Designing the Intangible, Service Design

We are excited to launch our blog series for #BDW17! If you've written or would like to write an article about Design, give us a shout on info@belfastdesignweek.com.

We are kicking off with an article about Service Design by BDW team member Elizabeth Meehan of coffeenosugar. Elizabeth is also releasing her "Designing For..." blog series on this blog in October, so keep an eye out!


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As a Service designer the intangible counts, and more often than not, it’s the indescribable aspect that keeps someone returning to the same service again and again. Not for the first time, it struck me today that the inability to make the intangible visible in some way may well be why services, that should be doing really well, fail.

On a common sense level, this adds up. Consumers need to perceive the value that’s been added, the x-factor that makes one seemingly identical offer stand out as different to the rest. So how do businesses physicalise what can seem like an intangible concept and communicate this to customers?

Today I stopped on my way home for a coffee; an opportunity to think about a blog post and unravel my day. A new cafe in the area had sprung up so I was keen to see what it was all about. As I came closer I took note of the name and stepped inside. The space was small but fitted out beautifully. A brick wall had been exposed and the lightbulbs hung down at every window creating an inviting space to be in. The tables were wooden and the metal chairs added to the already natural feel of the room. Curious, I asked about the cafe, the concept behind it and the thinking around the name. The barista was keen to chat about the cafe and the place was empty except for a couple of university students who huddled in that familiar way together that suggested they were not in a relationship but close.

The idea behind the café was that of creating 'a third space'; a place which was neither home or work but where you could easily meet a friend and have an intimate conversation or a business meeting. The name did not bear any reflection of this thinking and was instead personal to the owner. The space was lovely but it did not suggest the concept either. Distinct places where both tete-a-tete and strategic meetings could be held was not evident or prompted by demarcated spaces that expressed separate functionalities. I asked him if he thought the strategy was clear to customers who did not ask and he shrugged and said it'll eventually get round.

Of course it would...eventually, but by which time it could well be too late. The added tragedy was there was an absolute need for the concept. Owing to the recession and the shift in how we do work, a surge in new businesses had sprung up as individuals couldn't find a job and were left to create their own work. The trouble was the concept had to be physicalised for people to know it was the ‘go - to’ place for that particular need, in this instance, perhaps a work meeting. A new café wasn't necessarily needed in the city and just added noise to the existing competition, unless it was more than a place to drink coffee. I had no doubt they would struggle to get the edge over competitors if they did not illustrate that they were addressing customer needs over aesthetics, differentiating themselves against identical offers. This business could easily fill their seats if the intangible was as clear as the light fittings that were definitely on trend.

Service Design is used to help businesses understand their customer experience; uncovering the things that puts a customer off, making them leave to understanding the great things a customer keeps returning for. It helps business physicalise the intangible, making visible their unique concept whilst building an offer from the ground up that reflects real need. It is a response to the new economy that businesses must now navigate in the transition from a goods to experience economy, where the experience is equally if not more important than the product itself.

by Elizabeth Meehan of coffeenosugar