As someone suggested me, I would like to share with you my last post on social services and 'standards' in designing service encounters, with all the comments I received.

I hope you will join this conversation with new feedbacks and insights!



According to some theoretical background, services encounters can be classified into two categories: standard and relationalones.

Generally, in standard service encounters, providers and customers perform according to clearly defined roles, whilerelational service encounters are mostly unmediated in terms of rules and scripts.

Talking about these topics referred to social design, I found that it is quite common to consider social services a matter of "relationship". I'm not sure about this. In my experience I found that the lack of high "standards" is a typical limitation in the not-for-profit sector. Designing for behavioural change needs, instead, frameworks, strict methods and tools.


I have tried here to visualize what I am thinking about this topic within a Cartesian System. I have represented on the axis different levels of standardization and relation, from the lowest to the highest one.  In the 4 quadrants I determined 4 different kinds of front line staff, according to the correlation between the 2 variables.

I propose to use this scheme in order to classify all the aspects of the social design process:the user's experience and the level of satisfaction, the effectiveness of behavioural change, the roles played by social service providers and users, the way in which they interact.

I individuated 4 different typologies of social services, as follows:

Thinking about how to improve social services through design techniques for motivation and behavioural change, I have realized that new standards are necessary in the non-profit sector. What I am referring to are: more adequate skills for social workers, effective tools, methodologies and procedures.

I would like to start up a discussion about these topics, starting from the scheme I have shared with you.

Do you think is it useful? Could it be implemented  in a better way? I'm working on it and your contribution is welcome! Thank you.


Here are some resources and links:

"Service Design and Behavioural Change" Touchpoint Vol. 2 No. 1 - Service Design Network

"Relational Services" Carla Cipolla and Ezio Manzini From the issue entitled "Interaction Design in Italy"

"Consumer Responses to Behaviors of Other Consumers in Service Enco... Li Miao Purdue University - Main Campus, Anna S. Mattila the Pennsylvania State University, Daniel Mount The Pennsylvania State University


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Replies to This Discussion


1st comment by Christian De Neef

Excellent thinking. But I’m struggling with the idea of standards. For one, it insinuates that there can be defined/repeatable instructions for performing service. Whilst this may be true, it would take a lot of human creativity (and empathy) out of service, and if all would have to apply to the standard, it would prohibit service innovation. I think that maybe we need strong principles or fundamentals, to build service on, or a methodology?
And there are other factors at play. Social service is more complex than mapping behavior, I think. Service level/quality (and perception, for those standing on the other side) is dependent on cultural, political, even religious and other aspects. And it would also be wrong to believe that everyone would favor the (most) professional service. To some people, the empathic service is a clear winner over the standardized service.

In conclusion, I think that this really opens an interesting field for research, but I fear that it is not as simple as it may seem at first sight.



My reply was:

Christian thanks for your comment, I agree with you that the topic is not as simple as it may seem at a first sight. Moreover ‘standards’ is not the proper word to use (too generic and abused) to define what I mean. As you suggest, ‘principles’ or ‘fundamentals’ or ‘methodology’ could be better. I think it is really important to choose the proper ‘word’ but I’m not sure about which could be the one.

About the post, I would be more precise, saying that it was not derived from a ‘desk research activity’. I’m talking about my experience in the social sector, working in an NGO dealing with migrants inclusion.

I find that people often think about ‘social services’ as something more ‘spontaneous’, that it didn’t need strict procedures. Moreover, sometimes it seems that patterns and standards could affect empathy and the real third sector attitudes. I’m not sure about it, at all. ‘Standards’ are necessary, even to recognise and implement social innovation (not in a ‘naive’ way). Don’t you think?

About the service quality perception: dealing with immigrants integration and because of my background, I can say that cultural, political and religious aspects are very important in my work. ‘Standards’ are important also to really pay attention to these aspects of providers/users relationship. Just a concrete example: if you have a social service encounter, specific for islamic women, what kind of front-line staff (do you imagine) could be more adequate to realise an ‘empathic service’? An islamic social worker? A woman? This is probably not the core of the problem: what is important is the approach (‘standard’, I mean) you have during the design phase. It has to be based on Intercultural Communication Competencies (ICC).


2nd comment from Kristina Tool

I think most will agree with “…the lack of high “standards” “ experienced in public services. Similar to what can be found in for profit businesses, there is a wide range of experiences which the consumer of the services experiences. Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised, but all too often we have an interaction which is frustrating and does not resolve our issue.
The challenges of creating service providers who create positive relationships with the consumers exists both in the profit and not-for-profit- world, though perhaps it is more strongly felt in not-for profit organizations (unless we are talking about cultures which place customer service far down on their list of priorities). Your point on motivation seems to be a factor to focus more on. What motivates us as individuals to behave in certain ways? How can our environment support this? Can certain standards be developed which avoid bureaucracy and allow for individuality but still guarantee the desired level of service? Once these standards are set, can HR make hiring decisions to bring in the people who are able to meet these standards?
You have addressed an area which can benefit from improvement- it would be great to develop some methodologies which can effectively address these issues!

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Hi Paola,

I draw on two articles I’ve read yesterday for my comment. The firts, suggested by Vincenzo from Common Ground, is by Robert S.Kaplan and published by the Harvard Business Review. Kaplan’s argumentation base on the main question: “Why do effective business start-ups grow into large, successful corporations while their nonprofit counterparts struggle to achieve national scale?”.

The second is a blog post by Mike Lachappelle, that works for providing innovative business models to the federal government in Canada: Lachapelle, commenting Gary Hamel’s article Who’s Really Innovative, talk about the necessity for public institutions (but we can include also no profit companies in this case) to change their DNA and follow the road of “born again”companies like P&G and IBM that have cracked the innovation code.

The first suggests me the evolution of tools and methods to evaluate the “social return of investments” and the difficulty of setting valid parameters, in agreement with social operators. Think only to the problem of using in a profitable way EU funds, that you know surely better than mine. The second make me think about the necessity for no profit companies to make some reasonaments about alternative business models and activate then processes to implement the resulting strategy and maybe being able to go to scale (that I am sure, it’s also an important factor to improve social employeers working conditions). Strategies need to be co-created and not imposed, athough they consist only in a group of intricate rules that of course discourage practicioners motivation. The activity of  consulting organisations like Ripfa (, with their evidence-informed approach and attention to the point of views of practicioners and service users, is very useful in this case. Strategies need to be changed in a flexible way if users needs change or there is the necessity of a new local policy. I am sure that practicioners would offer a higher standard service and in the meantime feel more free and able to improvise on a solid base if they know that they know and agree on where they are going.

Sorry paola, after the strange format string there is the real post! I don't know why it happened!

A cut&paste from MS Word, maybe?  ;-)

Hi Christian,

right! I wrote it while I was not connected and then copied! Now I understand the mistery :)



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