A Service Design Process, Part 1 of 3

From Understanding to Ideating

Through my work with 23 Design, I’ve become very interested in service design. Mainly because it’s so holistic — combining the experience I’ve been gaining across different design disciplines in a valuable way for our clients.

I wanted to understand the tools and processes better. So, I decided to do a kind of literature review, summarizing three key service design resources:

Back to hitting the books

Why a literature review?

I did this review for two reasons:

  1. Reading, itself, isn’t that useful. What is useful is synthesis — summarizing ideas into patterns. Writing a Medium article helped me keep everything concise and it might help aspiring service designers.
  2. The more resources I checked out, the more confused I became about actually deploying these tools. On one hand, it’s true that designers need to be critical about models of design processes. Many of the resources mention that it would be impossible to write a step-by-step service design manual. On the other, an ad hoc collection of tools doesn’t help much either — when and how do we deploy them? How do they build on each other? How do I explain the process to the client?

As a result, every resource had a different system for arranging and deploying their tools. And it became hard to get a big picture of how to undertake service design projects. I found myself asking: shouldn’t I just read one book and follow its system?

What I decided to do was map the three different systems from the three different resources in parallel. Not to write a ‘definitive guide.’ But instead to assess the differences and begin to structure a unique approach to service design.

What’s Step 1?

For Insight, the first step is called “Understanding”

We might call this ‘user research’ — although the book warns that ‘users’ is a misnomer because people don’t ‘use’ services. Instead, understand all the people who have a relationship with your service. Deliver insights.

There are lots of ways to do this:

For Thinking, the first step is “Exploration”

Here, we start with identifying the company’s real issue. The book notes: “although service design aims to put the customer at the centre of its process, the process seldom starts with the customer.” Here are the steps:

  1. Understand company culture and goals.
  2. Identify the real problem.
  3. Visualize findings and underlying service structure of company.

For Time, the first step is “Qualitative Ethnographic Research”

Kick off a service design project with user research in order to “really understand the nuances of [users’] jobs, what they do, why they do it, what their aspirations and fears are.” No more details are given about how to conduct this research.


Do we start with the user or the company? Depends on the project. If you have the liberty to simply ‘innovate’ wherever your find opportunities, then starting with the user seems smart — after all, they are the ones experiencing the services’ weaknesses on a daily basis.

On the other hand, if you’re working for a larger client with an established brand and business strategy, then you need to work out where and how you will innovate. The insights come from discovering what’s broken ‘behind the scenes’ and then moving outwards to the users.

What’s Step 2?

For Insight, the second step is called “Describing the Service Ecology”

We now need to establish a bird’s-eye view of the service, including all the actors affected by it and the relationships between them.

  1. Create a service ecology map: connect the actors within a service using your insights research
  2. Use the service ecology map to create a service blueprint, which includes:
  • The user journey — phase by phase, step by step.
  • The touchpoints — channel by channel, touchpoint by touchpoint.
  • The backstage processes — stakeholder by stakeholder, action by action.

For Thinking, the second step is called “Creation”

Here we arrive at a pretty standard ‘ideate and test’ cycle straight out of Design Thinking. Prototype and validate service models so you can make mistakes early and often. Some recommended tools are:

For Time, the second step is a “Service Audit”

A service audit will highlight the gaps between company goals and user goals – exposing places to innovate. It will also help you build knowledge about the service in general. Here are the steps:

  1. Collect all service artifacts (anything the service produces).
  2. Zoom in to identify modules of each artifact (mention documents, people, policies, environments).
  3. Create a touchpoint catalogue, giving each artifact unique identifiers (names, codes, a brief description).


Quite a few similarities here. Insight and Time begin sketching the current service map (something Thinking did in step 1). On the other hand, Thinking has already started ideating — skipping user research completely and moving forward by understanding the company’s goals.

What’s interesting is that, for all the differences in vocabulary and tools, all the processes remain rooted in human-centered methodologies — user research, ideation. But, being services, there is much more emphasis on literal mapping, and the mapping of maps.

That’s all for step 1 and 2. Check back soon for the second installment, where we’ll be looking at the next two steps.

Thanks for reading along — would be happy to receive your feedback