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A Brief Overview of Service Design

NOVEMBER 12, 2021

What is service design?

Service design processes can be critical to the successful implementation of a business’ services and products. It is a methodology to attack hard problems, to improve existing offerings or to create new innovations. Service design focuses on understanding people, their interactions with the service, and the experience that they have from start to finish. This approach is rooted in the practice of human centred design, which acknowledges that understanding people ultimately leads to superior outputs. By considering how people will interact with your service, you can anticipate their needs and iterate or design with a foundation of understanding. 

Service design practices focus on the end-to-end experiences of people while they navigate any given service offering. This can include the formal and intentional service touchpoints but also includes the informal or unintended parts of the service such as interaction with third party providers, discussion with friends, or online forums. All of the interactions or touchpoints that an individual might experience from start to finish are important for the business to understand because the more that is known, the more impact that the business can have. Service design seeks to understand the entire journey and maps it alongside the business service stream (the intentional and formal steps) to understand the pain points, areas of delight and ultimately opportunities for improvement.

Using tools like experience maps, personas, and service blueprints, we develop an overview of the service and how people interact with it. Service design can be used in any industry and can focus on a narrow service stream or on the entire organizational service offering. This practice allows for strategic direction, product design, customer interactions and cultural and contextual drivers to come together to drive innovation.

“Service design helps organizations see their services from a customer perspective. It is an approach to designing services that balances the needs of the customer with the needs of the business, aiming to create seamless and quality service experiences.

— From This is Service Design Doing (2018), Megan Erin Miller

Service design vs product design

In the ever-evolving digital realm, the line between service and product is somewhat nebulous. A company may develop a digital product, but it might be more appropriately called a service. This differentiation is often behind the confusion of what service design is and the understanding of the overall importance of the service versus the product. There are several examples of how a product can be a service. An industry where this shows up is in online streaming services, where the product might be thought of as the app but the product may actually be the movie, and the service is the streaming service, delivered through an app or smart TV. Examples of this include Netflix, AppleTV, Spotify, etc. Other examples like Uber, banking or investment platforms, AirBnB, Facebook and even Google (which has many services) also use digital products to deliver service streams.

The design and innovation of these kinds of services should not be limited to the user’s experience with the app itself, such as how they fill out a form or an intuitive layout (though this is very important), success comes from the understanding of overall experiences and expectations from that service as a whole. This is where service design comes into play. The service design process will look at the service offering and consider ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ actions and interaction affecting the end-to-end experience (to learn more about ‘frontstage and backstage’ we recommend Nielsen Norman Group’s Service Blueprints: Definition article). 

Service design is not simply designing a service. Service design addresses how an organization gets something done.”

Nielsen Norman Group, Service Design 101

An example of service design: Jane App

If your product is an online booking app such as Jane.App, your users are both members of the public looking to book services with a provider, as well as the practitioners offering services to the public. A Service Design process might be conducted to serve both groups or personas. It is important to understand both journeys and experiences and the relationship between them. The frontstage and backstage actions will have impacts to both user groups and is a good example of how this process can address complex scenarios with multiple actors, interactions, and service streams. 

In this example, Jane.App is a software product that facilitates the service, because it provides all the interaction points and the services needed for people to find practitioners, book appointments, and track appointment and follow-up information. Product design and user experience design practices will still be used but an acknowledgement that the app or product is an interaction point (or many interaction points) with the service will provide the context needed to make fulsome improvements with impactful outcomes. The app also serves as a tool to practitioners to organize their business flow and facilitates many of their public interactions. It replaces, in many cases, traditional (in-person) service delivery. 

Understanding these user groups, their experiences, pain points, and how they might navigate the service can help a Service Designer find innovative solutions to problems that the business area may not have been aware of. Focusing on the app design will support a part of the overall experience, but it might miss critical experience pain points that could make or break the service’s success. Service Designers have the ability to map the end-to-end experience, as well as identify themes and opportunities for an exceptional service delivery, understanding each user group uniquely and then finding correlations and themes that JaneApp might be able to implement more broadly.

Note: Jane App is not a Client of Disco, we just like what they do!

The value of service design

The value of using service design techniques in discovering opportunities is that it removes the guesswork. It takes on a scientific-like approach to design where first we develop a hypothesis or problem area, conduct research and then develop concepts and create designs that are evidence based. This hypothesis or problem definition provides a starting point for research, putting some context to the questions that need to be answered. Along with this hypothesis, using measurable goals will help to guide the process.

Many times, those developing services will do so based on their own experience or understanding of what people may want and more often than not, the service will evolve without intentionality. Without intentional effort to understand people’s expectations, the service may fall short. Each person’s experience is unique and is tied to contextual factors. This is why it is imperative to look at the context and a range of individuals when evaluating the service and the related interaction points and impressions. When we rely solely on existing knowledge, there is a high likelihood that there will be gaps in understanding and can bring in unintended biases to the outputs. When we rely solely on our own perspectives or those of others at the company, we are limited by our individual experience. Employing research and service design can open our understanding of other groups, abilities or experiences.

We use service design to counteract this bias and to find innovative opportunities we never imagined. Some of the main benefits for using service design processes are to:

  • Remove biases
  • Improve inclusion and accessibility
  • Get to the root of the problem
  • Drive innovation
  • Prioritize opportunities

Service design creates a layer of objectivity to the design and improvement of services and the products therein. By using the research and service design artifacts to guide the discussion, decision makers can see the areas that are having the greatest impact on an experience journey and allow them to prioritize areas that will have the best return on investment. The research focuses on what can be seen and what is unseen, exploring things like societal biases, segmentation, cultural contexts, and other behavioural differentiators. Experiences for someone in one region over another, a single mother, or someone who works night shifts, will create a context that can have significant impacts on someone’s experience. There are so many scenarios that will impact the expectations from a service.

The evolution of our behaviours and cultures is creating a landscape where we are constantly working on an outdated understanding of people’s needs. Being intentional about understanding and designing with current and deep knowledge will easily set one service apart from another. 

Our service design process

Following the design thinking steps as a foundation, we seek to understand the problem space and find creativity through the process of identifying and testing opportunities. 

Our steps at Disco are:

  • Understand needs where we conduct research to get to know the people involved, the services and other examples of similar service streams.
  • Generate ideas where we take our findings and begin to formulate ideas, evolving the hypothesis and honing in on opportunity areas with a creative mindset.
  • Develop concepts where we discover innovations, design concepts and potential solutions to the service flow, products and interaction points that will solve the highest value opportunity areas.
  • Prototype and test where we put our concepts into action and test them out with real people to see if we fully understood the needs and discover if our designs will solve the right problem.

Using this method, we discover innovative ideas that will bring real value to a business and the people who access their service. It is the practice of deeply understanding the problem space and how the various actors within that process (or service) experience it. This practice requires humility because the outcome may be far from the original idea - and that’s okay. This process of research and testing the hypothesis is humbling and exciting as you never truly know the outcome. This is why it is so important to do the work.

The findings that are uncovered will help you understand why something is happening. By gaining this understanding and the evidence to back it up, it is possible to solve for the real problem rather than being distracted by the symptoms or superficial findings that often come from relying on our own knowledge and experiences.

This multi-stepped approach helps to guide us through understanding to concept development. Conducting research and understanding people is a process rooted in empathy. We approach the research with a willingness to listen, observe and understand in an unbiased and open minded way (as unbiased as possible). We start from a place of learning and drive to a place of knowing. We use evidence to guide the process and keep a foundation of organizational priorities to guide the trajectory. The ideas and concepts generated take many shapes and it is up to the decision makers on how far out to consider the possibilities. This brings the concept of feasibility into play, something that we won’t dive into in this article but is an important factor in the overall development process.

The last stages of the process are critical to ensuring success. The development of prototypes allows us to test the hypothesis, build out concepts, and discover if we have truly understood. This is a lower investment way to discover if what has been designed will solve the problem and discover if it will create the positive end-to-end experience that is desired. This allows for an iterative approach to solving the problem and also allows decision makers/the business area to see in practice, the value that can come from implementing the improvements.

Approach and deliverables

There are some distinct deliverables and processes that are used in service design that help in the discovery of high-value opportunities. We discussed the process above, but there are some common approaches and deliverables that we use to facilitate this process. Below is a brief overview of some of these tools. 

These include:

  • Service blueprinting: Identifies the services and journeys that are experienced out in the open or ‘front of house’, the steps that happen behind the scenes to facilitate the service or ‘back-of-house’, the journey of the user as they navigate the service, the phases of the journey, identification of pain points, and third party actors. 
  • Experience or user journey mapping: This includes the identification of interaction points, inputs/outputs, systems or products used, the steps the user takes as they navigate, and can sometime include an emotion index (frustrated, happy, mad, etc.)
  • User interviews: These interviews are often one-on-one and focus on a specific goal. There are many methods to conduct interviews. Considering what you want to get from the interview will be key to determining what kind of approach you should take.
  • Desktop research: More traditional research focused on understanding what is already known about the service area, behavioural patterns / insights, and any other examples of the service and related experiences. 
  • Co-design and workshops: Facilitated sessions to find ideas or patterns from the research. This might include users or just the business, but is used to stimulate creativity and find opportunities collaboratively. 

Service design, as well as any practice that interacts with a dynamic environment, requires a level of agility. We use these tools differently for different scenarios. We are constantly learning new skills and equipping ourselves with new tools. There are many resources available to help start this process, developing a method that suits the scenario will lead to the greatest success. There is no single recipe that will work 100% of the time. Approaching the problem space with humility and a desire to learn will be your greatest asset in successful service design processes. 

“You’ll need to define problems, iterate and address all dimensions of the customers’, users’ and business needs best in a holistic design. To begin, you must empathize with all relevant users/customers.”

Interaction Design Foundation, Service Design

Defining the service scope

The exercise of understanding a user’s experience needs to go from one edge to the other, and defining those edges will help to frame the initial approach. This definition may evolve through research, so be intentional about redefining when it is appropriate. Choosing the scope of your service area will be important to get started, but allowing the findings to inform the next steps is imperative. In general, it is good to start broad and understand the full scope of the service, followed by narrowing down to conduct more focused analysis.

As an example, an organization may be looking to improve their environmental responsibility. They may look at all the services they offer, the organization as a whole, or may choose to look at one service stream to pilot. Using service design, we can explore how people experience this kind of service and bring forth opportunities that can be implemented across the organization. Similarly, an organization might have a recycling program and want to improve its uptake. This is a much more focused scope as it focuses on one program or service stream. This process would then look at the program with consideration to the broader organization. Again, including broad research can be very valuable but also may not yield the focused results that are needed in a short period of time. Creating measurable goals will help to define the scope. Ie. Increase recycling of Bubble-lined envelopes in the Province by x%. This not only provides a target but also creates a way to measure success.

Service design can help frame a scope of improvement that can be used as a jumping off point to create sustained and meaningful change. Using the practices outlined in this article, a business can learn and uncover ideas that might never have been considered. The tools and the processes do not remove the necessity of innovation within the design and implementation team, but rather provide a foundation that equips them with the tools to move beyond their own knowledge. Understanding people and how they interact with a service is constantly evolving, by doing the research and spending time to contemplate the impacts, anticipating needs becomes simpler. T

he importance of service design is to acknowledge the value that can come from the work and to make space within the process, within the organization, to allow for a process of curiosity and creativity. Allowing for hypothesis and discovery and then opening up to the idea of the unknown to make a lasting impression on your users. 

A picture of Lena Stachiw

About the Author

Lena has worked for over 12 years designing intentional and innovative products, services and spaces. Her work demonstrates the success that can come from designing with intention.

Lena’s work is rooted in a desire to create positive progress in the world. She believes that to create change (large or small) we need to understand context, experiences, and the forces that are effecting people — technology, organizations and culture — and break free from what we believe to be constraints. If we do this, we can achieve sustainable and innovative solutions.