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The service design process (Guide part 2)

May 12, 2021

Service design always follows an iterative design process, meaning that it follows cycles of learning, prototyping and improvement. Similar to design in general, service design is constantly evolving and improving. In this article, we explain the key components of a service design process and offer a framework for creating your own.

On this page, you will learn about:

  1. Service design: An iterative process
  2. Research (aka discovery or exploration)
  3. Ideation (aka creation or concept design)
  4. Prototyping (aka reflection or testing)
  5. Implementation (aka roll-out or change management)

Service design: An iterative process

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

To start understanding the process, let's imagine the process of designing a car:

It might begin with market research to discover what kind of car potential customers would need and 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. The new car will only be produced and launched if these tests are consistently positive. 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 precept is crucial for its lasting success!

Visualization of Service Design as an iterative process with four stages: exploration, creation, reflection, implementation.
The iterative process of service design consists of four key insights: exploration, creation, reflection and implementation.

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…?” question (i.e. ideation), but also with an idea or concept (i.e. prototyping).

The service design process can then shift 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 in some more detail by following a potential design process…

Keep in mind: This is not a straightforward process. You might need to jump between activities. If you find out that a prototype does not work, you might need to return to the research phase and improve your understanding of the challenge.

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 gain a clear understanding of the culture, structure and goals of the company that is providing the service. As part of this first step, it is important to take a close look at the motivations and the initial design challenge a team is faced with. Often, the challenge a team is asked to solve is a symptom, and not the real root cause that needs to be addressed.

“It is important to keep the big picture and as far as possible, ascertain the true motivations behind customer behavior”.
– Marc Stickdorn, CEO of Smaply, in his book "This is Service Design Thinking"

After aligning the original intent of the project, the next step is the collection of empirical data about customer experience and behaviour. This data enables the design team to empathize with the people they design for and generate an understanding of their practices and routines. Service design uses a variety  of different tools and methods to explore people's behavior, context and motivations. Ethnographic research methods have been adopted as one of the most common research approaches in service design, as they allow for the understanding of people in their real-world context.

Link to the next part of the service design guide discussing service design tools.

Research methods also include visualizing the findings and making sense of the gathered data so that actionable insights about customers can be understood. Data visualization tools can include personas, customer journey maps and stakeholder maps, etc. These visual techniques help the design team simplify complex ideas and provide unique perspectives on customer experiences. Ultimately, this understanding makes ideas easier to comprehend and aids decision making. In this circumstances problems should be prioritized by an organization.

Ideation (aka creation or concept design)

Generating new ideas is a vital part of service design. However, it is not as all-important as many people think it is. In the end, ideas are just the starting point within a bigger evolutionary process. Coming up with game changing concepts requires an iterative process where ideas are produced en masse, mixed, recombined, culled, distilled, and evolved.

In order to achieve sustainable solutions, it is crucial to practice co-design by involving all the major stakeholders of a service in its development. To do this effectively, teams should be structured to include customers, employees, management, as well as engineers, designers and other important stakeholders who could provide unique perspectives.

In a service design workshop you can gather all relevant parties in one room and together ideate about potential solutions. This guide to design thinking workshops that will introduce you to everything you need to know about the procedure, exercises and much more.

Keep in mind, that service design isn’t about avoiding mistakes,  rather it's an inclusive process where navigation leverages mistakes to lead us to better long term solutions. Good service design approaches focus more on understanding people's problems and needs, exploring as many ideas as possible and  identifying challenges as early as possible in order to learn from them. Through fast iterations of different service prototypes, teams are able to take practical, low-cost actions early on in the process and develop their learning much faster  than if they were simply discussing ideas.

Prototyping (aka reflection or testing)

Prototyping is used to explore, evaluate, and communicate how people might experience future service situations. Prototyping is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to show how an idea could work for delivering a service.

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.

Whether we are prototyping a physical product such as a cardboard layout for a new office space or a way of greeting customers, teams can learn a lot by testing these in a low-fi way before we settle on a final approach.

Prototypes help us mitigate costly errors later on in the design process by testing our assumptions early on and gathering customer feedback and developing this into our designs earlier rather than later.

In this context, we need to consider the emotional aspects of a service. Videos, photos, storyboards etc. help 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.

Call to action: Create your free journey map!

Implementation (aka roll-out or change management)

The implementation of service design projects can involve a range of different disciplines. These can include change management for organizational procedures and processes, software development for apps and software, and product development or engineering for the production of physical objects.

The implementation of new service concepts will require various degrees of change, and change management.

There are three guiding service design principles when undergoing a change process: planning change, implementing change and reviewing change. Every implementation should be tested as well during the previous stages. Clear communication with both customers and employees about service changes is vital for ensuring that expectations are managed, and that changes come with the lowest possible level of disruption.

And now, what's next?

Knowing about the process, it's time to get to know some service design tools in the third part of our service design guide!