Service design in the physical space and why it makes sense to design for a minority

Crowd waiting to get in...

Recently we worked on an interesting project in which the goal was to improve the use (and experience) of a physical space. In this project the physical place was a train station but it just as easily could have been a store, hospital or an airport. While I won’t go into detail how “better use” was defined in this project, what I can say is that in our case it came down to increased safety, a smoother flow of people and in general make people feel more comfortable. The physical environment in which a service plays out has a significant influence on the experience of a service. So it’s not uncommon for service design projects to take the physical environment into account.

What made this project even more interesting is that we took the approach to specifically look at the “extreme users“; that small group of people which cause a rather big impact on the experience of the larger group of “normal users”. So instead of analyzing and optimizing the existing customer journey we took the lateral approach and explored the weird and quirky behavior.

Insights come from extreme users and not from center of the bell curve. There’s little inspiration in average usage. – Tim Brown

I’ll give away one of the most valuable insights, one that we also didn’t see coming; extreme users bring an environment to life that would otherwise be sterile.

How should we design for chaos?

We probably all know the scenes from the Japanese metro stations. People waiting for the train lineup very orderly so that everyone can exit and enter quickly. This extremely orchestrated behavior is pretty unique for public spaces. Public spaces usually seem (are?) quite chaotic places. Analyzing the flow of people using computers is a common way to try and understand what is actually happening on the ground. These flows show how people move through a space and what happens in different scenarios (eg. an obstruction by an extreme user). What these flows don’t show is why people behave and move in the way they do. And this is where service design comes in. Once we understand why certain people become extreme users in the first place, we can design interventions that help these extreme users make beter use of the space and thus minimize their impact on the experience of the larger group.

Standing in line for the metro

Take some acting lessons, become the user!

In our project we had to create an image of who the extreme user is. As soon as we started we realized was that extreme users are not tied to a specific location. You’ll find extreme users in places where a lot of people have to share and use the same space. So the first thing we did was move away for the train station and take a broader look at extreme users. An important part of our field research were the contextual interviews at places like supermarkets, restaurants and even coffee shops. Visting these places, talking to the people who run them and observing users in these places helped us to create the initial “extreme users vocabulary”.

To better understand what it means te be the extreme user at the train station we applied another classic design research method. We went to the station, took some props along and tried to behave like an extreme user. In earlier research we had identified different types of extreme users. At the station we tried to place ourself in the shoes of these extreme users and walk through a common scenario, like finding your next train. Roleplaying is one of the most powerful design research methods out there, especially if you can “act” in the real context. The actual experience of being an extreme user helped us to literally see why these users behave in the way they do. This experience also give us much better insights into the needs of the different extreme users. Needs that might be overlooked if we would just have observed the extreme users at the station.

The research phase was just the start of our project and there is much more to tell about it. Understanding what the needs are of extreme users was the first step in designing services that help these users achieve their goal at the station. Eventually we delivered three service scenarios. These service scenarios provide very concrete opportunities on how to create a better experience for extreme users at the train station. And as we’ve said before, improving the experience for extreme users usually means an improvement for all the users.

Using behavior as our material to shape a space

There are 2 important take-aways from this project.

  • 1. to solve challenges in the physical spaces you shouldn’t look at the space itself but at the people who are using it
  • 2. designing for the minority (in our case the extreme users) can be a very successful way to design for the majority

Instead of using the default route and using bricks and mortar to solve a problem in the physical space, which is what architects are good at, this case shows that service designers offer an alternative approach. An approach that is focused on understanding the behavior of people in the space.

by Marc Fonteijn

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