Design Thinking: The Key to a Superior Service Experience

I had the opportunity to visit the office of the Registration and Stamp Duty Department of Government of Maharashtra recently. If it had not been for the signboard outside the office, I would have thought that I was in a waiting room at a local railway station. As a consultant who routinely deals with process redesign and efficiency improvement, I took a keen interest in observing the layout of the place and the movement of people in and out of the office.

 

The non-air-conditioned room, which had a single unmanned entry/ exit point, was about 20 feet long and 15 feet wide, with a partition halfway along its width and a pillar in the middle of one of the halves of the partition. Rows of four-seat benches squeezed into the space on either side of the pillar. The pillar had extendable shelves, which served as tabletops for persons who had forms to fill out at the last minute, sticking out towards the benches. The combined width of the pillar and these shelves formed a narrow passage for persons streaming in and out of the room, about forty people at a given moment. A part of the other half was enclosed for an unknown purpose – there were no signs on the enclosure. There were no washrooms, pantry, or even a water dispenser visible.

 

A door, vaguely marked ‘Office’, at the edge of the room led to the space where the actual registration procedure took place. A small indicator on the outside announced the token number of the person next in queue. I could not make out how the tokens were generated or when and where one procured them. Inside the ‘Office, all the three walls facing the door were lined with unmarked open racks and shelves of paper files, almost reaching the 18 feet high ceiling.

 

About six officious staff sat at the two desks facing the door, surrounded by a dozen clerks, peons and service staff. Apparently, these persons knew where they should be positioned in this vague room without any signages (barring the printed pages announcing that one of the services was now available online). There were persons who came in when their token was announced and looked around inquiringly as to where and how to proceed; these were the hapless ‘customers’ of the Registration service.

 

Another group of about half a dozen apparently important persons flitted in and out of the room and occupied the space in front of the desks. They seemed to know what was going on and who was responsible for what. They also ushered the ‘customers’ to the appropriate seat at a desk as required. I reckoned that these were the ‘agents’, the ‘know-alls’, the ‘catalysts’ that kept the process flowing smoothly, the ‘oil’ that greased the government machinery. Without them, the so-called ‘system’ would collapse.

 

The 10 feet by 15 feet space of the office was, hence, teeming with over thirty people at any point in time. A 1.5 ton capacity air-conditioner tried in vain to cool the air.

 

I wondered… for a service that apparently processes about four thousand documents in a day, valued at about INR 30 Crores (US$ 4.5 Mn), is this the best state of infrastructure and process that the government could provide?

 

Contrast this with the experience at the spanking new processing centres of the Regional Passport Office in Mumbai. Online access and registration for appointments, tight security and screening at the entry gates, clearly designated and marked zones for different parts of the processing cycle, viz. presentation of documents, checking of documents, approval of passport, authorization of passport, issuance of passport, and exit clearance, all in a seamless manner. There are also water coolers, washrooms with access for the disabled, a well-stocked cafeteria, a baby-care area, a photocopier, and stationery supply. Many thanks to TCS, who streamlined the process and possibly designed the layout for the facility.

 

Process design always fascinated me but these two experiences at opposite ends of a spectrum really got me thinking about how critical design is to a great customer experience for any service provider. These six key aspects typically go into incorporating design thinking in processes for a service:

 

  1. Separate areas for distinctly different activities

Activities could be different in that they require different equipment, skills, lead times, validation times, mechanical inputs, authorization, etc. It is best to mark these separately. The Passport Office exemplifies this beautifully. Retail banks have always followed this practice.

 

  1. Separate entry points from exit points

This is an extremely critical requirement where movement of persons is concerned, especially in areas that require high security. But the biggest advantage served by this tactic is the avoidance of jams in the process, creating a more equal service experience for all. Think about an airport or a subway system.

 

What struck me most when I first travelled on the London Underground (now called the Tube, but I’m old-fashioned like that) was how I never had to be apprehensive about somebody running into me from the opposite direction. It was such a refreshing experience after several years as a commuter on Mumbai Local Trains.

 

  1. Maximise the output of bottlenecks by reducing redundant processes

Bottlenecks can often derail a process. Airlines have tried and often succeeded in managing this. Take the airline checking-in process, for instance. Undoubtedly, the most time-consuming of all airline processes (if we leave out security checks at JFK!), this process has been made leaner by resorting to options such as online check-in & kiosk check-in, and separate counters for frequent flyers or premium class flyers or passengers with special needs. Of course, there is tremendous scope for improvement.

 

  1. Signpost important areas, especially ‘special needs’ areas

Regardless of how inefficient a process a may be, this simple trick can alleviate a lot of customer chagrin. Human tendency is to control one’s environment as far as possible. Just the thought that one knows where one is relative to another place puts an element of control into the customer’s hands. Munich Airport does this very well. It is also one of the few hub airports that cares to put out enough recliners and mark quiet zones for long layover passengers.

 

On the other hand, a baby products retailer that I happened to visit seemed to have missed a critical opportunity because its circulation space was too narrow to allow the passage of baby strollers that it retails! As if that were not enough, its baby care room had neither any ventilation nor an air-conditioner, not even a fan!

 

  1. Mark designated spaces to catch the overflow

Any process could be subject to overflows every once in a while, where its throughput gets challenged. It helps to think ahead about such eventualities and design spaces that can handle the spillover. Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital has combined this challenge with addressing a real customer need, when including a large cafeteria with several options of cuisines. It automatically reduces crowds loitering in passageways while giving people a sense of comfort and caring. Dubai Airport, on the other hand, has channelled this opportunity into a revenue earner. One would be hard put to find a place to sit at this airport. By making most of its circulation space a shopping zone, all spills generate bills!

 

  1. Make space for public conveniences

The need to ingest and expel are two of the most basic human needs. Making these facilities available to those you serve shows thoughtfulness. An unexpected benefit is that you are likely to meet a more amicable customer rather than an irate/ frustrated/ desperate one.

 

Whether a business is offline or online, the customer and her needs remain the same. Great service design could significantly differentiate your value proposition.

 

 

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