Evolution, Value, and Methods of Service Design

The following post is part of an assignment for IDSE202 Service Design.  We have been asked to answer the following prompt: “Based on the readings, explain the evolution, methods, processes, and distinct value of service design and how it differs from other forms of design.”

We all experience services everyday, from riding the bus, to eating out at a restaurant, or flying.  We are particularly aware of the quality of the service that we receive, and are often poorly disappointed.  We also know brands that are known to consistently deliver a great customer experience – brands such as Starbucks, Virgin, Jet Blue, etc.  They are able to deliver such good service because their services are designed, precisely.  In short, service design is a interdisciplinary, holistic, customer centered design technique that focuses on improving the customer’s service experience.  Over the course of the last quarter, we’ve been exploring how we can use service design in our own projects.

In the following paragraphs, I address the evolution of service design, its distinct value proposition, and the methods utilized to make service design work.

Evolution and Rise of Service Design

Service design has only been around for approximately 20 years as a design discipline.  Its origins are in other human centered design disciplines, such as HCI, Interaction Design, and Environmental Design.  Service design found its early champions in northern Europe, but has since found adoption and teachings in some academic institutions within the United States, such as Carnegie Mellon.   These practitioners saw a convergence of the various aspects of design towards systems level (or ecosystem) design, and evolved particular methods (to be discussed shortly) to address higher level problems within organizations.

Services are important. Service design’s importance has risen with the changing nature of industrialized economies, which are now highly service based instead of manufacturing based.  Among the major competitors in business, design is seen as a new way to differentiate, innovate, and keep customers happy.  The internet, and particularly the quick cycle of customer reviews/negative feedback, has companies thinking more than ever about this.

Still, service design has risen very slowly in acceptance, and only now (perhaps a few years prior, or hence) will it achieve a tipping point.   Why so slow?  A few reasons.  There is a long held belief that the “service” is less sexy, powerful, or important than other aspects of business.  Also, services are often fleeting, temporal, and seemingly intangible, thus being difficult to describe and for most people even less possible to imagine designing for.

Service design is also extremely difficult because of it’s interdisciplinary nature.  To work effectively, most traditional units of business need to work together, compromise, and unite around a common vision of a service, and then implement it.  Getting that sustained level of buy-in from traditional corporate structures is really tough.  It is also a newer way of doing business, which is inherently more risky than the older way. Regardless, design has embedded itself in the American psyche like never before.  Successful companies like Apple, Amazon, and the previously mentioned entities are out front, providing evidence to all that service design is worth the effort.

 Service Design’s Distinct Value

It is worth mentioning and directly calling out how service design is different from other forms of design.  As I have briefly mentioned above, service design is interdisciplinary, holistic, and customer-centric.  It is interdisciplinary, requiring participation from many different members of an organization, unlike product, interaction, or visual design.  Because strategists, marketers, and operations folk must come to the table with service design techniques, a greater cohesion emerges across all product and service lines within a particular company.  In a sense, service design is a synthesis of all these previously mentioned design disciplines, because they must all act in unison to help support the desired customer experience.

Service design is holistic in that it incorporates both a systems level view and a time based approach to design.  Service design has been described as a theatrical performance, where the script guides the play, and many actors and individuals come together over time to make such a performance a reality.  This metaphor is rich, as it means service designers design not only for the actors on-stage, but as well for the backstage hands, presenting the viewer with a choreographed production that he or she can experience.

Service design is customer centric in a broader sense than most design disciplines.  I also sense that it is more business centered than any of the other design types, pulling theory from marketing, operations, and organizational behavior as needed.  The customer is both the set of business units, as well as the end user.  To work well, service designers must become more facilitators in a design-led process, co-creating with leaders of business units.  Ultimately, the onus of leading service innovation comes back to business leaders, due to the nature of service.  Most of it can’t be packaged neatly and shipped.

Service Design Methods

Service design utilizes many traditional design research methods, such as contextual inquiry, and participatory interviews.  While service designers also use some familiar synthesis methods such as affinity diagramming, concept mapping, and theory of change modeling, service design also presents three distinct methods useful for visualization. These are customer journey mapping, touchpoint analysis, and service design blueprinting.  They are all temporal approaches for understanding how the customer experiences a service, while highlighting existing and potential business structure interactions along the set of customer identified stages.

Customer journey maps document the current customer experience and help identify areas for improvement.  A customer may take many “journeys” but the start and end points of the customer journey in question should be representative of the problem they (or we as designers) are trying to solve.  Customer journey maps look like matrices.  To build one, you must first understand the distinct phases a customer goes through on their way to solve a problem.  This is pulled from the research methods mentioned previously. These phases are plotted along a time axis, and are matched up against y axis concepts of people involved, processes (or activities) used, technology used, major decisions, and primary emotions.  These points among the grid become areas for discussion, reflection, and further understanding of the customer experience.  They help us focus on the customer, and show us how their ecosystem (which we may or may not be a part of) currently supports their efforts.

Touch point are the signature moments and interactions between the customer and a brand.  Touch point analysis utilizes a similar grid to the customer journey map to help envision where current touch points exist, or where future ones should be.  The phases of the customer journey are overlaid along the time axis (x!), with products, interactions, messages, and settings being placed on the y axis.  In reviewing the full touch point matrix, service designers work with client counterparts to identify the key touch points to focus on that will further support their brand and service.

Lastly, service blueprinting is an approach that combines both the customer journey and touch point analysis into one larger blueprint.  It makes clear the alignment between customer actions, visible contact employee actions, backstage/invisible employee actions, support processes, and physical evidence all together.  It serves as a living document that is typically shared among the client organization so that individuals can see how their actions form a part of the larger service whole, and gives visualization to previously unsaid or unspoken actions that may be crucial to understanding.


In sum, service design is an extremely important discipline in a converging world of products, services, and experiences.  Service design can be the glue that holds everything together.  Whether all companies that are doing service well call it “service design” or just “good business”, they are actively trying to understand how their customers live and experience their services, and how they can be better served in the future.  As we continue to move forward with our own projects that focus on a larger systems, such as aging and playful education, we will certainly be able to use these methods to help us visualize and make sense of our user’s worlds.