Working with Complexity via Service Design

Sarah B. Brooks
IBM Design
Published in
5 min readApr 21, 2022


As a global design community of 3000+ individuals at IBM, we are continually self-organizing around practices that help stretch and grow our capabilities, help us work better together as teams, and achieve better outcomes for our customers. We have dozens of guilds dedicated to various areas of design practice, including design research, design language, AI design and AI design ethics, designer growth, design ops, and many more. Over the last two years, a group of us has self-organized around growing a Service Design Guild that includes members from our global software, consulting, and infrastructure businesses. We’ve done so because the tools and methods of service design sharpen our ability to work productively with complexity. And IBM is complex!

The folks in the Service Design Guild learn from each other by sharing case studies, learning plans, experimentation, and systemic ways of thinking and working. We’re particularly passionate about systems thinking and have started a monthly systems thinking book club that’s currently reading Peter Senge’s classic, The Fifth Discipline. We’re interested in his work because he smartly notes that people need structures and systems conducive to learning, reflection, and engagement. From our various vantage points within the organization, we’re chipping away.

For those who are unfamiliar with service design — it is an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates methods and tools that help us understand, map, and design for experiences that bridge in-person and digital moments. There are as many definitions as there are individuals. We like this one from Stefan Moritz:

“Service design helps to innovate (create new) or improve (existing) services to make them more useful, usable, desirable for clients and efficient as well as effective for organizations. It is a new holistic, multi-disciplinary, integrative field.” 1

What this definition highlights is that to design great services with customers, citizens, residents, patients — whomever the service is for — the organization doing the designing needs to be well-designed such that people across teams and disciplines are readily able to collaborate.

To be in a large enterprise and work across discipline and business units that are each incentivized differently and executing on the company’s strategy in their unique ways is, well, challenging. To have smooth end-to-end customer experiences requires collaboration across all these internal ecosystem elements — marketing, product, sales, customer success, and support. Let’s suppose we can’t clear internal pathways that help us learn how to do this work? In that case, our customers will continue to experience seams in their experiences as we miss handoffs between functions, don’t share data, or have clunky processes.

We began to operationalize our service design mindset inside IBM within the context of work on digital journeys my team led from 2018 to 2020. The goal was to help IBMers work better together to smooth out those seams that cause churn and devalue our brand. In the Finance and Operations organization, service design leader, Kate Moon, is a core member of an IBM-wide, cross-functional team advancing the 360CRM effort. The team leverages service design to cultivate an improved end-to-end client experience in line with IBM’s strategic commitment to growth. Partnering with business and technology leaders across Marketing, Finance and Operations, Sales, Product and Support they re-imagine new ways of working and pave the way to improved client relationships and revenue growth.

The work culminated in 2020 with the launch of our end-to-end customer lifecycle model, The Universal Experiences, which provides a way to approach customer relationships holistically. These represent our prospects’ and customers’ mindsets at various points in their journeys with us. They’re focused not only on the product or service use itself but also on all the moments before and beyond. These moments include conversations, people, platforms, products, events, websites, and more. That’s every single digital and analog interaction we have with our customers. We recognize that each must be designed with excellence and care to earn people’s trust, loyalty, and hopefully even love.

IBM’s 9 Universal Experiences

The Universal Experiences are based on several years of mixed-methods research conducted by IBM design researchers with prospects and clients. We even used service design to aggregate the research, mapping all the IBM product teams that had researched one or more journey segments. Design Principal Mirko Azis convened a series of working sessions with these design researchers to validate the model. Design Vice President Haidy Perez-Francis tagged several of her design leaders to “stress test” the model and iterate together with us, tuning language and further simplifying. Teams across IBM have adopted the Universal Experiences to drive improved business outcomes — better performing journeys that generate more trials, convert trial to purchase, and improve retention.

Multiple practitioners in our IBM Consulting business are utilizing systemic approaches to dealing with complex service delivery. In 2020 & 2021, IBM’s consulting group iX UK partnered with the National Health Service Test and Trace to support its plan of suppressing the virus, protecting the NHS and the vulnerable, keeping education and the economy going, and providing a route back to normal. Powered by research to tackle pain points such as COVID-19 anxiety, IBM designed and delivered multi-channel services that were used by a full population of citizens, Contact Centre agents, Local Authorities, and specialists such as Epidemiologists.

Also in IBM Consulting, Distinguished Designer Kim Bartkowski is working with customers in the Asia-Pacific region on IBM Cognitive Enterprise Business Strategy initiatives, adapting the idea of a service blueprint into a Cognitive Enterprise Design blueprint — a meta-level layer cake showing how people, processes, practices and platforms combine in IBM’s Cognitive Enterprise Business Strategy.

Vice President and Distinguished Designer, Design Program, Joni Saylor (then with IBM Consulting) used the Universal Experiences as a foundation for improving client experiences with IBM Garage. Service experiences from web to pre-sales through complex program delivery were redesigned to address human needs across the service lifecycle, with an eye on driving business value for both IBM and the client.

Many other co-creators and collaborators are adopting the Universal Experiences and asking: How do I create a journey map or service blueprint (foundational service design tools) to map the step-by-step journey of our customers within one of the Universal Experiences? How do I convey the value of service design to my customers? What are the other tools of service design that help us design holistic customer experiences? To answer this need, the Service Design Guild has assembled an educational curriculum workstream that’s getting critical support from UK-based IBM Consulting service design leader Thomas Foster.

Momentum from the foundation laid over the last five years is building across IBM. We’re using best-in-class approaches and pioneering our own that are tailored to the unique needs of our organization. We’re simplifying things for IBMers who are designing and deploying products and services, and selling service engagements. Simple is good!



Sarah B. Brooks
IBM Design

Service Designer. Practical Futurist. Inner World Explorer. IBM Distinguished Designer, Strategic Foresight. @TheRSAOrg Fellow. Opinions my own.