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Virgin Trains East Coast Service Design

Duration: 5 months | Role: Service Design Consultant | Link: virgintrainseastcoast.com


When Virgin Trains acquired the East Coast Mainline franchise they wanted to better serve rail customers that was more fitting for a digital age. As part of their 10 year franchise, they were looking to modernise an industry that had largely remained unchanged for decades. The challenge of this project was to better understand the evolving needs of rail customers, to aid the challenges faced by rail staff and to formulate a Service Design strategy that will last beyond the 10 year franchise.

The Problem

Although Virgin Trains West Coast had already enjoyed the best customer experience rating in the rail industry, when they acquired the East Coast line they aspired to have one of the best experience ratings within any industry. Knowing that rail was very behind as an industry due to government regulations, Virgin Trains were keen to push boundaries so that the rail industry can become relevant again within a digital age. Using a Service Design lense to look at the current East Coast proposition, we wanted to better understand the challenges of both customers and staff that would help us prioritise which problems needed the most focus.

Understanding the Rail Industry

In order to have a better understanding of the industry, we embedded ourselves within all aspects of the service. This included working alongside staff at the rail stations, conducting research onboard trains speaking to both travellers and onboard crews, setting up base within their head office so we could work closely with senior level staff to get to their perspective and spending time within the call centres to understand common support questions.

Sharing The Same Vision

After interviewing multiple internal stakeholders from differing departments, we invited them all to a series of back-to-back workshops. From our interviews, we knew stakeholders held different views on where the problems are within the rail industry. By bringing them all together it was possible to discuss the issues raised in turn, allowing everyone to voice their own perspective. At the end of the workshops it was possible to converge on some of the agreed problems that needed the most design focus.

Co-design Sketching

Within the early stages of the project, we were able to map a service proposition through a series of low fidelity mock ups. This was done as a team activity so that everyone had a chance to pitch their own ideas and have ownership of the final design solutions. The sketches created were of key digital and physical touch points that both staff and customers would experience. These included the kiosk booking journey, sign posting to help travellers flow within the station and displays to be placed along platforms that will help better distributed people boarding the trains.

Mobile App Prototypes

To explore digital concepts that could replace traditional paper tickets, mobile prototypes was created to test various approaches. These Axure prototypes were preinstalled on to mobile devices (iOS and Android) so that participants could assess their suitability whilst navigating around the stations and onboard the trains themselves.

Test Early, Test Often

The project had an ambitious timeline due to contractual agreements with the government, because of this we adopted a ‘test early, test often’ approach. By testing frequently, it allowed us to quickly test our concepts and iterate on these as we validated our learnings. As testing and design cycles were shortened, it also reduced the risk of the team becoming too attached to any one design solution. Because there were a total of 11 designers on the project, I often had to design and facilitate research sessions that were conducted in multiple research labs and conducted in and around train stations so that we could observe participants within their context use.

Mapping the Entire Service

Using insights from internal staff from various departments, we was able to map the current service blueprint. From speaking with these domain experts, it was possible to start seeing opportunities emerge that design could help solve. These maps were iterated on as we understood more about Virgin Trains East Coast when conducting our research sessions.

New Service Blueprint

From our initial Discovery phase we was able to better understand the problems faced by rail travellers, station staff and onboard crews. After a series of concept tests, the team presented back a new proposed Service Blueprint of where Virgin Trains East Coast could be within 10 years time, giving all related departments a single vision. This blueprint taking into account emerging technologies that could present future opportunities in order to deliver the blueprint.