What Makes Service Prototyping Different?

Testing for value, experience and cohesion

Prototyping is an integral part of Lean Startup. In fact, arguably it’s the part — the dance between prototyping and iteration has revolutionized how we launch and learn.

There are hundreds of articles about prototyping digital products. But what about prototyping services? What’s different? What stays the same?

In this article, I’ll use 3 different service design resources to pinpoint 3 unique attributes of service prototyping.

I won’t be discussing tools and techniques here yet; that’s for another article :)

Flimsy and scrappy (source)

Why this article?

The idea for this article came after I began to research for the second installment to A Service Design Process, where I was trying to compare 3 diverging approaches to the service design process. I’ve since realized that it’s more interesting to map where the approaches converge: prototyping, implementation, iteration.

I hope this article contributes to helping service designers feeling more secure. Through inception or brute force, service design is still fighting for its place in many organizations and agencies. We need to know how our tools, techniques and tactics differ from — or feed into — product design and business strategy. In short, what makes our prototyping different?

1. We’re testing value (not proving viability)

Insight from The Service Startup: Design Thinking Gets Lean

The most celebrated prototyping tool is probably the MVP — a bare essentials digital product designed to prove out assumptions in the market. But Tenny Pinheiro argues that MVPs come too late for a service design project. MVPs offer us a working first solution to the problem; instead of helping us discover the right problem to solve. He writes:

The idea that you need to take care of viability first and then run tests to determine whether or not the proposal has value to the customer is wasteful. It is smarter to reverse this approach and anticipate what is valuable to people prior, and then go from there to refine the findings into viable models.

Prototyping an experience, he continues, comes much earlier — when everything is a just a starting point and before we know what service we’re building. This is why service prototypes are often scrappy lo-fi affairs, a point I’ll come back to soon.

Takeaway: Being so complex, it’s very expensive to test proof-of-concept for services. We need to prototype early to test value.

2. We’re testing for experience

Insight from Service Design: From Insight to Inspiration

Un V60 cortado con leche de almendra, por fis ❤

Every Saturday morning, I get coffee from a hole-in-the-wall here in Mexico City called Almanegra. I have a french press at home (and even a bag of Almanegra coffee!). I could literally recreate the product in the privacy of my house, at a fraction of the cost.

But, every Saturday, I line up and order my coffee. There’s something I value in the experience, which goes beyond hot bean juice. It has to do with the service, with the brand, with getting out of the house — it’s about being there.

Similarly, people need to experience a service or touchpoint before they can begin to tell you their reactions.

My reactions to Almanegra are highly personal. And this is especially true because services often give us experiences we’ve never had before. Sure, I’ve had the product, coffee, before. But the way a service ties together brand and product on a particular chilly Saturday morning, is novel.

Takeaway: Services are hard to rationalize. Our prototypes can create space to understand subjective emotional responses.

3. We’re testing for cohesion

Insight from This is Service Design Doing

We all have examples of experiences that broke across different touchpoints.

I once heard about a callcentre which was getting pummeled by callers. They found a way to resolve this by collectively hanging up on all callers in the queue whenever there were more than 60 waiting. I mean it. A one-minute, company-wide frenzy where every agent taps “drop call” until the queue flashes ‘0.’ Most had been waiting on the line for over 20 minutes.

This isn’t just a symptom of poor planning; it’s a service designer’s worst nightmare. It goes against the most important feature of a functioning service: end-to-end cohesion.

The problem is that it’s easy to design perfect end-to-end services in a vacuum. What happens when we start putting stress on different touchpoints? What’s going to break? Service prototyping is powerful because it lets us to see these weak points in the context of the experience.

Takeaway: services bring different agents, objects and processes into their orbit. Prototypes identify obstacles that stop elements swirling into a cohesive experience.

Embrace the scrappy and subjective

What does testing for value, experience and cohesion mean?

It means our prototypes will look scrappy. Early-stage service prototyping means we shouldn’t invest much in making these concepts material. Because of this, sometimes we have a hard time selling prototypes to stakeholders who are unfamiliar with lean.

It also means we need to lean into the subjective, the emotional, the phenomenological. After all, instead of testing objects themselves, we’re often testing the negative space between things — moments, conversations, the evidence of intangible services.


One more word before I wrap up. What I didn’t talk about in this article are service prototyping methods. I’ll be writing an article about them soon, but in the meantime, I’d definitely recommend This is Service Design Doing, which details a dizzying number of tools: investigative rehearsal, subtext, desktop walkthrough, cardboard prototyping, rehearsing digital services, paper prototyping, interactive click modeling, wireframing, service advertisement, desktop system mapping, business model canvas, mood boards, sketching and Wizard of Oz approaches.