Applying Service Design Principles During a Pandemic

A look at how grocery stores have changed shopping behaviours in response to COVID-19.

Photo: Nathália Rosa
Published by Priscilla Ho on 04.02.2020

We’re big supporters of staying home, which is quite literally saving lives during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Working from home has always been second nature to our product studio, and with more organizations following suit, it seems the only time we go out of the house now is to buy groceries or take a socially-distanced walk. During our trips to the grocery store, we’ve noticed that some shops have adapted more quickly than others to the ever-changing health recommendations. Some are even adopting service design principles (knowingly or not) to enforce these measures. One place, in particular, caught our attention.

Country Grocer, a local supermarket in Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, acted fast to implement process updates and mobilize shoppers and store staff to practice social distancing. Salt Spring Island is unique in that goods are supplied through a ferry link to Vancouver Island. There are only two main sources for grocery shopping, and the hospital only has two respirators. With 10,557 full-time inhabitants, of which 30 percent are age 65 and older, it was critical to put protective measures in place immediately.

Signs of Design Thinking Applied in Stores

What is this local grocery store doing, similar to other supermarkets out there?

Figure 1 Figure 1 - Store signage (Source: Country Grocer, Salt Spring Island, Instagram)

In Figure 1, you’ll see an example of clear, simple signage communicating what shoppers can expect from the store regarding changes that help minimize the spread. For example:

  • Letting people know when the off-peak hours are to minimize the number of people at the store at one time.
  • Quantifying measures that help people visualize what to put into practice, such as suggesting that shoppers walk around for 10 minutes instead of lingering at the tills to minimize line-ups, and maintaining 6 feet apart from other shoppers.
  • Telling people where to wait before going up to the cashiers to pay. Some stores use floor decals too, and it is this kind of simple, visual indicator that makes a difference in stores.

These signs are placed strategically at the entrance and cashier tills, managing expectations before customers start shopping or paying at the beginning of each 'phase’. The tone and language is an example of good UX writing, by not using any jargon, and providing clear calls-to-action in a step-by-step manner.

Figure 2 Figure 2 - Visual indicators of socially-distanced aisles (Source: Country Grocer, Salt Spring Island, Instagram)

In Figure 2, you’ll notice bright pylons and markings both outside and inside the store to manage the flow of traffic and facilitate social distancing for shoppers who are picking items off the shelves and those walking in the aisles. These visual cues help direct foot traffic and reinforce the “6-feet apart” rule, reminding shoppers to physically distance themselves.

Figure 3 Figure 3 - Plexiglass shields and sanitization stations (Source: Country Grocer, Salt Spring Island, Instagram)

In Figure 3, you’ll see plexiglass shields installed to provide a measure of protection for store staff and customers. Cleaning stations are placed beside shopping cart areas in the parking lot, where staff members use them to wipe down the buggies after use. There is also signage to further indicate to customers where to put their carts when they are finished shopping. This one is in green instead of an alerting red to motivate desired behaviour.

How are all of these examples of service design?

In the examples listed above, different strategies work to improve the experience of both shoppers and staff by optimizing how the store is operated throughout the purchase journey. This is exactly what service design seeks to do. Service design maps out how a customer starts and finishes using a service. It then relates that journey to the physical or digital objects the customer interacts with throughout the process. The interactions that happen between people are taken into consideration, as well as what workflows or rules are needed to improve how the service is delivered.

Co-Vid Grocery Flow Figure 4 - Initial service blueprint for grocery shopping during COVID-19 (Source: POWERSHiFTER)

In this specific example, a typical grocery store visit might start by customers leaving their house, driving their car to the grocery store, finding a spot to park, and picking up a shopping cart or bringing in reusable bags. Once customers enter the store, they continue picking items in their grocery list from store shelves, putting them in the cart as they walk around the store, lining up to pay, and putting their grocery items on the till. After they have paid, customers then place scanned items that have been rung through by the clerk into their shopping bags, place bought items in the trunk of their car, return their shopping cart, and then drive home before bringing their groceries into the house, and putting them in their respective places.

During this pandemic, however, grocery store visits look a little different. Extra steps and changed behaviours need to be considered to help minimize the spread. These may include choosing an earlier or later time in the day to go to the store, finding a parking space that is further away from other cars, sanitizing hands and shopping carts before entering the store, and avoiding crowded aisles.

Similar to how health workers sanitize themselves before entering and leaving the ICU in hospitals, the store planned out process improvements at each stage of the customer’s purchase journey. They added steps into their daily routine to clean and disinfect the store and the equipment people use, as well as avoiding as much human-to-human contact as possible.

Awareness & Communication

The store has mastered service design principles through clear communication of its guidelines using visual cues. All signage and floor decals were written in plain language, used colour contrast, and larger font sizes to ensure legibility. Country Grocer posted images of their store changes on Instagram and in their social media channels. Doing this raised awareness and allowed customers an opportunity to provide feedback, thereby closing the loop from start to finish. Based on some comments from their Instagram account, it is clear that Country Grocer responded quickly to implementing changes, and communicated effectively so that customers were not overwhelmed or confused by the new changes.

Country Grocer Instagram Comments Figure 5 - Appreciative feedback from Instagram followers (Source: Country Grocer, Salt Spring Island, Instagram)

Visual Cues & Feedback

Providing directional cues was another design principle used by Country Grocer. They offered feedback at every touchpoint to reassure customers that they were moving in the right direction. Colour was also used as a visual cue to differentiate messaging. Red was an alert to stop customers from moving any closer towards the till, yellow was a reminder for shoppers to give others space while in the aisles, and green was positive reinforcement.

There are simple ways that many organizations around the world can help flatten the curve while providing an essential service to the entire community. This grocery store example models how awareness of their customer journey, as well as interactions with business products and processes, can help inform changes that create order and flow.

This is in no way a comprehensive list of responsible changes, as it only discusses some of the frontstage processes that are visible to the customer. If this were a complete service design project, other opportunities for improving the customer and store staff experiences would include backstage considerations such as technology, infrastructure, and government policies. Nonetheless, Country Grocer provides an excellent example of how businesses are stepping up to protect their community during this pandemic.

In an ideal world, all supermarkets and essential services would apply frontstage business process improvements to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, as simply as Country Grocer did. Find out how we can help you streamline your user experiences.