Defining the Abstract: A Primer on Service Design

Service Design creates the circumstances for an experience to take place.¹ This is the most simple and clear definition I’ve come across that articulates what can feel like an abstract practice.

The tangible outputs of Service Design that most are familiar with are Journey Maps and Service Blueprints. However, Service Design is much more than that. It takes a holistic and strategic approach, looking at the entire ecosystem where the exchange of goods and services takes place. It takes into account everything from the entity providing the goods or services to the person receiving those goods and services. And it accounts for both the tangible and intangible. In fact, in many cases, the services being provided can feel not only abstract but invisible.

In covering the visible and invisible, Service Design touches upon all the circumstances surrounding an experience — from a person’s feelings to the way an entity is providing services and the support mechanisms behind those services. It covers the big picture and dives into the details. For example, a service can be defined as a finite entity that can be exchanged for a monetary value but it can also be seen as an experience that takes place — such as creating a process for people to get vaccinated for COVID. In relation to some of those big picture categories, it may include the environment and the sustainability of a service, organizational politics, the economy and emotional labor to name a few.

In the COVID example mentioned above, if we are considering the general public, our research would have to take into account all the factors that come into play that would either motivate or hinder someone from getting vaccinated. There are material barriers, such as lack of access to public transportation if someone doesn’t have a car or lives in a rural area. But there are intangible factors like a person’s intrinsic moral code that guides whether it’s something they want to do. There are certainly many more categories to consider here but the thing to take away is that Service Design accounts for all these factors and therefore takes a holistic approach.

How do we go from abstract concepts to anchoring the work? Here the core principles we follow:

Service Design is human centered. The focus is on the user experience and pathway throughout that experience.

Research and collaboration is paramount. Service Design depends heavily on participation and codesign opportunities. After all, we can’t design systems without those involved and affected by the service we’re solutioning for.

How we tell the story matters. Creating narratives and envisioning a future/solution based on the research that’s been done is a necessary part of Service Design to bring others along and ensure we’ve captured all the paths of the user.

Out of these narratives and experiences come the tangible artifacts and associated touch points that we design and are inherently part of the service experience.

How do these principles manifest themselves into tangible outputs that become actionable for a given team?

Research is the obvious one. There are tons of different methods of research to employ, depending on the goals of a given engagement. Those can vary from ethnography, to interviews to specific creative exercises in participatory design sessions.

Sticking with our COVID example, one of the research methods we would use would be one-on-one interviews with a variety of people, from different backgrounds to give us a good sampling of each group’s perspectives. This allows us to see where we can leverage opportunities and solve for barriers.

It’s important to note, there’s a fluidity in the process here and not one size fits all. The research will give us a sense of the user’s path but the output for this could depend on the information we have and the parties affected. For example, a Journey Map of the current experience may be necessary to see the gaps in the process and illuminate the solutions that could help fill those gaps. A Journey Map would also allow us to map a person’s emotions along their path, allowing us to see where additional guidance or positive reinforcement might be needed — via Behavioral Change approaches.

Or perhaps a Service Blueprint is necessary — not only to include the user’s path but to also see the services and systems that support the user that the user isn’t aware of. These are considered ‘back of the house’ activities that the user doesn’t interact with, yet still drive consequences — both positive and negative — on their experience. In this example, ‘back of the house’ activities could include the process a pharmacy goes through to obtain the vaccine before administering to patients or the process that goes into building the system to support booking appointments. These processes are outside of the user’s control and yet they will have a direct impact on their full experience.

Depending on the engagement, a Playbook might be necessary. Based on the research and work we’ve done this serves as a guide on how to run everything regarding a service or a product. It’s typically handed off at the end to equip a team to continue to do the work.

The artifacts mentioned thus far — Journey Maps, Service Blueprints and Playbooks — are only some of the tangible aspects of the work that we typically hand off to clients. Any number of them could be employed in any combination that suits our needs but they alone are not Service Design. They are part of the process.

As we move through the process, our proposed approach is of course synonymous with how we tell the story and present our solution. This is where the narrative takes shape. Using the research we gathered and the supporting documents we’ve created along the way, we can begin to put the pieces together. If we’ve done our job right, we can articulate the barriers and see where the moments of opportunity are. As far as the emotional arch of a user’s journey, we can see where people’s motivations might lie and layer in Behavioral Change approaches that help us get to the core of what would encourage meaningful and actionable change. This is where we rely heavily on the research, the process and the artifacts we created to guide the path forward. From a client’s perspective, it would outline next steps — both strategic and immediately actionable ones.

At its core, Service Design offers teams the tools and resources they need to arrive to actionable solutions. Any of the processes and tools mentioned here can be applied at different points in the process to aid with subsequent steps. Applying Service Design means taking a holistic approach, regardless of the point of the process we might be in. And it’s part of what makes Service Design unique.

¹ Can you design a service?

Strategist. Design Director. Service Design devotee. Brand pupil. Form + Function advocate. Design Enthusiast.