A small service design etiquette

…to design your guiding principles

Recently I was asked if I could quickly list some principles of service design that any company could blindly adopt.

My initial reaction was a vehement no. My core user-centric view is that principles should derive from needs that are specific to a business and its users. Nevertheless, as a designer, you often encounter the same problems over and over again, so there must be some universal etiquette for excellent services.

After all, the idea of universal design principles is not entirely new. Above all grandmaster Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles for Good Design. More recently, I stumbled over Daniele Catalanottos’ “Service Design Principles 1‑100", 100 great principles that are easy and fun to read. Gov.uk has published its 10 design principles and keep proving that those work. As well as other companies like Airbnb, Facebook, Google and alike, who have also released their design principles.

However, most of them are either quite specific or very broad, so I have developed a guide to seven universal design principles that can be applied to any service, product or experience. These principles should serve as a source of information and inspiration and hopefully help to develop a set of guiding principles tailored to your brand and user.

Seven universal service design principles


01. Understand your service as a holistic experience

Selling is not the ultimate goal of your service. The customer’s experience begins long before the sale. Only if you treat the customer’s experience holistically can you orchestrate it with well-directed highlights.

Great experiences build up and should always end on a high. Make it easy for customers to come back.


02. Keep it simple — don’t overcomplicate things

90% of all content is redundant, and customers have no patience to find the 10% they’re actually looking for. If something is too complex and not immediately understood, users stick to their standard options and give up. That’s why you need to build a service that is so simple that people spend less time trying to figure out how it works.

Keep testing your service to perfect it and see where bottlenecks exist. For each feature you add, you’d better think about the features that can be removed. That said, digital does not always mean smart, sometimes the paper version is the better choice.


03. Meet on eye level and don’t use jargon

Do not use internal language with the customer. Name things that people don’t know how to name, but don’t rename things that are already clear. If you use industry-specific terms, you alienate the customer. This creates a fundamental knowledge gap and makes it difficult for them to keep up.

Find the right balance between process language and human language, and if something goes wrong, give users the opportunity for human validation and meet them at eye level.


04. You can’t be perfect, but you can be honest

Something will go wrong, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use this opportunity to your advantage and exceed expectations.

Frustration arises when customers don’t know why something is happening or can’t prepare for the consequences. That is why they need transparency and clear expectations. Explain what and why something went wrong and give them clear expectations about the upcoming processes and timelines.


05. Just show that you genuinely care

Customers choose a service to satisfy a need. You have to confirm this decision and show that you understand the customer and their needs.

Experiences can be quite an emotional and personal journey. Small details make the customer feel validated. Whether it is calling the customer by name, anticipating certain cultural customs, or taking into account the needs of those indirectly involved with the user. If you need to apologise, let them feel that you are sorry, and don’t try to compensate them with half-hearted standardised solutions.

An excellent service takes every opportunity to exceed expectations. Better to promise too little and deliver too much.


06. Be the expert, so your customer doesn’t need to be

Nobody believes that a company is the best at everything. Do one thing and do it well. Don’t let customers find out for themselves why they come to you, but improve their experience by offering them fewer, better choices. It is your job to know what customers should buy.

Anything that could go wrong is an error within the service. Any mistake a customer might make is ultimately your fault. Therefore, you must live your own experience and talk to other users to become the ultimate expert. It is especially interesting to find out how extreme users misuse your service so that you can either embrace or prevent their hacks.


07. Be open so people can trust you

You are the expert in one thing, but it is no use telling people — you have to show them.

Be confident, and direct customers to the right forums, or even to the competition’s (as they will find out eventually). Price alone is in the rarest case, the main criterion. It is up to you to create value that justifies the cost. Pricing should always be transparent and straightforward. It’s okay to know that something is too expensive, but it is not okay to feel cheated.

Create your own guiding principles

The guiding principles should work as a decision-making tool for taking immediate action that is consistent with the long-term values and objectives of the company. They are specific enough to guide a decision at this stage, but vague enough to steer towards your vision. Think of your guiding principles as the actionable end of your values, mission and vision.

From this, you may develop your own guiding principles. Additionally, record real cases internally, where a direction was missing and test and compare your principles with real users. Use this checklist to ask yourself if your principles demonstrate the following elements:

  • coherence
  • simplicity
  • clarity
  • expectations
  • over-delivery
  • expertise
  • directness




Designer of services, products, experiences & speculations

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Miles Mayr

Miles Mayr

Designer of services, products, experiences & speculations

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