Like any regular use of a technique it’s good to mix it up to shake-up the monotony (or complacency). Observation is a regular part of our research process so as a creative boost we decided to use the technique in a deliberately under-engineered way.
We chose a telco, and a rapid informal observation approach. There’s three reasons why we chose to observe the service in the retail outlet of a telco:
- Telcos are interesting. They’re part utility, part service, part product. You can get technical and service advice for home, for office, for mobility, for local use, for overseas use.
- There’s been recent marketing and PR around being more customer-centric by some of the telcos.
- We’re a customer of a telco (obviously) and a recent experience as customer’s had us thinking as designer/customer in terms of the experience.
The set-up was no prep, no specific service design outcome, no interaction with participants in the service system itself. We just wanted to literally observe, take notes and photos over a 10 minute period and then share our observations (ie.. not a deep, contextually driven systemic view of current and possible retail opportunities faced by retail outlets in the telecommunications industry).
To undertake the observation we set ourselves up for 10 minutes each between 10.30 and 11.00 on a Friday morning. We were opposite a single retailer, in a mall concourse which included five direct competitors and an accessories/repairer store.
What we observed – Our telco retail observations
- Apart from the retail floor space, there was a clear “back-of-house” obvious to the public.
- A space we assume to be set-up for customer comfort, looks like and was used as “staff space”.
- Product accessories (e.g. phone covers) were prominent in the store due to their placement at the front near the counter (and in the way of some exiting customers).
- The generic layout didn’t seem to take into account the surroundings (i.e. a phone accessories store was next door).
- While there was a lot of movement on advertising screens the environment itself appeared static.
- The people observed passing by didn’t glance at or into the store. Only those who entered did.
- The physical environment didn’t support the staff to carry out some tasks (e.g. the folders that carried forms were bigger than the tables they rested on).
The role of the service agent
- All three staff looked like they were “working on something” and that you would interrupt them if you entered.
- You could not tell the roles or expertise of the three different agents but they were wearing different coloured t-shirts with current advertising slogans.
- There seemed to be a considerable volume of paper-based activity which was transferred to the customer.
- The messaging was focused on technology features or service components, rather than user-specific outcomes (e.g. “amazing network” more prominent then what that actually means to a customer).
- The most prominent message was about the NBN, but this seemed out of date given current NBN rollback decisions.
- The only apparent attempt at service segmentation was the split between “on the move” and “at home/office”.
- Two of the four advertising screens in-store we’re not working.
What could that mean – Interpretation of our observations
- The store itself is apparently set-up for quick transactional interactions with customers at the front, and more detailed interaction at the back.
- The design of the environment seems to support a transactional visit rather than a retail experience, or trusted and ongoing service relationship visit.
- For a retail space to be customer-centric it still needs to cater for the service agents place. Otherwise, as we observed, they will make the space their own, which may not be ideal for a retail transaction as it can be intimidating to entering customers.
- While we’re sure that the client breakdown of the telco we observed is sophisticated we didn’t see anything that would support specific types of interaction we are aware of such as: tech support, tyre kickers, browsers, contract hunters, contract support, etc.
What did we learn – Our observations on observation
- Having no focusing question meant the observations were wide-ranging and not purposeful towards answering a design question.
- Designers think similarly – we had similar themes when we debriefed – meaning we had a natural service expectation bias. With more focused prep and background research this would have been balanced, however, as would have been involving an actual user in the observation.
- There’s a difference between observation and interpretation and it reminded us to make sure when we do observe, as we were taught, we split the notes into “Observation” and “Commentary” for later reflection outside of the observation itself.
The boost was good for our creativity but also to allow us to step out of our usual public sector focus (for just a short time). We’d be keen to hear what private sector or retail designers think of our observations.