July 17, 2017


The business of service: Why think tanks need a service design lens

Traditionally the notion of ‘business’ is perceived incongruent with the values of think tanks. Those in academia, the third sector, and government policy makers often distinguish themselves in their pursuit of knowledge and positive social change from corporations, where values can be reinterpreted at the sight of poor economic performance.

However, there is something business has nailed (some more than others): service. + This can refer to the rehearsed and standardised service of a McDonald’s store, the lavish experience of first-class air travel or the unique and personal services that make you feel like you are the only one in the room.

These experiences don’t happen by accident. Much research and design goes not only into what you see and feel (front stage), but also into the support processes and human tasks that create a seamless end-to-end experience (back-stage).

As a think tanker, the reports you provide might appear like your product. However, what people are ‘investing in’ is your knowledge, answers to policymakers’ questions, public events, monitoring and evaluation of policy, and the constant development of knowledge and skills of your audiences in a cycle of co-creating value.

 Services are unusual in that they have impact, but no form. Like light, they can’t be physically stored or possessed and their consumption is often simultaneous with their production.

Therefore, as people’s overall service expectations rise collectively in both our interactions with governments and business, so does the need for think tanks to address and analyse their level of ‘service’ to their audiences.

Let’s consider design for a moment

The embedding of design in both private and public organisations has expanded rapidly and has progressed well beyond what many would recognise. Design’s reach and depth goes beyond the more traditional notions of visual communications and the creation of products.

Design thinking, a widely used term, means many things to many people and it exists in multiple forms.  Indeed, the use of design for change making continues to chart new courses in helping address more complex challenges. It is here that we see a shift in scale and complexity. Design thinking covers the effort to make sense (sensemaking) of organisational and industry challenges as well as new approaches to solve social challenges, as illustrated in Van Patter and Pastor’s challenge scale ‘NextD Geographies’. The application of this type of advanced strategic design practice is applicable to the work of think tanks, and something we will speak about in further articles.

The crafting of services and experiences is now a mainstream way to increase sales, impact, efficiency and uncover service orientated innovation. Moreover, it aims to ensure a connection with a user’s values and develop an ongoing, loyal and meaningful relationship between themselves and their users.

Let us take a look at service design specifically and consider how it may be applied to think tanks.

What is service design?

Service design is the use of particular design methods and tools for the analysis, improvement and creation of seemingly intangible physical and digital services. It aims to connect these interactions with how a person thinks, feels, needs and what actions they might take.

Put simply, it aims to create and enhance services that generate value for the user.

The understanding around service design thinking has evolved in recent years beyond that of a purely marketing-led service encounter focusing on the ‘user’ and ‘provider’ interaction, which pays little attention to the politics and social practices embedded in these experiences. The practice also seeks to understand the value co-creating systems involved; the dynamic exchanges of resources and processes between entities and the socio-material configuration; which goes beyond the understanding of how technology actualises a service to how the associated infrastructure enables the participation in co-articulating it.+ Indeed, as the complexities of these service systems increase, we see ecosystems connected by value propositions, where multi-actors blur the line between customer and service provider.+

For a simple approach, let’s frame service design utilising these five principles: (Adapted from Stickdorn and Schneider’s ‘This is Service Design Thinking’)

1. User centered:  Services should be experienced through the customer’s eyes

Using service design research methods to understand your users’ needs (emotions, knowledge and resources) and what factors of your think tank’s context may influence their behaviour.

This does not mean discounting independence of thought by a think tank, but rather considering what types of questions users may have, their preferences in receiving information, and their needs around other interactions you have with them.

Applying user-centered design research can complement a sophisticated communications viewpoint and provide an additional dimension to understanding interactions.

2. Co-creative: All stakeholders should be included in the service design process

Have you asked your audience, funders and other stakeholders what they need and how you can service them better? Inviting them and a diverse range of your staff to have a seat at the table when you develop these services can mean they are more engaged and aligned. See The Deliberative Think Tank for further views on this topic.

3. Sequencing and visualisation: The service visualised as a sequence of interrelated actions

Visualising and mapping intangible exchanges is a powerful way to connect your user’s actions with your organisations actions, identify further opportunities across the entire system to improve and make experienced staff’s tacit knowledge visible and more accessible to all.

4. Evidencing: Intangible services should be visualised as artefacts

Think of all the things that indicate people have interacted with you, just like your hospitality experience as a guest at a hotel.  These artefacts help people make the intangible tangible, creating cues to enhance your relationship and drive action.

5. Holistic: The entire environment of a service should be considered

Address the system end-to-end. Consider its environment and technology, place, process and people. Consider the consistency of the string of moments (touch points) you have with your users, ensuring each meets their needs and ultimately connects with who you are as a ‘brand’- what drives you collectively and the organisational values.

How can this type of activity help your think tank?

Service design can help think tanks address some of the key challenges they face:

  1. Greater uptake – Orientating your organisation’s efforts beyond a purely marketing communications perspective with a truly user-centric and organisational perspective may deepen your impact and utilisation.
  2. Conserve time, money and resources – Testing your service hypothesis’ and analysing the network of interactions by your users can highlight where resources should or shouldn’t be directed and help make more informed organisational decisions.
  3. Create deeper relationships and enhance trust – Trust is important in think tanks. The accuracy and rigour of research distinctly underpins a think tank’s reputation and impact. Just as to ensure successful policy we must engage with people’s values and relationships, so do think tanks. A service lens can provide a way for you to co-create lasting value with your users, and enhance your ability to engage in meaningful two-way conversations with your users and stakeholders. This can affect the longevity of important relationships.
  4. Bring greater brand value to your organisation – Brands live in the hearts and minds of people and brand value is the measure of how you impact people and create meaning. Ensuring you are connecting all your actions with creating meaning can influence why someone continues to choose your organisation over another.
  5. Uncover improvements and new opportunities (internally and externally) – These processes can help identify issues within a service context both front and back stage, allowing you to see gaps where improvements can be made that affect your customers, your staff and how your organisation operates.
  6. Enhance organisational alignment – redesigning your service offering, or indeed one service can assist in organisational alignment. It can orientate disparate sections of your organisation around a user-centred view and connect them back to the core purpose. This ripple effect can act as a cultural catalyst that creates an openness and readiness to attempt deeper, more holistic change.

As evidence-based advocates, it may be uncomfortable to employ an entrepreneurial and experimental mindset in this context. Just like think tanks have the ability (and need) to be agile as knowledge providers, so should your approach to services. As soon as you have a rough prototype, use it like you would any research to build, measure, test and learn. Consider your hypothesis and, as issues evolve, iterate your approach and question your assumptions, building your organisation’s knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

We here, hope that you can share your journey and your learnings with us. Have you employed a ‘service design lens’ at your think tank? Tell us about your experience.

We want your input! Are you currently applying a strategic design lens to your think tank? In what area would you like to learn more about in this context?


About the author:

Melanie Rayment:  Social designer, facilitator and strategist; designing processes, experiences, programs and strategic interventions.

Read more from: Melanie Rayment