Defining Touchpoints in Service Design
13 min read
Services are by nature intangible, which can be seen as the defining concept that distinguishes them from products. Despite their nature, it is essential for services to include tangible properties such as artifacts. Touchpoints are one of the service properties that can be seen as precise providers of tangibility to services. The definition of touch-point depends on the literature at hand but can generally be said to include all the interfaces the services stakeholders use to interact during and after a transaction.
Despite them being used heavily on service design literature, the definition of what is a touchpoint is not clearly defined. This article aims to introduce and evaluate different definitions found in the literature for the term touchpoint as well as connect them to selected service design research cases that make use of touchpoints. Considering as touchpoints play an essential role in service design, this type of literature review is relevant for constructing a better view of the nature of services.
The term touchpoint refers to all of the contact points between the customer and the service provider, which involve an interaction with a human need in a specific time and place (Risdon 2013). This interpretation is one of the several found in different service literature and is a one focusing on the customer journey and placing emphasis on addressing the customer’s need at a certain time. Another way to interpret touchpoints is to view them as moments that make the service experienceable for the customer and help to build the brand of the service (Hogan 2005). These two interpretations are not the only ones available nor the most commonly used for touchpoints. They do however explain two quite different views to touchpoints. This leads us to problem touchpoints have — they lack a clear definition.
Touchpoints can be considered to be one of the central aspects of service design as they describe one of the major differences between products and services (Clatworthy 2011, Risdon 2013, Secomandi 2011). According to Secomandi (2011), the idea that service designers create multiple touchpoints such as material artifacts, environments, interpersonal encounters and more is one of the motivating issues behind current service design research. So despite their central role in service design and especially in different service design methods, the definition of a touchpoint has remained quite abstract, which induces problems. Referring to the term without a clear definition may cause misunderstandings and narrow down the design approach (Secomandi 2011). Considering as they are also viewed to be fundamental in bringing tangibility to services in addition to also being one of the most important areas that should employ co-creation and cross-disciplinary expertise to create desirable and valuable experiences it is unwanted to use such an ill-defined concept (Clathworthy 2011, Stickdorn 2011).
This paper aims to address these problems of definition, poor concept and scope first by introducing, evaluating and discussing different definitions found in marketing, customer relationship management, and service design literature for touchpoints. However there is no desire to find a unifying definition based on cross-discipline literature analysis, and this is also deemed to be beyond the scope of this paper and the literature it references. Also as different definitions for touchpoints are already in use by researchers of other disciplines and companies specializing in service design such an attempt could not be accomplished through these means of only focusing on research literature that is most notable at influencing service design. Different definitions are instead covered from the point of view of known service design tools to construct an approach that seeks a definition for touchpoints when they are used in design and development process. Addressing the properties that are most often linked to touchpoints are also discussed on the basis of these tools.
It is a bit unclear where term touchpoint has come to the service design literature and for this reason finding research on this topic requires moving to several other disciplines. One of the earliest solid references of the word touchpoint to address a contact point between a customer and the service provider can found in trade and branding publications that date back to the year 1993 (Howard 2007). In these publications, the definition is very close to the ones found in later service design publications but cannot be said to be an exact counterpart, although according to Howard this is where the term was borrowed to the service design discipline. However, even before this multiple different terms had shared common ground with a touchpoint. For example, service evidence was used to describe the physical elements of a service (Shostack, 1977) and service encounter to describe the interactions between the customer and provider (Bitner 1990).
Besides the word touchpoint the terms moment of truth, contact point, point of contact and customer contact share similar definitions but have different approach and focus (Clatworthy 2011, Söderlund 2009). Much like Howard, Clatworthy also sees that much of the knowledge in service design about touchpoints is derived from customer relationship marketing (CRM). “Touchpoints” and “touch-points” are heavily referenced in CRM literature (Clatworthy, Howard). There is however a difference also as CRM uses the term “multi-channel delivery” more often to substitute touchpoints and the emphasis has been more on the system themselves rather than on experiences and interactions while leaving out also the design of individual touchpoints. To conclude most of CRM literature talking about touchpoints is actually addressing channels, which are a more broad term. This is an important remark as the underlying difference between a channel and a touchpoint is that touchpoints are things that employ the possibilities provided by different channels e.g. Twitter can be seen as channel but certain company’s Twitter account is a touchpoint employing this channel’s capabilities Another even more definite description of the difference between a touchpoint and a channel is provided by Risdon: “a single touchpoint — a customer getting their rental car — but a concert of channels: physical ‘retail’ space, video with remote agent, touchscreen kiosk interface” (Risdon 2013)
Clatworthy makes an interesting remark on the use of the term in the medical domain (Clatworthy 2011). There the term emotional touchpoint has started to medical research literature. The term also approaches the usage in service design, since it relates directly to the customer experience in the customer service journey. Clatworthy, however, points out that in this case the term is specifically applied as an interview tool for eliciting critical incidents during a service journey.
Overall there are several different areas that make use of touchpoint term or it’s counterparts although in varying manners. Inspection of these reveals several possible roots for touchpoint but not a single clear definition for these.
The most suitable way to approach this problem of inconsistent definition is not by looking at the overlapping array of literary focusing mainly on different aspects than the definition of touchpoints. Another thing to consider it that, as stated earlier there are several different fields that all have different approaches to touchpoints, a complex multidisciplinary literature review would most likely construct a definition that shares this complexity and broadness. Also, in the end, this would be conducting an inspection that brings no answer to how service design defines touchpoints. Instead of focusing on service design research and studies has the possibility to reveal not only a general definition for the term touchpoint but also reveal what kind of effects a lack unifying one may have on research. This is done next by inspection of touchpoint definitions in service design literature.
AT-ONE and cross-disciplinarity One particularly fitting research project is AT-ONE, which is developing process support, and tools for cross-functional teams during the first stages of new service development process (Clatworthy 2011). Touchpoints are a central part of the project and the letter T in AT-ONE stands for “Orchestration and development of TOUCH-POINTS to provide innovative services. One part of the project has been touchpoint workshops. As a part of these workshops, examples of touchpoints were used with both mapping and analysis before the workshops and as an idea generation aid during the workshops. These workshops with the addition of previous literature on touchpoints were used to create a card-based tool with a focus of defining touchpoints and aiding in designing them and around them. A more thorough view of the tools functions:
A. Team building for cross-functional teams 1. To build a common understanding of touch-points and their role as part of a holistic service design 2. To assist with team cohesiveness and mutual respect within the team for different disciplines and views
B. Analysis and mapping: 1. To gain an overview of the multiple touch-points used during the customer journey 2. To identify critical touch-points during the customer journey 3. To understand the limitations and possibilities of each touch-point that the company utilized 4. To identify who is responsible for the design, development, and maintenance of each touchpoint
C. Idea generation 1. To generate ideas regarding how to innovate through changes in touch-point usage, design or implementation.
One central aspect to Clatworth’s approach to touchpoints is a cross-disciplinary focus. One of the tool’s functions is to build a common understanding of touchpoints and their role to the service through constructions of cross-functional teams that consist of relevant stakeholders that represent different functional areas within an organization, across diverse disciplines. Such function goes hand-to-hand with touchpoints’ nature of employing different channels and requiring varying amounts of technical knowledge and design thinking in an attempt to create emotionally rich experiences from the use of a service. However, what constitutes as a touchpoint according to Clatworth is not clear. In the article description and evaluation of the card-based tool only provide partial examples of touchpoints. One such case is the mention of an iPad as a touchpoint, which is discussed as being added to the touchpoint cards without discussing the reason for this. Can an iPad be considered a touchpoint when endogenously there is nothing that connects it to any service directly? In a way, it is the context and the setting together with a tangible object that create a touchpoint.
Sequencing and mapping through touchpoints Another view of touchpoints comes from Stickdorn’s book This Is Service Design (Stickdorn 2011). The book makes a difference between a touchpoint and an interaction, which together form service moments. According to Stickdorn every contact point between a customer and a service provider is a touchpoint and these touchpoint interactions take place between human-human, human-machine and even between machine-computer. The last one is interesting as it is not implicitly clear how the interaction between a machine and another machine can create interaction between the customer and the service provider also. One such case could be a personal health app that logs the user’s health stats and shares them with a medical service so that when a user is in a need of a medical care his up-to-date information is accessible to the medical service provider.
It should be pointed out that the previous example is actually about touchpoints that interact together to create a seamless interaction. In this case, even if we assume that the user is aware that the information he provides is used in another interaction the fact he is interacting with another touchpoint is not most likely evident to himself. On the other hand, this scenario could be also viewed so that the customer is not actually interacting with another touchpoint but rather setting it up for the future. We could assume that interaction with the medical service requires that the user has also used the app. Interaction within a certain time and place is one of the defining characteristics of a touchpoint (Risdon 2013).
Another point that This Is Service Design makes about touchpoints is that they are fundamental in making the service a sequenced and an evidencing experience (Stickdorn 2011). Sequencing goes hand-to-hand with known service design methods such as service blueprinting, customer journey maps, stakeholder maps, storyboards and service experience blueprints (SEB) (Bitner 2008). SEB is a diagram developed by Patricio to design concrete service encounter experiences and the method’s service encounter term comes really close to touchpoint (Patricio 2011). Patricio’s SEB-tool actually comes quite close to Clatworth’s AT-ONE in terms of touchpoint design by focusing on mapping known touchpoints and their interactions but also to explore new design alternatives. Together these three sources add to the argument that touchpoints are central in mapping out the service at hand but also when designing for it.
Evidencing according to Stickdorn is the act of bringing tangibility to services but also prolonging the service experience and making the customer more aware of the background processes. Together these properties should result in an increased customer appreciation of the service experience. Stickdorn’s arguments on the importance and the nature of tangibility of services are in line with arguments of Bitner, Clatworth, Patricio, Risdon and also approach arguments made by Shostack on service evidencing (Shostack 1977). Forming on these it could be set that tangibility is a defining characteristic of a touchpoint.
Neither a concrete set of examples nor a unifying definition can be found from the literature that makes references to touchpoints. This is not that surprising as the service design could still be considered to be an emerging area of design, especially in research. Most likely these concepts that service design has will take form over time and eventually settle on generally acknowledged definitions. Also despite its roots in marketing and other sciences that include services as their area, service design has not blindly adopted concepts from them but instead developed on top of them. This is a case on touchpoints at least.
Several overlapping definitions for touchpoint were found from the literature and service design research cases. To put it simply much of literature forms the definition of touchpoints to suit it’s needed, a remark that is not overly surprising. It may even be that touchpoints are concept, which cannot fully be formatted have a defined set of characteristics. There are however certain characteristics that arise over the others in these cases, such as materiality and interactivity. Interactivity has a large role in the design of the service interface, which perhaps more than anything else, is the design of the service itself. And what comes materiality and tangibility are that immaterial experiences are largely constructed from material objects and touchpoints are something revolving around this concept.