Service design at the movies

Services are like oxygen. Everyone uses them every day, but we don’t take much notice unless they are exceptional or go wrong. Though often not the main plot, service design plays a role in many highly entertaining productions. And they can also teach us lessons about what makes services fail or succeed.

Unfriendly computers

Bad services are a notorious source of hilarity in comedies. They revolve mostly around rigid systems that don’t adapt to their clients’ needs. The resulting frustration is all too recognizable. Little Britain’s famous Computer Says No series is a great example. Carol Beer, bank worker and hospital receptionist, is the personification of unhelpful services. Whenever consulted with even the most reasonable request, she lazily types something, then by default replies that: “The computer said no”. Carol teaches us that even though a service might be designed acceptably, it requires flexibility, social intelligence and motivation to be successfully executed.

But sir, you said you wanted it gift wrapped

The same goes for services that are designed with the best of intentions: if you don’t tune into what your customers need, you can still miss the mark completely. In this scene from Love Actually, a man tries to buy his mistress a necklace in a department store. His wife is just around the corner and he is clearly in a hurry. “Look, could we be quite quick”, he insists twice. The shop attendant, though insisting it will be “ready in the flashiest of flashes”, does not pick up on any of the end-user’s cues. He goes on to take his time with three different wrappings, flowers, cinnamon and even holly.

Dystopian services in space

The Pixar film WALL-E presents us with a science-fiction service that speaks to our moral compass. The future earth is covered in heaps of garbage left over from decades of mass-consumerism. Mega-corporation Buy ‘n’ Large has evacuated the population and moved them to fully-automated luxury space cruisers. The plan is for humanity to reside in space until it can return to a clean earth.

Animation characters - very fat people in chairs in film Wall-E

In this scene, you can see how citizens lived on the spaceships. Buy ‘n’ Large designed them with the knowledge they thought they had about humanity, trying to sell their products and services in the most comfortable and accommodating way. This results in a dystopian picture. People are all morbidly obese, leaning back on flying armchairs all day. They constantly focus on their screens, even if the person with whom they are video chatting is right next to them.

The movie raises concerns about services that are completely tailored to the desires of the end user, but overshoot their goal and actually put the users in danger. We can recognise this concern in our present reality as well, though luckily they are addressed with creative design solutions. In Germany, for example, there are some new special traffic lights in places that are visible to people looking down at their smartphones.

Once your eyes have been opened to it, you will not be able to stop seeing service design, good and bad alike, even in fictional scenarios. Enjoy the show!