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Using Service Design to Create Better, Faster, Stronger Designers

July 2019


Article credits
Katie Koch

When it comes to tackling the challenges of a swiftly growing company like Spotify, service design is an essential tool. Here, senior design manager Katie Koch explains how it’s an integral part of her team’s process – strengthening designers and helping them make faster, better decisions in moments that matter.

In the 13 years since Spotify was set up, the company has grown incredibly fast – expanding all over the world and increasing its user base at a pace that’s uncharted for product development. As of 31 March 2019, there are now a staggering 100 million subscribers to Spotify Premium. The Premium design team is responsible for improving their user experience in the purchase funnel, driving their long-term engagement, and making them feel like Spotify Premium is a brand where they belong, as they become more deeply invested in our service.

At Spotify, we prioritize delivering value to our customers, so getting to market fast is sometimes the most important benchmark. We’re constantly shipping, so we find agile solutions that enable us to learn from our users to create the right products for them, making constant improvements to our UX all the time. Shipping helps us meet our true goal: to create real experiences for people that make their lives richer. This goal is what makes designing for Premium so complex and exciting.

High quality at high speed

If we expect someone to subscribe to Spotify Premium and stick with our service for a long time, they need to find it valuable. But what’s valuable to a middle-aged father of three in California might be totally different for a university student just down the street. As a business, we must meet the different needs of our customers with the right Premium for them.

This idea that different people find value in different ways also extends across borders. For example, that student in California might be mortified to hear an ad on Spotify while playing music on a shared speaker, which is a very different reason for subscribing to Premium from a student in India – where more people expect music to be freely available and are not as bothered by advertising in their listening experience.

When we’re focused on creating experiences that make people’s lives richer, we uncover these differences and, therefore, can design for them in our process. Yet, our work needs to fit in with the fast-paced culture of shipping. So, in this environment – where growth and change are constant – we use service design as a tool to attain the highest quality of shipped experiences within the timeframe available. We think of our product as a service with many user touchpoints spread out across time and contexts, and we’re able to use the tools of service design to make an otherwise invisible service feel tangible.

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits.

1. Service design helps us stay connected across teams

Spotify is no longer simply a means of music streaming – it’s a way for users to share music, play podcasts, discover new artists, and build their individual taste profiles. As a global design team responsible for every aspect of the user experience, we need to stay up-to-date with all these different happenings as they happen.

Of course, we share work at regular cross-team meetings, broadcast updates, and show-and-tells. But sometimes the need for communication is bigger and more complex. That was the case last year, when our team started developing a new Premium offering, Premium Duo. This pilot program launched in 5 markets in a project that spanned many different business units and disciplines.

By the time we got involved in the project, the basic framework for the plan had already been established in our business strategy. Premium Duo was to be a plan for two people living together, with perks that met their specific needs – that is, shared playlists for listening at home and individual accounts for listening separately, all for one monthly bill.

Premium Duo subscription on Spotify.

Our challenge was to design the UX to deliver the value of this new Premium pilot experience to our customers. So as the lead team on the project, we used service design to create the north star super early on in this project. We wanted to kick-off with a user experience vision for other teams to follow, so that we could work at the same time and stay in sync, all moving toward the same holistic user experience.

One of the first activities our team did was to create a set of storyboards to illustrate the future potential for the new plan. We started with our Spotify personas to anchor the stories in real user needs based on research. Below is Shelley, for instance. She’s our “creature of habit." We imagined her living as a couple with her girlfriend, and filled in her story based on real couples we’d met in the field.

Shelley, one of Spotify's personas, and her story on Premium Duo's context.

Then, one of our amazing designers, Mady Torres de Souza, illustrated each scenario in a comic-strip style storyboard. We wanted to show how it feels to be a Duo member, without sketching screens or worrying about which features would make it to the MVP.

The storyboards turned out to be a big win for the project. As artifacts, they drove many of the early conversations about what the service should be and how we should talk about it with users. Plus, they were something tangible to share with collaborators early in the process, so we could get important feedback and quickly evolve our thinking.

One of the use scenarios illustrated by Mady.

We also did a round of bodystorming and collaborated with our partners on a journey map. We didn't label these activities as service design. We just did them. There was no need to have a formal practice – we could borrow the activities and artifacts of service design, and use them in a way that fitted our project.

2. Service design is an opportunity to enroll partners in the process

Product development isn’t just designers working alone – we need engineers, product managers, and marketers to help us realize our plans and connect people to our creations. Using service design helps us be better collaborators and cultivate these all-important relationships with others.

To demonstrate this, I want to tell you about our cash payments project in Indonesia. But first, put yourself in the shoes of a Spotify user in Jakarta – someone who’s keen to sign up to Premium, but doesn’t own a credit card or even have a bank account. That’s not an unusual situation in Indonesia, where the cost of living is low in comparison to the West, and many people use cash for the majority of their financial transactions. Committing to a monthly subscription service can be a real mental and physical barrier.

So, in order to meet local needs, we have an MVP solution in place in Indonesia to enable people without credit cards to get Premium. We partner with local cash payment merchants, like convenience stores, to allow people to pay in cash towards a digital voucher for Spotify Premium. After getting a code from Spotify, they go through an eight-step process, so the cash they hand over is credited to their account correctly.

One of the many convenience stores in Jakarta that help users pay for Spotify Premium subscriptions.

With these pay-as-you-go solutions, our customers are usually paying for just one month of Premium each time. Every month when their paid time expires, they have to go back and do it all again. So although these solutions meet a minimum need, we weren’t happy with the complicated user experience. It didn’t deliver on two of our fundamental payments design principles – “Seamless” and “Part of the Journey.”

In everything we do, we strive to make paying for Premium a quick, simple, and connected experience that doesn’t feel like a diversion from listening to Spotify. But these listeners were having to go out of their way to get Premium and visit a different physical location to buy it.

We’re not talking about just a few users here. In some Asian markets, there are more pay-as-you-go customers than credit card users. So we have a lot of stakeholders interested in our strategy for Indonesia, and we were keen to get them involved in the design work.

We created a cross-functional dream team with a strategy lead, marketing lead, data scientist, product designer, product manager, and user researcher. First, they needed to understand how our MVP was doing in the market and create a map of all our flows to capture the current situation. They took just two weeks to gather data, document the flows, and assemble it into a series of maps.

All of our flows mapped neatly.

This first experience helped the team come together as a working group, even though many had never worked side by side before. The mapping activity forced them to go deep into the problem space and get familiar with cash payments. They needed to become experts quickly.

After capturing as much as they could by going through the flows online, the team soon hit a major blocker. It’s impossible to complete a cash payment in Indonesia if you’re sitting at your desk in Europe, which meant they could only see part of the user experience.

So the team took their work a step further. They went on a research trip to Indonesia to watch real people use our payment flows. Because they’d already gone deep into the problem space, they knew what questions to ask while in the field. They were already tuned in to observe the payment culture and behaviors and get the most out of their trip.

Jakarta, Indonesia.

In Jakarta, the team experienced life as locals. They talked to shop owners and tagged along with people who were going to pay their utility bills in cash. They learned that what we view as a strange, difficult process for paying for Premium is seen as normal and expected in the eyes of our customers in Indonesia.

This finding completely changed the mission of the project. We started off thinking our MVP wasn’t a compelling experience. But in fact, the problem was in the fundamental way we think about paying for Premium with cash. Instead of fitting cash as a payment method into our Premium service, we needed to fit our Premium service to the way people use cash.

It’s a big shift. But for this team, buy-in was built into the process. In any other project, this kind of fundamental rethink might require weeks of socializing with stakeholders to reorient the work. The project might even get cut! But because the stakeholders had participated in the mapping and research, everyone was already aligned with the need for change.

After their trip, the team used their artifacts to tell a different story. They used their maps to create a framework for UX improvements we’d need to make, and called out moments where the problems were bigger than just a tweak.

The outcome of their work wasn’t a shipped product. It was a directional change in their strategy. And no one questioned the need to take a step back, because the whole team had discovered it together.

Let’s move on to one last benefit of service design – one that almost outshines the others:

3. Service design builds a foundation for designers to make better decisions in the moment

Even though we’re in constant motion, it’s essential we make time for design work that doesn’t lead directly to shipping. Many of the service design activities above don’t end with a shippable outcome.

But using service design in the right way feeds into everything else that does get us to a shippable outcome. As we saw in the Indonesia example, it helps individuals form a cross-functional team learn about each other’s working styles and build the necessary relationships needed to get work out the door. It helps people go deep into the problem space and build a solid base of domain knowledge – just as our team did before their Jakarta trip – so they can ask further questions and bring their expertise to other problems with shorter timelines.

Service design also allows teams to create artifacts that can be shared with a wide range of partners and get early feedback that pushes their work forward. That was certainly the case in our Premium Duo project – where feedback to the team’s storyboards allowed them to rapidly iterate, shorten timelines, and get to shipping faster. They had time to explore possibilities and make space for their work to breathe before moving onto the details needed to ship. And that work helped them get to a better shippable outcome by keeping the whole journey in mind.

Ultimately, when we take the time to do service design, we set ourselves up for success in the long-term by making it easier to do our job every day. We don’t have to settle for less-than-perfect, because we’ve created the vision, become experts, got the buy-in, and are better equipped to solve problems in the moments that matter.


Katie Koch

Senior Design Manager

Katie Koch is based in Stockholm, where she works with a talented, multi-disciplinary team looking after the Premium customer lifecycle.

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