What is Service Design?

A short video on What is Service Design?

First, we need to start with what services are.

Services help us do a thing, provide us, a person, with some kind of value, helping us reach an outcome that we need or want to do.

So for example;

I want a hot drink, I might go to a cafe who will make one for me. I’m on the go, so I don’t have an espresso machine or coffee beans, so I use a service to provide a hot drink. That’s a really simplified example.

I want to get somewhere, I might use a transport service like a taxi. I don’t own the car, maybe I don’t have the ability to drive, so I use a service to do that for me.

I’m feeling unwell, and I want to get better, I might use a health service like a doctor. I don’t have the knowledge, skills or equipment to get better on my own, so I use a service to get help to do that.

Services help us do something, usually without us having to own the costs, risk, or sometimes, labour of delivering it.

And they will deliver different forms of value even if the product and the outcome at the core is the same.

So for example;

I need to stay overnight in a city and get some sleep. There are lots of different services that could enable me to reach my outcome of getting a good night of sleep.

I might use a hostel

I might rent a tent

I might rent a room in someone’s home, or their sofa

I might stay in a 5 star resort

I might use a home rental service

I might book it direct from the provider

I might use a third party accommodation booking service

Ultimately, all of these services help me reach my goal.

They all help me get a night of sleep but in different ways to meet my personal wants, needs, budget, preferences and context I am in.

The user experience across all these options could be very different and this is something that can be designed.

All services have ‘a user experience’. This is the overall end-to-end experience we have as an individual using a service to achieve our end goal.

We can’t design someone’s individual experience, as we are all different and how we respond to a service will differ based on the context we are using it, the level of service we receive on the day and our individual needs and who we are.

However, we can consciously design how a service works and how it meets outcomes and user needs. From the steps and the order they are in, to how accessible it is, how it looks and feels to the content and instructions on how to use it.

Let’s take a mental health service for example. You might use their website to book an appointment for therapy.

The interaction design of the product, in this case a website and booking function, should ensure the user of that service can book an appointment easily.

A sign at a local health service which may not feel like it is designed to be welcoming for users

The user experience of these two different mental health service providers might differ though. One may be open and inviting and seem flexible to book, the other may be strict and make it difficult to book. Both have the same product on offer, and are trying to achieve the same goal but the offer might come across in different ways. I know which one I would choose, if I had the privilege of choosing.

And this is because of design. Sometimes the design is a conscious decision making process in how it can meet needs.

One service might be thinking how to reduce anxiety in the booking process, put a user at ease with helpful content, make it accessible if someone is using a screen reader who has a visual impairment, in other words, really thinking about the user experience.

The other, despite wanting the user to reach the exact same goal, might be unconsciously making it difficult because they are trying to stop users from booking more than one appointment, or have been frustrated with cancellations in the past so use aggressive language to ensure users turn up.

The user experience people have of a product come from both conscious and unconscious design decisions.

When there is the privilege of choosing a service, organisations need to work hard to ensure their service works for you as their profitability may be predicated on attracting users. When there is no other choice, in the case of a Government service, service design is still important to meet regulation, work hard for citizens and reduce the cost of service delivery.

But the user experience in the case of our mental health example is much wider than just booking an appointment. It starts from finding and choosing the service to engage with, to undertaking therapy, building goals, checking out and helping with relapse.

This is where Service Design really comes in.

Quite simply put, service design is the design of services.

A simplified version of a user journey map. A common technique used to highlight at various fidelities what the user experience is, the steps involved, the interactions a user has and how an organisation might deliver this. Good maps will highlight outcomes for the user and organisation.

Service design is concerned with ensuring the overall end-to-end experience that takes place over time, helps meet overall outcomes for the intended service, in the case of a mental health service, for a person to recover, or get better, or feel supported in their journey.

So all the interactions a user has from booking an appointment to accessing therapy helps meet the overall goal. Designing a service is concerned with ensuring everything that goes into doing that is joined up and meeting user needs across channels from on to offline.

It’s important to recognise that service design’s dogma on meeting user needs isn’t always the right approach. There might be some services that need designed to act in the interest of an individual’s safety and runs counter to their individual needs and preferences (child protection) or wider societal or environmental needs that need considered. 

Good service design really should focus on helping meet the overall goal for someone or the outcomes intended (like keeping someone safe) and what the service offer really is, not just focus on the process of doing something. If I want to go on holiday, learn to drive, buy a house, start a business, keep the peace, many of these overall goals require me as a user or a delivery organisation to interact with a whole host of different agents, departments and organisations thus leading to a fragmented and often difficult and frustrating experience.

Then there’s the how, which borrows techniques from more traditional recognised methods of design like prototyping and working in visual materials, but for now, we are focusing on the what.


Full Stack Service Design

Full Stack Service Design layers showing services, infrastructure, organisation, intent and culture

How organisations are designed, impact on the shape of a service and the end user experience. Often, the different tasks or steps that need to be completed are owned by different organisations or departments and this can project itself onto the user’s experience.

Therefore we must recognise there are layers to service designing beyond what the user sees and interacts with and that service design is concerned with joining up what the user sees, and how the organisations delivering it, work together.

Service design is a team sport. Whilst we have people who are service designers, and should be good at navigating the various layers that make services and helping organisations and teams align to improve outcomes, we also need to recognise that all of us play a role in designing services no matter what part of an organisation or system we sit in. Every decision we make is part of a wider system design that will affect the user experience and the ability to meet needs and outcomes so it is important we recognise how the layers of an organisation can affect the overall service and user experience.

These layers are;

  1. The Service

The things a user sees and interacts with

The user experience and business processes which enable the value for the user to take place

For example if you want to withdraw money from a bank account, you will interface with a website, app, or phone and be taken through processes to ensure you are who say you are

2. The Infrastructure

The things that enable our services to be delivered

Infrastructure affects the way we build our services because services rely on the technology that is used to deliver and maintain them over time.

For example, If we build our service on a system that needs to process user records in batches, that might mean that our service can only be available during the day time as we need to allow our system to process new users overnight

3. The Organisation

How we organise ourselves to make decisions

Our organisation affects the way we build our services, because the way they are structured can enable or disable decisions being taken

For example, If an organisation has a structure that is made of lots of small, independent business units with separate budgets that aren’t able to collaborate, that organisation will find it disproportionately difficult to provide a service that cuts across different business areas that meets a user need

4. The Intent

The reason behind why we provide services

Our intent affects the way we build our services because the things we want to achieve as an organisation drive the creation of services. It can be common for organisations to forget what that intent is or fail to work out how to deliver it in the real world

For example, an organisation that was structured to avoid risk often finds it difficult to innovate in a fast moving market

5. The Culture

The conditions that affect how we make decisions

Culture envelopes all the layers of what makes up services because it shapes how we make decisions and act as individuals and collective entities. From the autonomy staff have to how authority works, culture shapes how we design and deliver services based on our shared morals and beliefs.

For example, If an organisation provides support to users and believes they are the expert, they are unlikely to empower the user to solve a problem. This can be a view held because of organically aligned beliefs, nurtured by the organization’s cultural efforts.

Most of service design is incremental most of the time but that isn’t what we need

Commonly, Service design concerns itself with trying to link up and incrementally improve the fragmentation of user experiences by linking parts of a disconnected system up and re-designing it to help meet user needs and service outcomes. This is where lots of service design sits, knitting together what’s possible to improve outcomes and stewarding organisations towards different ways of delivering their offer.

Sometimes, service design is about a new policy or new need that is the intent for a service which can allow for free-er thinking within the constraints of the organisation and infrastructure.

MyPolice is an example of service prototyping to bring new service models into being. It was a project delivered by Snook in 2009 which was a radical rethink of how the police and public interact together in an open feedback forum. The service was made into a live prototype and tested with officers in Dundee for 6 months.

In most cases, what is needed is a radical rethink and re-imagining of how goals and needs can be met and this is where true innovation can occur in service design. However, most service design projects are dealing with what we might call, ‘brownfield’ scenarios. This is where there is lots of legacy thinking, technology and outdated models that lock heads with new and better ways of doing things.

If we are really to meet the needs of the future, our services and the organisations that deliver them must be radically rethought, and that requires us to go full stack in our thinking and challenge all layers.


So whilst service design is the pursuit of designing a service – an overall offer to help meet outcomes and how it’s constructed from a user experience point of view, it must be remembered that it is a weak link sport. The weakest link in your business or across your system will impact the overall design of the service. It will have influenced design decisions even before we think about how it should be experienced by users.

Therefore service design is about highlighting across the layers of a service new vantage points on how the ‘bit’ that people do in their organisation and the decisions they make impacts on the overall ability to meet service outcomes, improving their design literacy for what good looks like and helping them to make better decisions that shape the end user experience.

Snook prototyped a new community service model for Neighbourhood watch. To understand the capacity to deliver the service, the team prototyped elements of the service by bringing it to life and having volunteers deliver it over a period of 6 months.

That’s when the design part of service design can blossom, testing and showing what actual services look like in practice from the process and steps to the interaction design – Is the service usable? Does it help meet goals and outcomes? Can it be realistically delivered? This of course is delivered alongside other professionals from product designers to developers, and anyone involved in the end to end delivery of influencing of that service.

Whilst service design is a team sport and not a solo pursuit there is a role for service designers. They play a role in highlighting and testing what the right thing is to deliver to meet intended outcomes sometimes shaping ideas and direction in a discovery mode, testing more refined offers with wider teams or ensuring there’s a model for continuously improving a service at the point of delivery.

Ultimately they are story tellers and decision influencers.

Service designers orchestrate bringing service concepts into a form that can be tested and delivered. They should have the ability or through collaboration to convene the right people at the right level to help them invest in a shared strategy for a service. This is done by telling a compelling narrative in the best medium for the context they are seeking consensus within. Sometimes by showing the actual service through a prototype, other times, by a compelling business case. 

So, service design is the design of services, but never done in a vacuum. Nearly always working live in a wider system.

This post is replicated on my medium and is to help me point somewhere when people ask me the question, What is Service Design? 

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