Innovation, Provocation and Service Blueprints (plus a short rant)

Over the course of the last four weeks I have been learning about the principles and tools of service design in our Q2 theory course. Service design is a subset of interaction design that involves the coordination of actions and artifacts to provide value for another. This past week I was assigned to read Service Blueprinting: A Practical Technique for Service Innovation by Mary Jo Bitner, et al. In this article Bitner introduces a technique called Service Blueprinting and argues for its use to drive innovation at both the tactical and strategic level. According to Bitner service blueprinting is, “a customer-focused approach for service innovation and service improvement.” It is method of diagramming what the customer sees, does and interacts with as part of a service experience and what the customer does not see but is also necessary to support the experience. Here is an example service blueprint for a generic hotel stay from Bitner’s article.Example Service Blueprint

The five elements that Bitner calls out to include in a service blueprint are Customer Actions, Onstage/Visible Contact Employee Actions, Backstage/Invisible Contact Employee Actions, Support Processes and Physical Evidence. These elements run down the left hand column and provide the structure for the blueprint.

I have two thoughts about this article I’d like to share with you. First, is a criticism.  Bitner emphasizes again and again that much of the value that comes from service blueprints is because they communicate visually. She says that service blueprints, “allow all members of the organization to visualize an entire service and its underlying support processes,” that they are “more precise than verbal definitions,” that service blueprints are an example of the old adage that, “a picture is worth a 1000 words,” and that “service blueprinting can help […] overcome the limitations inherent in asking customers to describe such a service by using words alone.” Why belabor this point? Because throughout the article Bitner congratulates herself and her team for using this wonderful visual method, yet produces a 25 page article that has 2 images, and really one those is a detail of the other. She provides the example of the service blueprint for the generic hotel stay (above) and then goes through five case studies of companies that supposedly transformed their businesses using service blueprints and doesn’t show any of them. (End rant).

Second, I’d like to explore how service blueprinting might be a hinderance or an aid to innovation. I can imagine how service blueprints are valuable for identifying breakdowns in existing service structures and for planning and managing the complex interactions involved in a new service. But I wonder if they also become self fulfilling prophesies once the basic armature of the customer actions are created. Do people feel constrained to imagine solutions that fit neatly into one of the cells created by blueprint structure? Seeing the service blueprints from Bitner’s case studies would be helpful in addressing these questions.

Throughout this year we have talked a lot about provocation as tool for focusing creativity around a particular problem, without being weighed down by existing solutions. Provocations usually involved forced mash-ups of seemingly unlike things or prospective shifts. The ideas generated from these provocations can lead to innovation by breaking free from the expected. How could a service blueprint be a tool of provocation? Using the generic hotel example provided by Bitner I have rearranged the data to provoke new design ideas.

I reordered the customer actions at random. Much of what results is absurd. But think of a disruptive service like Uber. The idea that you would pay for a cab ride, and give the driver your destination before getting into the car was absurd, until wasn’t. I have not tried to rationalize a complete system around any of these ideas. I have just used the new relationships created by the customer actions and seemly mismatched employee actions and artifacts as a jumping off point for new ideas.

Here is my modified version of Bitner’s blueprint, in which the yellow boxes containing customer actions have been reordered.


Resulting Design Ideas:

  • Customer includes flight information for arrival on website and bellhop collects the guest’s bags at the airport.
  • Guest orders dinner before traveling to hotel. Hotel monitors travel delays and makes sure dinner is hot and ready when guest arrives.
  • Hotel parking lot becomes like a Sonic Drive-In and food is delivered to guests while still in their cars.
  • Hotel rooms are like parking spots in a lot. Signage indicates which floors have available rooms and guests wonder around and look at open rooms, when a suitable room is found the guest checks in from the room.
  • Distribute a printout with room services specials for that day/night attached to guests’ bags.
  • Make it easier for businesses to control employee travel expenses. Reserve room and check out and pay at the same time. Hotel amenities could be like minutes on a prepaid phone card, you only get as much as initially paid for.
  • Store guests’ luggage outside of room, deliver just what the guest needs at the appropriate moment. Toiletries at night, exercise clothing before guest goes to gym, etc.
  • Room service brings up a mobile buffet table or Benihana style table. Guest looks at what is available and then orders.

Other methods for provocation would be to reorder the physical evidence, switch what is visible and what is invisible to the customer, or overlay the service blueprint for a totally different type of service. In both the case of incremental improvements and wide ranging provocations, what is valuable about the service blueprint is that it brings together many disparate and complex components so they can be understood and manipulated.