Full Stack Service Design

Sarah Drummond
Full Stack Service Design
4 min readApr 18, 2021

Full Stack Service Design is a model to help people break services down into their parts that make them and understand how all of these parts impact the user experience

Full Stack Service Design

Services are made up of thousands of tiny, often accidental design decisions.

These design decisions are often unconsciously made, in isolation from one another, and without an understanding of the impact they will have on our services or the experience our users will have of that service.

From policy development to metrics & measurements, organisational structures to technical architecture, all of these components — and the decisions we make about them on a daily basis — have an impact on the services we deliver and our ability to meet user needs.

Yet the vast majority of the tools we use to design services — from user journey maps to blueprints — focus on just the parts of a service that a person can see and where we believe we can firmly influence the output of how a service should work with a level of certainty.

Service design is rarely greenfield. Most service design is brownfield most of the time.

The activity of service designing, whether that’s adapting existing services or inventing new ones, usually takes place in an environment where many other services are already live, their structure dictated by the organization that delivers them.

By the time we turn our attention to the ‘user experience’ of the service we are designing, we are often limited in scope because of decisions that were made long before we started. This means that more often than not, we are designing on top of less than perfect infrastructures, fluid organisational models and cultures potentially adverse to change.

The result is that all too often, our good intentions are not implemented because of this imperfect reality that lurks below the surface — the technical, policy or financial constraints, lack of strategic vision, organisational delivery skills or our business model that can scupper even the most well thought through user journey.

It’s easy to think of these things as ‘constraints’ that get in the way of good service design, but these components are the things that design our services, and — just as we would design a machine that builds a product — they need to be consciously designed and influenced so that they themselves can build better services.

When working in a brownfield environment, we need to design how the constituent components of a system — from its rules, policy, culture, infrastructure or design impacts the user experience and how it helps, or stops meeting user needs and/or desired outcomes.

Just like a mechanic can navigate, diagnose and fix a car’s engine with the help of part specialists, we need the capabilities to navigate an organisation or system, diagnose the parts that are blocking a service meeting user needs, and collaboratively orchestrate a strategy alongside domain experts on how to improve this.

Service design isn’t an individual role, it’s a team sport. This is about ensuring the layers of an organisation consciously recognise their role in making the right decisions that will enable an organisation or system to meet common goals, user needs and service outcomes.

Introducing Full-Stack Service Design, a model to help us understand what the components of a service are and how they affect the user experience

This model helps to identify what the components of a service are, and how they impact its design.

Just as a product designer making a chair will understand the malleability of materials they are working with and the manufacturing processes to go from raw materials into a product someone sits on, this model will help you to navigate the physical and invisible materials that make up services.

The materials that our services are made of form a series of ‘layers’ — from the veneer like surface layer a user sees — the service itself — to the infrastructure that this service sits on, the organisation running that infrastructure, the intent that drives that organisation, and eventually, the culture that leads to the creation of that initial intent in the first place.

As we tunnel back through these layers, we see how each preceding layer has an effect on the next. Like the layers of the earth’s crust, each reliant on the next layer down for its stability until we reach the core, that affects them all.

These layers form a ‘stack’ of things that we need to think about when designing services — the full stack of service design.



Sarah Drummond
Full Stack Service Design

Founder @wearesnook @dearestscotland @cycle_hack @mypolice | Service Designer + Boss | GOOD Magazine’s Top 100 influencers 2016|Google Democracy Fellowship 2011