Public services include everything from providing public infrastructure like trains and roads, to collecting taxes, processing immigration requests, issuing passports, and providing social benefits. While the private sector has been employing design methodologies popularized by design consulting firms like IDEO and frog to improve product development and customer experience for decades, the public sector has lagged behind.
Originally developed in 1982, service design is an approach used to craft services holistically, considering both front-end and back-end processes and multichannel touchpoints from physical to digital interactions. In recent years, government agencies have begun looking to this practice to improve service delivery in health, immigration, social services, transportation and more.
In this piece, I explore the tools of service design, the opportunities and challenges such an approach offers in the public sector, as well as how we might think about impact. I also highlight an example of applied service design in New York City. The output of this inquiry should inform public officials and design professionals alike about the value and challenges of service design in government.
WHAT IS SERVICE DESIGN
Service design is an emerging methodology that designs services: 
- From end-to end: From when the user starts trying to achieve a goal to when they finish — including both content and transactions, agnostic to the business unit or department providing the service
- From front to back: Meaning the user-facing service, internal processes, supporting policy or legislation, and organizational, financial and governance structures of the service
- In every channel: Including digital, phone, mail, face to face and physical elements.
The practice follows a similar process to design thinking, moving from the explore phase with design research and strategic analysis, to the create phase of prototyping and ideation, through to delivery, testing, and implementation.
Service design draws many of its principles and frameworks from related fields, including marketing and interaction design. From marketing, it employs the marketing mix framework, expressed through the Four P’s: Product (either a tangible good or intangible service or experience), Price (dollar price or time/effort expended by customer), Promotion (disseminating relevant product information through marketing communications), and Place (online or offline location where potential clients are engaged and converted). It also incorporates three additional elements: Participants (the human actors involved in the service encounter), Processes (procedures, mechanisms, and flows of activities), and Physical Evidence (the physical surroundings and tangible clues).
From interaction design, the practice pulls the triple standards of desirability, utility, and usability. In this framework, desirability has a strong emotional dimension, while utility offers functional benefits, and usability relates to how easy it is to get to the offering (utility value) when using the service. Utility and usability are necessary to create desire which expresses itself as a drive to act.
What distinguishes service design from related disciplines is its focus on systems and on the organization, which makes it uniquely suited to address organizational change and organizational resistance.
Service design breaks down the front-stage and backstage of the customer experience in a way that helps align organization and business capabilities with customer needs, wants, and experiences.
The front-stage view helps people in the organization gain a shared picture of how the service is experienced by customers. It shows how different touchpoints meet diverse needs in a range of situations. The backstage view includes both the organizational view (who is delivering a particular part of the service) and the business capabilities. These capabilities include people, policy, process, practice (how reality differs from designed processes), and systems (IT and other systems). These levels of the service are captured in the Service Blueprint (see below).
Service Design and Design Thinking
Design thinking, also called user-centered design or human-centered design, comes from the world of product design. Pioneered by firms like IDEO and frog, design thinking is a framework for identifying and serving the needs of end users. It draws on qualitative research practices from in-depth interviews to observation and co-creation.
Service design is the application of this framework to non-material services. It is an interdisciplinary practice that draws on design, management, and process engineering. It examines how to organize service provision interactions between users and the providers of the service, considering the touchpoints between them and the backstage processes required for service delivery. Not limited to a digital interface, a tangible product, or even a single service, service design considers a range of actions, and makes recommendations around people, infrastructure, communication, and materials.
Service Design and the Social Sciences
Service design relies on practices developed in the social sciences, particularly the qualitative research methods honed in anthropology and sociology. However, it does not employ the same kinds of rigorous randomized control trials that mark econometrics-driven behavioral science research.
Incorporating methods like individual interviews, group interviews, in-context immersion, observation, and self-documentation, service design relies on qualitative research that seeks deep understanding rather than generalizable insights. These qualitative research methods enable the design team to “develop deep empathy for people they are designing for, to question assumptions, and to inspire new solutions. At the early stages of the process, research is generative — used to inspire imagination and inform intuition about new opportunities and ideas. In later phases, these methods can be evaluative — used to learn quickly about people’s response to ideas and proposed solutions.” The data collected from such methods is largely descriptive and can provide greater nuance than quantitative measures.
Service design does not eschew quantitative insights. In fact, quantitative user research through surveys or A/B testing can be valuable alone or can be used to corroborate qualitative findings. However, quantitative methods require a larger number of participants than their qualitative counterparts to ensure validity. Moreover, quantitative research in the form of surveys also relies on self-reporting, whereas qualitative research is often based on direct observation.
The qualitative methods of human-centered design and service design are generally seen as a way to generate big ideas by studying user behavior and taking an iterative approach to improvement. Yet, critics argue that human-centered design elevates the “impromptu self-reflection of users over concrete user-behavior data,” relying too much on intuition and the self-perception of users.
Behavioral science, by contrast, distills principles from experimental psychology and tests the specific and measurable impact of interventions using randomized control trials (RCT’s). In this method, researchers identify a control and treatment group and apply the intervention only to the latter group, then measure the end line difference between them. The process of “behavioral design” used by firms like ideas42 shares a lot in common with human-centered design: defining a clear problem, diagnosing it, designing solutions, testing and refining them, and scaling those that are effective. However, the RCT is a more rigorous evaluation of impact, because by identifying a single desired result and examining the change in that result against a control group, researchers can isolate the intervention as the causal factor (separate from other confounding factors.)
Quantitative measures will yield more precise estimates of how much something changed, but qualitative research is often required to explain why the change occurred.
TOOLS OF SERVICE DESIGN
Various authors offer a suite of tools that fall into the three phases or design discussed above: explore, create, and deliver. Below, I offer descriptions of eight core methods:
01. The Customer Journey Map
A core artifact of most customer experience research, the journey map traces user-facing interactions with a service and represents them as a structured visualization. The typical journey map is multichannel and time-based. Creating it requires researchers to identify the touchpoints where users interact with a service, connect those touchpoints as part of the overall experience, and depict the various phases of an experience for further analysis.
02. The Service Blueprint
A key tool in service design, the blueprint depicts each component of a service showing both users and service providers, their touch points, and the behind-the-scenes processes. Unlike customer journey maps, these blueprints capture the work of providers and the critical processes underlying service delivery. Because they stretch across the user experience, service blueprints can reveal where silos exist within an organization. According to Dana Chisnell, co-founder of the Center for Civic Design, the gaps between these silos usually correspond with low points in service for the customer. The Service Blueprint is meant to be produced collaboratively and can be a tool to bring together the different teams responsible for discrete parts of the service. The process of creating the blueprint itself can promote cooperation as well as reveal areas of overlap and teamwork. Pollaine further recommends creating Journey Summaries that track a particular user’s journey through the main service phases in order to choose which touchpoints to concentrate on.
03. The Stakeholder Map
A stakeholder map identifies important internal and external stakeholders, as well as key users, and often depicts the relationships between stakeholders and their relative importance. Stakeholder mapping is used in policy analysis, project management, and other fields in addition to service design. It helps the team assess how the interests of each stakeholder impact the project and how they should be addressed.
04. Expectation Maps
Expectation maps build on the customer journey map as a way of visualizing customer emotions and desires along the journey. They are usually created during the discovery phase and are meant to represent the dynamically changing expectations of a service, expressing the best experience the user can imagine. The map captures expectations in four areas: See, Hear, Say & Do, and Think & Feel. The map can drill down on a particular channel or aspect of a service to define where more detail is required. It serves as a diagnostic tool, pinpointing areas of a service in need of attention.
05. The Customer Lifecycle Map
Offering a holistic view of the customer’s relationship with the service provider, the customer lifecycle map is often used to highlight points where people may abandon a service. It considers the drive and motivation of customers overtime and can be depicted as a series of service journeys.
06. Design Scenarios
This tool can combine several other techniques, incorporating story boards or personas around a hypothetical story. The scenario is driven by the user research conducted by the team and can be particularly helpful in examining the potential problems a new service idea might encounter or constructing negative scenarios that explore what could be made worse to highlight what is actually working well. Design scenarios can also help teams align around a clear vision.
07. Organizational Impact Analysis
Reason et al. offers this additional tool which makes a direct connection between the customer experience and the delivery mechanisms. It identifies the impact of a customer phase or channel on different departments. The analysis is meant to help teams plan engagement with internal stakeholders to pave the way for change.
08. The Business Model Canvas
The canvas has supplanted traditional business plans to identify elements of a sustainable service offering. Though the canvas is usually applied to private sector services, public sector organizations can use this tool to help departments view themselves as a service-focused business, including how their key activities support a value proposition that serves particular customer relationships. The business model canvas contains nine sectors and can be filled out collaboratively to help service providers model the various aspects of their service offering.
An important, but often overlooked, component of service design is measuring the customer experience. Because “customer experience” is often poorly defined, it can be difficult to determine what success looks like and which metrics are appropriate. Below, I explain five metrics that illuminate parts of the customer experience.
Journey vs Touchpoint Satisfaction
Customer satisfaction can be measured at each touchpoint along the customer journey (See Tool 01) or across the whole journey. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company emphasizes that it’s critical to create measures across the entire journey, because individual touchpoints can perform well even if the overall experience is poor. The firm has found that customer journeys are significantly more strongly correlated with business outcomes than touchpoints.
Net Promoter Score
The net promoter score (NPS) is a common way to measure customer perception of value in business and in design. The NPS is calculated by asking users “How likely are you to recommend [service] to a friend or colleague?” on a scale of one-to-ten. Respondents are sorted into three groups (see below). To determine the final NPS, subtract the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters. NPS is admittedly a simple and sometimes crude measure, and some operators are moving toward more comprehensive customer experience indices.
- Promoters (score 9–10) are loyal enthusiasts who will keep buying and refer others, fueling growth.
- Passives (score 7–8) are satisfied but unenthusiastic customers who are vulnerable to competitive offerings.
- Detractors (score 0–6) are unhappy customers who can damage your brand and impede growth through negative word-of-mouth.
Customer Effort Score
The customer effort score is typically measured by a survey that asks users to rate an interaction on a scale from “Very low effort” to “Very high effort.” Derived from the world of customer service, this score helps surface areas of friction where the journey slows down or breaks down.
A more common measure of improvement is reduction in the cost required to provide a service. However, cost reduction should not be the only measure of improvement and indeed may not be achieved at all in cases where service improvement requires additional resources.
APPLYING SERVICE DESIGN TO GOVERNMENT
Service design research and practice began finding its way into service delivery in the UK public sector in the early 2000’s, potentially stimulated by new labor policies on public engagement and user-centered public service reform that encouraged British design agencies to take on public service projects. Around the same time, Denmark launched its Mindlab, a cross-disciplinary team of designers, sociologists, and researchers tasked with bringing a citizen-driven approach to ministry-initiated projects.
Service design was proposed as a way to stimulate innovation and culture change in public agencies by embracing co-creation and shifting from a focus on processes to outcomes. While designers had typically been restricted to communicating existing policies, service designers began collaborating with civil servants on policy implementation. Practitioners believed that design offered an opportunity to take a more flexible, dynamic, and individualized approach that prioritizes collaboration over autonomy.
By contrast, existing policy approaches struggled to apply static, linear frameworks to ever-adapting problems. They siloed policy domains to combat complexity and tended to employ a reactive, problem-solving practice conducted via linear, top-down decision-making.
Service design in the policy cycle
Service design has traditionally been restricted to service delivery, improving the delivery of government services and the interactions between government and citizen as part of the implementation phase of policymaking. However, many have argued that to make service design effective in the policy domain, it needs to be applied across the phases of policy design and by managers who have developed the capacity to engage with design practices.
To imagine where service design can be applied in the policy cycle, we can express policy in design terms as “a guideline or framework that delineates the kinds of services and products, the relationships and the manner of the interactions that are possible, encouraged or discouraged within and by a particular human system.”  While service design is often applied in implementation, where policy is expressed through products and services, the design of services begins in policy formulation. At that point, the criteria and framework are established that make specific products and services possible. We can apply the methods discussed above throughout the policy cycle to fully leverage their benefits.
Common challenges arise when design firms attempt to work with government, or when civil servants take on these methods. When applying service design from the outside in, working across the very silos service design is meant to break down often proves challenging.  Designers may not have authority to make changes in other departments or divisions and thus struggle to create a consistent journey for the user. This difficulty arises not merely in the public sector, but also in large private companies. In addition to bridging siloed divisions, promoting adoption and sustaining change also poses difficulties.
When working from inside government, supporting the growth and sustainability of new projects can be challenging as new projects demand sufficient staff, resources, and buy-in to endure. Moreover, public sector organizations require much more stakeholder engagement both internally and externally.
Design Attitudes for Public Managers
A necessary, but not sufficient component of integrating design practices into public sector work is cultivating the appropriate attitudes and skills that allow civil servants to engage in service design. Bason offers four design attitudes that he finds enable public managers to successfully engage with design-led innovation processes:
- Questioning assumptions: Public managers question their own assumptions about user needs and behavior or challenge the premises of their decisions as managers.
- Centering on outcomes: Public managers focus on the intended change they want to achieve and pursue it with transparency.
- Stewarding the unknown: Managers challenge their staff by initiating experimentation and pushing them outside of their comfort zones; they allow collaboration to unfold in an uncertain space by refraining from giving answers, but rather allowing staff to search for and identify new solutions.
- Concretizing the future: Use concrete visual representations of the future to make the desired state of affairs tangible for staff.
CASE STUDY: NYC Office of Economic Opportunity
The New York City Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) demonstrates how service design can contribute not merely to service implementation, but also provide guidance on policy. NYC Opportunity launched a Service Design Studio in October 2017 with the goal of bringing service design to social services in New York. The studio has tackled homelessness in New York as well as public benefits for low-income New Yorkers. The cases below reveal takeaways from these projects.
Stakeholders: policy-makers, budget holders, case workers, program managers, outreach teams, and clients/homeless individuals
Activities: Sixty-two interviews (including field interviews, one-on-one interviews, and group interviews), observations, analog and digital journey mapping, workshops, stakeholder mapping, shadowing 10 outreach staff
Results: Public-facing HOME-STAT dashboards and FAQ’s, internal case management system called StreetSmart
About: NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio launched NYC HOME-STAT in late 2016 to serve homeless New Yorkers, but quickly discovered that homeless individuals found the program confusing and did not take full advantage of its offerings as a result. A team from the Service Design Studio launched a new project that used field research to directly engage both homeless individuals and frontline staff. For homeless services, the team created a journey map that tracked the experiences of homeless clients through city systems and made recommendations around the number of case workers, location of homeless outreach services, and eligibility thresholds.
Research Transparency: The NYC Opportunity team created an outreach plan and allowed participants to see the full range of people contributing their perspectives to the city’s research. Research ethics usually dictates that teams keep participants and their responses anonymous, but by sharing the list of participants OEO generated trust with interviewees and expanded their participant pool.
Bridging Internal Silos: After conducting interviews and preparing a journey map, the team ran a workshop with key stakeholders to review their output. The workshop surfaced many details the team had missed and had the added benefit of revealing the processes and experiences of the various stakeholder to one another. Internally, the processes of different teams and agencies could be just as opaque across the organization.
Informing Policy: In addition to creating digital artifacts, the team’s user research findings allowed them to create a narrative version of their journey map and make policy recommendations for performance and program management. For example, HOME-STAT changed its eligibility requirement based on barriers identified by the design team.
Internal and External Tools: Though focused on serving the homeless population, several of the tools developed by the team were built for city staff. In order to better serve the end uses — NYC’s homeless population — NYC Opportunity built a case management model and system for frontline staff and advocated for changes to existing policy that would increase the tools available to outreach workers, including 284 new Safe Havens (shelters with fewer restrictions to entry like sobriety and curfews).
Stakeholders: Fifteen agencies for city, state, and federal programs, social workers, case managers, nonprofit providers, New Yorkers in need
Activities: Iterative prototyping process, analysis of longitudinal site usage data, individual interviews, group interviews, observations
Results: Benefits and programs API, information standardization, new design and user experience, location finder, content in 7 languages
About: Access NYC allowed New Yorkers to determine their eligibility for city, state, and federal health and human service benefit programs. Originally launched in 2006, the application screened applicants and directed them to benefit programs for which they were eligible. NYC Opportunity created a new design and user experience and relaunched in 2017 with a simplified 10-step eligibility screening process.
Goals to inform design: The user research conducted by the NYC Opportunity team laid the foundation for design goals that would guide the creation of the new website. These guiding principles animated the design sprints, so that as the team iterated on their designs, they always had a guiding star to work towards.
Trust: The NYC Opportunity team emphasized that “trust in government and trust in technology [were] interconnected for residents with the lowest digital literacy.”  Often people felt most confident speaking to someone over the phone or in person, rather than going through a website. Their lack of trust in government was compounded by a greater trust in analog channels (and vice versa). Designers had to compensate for that lack of trust and make Access NYC as accessible as possible.
Mixed methods: In addition to leveraging the qualitative data common to user research, the NYC Opportunity team had ten years’ worth of quantitative data to triangulate their findings about user behavior. Employing both qualitative and quantitative data allowed the team to gain a more robust understanding of their user needs to inform the redesign of Access NYC.
CONCLUSIONS: AN EMERGING DISCIPLINE
Service design is an emerging discipline that has found traction as an innovative approach to policy implementation, but which has yet to be applied to other phases of policy-making. As an inherently systems-oriented approach, it holds promise for addressing the problem identification and policy formation stages of policy work in order to pave the way for downstream products and services.
As a practice, service design allows designers to bridge the divides that too often characterize government services, and tackle organizational change in a holistic way. These very goals produce common barriers, as designers struggle to overcome siloed organizations and ensure sustainable change with few resources.
While the body of literature around the promise of service design grows, too little attention has been paid to the limits of service design in the public sector, and this inquiry has found scant evidence or consideration of the constraints of the practice. A nuanced investigation of the limitations of service design would serve the discipline and its budding public-sector champions more than the many platitudes promoting its adoption.
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