Service Design, Automation Satisfies User Needs

Automation is inextricably linked to designing services nowadays.  This short article is a primer.

For context, we probably take automation for granted.  We come into contact with it at grocery store self-checkout, to chatbots for answering consumer questions online, and even more sophisticated customer service of the type used by online retailer Amazon, to name a few.

As an aside, self-checkout is perhaps the most sophisticated application of the examples of automation.  A checkout signal for the store to re-stock likewise notifies suppliers and then communicates with manufacturers so they can ramp up production to meet consumer needs.  This is otherwise known as a supply chain, but at its core, the end-to-end components make up a service.  As with most services, self-checkout benefits both users, in this case, while providers can reduce labor costs.

Caveat Emptor: Even though most of this article deals with the provider’s side of automating tasks within a service, service designers must not overlook the user requirements for a satisfying service experience.  Too often, it seems, regardless of a provider’s motivation for automation, it inevitably removes or reduces the human contact of an experience.

STEP ONE—think through the benefits of automation.  At ISDI, we have come up with seven categories for automation benefits:

  1. Provide a means for users to solve their own problems. (Customer support)
  2. Help providers better address users’ desires and interests (Amazon, Google, e.g.)
  3. Reduce fixed labor costs (replacing, repurposing, or augmenting staff).
  4. Provide transparency into provider operations for service improvement (journey map data, etc.)
  5. Allow for real-time or just-in-time operational changes.
  6. Better manage time and opportunity costs. (Operate 24/7).
  7. Improve workflows, and eliminate errors (Establish workflows that can be improved (including with the use of machine learning).

STEP 2—Determine which tasks to automate. Hint: Depends on task complexity and perceived value.

In a 2017 report from McKinsey & Company, the global management consulting firm estimated that nearly half of all work activities can be automated with the available technology.

  1. Deciding what to automate, depends on whether increased productivity will result.
  2. Calculating perceived value requires tallying up fixed and sunk labor costs, time savings, and any other measurable benefits—balanced with how reliable the automation performs (with complexity serving as a dependent variable).
  3. Inevitably, degrees of complexity, often due to technology, play an outsized role in deciding whether to automate—due to development and maintenance expenses. Yet complexity should not be a sole deterrent.

EXAMINING COMPLEXITY:  IBM’s Institute for Business Value offers three categories for identifying automation complexity.

  1. Basic: These tasks are repetitive and follow simple rules. Required data is from structured data sources (e.g. issuing invoices, initiating bank transfers, and sending notification emails).
  2. Advanced: These are regularly recurring tasks with predefined outcomes, yet they involve varying actions in order to meet a user’s need (e.g. a price quote).
  3. Intelligent: These tasks are unpredictable and do not adhere to a simple structure. In any given transaction or experience, the automation will require complex workflows to arrive at the desired user outcome. (e.g. retrieving lightning-speed answers to user searches across the world via Google).


Labor Costs:  Labor costs should be calculated based on the total labor expenditure of any position (fully loaded– including salary, benefits, and taxes) for a position).  Add the sum total of a ‘fully loaded’ position and divide by the number of hours worked to arrive at a labor cost.

Time Loss: An automation should be capable of performing its task 24 hours a day, every day, with 100% accuracy.  A single worker won’t perform at those levels and may require up to three workers to come close.
To calculate reduced labor costs savings with automation:

  1. Calculate the time the automation would take to complete the task.
  2. Calculate the time a human would take to complete the task, minus any mistakes, breaks, or errors.
  3. Compare the two values.

Opportunity Cost: Oftentimes there are unforeseen opportunities that arise from automation (not necessarily intuitive).  Hence, if a provider fails to automate, they will not realize a potential.

  • Reduced Costs: By adopting automation, you can produce goods or deliver services at a reduced cost in exchange for a one-time investment in automation. With reduced costs, you increase your profits, which can be reinvested in new opportunities.
  • Reduce Lead Time: With automation, you might be able to serve customers quicker, leading to healthier cash flow. For businesses with physical products, this also reduces inventory and storage requirements.
  • Reduce Errors: Automation guarantees that a task is completely accurate. Without errors, customer satisfaction will improve and labor costs are reduced.
  • Increased Scalability: As your business grows, your customer service needs will grow with it. Automated customer service can be scaled to meet the needs of a more extensive customer base without sacrificing quality or speed.

Once you decide to go forward, after these evaluations, service designers need to determine what the end result will look like, and design backward to that end by filling in a continuum for what needs to occur, component by component.  With this approach, most complexity can be broken down into more manageable pieces.  I advise clients that by following this prescription, not only will they have a schematic for the service (see service blueprint and service prototyping) but they will also have specifications for developing the needed components that will make the service system work.

Like all worthwhile projects, it takes a bit of digging into the details.  But in my experience, it’s always worth the effort, if even just making a go-no-go decision.  And it’s even more satisfying when you wind up with a successful automation that meets user needs and provides a benefit to a service provider.

Steven J. Slater is a Master Designer and co-founder of the International Service Design Institute (ISDI), which offers books and e-courses for practicing service design in the field.  Each book and course follows on prior learning and includes models, tools, videos, and photos for an interactive learning experience, Though learners can jump with appropriate level courses or books, depending on their prior knowledge, you can find a fit through our exclusive assessment.

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