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What is service design?

Published on 04 Aug, 2021 by Stina Vanhoof

Service design simply is designing and implementing the experience of users and employees, by implementing these methodologies: user research, customer journeys, personas, service blueprints, data analysis and storyboards.

Think about your passport. The passport itself is a ‘product’ you interact with, but the experience around the passport is a combination of all the touch-points you encounter: a letter that your passport will expire, your town’s website with information on how to get a new one, the online application tool, a phone call with a civil servant to find out how long it will take because you need it urgently, another letter to tell you your passport is ready, the town hall where you go to pick it up. As a user you’ve already encountered an impressive amount of touch-points and this is only considering the application phase.

It’s clear that this is a complex system, requiring careful attention in order to create a positive experience around it. This is exactly where service design comes into play; designing complex systems into pleasant and flawless experiences for the end-user. Achieving this often also requires us to tackle and redesign the processes of the organisation behind the product or service, or passport in this case.

Service design simply is designing and implementing the experience of users and employees.

Designing the back-end and front-end

Designing the internal processes of the organisation that delivers the user experience is a crucial part of the service design process. We often explain it through the metaphor of a theatre. To deliver a great show to the audience the entire backstage needs to know exactly what to do at exactly what moment. Music should be played at the right time, lights need to illuminate a specific location, the decor needs to change in a matter of seconds, the curtains need to open only when the actors are ready.

On the left, you have the front of a stage facing the audience. On the right you have the back of a stage where in the back wings everything is getting ready for the show.

When applied to the service delivery world it looks something like the drawing below. The audience becomes the customers. The first line staff are the actors that interact with the audience. They are separated by the line of interaction. The back-office employees are the ones delivering the service behind the scenes and are separated by a line of visibility. In the service design process we connect all these dots to deliver a seamless experience. We make sure all processes are aligned to deliver a qualitative customer experience.

Illustration of service where the customer can go to front-line staff but has no view of the back-office that is busy behind a wall.

The evolution of service design

In the past, the design process was only applicable to creating a product. For example; how can we make a light bulb less fragile and more user-friendly - and then it was up to engineers to make it work and marketeers to sell the result. In service design we apply the same design principles, but to an entire organisational system. There are a couple of trends that allowed this shift from product design to service design to happen.

Digital transformation: Can you believe that the first iPhone was only launched 12 years ago? Imagine what our next 12 years will look like! Technology is rapidly changing. Organisations need to embed these technologies in their offer and deliver a seamless experience to their customers.

Customers expectations: Over the past years we have seen a major rise in companies that focus on user experience. Often they are start-ups that quickly scale and gain increasing popularity like Airbnb, Deliveroo, or Uber. These companies nowadays determine the expectations of the user. ‘Why can I book a home on the other side of the world in just one click, yet it takes me 3 weeks and a lot of hassle to apply for my passport?’

Change in structure of organisations: With expectations and technology changing at incremental speed, organisations cannot work by means of silo-structured departments anymore. We see young companies being organised in different ways, being more agile, resilient and flexible. Working in squads, implementing lifelong learning, stimulating creativity and implementing more meaningful employment by allocating repetitive jobs to robots.

The service design toolset

Service design tools help you work in a more human-centered, iterative and collaborative way. They assure that we start from user needs and help us visualise complex systems into sharable output. The tools are not a goal as such, but rather guides to assist you from the research phase, through design and into qualitative implementation over time. Here is a list of the most popular service design tools:

Four life-size personas that give the service users a face.

Personas are archetypes of your users, they represent the people you are designing for and help you make decisions based on their needs through the entire process.

Customer journey example where we plot out in detailed steps when and how the user uses a service.

Customer journeys represent the sequence of steps a customer goes through when using your service. They're based on a specific user group (a persona) and typically also show the touch-points the user encounters as well as the highs and the lows related to the overall experience. You can make customer journeys of the as-is and of the to-be situation.

Example of a service blueprint where we gain visibility into a service's underlying organisation and systems.

Service Blueprints represent the backstage organisational processes that are linked to a customer journey. Again, you can make service blueprints of the as-is and of the to-be situation.

Example storyboard of the process of finding your way around a city office to the right counter.

Storyboards are used to represent a sequence of events a user goes through, narrated and visualised in a comic book format.

Co-creation workshops are active, social and creative meetings that end with concrete results, such as prototypes, roadmaps and journeys co-created by the participants.

Example of a co-creation workshop where participants stand around a table and work together to create a stakeholder map using context cards.

Stakeholder maps are an overview of all involved parties. It gives a birds-eyed view of connections and involvement of different parties in the delivery process.

Two interviewers outside on a bridge in Ghent interviewing a lady with a camera for a qualitative user survey.

Qualitative research comes in many shapes; Semi-structured interviews, usability testing, observations, etc. depending on the outcome that’s needed. These methods capture the needs, desires and goals of your users to allow for tailored solutions.

Building blocks

When talking about service design most people immediately think of the tools being used. Even though these tools are very important they are not the core of service design. To design qualitative services you always need a tailored approach. What is similar in all design processes is the mind-set required. This mind-set is explained by 5 principles (below) in the service design bible ‘Service design doing, co-created by service designers all over the world (find the link at the end of this article).

  • Human-centered: Consider the experience of all the people affected by the service.
  • Collaborative: Stakeholders of various backgrounds and functions should be actively engaged in the service design process.
  • Iterative: Service design is an exploratory, adaptive, and experimental approach, iterating toward implementation.
  • Sequential: The service should be visualized and orchestrated as a sequence of interrelated actions.
  • Real: Needs should be research in reality, ideas prototyped in reality, and intangible values evidenced as physical or digital reality.
  • Holistic: Services should sustainably address the needs of all stakeholders through the entire service and across the business.

The future of service design

Service design is a relatively new discipline and is evolving at great speed. Where service designers used to be the ones delivering personas and journey maps, their role has evolved into something bigger. We’ve seen service design projects move from small tracks to big change projects where organisations started working in a more human-centered, iterative way. Service designers took on the role of coaching ‘non-designers’ to deliver great services throughout the entire organisation. You can read a more elaborate story of this evolution here.

Want to learn more?

Implementing service design is not a privilege exclusively for service designers. In every position within an organisation you can start working in a more human-centered way and implement the service design mind-set and tools! Here are some resources to get started.


  • 'This is Service Design Doing' by Marc Stickdorn & Markus Edgar Hormess
  • 'Service Design for Business' by Ben Reason, Lavrans Lovlie & Melvin Brand Flu

Online recourses:

Other tips: