovators and management teams alike must accept that a fair amount of time and budget has to be devoted to early-stage development in order to get an offering right. This is especially true when creating "new to the world" services. Veterans of this sort of exploratory work will tell you it is nearly impossible to get a big idea working quickly. There are simply too many moving parts to optimize.

In an iterative development process, design thinking-methods and tools come in quite handy. User feedback delivered in real time, for instance, and a comprehensive approach to refining multiple touchpoints increase your chances of rapid problem solving. The other key element is a multidisciplinary team led by an experienced professional (a cognitive psychologist, human factors specialist, or marketer, typically) that can keep the development process focused and moving toward the desired result.

Not Ready for Prime Time

Google does this all the time. That's why we see so many of its new offerings in beta. The company expects to be in iteration mode until an offering is ready for prime time, presumably while usage patterns and business model become refined to the extent that a success can be claimed. This practice is part of the operating model—with expectations, schedules and budgets appropriately tuned. If you are interested in driving your company to become a systemic innovator, continuous iteration should become part of your operating model for innovation as well.

So does this mean service prototyping is easy? Nope. While an intuitive, thoughtful facilitator can extract meaning from early-stage prototyping with coarse materials, knowing when to move a project forward and when to keep preparing is a challenge. Is there a magic moment in the process when everyone knows—and agrees—that you've got a good one? How do the initial findings translate into a service offering that truly reflects the desires expressed by the customer? And how does the employees' experience of providing the new service become part of the prototyping process?

The Future in a Video

The answers to these questions are moving targets, but making a corporate commitment to more creative service prototyping efforts is the first step to pinning them down. Measuring human emotion, and customer experience, is a quirky mix of science and art. With practice, companies become adept at extracting useful data from a discipline that lacks clear delineation.

To help drive this point home, have a look at this video of a new health-care monitoring solution envisioned by my Georgetown MBA students last spring. It doesn't answer every question you would have at the fuzzy front end of innovation, but the information it provides in six short minutes would surely be ample inspiration for stakeholders at all levels to see what the future could bring.

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