Informing Service Design Through Real Customer Stories

“Insights are groupings of observations that bubble up into a clear theme that is IRA: Interesting, Relevant and Actionable.”

Martha Cotton, Fjord

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Our Starting Well pilot was launched in February 2017 as a way of reducing repairs but also increasing customer confidence and sense of agency around maintaining their own home. The pilot service provided a visit from a Starting Well Engineer to a customer within the first 3 weeks of the tenancy. During the visit, the engineer provided coaching on how to complete a range of simple repairs. The pilot was conducted over a 12 month period in the Staffordshire and Marches localities, providing visits to 519 customers.

Whilst the Starting Well pilot evaluation provided evidence that both customers and colleagues liked the service, there was little evidence to show that the service had reduced repairs or increased customer confidence.  Following the 6 month review, the Lab decided to conduct a piece of qualitative research in order to better understand the problem we were trying to solve and gain a more in-depth understanding of our customers and the relationship they have with their homes.

We need to understand people, within the context of our design challenge and also wider. What do they do? Why do they do it? What are their physical and emotional needs? How do they think about the world? What is meaningful to them? Ethnography is as much about what people don’t say as it is about what they do.

During late 2017 and early 2018 we held contextual conversations (conducted within customers own homes) with 15 customers across a range of Bromford localities. Rather than approaching our conversations with a prescribed set of questions, we used a topic guide to provide us with a consistent starting point from which we let our conversations flow organically. Following our conversations, we have been able to tease out several key themes and sub-themes which identify customer needs, priorities and behaviour patterns we may never have previously considered. As a result, we have been able to construct a set of observations and insights and four customer stories which move us beyond presumption and stereotypes and when used in conjunction with the pilot outcomes will provide a resource which can help us design better services based on real-life stories, evidence and insight.


Whilst we might view our property as an ‘asset’, to our customers it’s simply their home. But what the word ‘home’ means to our customers is as individual as they are. To some customers home is all about family, for others it is about comfort or safety.

Through our conversations we have observed that:

  • People don't conform to stereotypes.

  • Customer behaviours and attitudes towards the home differ greatly - some people have the skill to look after it well but don't have the will, or the confidence.

  • Some people adopt deficit-thinking about their abilities, their health and the quality of their environment.

  • Community is ever present in people's lives, but as service providers, we tend to view services as a more binary transaction between us and an individual customer.

  • Many customers spoke of ‘having a go’ at things themselves, often using family networks or other social contacts to help them out on jobs which happen to be outside of their own ability, comfort zone or skill set.

  • There are many stakeholders that need to be considered as part of this work, including customers, customer friends, customer family, customer employers, neighbourhood coach, neighbours.

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The mindsets, behavioural modes and tensions we were able to identify during conversations with customers fell naturally under 6 emergent themes which formed the structure of our observations and insights document.

  • Theme 1 - Skill, Will & Confidence:

  • Theme 2 - Communication

  • Theme 3 - Motivation

  • Theme 4 - Life

  • Theme 5 - Role of the Coach

  • Theme 6 - Pain Points

The strongest theme described the skill, will and confidence of customers when it comes to the relationship with their home.

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We found that customers often look to their family or social networks to help them out with DIY. The type of work customers are prepared to take on is not only reflected in their own ability but those of the people they know well. Skill, will and confidence should, therefore, be thought of in terms of who customers know and what customers are able or prepared to do, rather than simply a case of what they know.

Observations and Insight

  • Customers who have done the most to their properties often talked about family members or friends who are trade professions helping them out.

Customers who are less well connected and lacked the skills or confidence to undertake cosmetic improvements often described how tricky it was to find tradespeople who they trusted, especially if they were new to the area

Tackling jobs around the home is something you either enjoy and get pleasure from or you simply aren't interested in. Often people might be happy to look after their property, but not willing to do more than necessary. This could be due to a variety of factors, but often people spoke about it being Bromford's responsibility to carry out larger works, or the danger of spending their own time and money on a home that they don’t actually own. For others, the fact that the property wasn’t owned by them made little difference and they were prepared to spend their own time and money on their own alterations.

Observations and Insights

  • There is a difference between looking after a home, maintaining a home and improving a home.

  • People who undertook larger projects often did so because they wanted a higher level of finish than Bromford were able to provide as standard.

The confidence people had in their ability to tackle a problem was often determined by the confidence they had in either the abilities of people they could draw upon to help them or the support they would get from Bromford. If they felt physically able or well connected, many people were happy to tackle smaller jobs themselves. Jobs ranged from decorating to anything you don't need a professional certification for.

Observations and Insights

  • People’s will and confidence was often higher in cases where their relationship with Bromford was more positive. In cases where customers felt that Bromford had let them down in some way their motivation was often lower.

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When viewed as a whole the 15 people we had conversations with exhibited a range of attributes which could be condensed into a set of personas that are able to help all stakeholders in the design process in a variety of ways:

  • Good personas can help validate or disprove a design decision

  • Good personas can help us decide which direction to take

  • Good personas provide agile learning not statistical viability

  • Good personas provide inspiration during idea generation

  • Good personas give voice to the end user and foster empathy

Our recent discovery session around the question - how might we support customers to play their part in looking after their home provided inspiration for ways in which the lessons learned from the Starting Well pilot might be iterated in order to exploit community assets through an ecosystem of services designed around the customer. As we progress through our exploration pipeline of work, the observations and insights document and customer personas we generated through our conversations will help to frame and inform some of the work packages that emerge, providing a reference point from which we can determine a direction for further research, tests and pilots.  

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One of the key insights to emerge from our conversations with customers is around the subtle differences between looking after a home, maintaining a home and improving a home and our need to be clear about what we expect customers to do and what they can expect from us in return. Informed by both these insights as well as the discovery sessions themselves, we are currently looking at scoping some work which will enable us to clarify our service offer and will ultimately help us answer this question and others connected to the potential disconnects between our repairs and investment services and our emerging coaching relationship.

Rather than immediately launching into tests we need to spend some time asking ourselves:

  • What if we built on offer based on trust and accountability rather around a legal contract?

  • What would it look like if we designed an offer that supported aspiration rather than provided disincentives?

This, together with our observations, insights and personas, will help us to turn the ideas generated by colleagues during our discovery sessions into new tests which will enable us to evolve our services and achieve better outcomes for both our customers and our business.

This work has provided a proof of concept for the use of personas in our Lab work and over the coming months we will be looking at ways in which we can scale this way of working to help us think outside-in in order to better understand our customers and pick up rich insights from our communities as a matter of course.

Follow our progress by visiting our Trello Board or keeping an eye out for more blogs over the coming weeks.




Simon Penny, Design Lead

Service designer, passionate about using design to find innovative solutions to the most pressing social issues.