Becoming a (better) Service Designer

Table of Contents

1. Who is this for?

While respecting the difference between knowledge and mastery of a subject1, my goal in this article is to give readers an understanding of the nature of services and provide them with some tools so they can begin thinking critically about how services can be improved. Since service design is fundamentally an application of Human-Centered Design (HCD), readers will benefit from having a basic understanding of HCD’s process and principles before proceeding.2 Finally, if you have not done so already, I strongly recommend you start by watching my introductory video:

2. What makes Services Different: Service Characteristics

serv·ice / ˈsərvis/
• n. 1. the action of helping or doing work for someone
—Oxford English Dictionary

Every field of design develops specialized knowledge and skills necessary to craft a particular facet of the human experience.3 Most of what sets service design apart from other design fields are that services are:

  • Intangible – They can’t be held or touched4
  • Dynamic – They occur over time
  • Perishable – They only exist while being provided and used
  • Inseparable – They involve the interactions and contributions of multiple actors (aka. “stakeholders”)
  • Variable – They can never be perfectly replicated5

Take, for example, the common service of giving someone a haircut: unlike automobiles, magazine ads, or smartphone apps, haircuts can’t be produced ahead of time and stored until a customer decides to purchase it. For this service to exist, the hair stylist and their client must both be present and work together to co-create their shared service experience. Furthermore, no matter how many times the same client visits the same stylist, the experience of the service can never be exactly the same.6

Another important consideration of services — which I might nest under the fourth bullet (“Inseparable”) above — is the fact that they have both “front stage” and “back stage” actors. For example, in most restaurants customers will interact with a host, their server, and possibly a busser – but never with the owner, kitchen staff, or the distributor from which the restaurant sources their ingredients.

A simple graphic showing how customers engage with service providers

An awareness and appreciation of the above service characteristics is the first pillar of designing services.

3. How to Design a Service: Service Components

Even though services themselves are intangible goods, they emerge7 from the orchestration of many tangible and intangible components (known as “touchpoints” when they’re experienced).

a diagram that shows an ecosystem is full of services, and services are full of touchpoints

One way to consider the relationship between touchpoints, services, and ecosystems

With the end goal of creating great customer experiences, most of a service designer’s job involves choreographing everything that needs to exist and occur in order to support this experience.8 Using the same haircut example as before, we might consider the following:

Tangible Components:

  • Place: What does the salon look, sound, and smell like? Where is it located? Is there a waiting area? Does it provide a place for kids to play while their parents are getting their hair done?
  • Props: What kind of chair does the customer sit in? What tools does the stylist use to cut hair? Is there a television for customers to watch during their haircut?
  • Price: How much does the stylist charge for their services? Do they offer loyalty discounts? Do they expect a tip?

Intangible Components:

  • People: What is the personality of the stylist? What are their skills? How do they interact with their customers? What interactions do customers have with other customers?
  • Process: How can customers make an appointment? Does the stylist spend time reviewing styles with their customer? Do they wash the customer’s hair before cutting?
  • Partnerships: From where does the stylist order their supplies? What credit cards can the stylist accept for payment? Does the waiting area have WiFi available for customers?
  • Positioning: Does the stylist only use environmentally-friendly products? Has the salon positioned themselves as a place for children’s haircuts? Do they provide free haircuts to veterans or homeless people?
  • Policies: Do they work by appointments only, or do they allow walk-ins? Does the stylist offer free touch-ups in the weeks following a haircut? Do they guarantee satisfaction or your money back?

Note: While the above “8 P’s” categorization is a handy device, the categories themselves are often fluid and overlapping. For example, chairs arranged in a waiting room may fall under both “place” and “props”, and the hair stylist is tangible, but their skills are not.

Choosing service components, determining the order in which they’re used, and deciding what should be visible9 can be thought of as the “levers and dials” that designers can adjust to choreograph the desired service experience. For example, consider how drastically different a haircut experience would be by just changing one thing: What if instead of having a traditional brick and mortar salon, a stylist provided house calls in a mobile salon bus? Or, instead of charging customers per appointment, what if a stylist offered annual subscriptions to their salon?

image of a symphonic performance with musicians labeled with service components, the conductor labeled as "service designer" and the audience labeled as "service experiences"

What my job often feels like

Additionally, because services comprise such a wide range of components, the number of ways to answer the question “How can we improve this service?” are almost limitless! Due to the breadth of scope, implementing new service offerings often requires coordination between many parts of an organization and collaboration with experts in other fields (e.g., interior designers, UX designer, change managers).

4. The Service Mindset

There are four ways in which services can interact with products or other services, and each of these relationships may lead to innovative new service offerings. Let’s give our hair stylist a break, and move on to new examples:

  1. Services can be wrapped around products
    • A newly purchased car comes with two years of free tune-ups
    • A car is leased to drivers instead of being purchased 
  2. Services can replace products10
    • A car-sharing program obviates the need for automobile ownership
    • A taxi service replaces the need to drive
  3. Services can replace other services
    • A grocery delivery services obviates the need for a taxi or car-sharing program
    • A meal kit service replaces the need to buy groceries
  4. Services can exist alongside other services as part of a larger service ecosystem or platform
    • A meal kit service is part of a larger health offering along with a gym membership and a personal trainer
    • A car-sharing program partners with restaurants, hotels, and other attractions to provide road trip vacation packages

To be clear, while most services today are designed around existing offerings, totally new services are also possible.

I have often said that “Service design is about creating the best experiential path to a desired outcome.” One of the most important parts of service design — or any design field — is being able to glean the deeper needs (i.e., the desired outcomes) that are driving human decisions.11 Once the needs are understood, designers can begin creating products and services (i.e., experiential paths) to meet them.

A graphic showing that there are multiple paths to provide a service

Graphic from my article “Customer service is only one aspect of a service”

5. Service Design Tools

As stated at the beginning of this article, HCD is the foundation of service design – so it should come of no surprise that the skills12 and tools associated with HCD are heavily utilized by service designers when undertaking research, synthesis, facilitation, ideation, and storytelling.13 However, in order to manage the characteristics and components of a service, most of service design’s most popular tools fall into the following categories:

  1. Visuals that give form and tangibility to service experiences – These visuals often showcase the interactions between multiple stakeholders (e.g., service blueprints14, stakeholder maps, business model canvases), or highlight the variety of different “journeys” that a stakeholder may take and the service components they’ll interact with (e.g., ecosystem maps, flowcharts, customer journeys). During research and synthesis, designers use these tools to discover where “pain points”, “moments that matter”, and potential “listening posts”15 exist in a service. During ideation and implementation, designers use these tools to build, refine, and communicate their ideas.
  2. Methods for prototyping and testing service experiences at various fidelities – These prototypes allow designers to imagine and play out how a service could work (e.g., business origami, bodystorming, speed dating), or allows them to test how successful aspects of a new service are with acting or real users (e.g., role playing, concept walkthrough, wizard of Oz). Prototyping tools often uncover new insights about a service, and enable designers to quickly refine experiences through on-the-fly improvements.

Ultimately, the best tool or method to use is the one that best serves the needs of your project. If the tools available to you are falling short, I recommend modifying an existing tool or creating a brand new one – and if it works well, please share it with the greater design community!!

6. Conclusion

Congrats! You’ve made it to the end! Hopefully, you’ve begun to see the world through service-tinted glasses and feel inspired and empowered to start tinkering with services. Sometimes lives can be difficult and unpleasant, but hopefully -together- we can make experiences worth having!

7. Next Steps

From the designers I’ve met, I know there’s no one “right way” to get into service design. That being said, here are my suggestions:

Learn more:

  • Read, read, read – There are so many good SD books and magazines out now full of theory, tools, history, and, most importantly, case studies.
  • Watch presentations from the Service Design Network (SDN) Global Conference – Many of the keynotes and presentations from past years are available online for free on Youtube.
  • Take a class – Many certificate programs are offered online.

Get a degree – Obviously a much larger investment of resources, but it’s now relatively easy to find SD programs at universities around the globe.

Do More:

  • Start using SD mindsets and tools – If possible, incorporate them into your real work – if that’s not possible, try applying them to your own life or personal projects.
  • Participate in a Global Service Jam (GSJ)– The Jam is an annual design event that takes place simultaneously in over a hundred cities around the world. Find one and sign up!
  • Get familiar with common software – You don’t have to be an expert, but it’s helpful to become familiar with the tools commonly used to create visuals, presentations, prototypes, and wireframes (e.g., Adobe CS, Office, iWork, Figma). Also – don’t forget to check out popular online collaboration tools (e.g., Mural, Miro, Slack, Basecamp).
  • Start creating or applying for SD roles – Find a way to transition your current job into something more SD, try to be a collaborator on an existing SD project, or simply start applying for SD jobs directly! (another job link here)

Get Involved:

  • Join your local (or not so local) SDN Chapter – Attend events. Ask lots of questions. Don’t be shy. Meet and talk to people. Maybe I’ll see you there!

If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to reach out. 🙃

  1. My favorite example of this is: I can easily teach you all the rules of chess in less than 10 minutes, but it’s going to take a lot of practice before you start winning games regularly.

  2. A great starting resource for HCD is

  3. For example, graphic designers focus on visual craft and communication skills, industrial designers focus on material properties and tangible interactions, and user-experience (UX) designers focus on digital interactions* and usability, etc. The laundry list of specializations goes on and on: There are furniture designers, game designers, interior designers, landscape designers, automobile designers, etc., and since emerging in the late 20th century – service designers!

  4. Some service designers like to say, “If you just paid for something, but can’t drop it on your foot, it’s probably a service.”

  5. Because there’s always some uncontrollable variability in services some designers say “we can’t design experiences, we design FOR experiences”

  6. For instance: The customer may have different style requests, the conversations will be different, the relationship between the stylist and customer will have evolved, there will be different things going on in their personal lives, etc.

  7. The word “emerge” here is used very intentionally. “Emergence” is a core aspect of Gestalt or systems thinking – basically, “the sum is greater than its parts”

  8. A similar saying is “Without empathizing with customers, staff, and the business, you won’t be able to sustain the promise of a service.”

  9. When an otherwise hidden or intangible component is intentionally brought to the front stage, we call this “evidence”

  10. Service Dominant Logic (SDL) reframes any and all products as “vehicles” for delivering service value.

  11. One of my favorite frameworks for doing so is called Jobs To Be Done (JTBD)

  12. My mind was reeling with joy in the summer of 2020 when I first stumbled upon these amazingly comprehensive tables of design skills (starting at the bottom of page 4). After over a decade in the design field, I had never seen anything even remotely close to this.

  13. For instance, while every skill in this slide from Jamin’s PRODUCTIZED presentation is definitely important for service designers to embody, the only one that feels service design specific would be #3: “Orchestrate Experiences”

  14. aka. “Service design’s gateway drug”

  15. These are especially common in CX (Customer Experience) projects. As opposed to service design projects, organizations undertaking CX projects are more interested in measuring and reporting their experience scores. “Net Promoter Score” (NPS) is probably the most common metric, but there are massive companies (e.g. Qualtrics, Medallia, etc.) that offer whole suites of measurements, trackers, and tools.

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