Why is service design becoming a thing?

Hira Javed
Aug 23, 2018 · 5 min read

One thing I strongly believe is that transformation is a journey, not a destination. Embracing vulnerability and venturing into the unknown is where learning and growth happens.

A few weeks ago we’re on here at CBC. Intentionally designing the CBC ecosystem to holistically deliver public service value to Canadians is no small feat. The mandate is complex and challenging, but it’s exactly the reason why many CBCers choose to invest their careers in telling stories that shape our cultural tapestry.

When an organization adopts a service design mindset, it truly understands and believes in a human-centred approach to problem solving. Commitment to this approach means that whenever strategic or tactical decisions are being made, the user’s needs and expectations are at the centre of these conversations. This places a greater emphasis on understanding the problem space, the user, and how they develop a deeper relationship with the organization’s entire ecosystem, rather than parts of it.

This mindset of “unified whole” is an exercise in deep empathy for not only the user, but also for those within the organization who contribute to meeting their needs.

As we for the future, we have to take the time to ask ourselves:

  • How do we develop a meaningful, service-based relationship with Canadians?
  • What are the critical problems that our audience is facing, and how do we provide them with relevant and valuable solutions?
  • How do we tackle the wicked problem of designing holistic audience experiences across CBC’s complex ecosystem?
  • How do we become better at listening to our audience?
  • How do we acknowledge our assumptions and continue to adopt a culture of learning and growth?

Answering these won’t be easy, and neither is the transformational journey that we’re on. What keeps us motivated is our mandate to be the public media organization that Canadians need us to be: to inform, entertain and enlighten our audience, and foster the trust and confidence that Canadians place in us.

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The signals

Of course, we’re not alone on this service design journey. Numerous other organizations are also embarking on an adventure to become more service oriented. We’re seeing four main “shifts” that indicate why the service design approach is getting a lot of attention:

1. From transaction to solution

Most product-based organizations are transforming into service-based organizations. Instead of focusing on one-off transactional interactions with their users, they are interested in developing an ongoing service-based relationship with them. The intent is to establish a meaningful place in the user’s life and be top of mind when they seek a solution to a relevant and consistent problem.

Example: Amazon’s Dash Buttons

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Amazon’s Dash Button provides an exclusive service for Prime members to quickly find and reorder frequently purchased products through Amazon’s app, website or wi-fi connected Dash button device.

2. From product to ecosystem

As organizations grow their product portfolios, “siloed thinking” can be an unintentional but common side effect. Strategic thinking and tactical implementation may be limited to the realm of individual product offerings. Although that is critical work, it can create a blind spot for some organizations. They may overlook the role each product plays in developing a service-based relationship with the user.

Viewing the organization as a unified-whole requires letting go of silos. This is why organizations that offer multiple products are thinking beyond individual product offerings and adopting a holistic approach to delivering user value through their entire product ecosystem.

Example: Adobe Creative Cloud


A subscription-based service, Adobe Creative Cloud provides the entire collection of Adobe desktop and mobile apps to facilitate easier creation and collaboration. Users can access exclusive features and product updates as soon as they are available. Formerly a one-time software purchase, the Creative Cloud is an ecosystem of services that supports collaboration.

3. From telling to listening

As users experience more innovative services, they develop fluid expectations, which they carry over to other aspects of their lives. They are raising the bar for design and experiences they want across all industries. A holistic user experience is co-created in partnership with the user, by listening to them and understanding their needs and expectations.

Instead of telling users what kind of an experience they will have, organizations are making an effort to listen and understand their users. The goal is to build empathy and create relevant experiences that deliver value.

Example: Airbnb

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“In research, behind doors and around corners are where we find the profound complexities of humans interacting with each other and with our products. We need to shine a light in these places, and at Airbnb we do that by pushing on a diverse, holistic approach to research. Our researchers have experience that ranges from ethnographic-style research, deep content and case analysis, open-ended design exploration and usability all the way to rigorous survey design and statistical analysis with big data.”

4. From assuming to learning

Building a culture of empathy requires embracing a learning mindset, calling out our assumptions and being willing to step outside of our comfort zone. Increasing emphasis on methodologies like usability testing is a sign that organizations understand the importance of testing assumptions. Service design thinking requires a step beyond that, by ensuring that strategic decisions are grounded in informed learnings rather than generalized assumptions.

This is the most important shift that organizations will have to make in order to build meaningful service-based relationships with their users. It means they have to be comfortable saying “we don’t know, but we’ll find out.”

Example: Nemours Children’s Hospital

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Pediatric healthcare system Nemours wanted to create an innovative patient-centric experience for a new hospital. Exploratory research was conducted to inform strategy. Analogous kid-friendly environments (e.g. museums, toy stores etc.) were studied and in-context interviews with patients, parents, families, doctors and support staff provided critical insights that became foundational for the new award-winning hospital design.

The way forward

The underlying theme behind all four of these shifts is culture change. It’s about how the organization sees itself, how it wants to be seen and how it embodies that vision. For us here at CBC, the starting point is asking the critical questions I mentioned earlier.

And what better place to start than right here, with you. We’d love to hear your response to this post by letting us know what you expect from CBC, your national public media organization.

CBC Digital Labs

Telling stories about who we are, what we are doing, what we are learning, and how we are making decisions as we work to create the best possible experiences for Canadians in digital spaces.

Hira Javed

Written by

Trying to save the world from bad user experience. Service Design Lead at @CBC and faculty at @uwstratford.

CBC Digital Labs

Telling stories about who we are, what we are doing, what we are learning, and how we are making decisions as we work to create the best possible experiences for Canadians in digital spaces.