service design workshop with sticky notes

About Service Design Thinking

June 2, 2016

Service design, or design thinking, is often linked with terms, such as innovation (process), change, and improvement. But what exactly is it? What tools are there? And how can service design thinking be integrated in an organization as a means of change?

In this article we will cover the following topics

  1. What is service design?
  2. How to use service design?
  3. What are service design tools?
  4. How to implement service design in an organization?
  5. Why is service design important?
  6. What does a service designer do?

What is service design?

In general, service design is a mindset, process, toolset and a collection of methods, striving to create delightful experiences for people, be they customers, users, employees, citizens or whomever you focus on and any combination of these. Therefore, it constantly moves between the different zoom levels of an experience: from an overall end- to-end perspective, to the experience of tiny details.

Service design is the conscious design of all front and backstage components of a service as well as the underlying business model. It can be applied to services, but similarly, it’s used to design and improve physical or digital products, as well as systems of various components and providers. The boundaries between physical products and services are blurring and mostly one doesn’t exist without the other anyway. We need to think in systems and understand the ecosystem in which services and physical products operate. Service design is rooted in participatory and human-centered design.

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

Steve Jobs

There are many definitions of service design. However, one great advantage of this approach is that there is not yet a commonly agreed definition. Just like design in general, service design is constantly evolving. This allows it to adapt to various use cases and seamlessly integrate with like-minded approaches such as “lean” or “agile” – be it in management, in software development, or many other fields. Different agencies, organizations and countries use different labels for more or less the same thing. We don’t care if you call what we’re doing service design, design thinking, experience design, UX or CX design, to name but a few. Instead of building up new silos what design is and what not, we should focus on breaking down silos within organizations. In this article, we’ll call it service design, but please change the words against whatever you like…

The process of service design: How to use service design?

Service design follows an iterative design process. The following is just a framework and not a how-to guide. In fact, the very first step of a service design process should be to design the process itself. Every agency and organization uses a different process with different naming. However, there’s a common basic idea behind all of these.

The service design process consists of exploration, creation, reflection and implementation
The process of service design consists of four key insights: exploration, creation, reflection and implementation.

Imagine the process of designing by the example of a car. It might start with market research to discover what kind of car potential customers would prefer. Obviously, if there is a market for a product, it is worth designing. Based on these explorations, designers start creating ideas and the first design concept is born. Prototypes are built and tested in terms of usability, functionality, cost, market response and so on. Only if these tests remain positive, the new car will be produced and launched. Mistakes during this process will lead to enormous costs or even reputational damage – the later problems are discovered, the more expensive they are. As this simple example illustrates, a well-thought-out approach to the design of a new precepts is crucial for it’s lasting success!

The design process includes four key activities: research, ideation, prototyping, and implementation. There are many different tools and methods that can be used for each of these key activities and combined throughout many loops (iterations). You can start a design process with a customer problem and strive to understand it better (i.e. research) or with a challenge, like the famous “How might we…?” questions (i.e. ideation), but also with an idea or concept (i.e. prototyping). A service design process then moves between these four key activities to iteratively create and test a solution for a certain problem or user need. Let’s go through these four activities a bit more in detail by following a potential design process...

Research (aka discovery or exploration)

Although service design is a user-centered (or customer-centered, human-centered) process that often claims to start with the customer and puts them at the centre of its process, service design seldom starts with the customer. The first step is to learn the culture, structure and goals of the company that provides a service. As part of this first step, it is also important to challenge the initial briefing, the design challenge a team received. Often the problem a team is asked to solve is only a symptom and not the real cause that should be solved.

“It is important to keep the big picture and as far as possible, ascertain the true motivations behind customer behavior”.


Collecting empirical data is a step in the right direction. Service design uses lots of different methods and tools to explore and understand the behavior of all people involved. Especially ethnographic approaches have been adopted as one of the most common research approaches in service design. Research also includes visualizing the findings and making sense of the collected data. Visualizing data in form of personas, customer journey maps, stakeholder maps, etc. helps a team to simplify complex processes and makes it easier to understand which problems should actually be tackled.

Link to basics of personas article: You will learn what personas are, why you need them, how to research, define and create them and some templates and a cheat sheet.
Check out this article about personas to learn more!

Ideation (aka creation or concept design)

In order to achieve sustainable solutions, it is crucial to include all main stakeholders and work with teams that include customers, employees and management, as well as engineers and designers through a co-creative approach.

Keep in mind, that service design isn’t about avoiding mistakes, it’s about understanding problems and needs, exploring as many ideas as possible, identifying challenges as early as possible in order to learn from them. Prototyping ideas very early in the process in a fast and open way is much better than just discussing ideas.

Prototyping (aka reflection or testing)

Prototyping is about iterative testing and improving different ideas and concepts. It is rather straightforward to test physical products, but when it comes to testing intangible services or whole systems of products and services, you cannot simply put a service on a table and ask customers what they think about it. Even using feedback methods such as surveys or interviews come with strong biases. Customers need a good mental picture of the future service concept. Generating such a vision of a service concept in the mind of customers is the task during this activity.

Link to Customer experience research: You will learn what customer experience research is, why it is important, how to conduct is and some methods you can use.
Check out this article if you want to learn more about customer experience research!

In this context, we need to consider the emotional aspects of a service. Videos, photos, storyboards etc. help to generate the necessary emotional engagement but still lack meaningful user interaction.

“It is important to prototype service concepts in reality. Service Design Thinking uses different stages and interactive approaches.”


“Playing” through certain situations helps to incorporate emotionally important aspects of personal interactions with the service proposition.

Implementation (aka roll-out or change management)

The implementation of new service concepts demands a process of change. There are three principles of change management you can consider as a guideline: planning change, implementing change and reviewing change. Every implementation should be tested as well during the previous stages. A clear communication of a concept to your team is essential and needs to include the desired customer expectations.

Besides customers, your employees play the most important role in the process. Their motivation and engagement is crucial for sustainable service implementation. Include employees in your design process from the very beginning. Focus on their employee experience as much as you focus on the desired customer experience. Give your employees the chance to deliver ideas and involve them in every step of the process.

What are service design tools?

Ask anyone to imagine service design, and they will imagine a tool, perhaps a customer journey map hanging on the wall, or simply people pointing at sticky notes. Those templates and tools sum up service design in many people's thoughts.
Talk about tools seems to dominate talk about service design, so it's tempting to imagine service design as a sort of toolbox, filled with fairly lightweight and approachable tools adopted from branding, marketing, UX, and elsewhere. This is not the whole story, by any means - without a process, mindset, and even common language, those tools lose much of their impact and may even make no sense.
Used well however, the tools can spark meaningful conversations; create common understanding; make implicit knowledge, opinions and assumptions explicit; and stimulate the development of common language.

- TISSD pg 21

There exist a wide variety of tools at different stages of service design and development, from exploring the world of our customers, to reflecting on our customer data and finally implementing our service design improvements.

Research: If we are conducting user research and develop our understanding of our customers we might use methods such as, contextual interviews, participant observation and forms of mobile ethnography. We visualize the collected data with tools like personas, journey maps and system maps.

Ideation: After we have developed an understanding of our customers we are able to craft our insights into new ideas and concepts. Many methods during ideation focus on fostering collaboration between diverse stakeholder groups, such as co-creative workshop formats. Specific tools can include what-if statements, storyboards and design scenarios.

Prototyping: During prototyping, we strive to test our ideas and challenge the underlying assumptions. Prototyping is research of the future. The applied methods vary from desktop walkthroughs or wireframes to physical cardboard prototypes or theatrical approaches. Tools often include ways to visualize experiences, such as future-state journey maps.

Implementation: Methods used during implementation facilitate the transfer of service delivery improvements into the organization. This is where ideas are put into action, how we gather support for change as well as implement it. Tools that assist in implementation are service blueprints, communication prototypes and customer lifecycle maps.

Having a broad toolkit and being able to apply relevant methods and tools at the right moment can greatly assist us to overcome the challenges we face during service design. Whether these are methods and tools that help us understand our customers better, understand and manage our data or help us to prototype innovative service delivery methods.

How to implement service design in an organization?

Service Design became more and more popular over the last decade. Applying service design in an organization or project is not a yes/no decision. Often teams start with using only a few tools or methods in a first project. They learn how to adapt the process and language to their own organizational culture. Over time and often several projects more and more people in an organization build up competence through workshops, masterclasses, jams, conferences, talks, and so on.

At some point organizations often start to define a common language and approach that allows teams from different departments, regions, countries to use a common language. Such a minimal common process and toolbox allow disperse and diverse teams to work together efficiently. In the end, some organizations strive to include service design in their DNA, affecting their entire corporate culture.

At an organizational level it is important to monitor the processes. Service blueprints are one of the standard methods to illustrate internal and external backstage processes. There will always occur some unexpected aspects that create frictions, but the more resources are invested in the earlier stages and the more processes and concepts are tested in context, the more likely is a smooth transition.

Why is service design important?

Many organizations have simply lost sight of their customer's experience and what it is like to receive services and interact with their organization. At the forefront of what makes service design important is that it helps organizations refocus and see their service delivery from the perspective of their customers.  

By deeply understanding the experience of people who engage with their services, organizations are much better placed to make service innovation decisions that improve both customer satisfaction as well as business outcomes.

Through taking a systematic approach to service design, organizations are able to realize many important benefits, including;

  • Having better insights that lead to innovative and improved methods for service delivery that are more useful, usable and enjoyable for customers.
  • An understanding of customer pain points when receiving services.  
  • A heightened level of focus for solving the right problem - by reducing assumptions and framing chosen problems in the right way.
  • Reduced inefficiencies within organizations by helping to choreograph service delivery in streamlined ways.
  • Decreased assumptions when it comes to making decisions that balance business and customer needs.
  • A more holistic and collaborative approach for solving business challenges that involves many different stakeholder groups.

What does a service designer do?

The role of the service designer is dynamic and multi-functional, often requiring the designer to shift seamlessly between different activities such as interviewing customers, analyzing data and prototyping service delivery improvements.  

Throughout a service design project a service designer is required to organize and coordinate the input from a variety of different stakeholders. Whether this is building a design team from different departments within an organization, engaging with subject matter experts, facilitating workshops or arranging interviews with customers. By fostering relationships and collaboration service designers create the conditions for sustainable and effective service improvements that are grounded in customer experience and have cross-department support.

During research activities, service designers drive engagement with customers in order to form a solid understanding of their lived experience. Using various tools and approaches the design team analyses this experience data in order to extract valuable insights about where service delivery can be improved to help customers.

Taking these insights service designers work with the design team to generate creative solutions for how the organization might address customer pain points and areas where they need more help. Service designers will quickly take these ideas for prototyping and testing using low budget methods in order to see whether generated ideas will be desirable to customers and the business, technically feasible and viable now and into the future.  

But service designers also assist and promote the implementation of new designs within the organization and measure whether projects had the intended impact or need to be revised. This can be done with a wide range of tools such as blueprints which help to orchestrate how new service delivery methods will be managed and successfully implemented.