Yes. We. Can! (answer all of your service design questions)

Natalie Pearce
May 6, 2020 · 21 min read
The classic service design analogy. Graphic created by Tom Tyler of SPARCK.

On Friday 24th April 2020, my good friend Alicia and I were astounded to have 187 awesome people, including both my mum and dad, join us from around the world for a chat about why we think everyone should, and can, think like a Service Designer. During the hour long event, titled “Yes. We. Can! (all think like a Service Designer”, we gave a bit of context around what service design is, why it’s so great and then shared our tips for shifting your mindset. If you missed it, you can watch it here.

It was a great session, with lots of engagement, especially in the chat — thanks to all the keen beans who got very involved with the +1 activity. Unfortunately, time flies when you’re having fun and it certainly did for us. We were left with a measly 5 minutes to answer questions and wrap up which meant that, for most, important questions went unanswered.

But, never fear! We’ve managed to pull off all of the questions from zoom and Alicia and I have answered all of them below. Whether you joined the talk or not, read on to see our perspectives of a range of areas, including user research in isolation, adaptability of the service design approach and how to become a Service Designer.

And one more thing, if your question isn’t featured here then it might be because it was in the chat box, rather than the Q&A section. We’re more than happy to answer any additional questions you might have so do get in touch if you have any.

Theme 1: Research methods

Yes! We’d always recommend having multiple research methods to validate your insights, which often means a mix of qualitative and quantitative results. It’s good practice to use three research methods in a discovery (known as data triangulation) to add extra validity to your findings. Having said that, we’ll always prefer open, non-binary questions in face-to-face interactions, such as interviews and focus groups, as the insights you can get are so much deeper and richer. While you may begin a face-to-face session with closed, binary questions to collect basic information, for example, we’d suggest that the majority of the interaction is made up of more open, exploratory questioning.

The key is having multiple research methods, as mentioned in the last answer, rather than putting all of your eggs in the same basket. If you usually rely on surveys, our biggest recommendation would be to start introducing face-to-face interactions into your research approach. It’s so important to meet your customers and develop that human connection that’ll help you to truly empathise with their needs and circumstances.

When you have a really broad customer base, face-to-face interactions can feel daunting. It doesn’t have to be! We’d suggest grouping your customers which you can do in many different ways, such as demographics, personality traits, needs or challenges, digital literacy and so on. We usually refer to these as Persona’s or Archetypes in the design world. Once you have your groups, you should aim to meet with a representative sample which means inviting a few customers that fit into each of the groups.

We also look at extreme users which can be described as the people on either end of the spectrum of your customer base. The distribution of users of most products or services follows a bell curve with the mainstream users in the centre and remaining extreme users on either side of the peak. The saying goes that if you design for the needs of extreme users then you’ll likely to meet the needs of those in between too, so there’s no need to shy away from them!

The bell curve where extreme users can be found at either end of the tail. Graphic created by me (Nat Pearce).

Finally, and crucially, you should always make time to experience your service yourself (known as autoethnography). This will help you have additional empathy and a clear understanding of what your customers are referring to when they’re sharing their experiences with you.

I’m at risk of sounding like a broken record so I do apologise but, once more, the key to being confident in your findings is multiple research methods and data triangulation.

Generally, the research methods you adopt should reflect the scale of your challenge and customer base, indicating how broad you should cast your net. With this in mind, there’s a lot of variation and debate around the optimum amount of interviews that should be held during discoveries, and it definitely depends on the number of users or customers that your service has. A rule of thumb for 1:1 interviews is to target between 6 and 10, or a couple per persona or user group you’ve identified, then you can further validate your findings with additional data, focus groups and workshops.

We’ll often use survey tools (such as typeform) alongside our qualitative research, making sure our surveys are a good balance of question types. You can use surveys at multiple times in your process too, such as at the beginning to find users to target and then again at the end to validate your insights. There’s also market reports and analysis which can help us get a better understanding of industry and societal insights. Finally, for existing services, your internal data, such as customer service and support data, can shed an enormous amount of light on customer needs and challenges so don’t forget to look internally, too!

Theme 2: Remote user research

I think it’s safe to say that any user research is better than no research! It’s certainly trickier when we have restrictions like we do now, but there are plenty of methods still available to us to help us get the understanding we need. There are online surveys, telephone interviews, Zoom interviews or focus groups, usability testing through screenshares, and various tools for remote research tasks such as card sorting and tree testing to name just two. The good news is that there are actually lots of ways to uncover and understand users, and a lot of them don’t need face-to-face interactions at all!

In fact, some of the methods just described are actually really well suited to being done remotely. Usability testing, for example, whether it’s moderated or unmoderated has been done remotely for many years! In a remote-only world, there is usually a reliance on self-reporting tools but, that being said, there are some really awesome tools available that can replicate the physical experience, like workshops, digitally. For example, we use Zoom and miro a lot in SPARCK and we’ve demonstrated, internally and with clients, that this can work really well! You’ll need to make a few adjustments, of course: you might need to hold multiple sessions to manage participant numbers; making sure people go on mute to work independently; or dot voting digitally to preserve anonymity. It’s also worth mentioning that, sometimes, remote research can even be seen as an advantage as it can allow you to reach a much wider audience, potentially even globally.

Shoutout to the experts — Abdur Rahman, Rebecca Laycock and Cecilia Mir — from our SPARCK Research Capability for their insights on this.

This is certainly more tricky. Ethnographic research is based on getting data in-context which means that not being in people’s working environments, physically, makes this much more challenging.

That said, an awesome ethnographic approach that works well in remote situations are cultural probes or diary studies. This is where you ask your research participants to complete a diary or log of their behaviour, actions and any challenges faced around a given topic or experience. As an example, you might start with an initial introductory interview to provide any guidance and instructions, and then it’s over to them. You could give them a week (or however long is appropriate for your study) to document their life and experiences regarding the topic you’ve specified. You might provide them with exercises to fill in, either online or on a paper template that they can complete in their own time. Once the time period is up, you’d ask your participants to send back their documents which you can review, before having a longer second interview to reflect on their actions and feelings.

The beauty of ethnographic research is to be able to observe people in their natural environments so giving them tasks to do like this is a great way to understand how they behave intuitively. This can sometimes be lost in 121 interviews where someone is asked to remember their behaviour, which is much more difficult! A colleague of mine, Rebecca, shared a story where she did a diary study on a fitness app, where her research participants were sent away for 6 weeks with a set of mini tasks and a diary to complete. Imagine the amount of insight she got from that!

Having said that, this does require a lot of user discipline and engagement in the project, which is hard to guarantee. Therefore, as I mentioned previously, it’s important to use a mix of research methods to help validate and boost your findings, even more so when you’re remote.

Shoutout to our experts — Josh Dresner, Abdur Rahman, Rebecca Laycock and Cecilia Mir — from our SPARCK Research Capability for their insights on this.

I hope that the answers above help to provide some comfort into how we can still learn from our customers and conduct our research in remote situations. When it comes to empathy while social distancing, it’s more important than ever before to focus on building rapport. Put yourself in the shoes of your users and consider how you’d feel about going into your session. Be considerate and mindful that many of us are dealing with this lockdown differently, some well and some not so well. It’s for this reason that building trust early on in your sessions is so crucial. I’d even suggest that it’s worth building in extra time during your user interviews for ice breakers, check-ins and general chit chat. You still want to make sure that your interviewee feels as comfortable as they would if you were together in person. With this in mind, be patient. It might sound easy to build rapport but actually it can be quite a lot more difficult to break down barriers remotely, and this is key to getting the most out of your time together.

It’s also important to think through your interview logistics carefully. Make sure that your participant is clear on the tools you’re using and how to set it up before the session. As with all research sessions, be well prepared with your exercises and interview scripts but, if you are relying on tools, always have a plan B, in case all the tech fails.

It’ll be interesting to see how social distancing works once lockdown is over, and the prolonged impact this might have on our ways of working. It’ll probably take time for people to adjust to their previous working environments, and everyone will do so at their own pace. It’ll be important to respect that, especially when doing research. We might find that, as a result, we continue to use remote options even long after this period that we’re currently in.

Shoutout to our experts — Abdur Rahman and Cecilia Mir— from our SPARCK Research Capability for their insights on this.

Theme 3: Organisation design

Yes! Before we go into why, here’s a quick reminder for anyone that didn’t join the talk. We defined a service as a collection of tangible and intangible elements that create a relationship between a person and an organisation. When we’re designing for internal users, we’re still creating a relationship between individuals and the company, but rather than looking at a buying experience, for example, we might be looking at collaboration as an experience. In most cases, there will be tangible elements (like an app or employee portal) and intangible ones which will impact the overall service (such as the team culture and mindsets).

During our talk, we gave an example of a project that Alicia and I worked on together, with one of the big 4 media and entertainment companies in the UK which is a perfect example for this. Their ambition was to take a service design approach to the planning and delivering technology services provided their staff. We helped them to understand their colleagues across the business and the full employee experience, from before someone has joined all the way through to when they leave, or even return. We could then feed this insight into their plans and roadmaps so that they could confidently say that they were delivering user (or colleague) centric services.

We believe pretty strongly that you can apply service design to pretty much any problem, from customer-focused services, internal services or even how an organisation should be designed. The same rules apply regardless of the situation. You need to speak and empathise with those impacted and design for their needs and behaviours, while also understanding what has to happen backstage and behind the scenes. In an organisation sense, this might include cultural factors, productivity tools, internal data and analysis, and of course how different teams interact with each other. It’s also about the skill and capabilities that are required to realise an organization’s vision, which service design can help you to assess through research and gap analysis between as-is and to-be blueprints. Finally, whether it’s a product or a way of working, you should test, learn, iterate and test again. This is a great mindset to have when it comes to organisation design, since it allows collaboration and engagement from those who are impacted, rather than a more forceful approach.

We often refer to the Design Ladder created by the Danish Design Centre which breaks the process of embedding design into an organisation into the following stages.

The Design Ladder, with an added step at the end. Graphic created by me (Nat Pearce).

A good place to start is to establish where you are on the ladder. It’s good practice to do this collaboratively so that there’s a range of perspectives. Next, you can start to understand the gap and a great way to do this is to ask yourself and your team the following question: What needs to be true to get to the next stage in the ladder? This will help you and your team to imagine progressing up the ladder as a reality.

Once you have this list, you can start to think about your trade-offs which are the choices you need to make to reach your goal. A good framework for this is “Stop, Start, More, Less” where you brainstorm actions and tasks under each of these headings to help you define your next steps. Ultimately, the best advice after this is to just start. Begin small, maybe with just one team, and share your progress often so that you take other teams on a journey with you, then start to add more teams and so on. Good luck and let us know how you get on!

Theme 4: Adaptability

Great question! We’d definitely agree that it’s too linear if you follow the approach down to a tee. However, we see it as much more modular and flexible than when it’s presented on a page. In our projects, we’d usually start out by understanding where a client is on their journey and then adapt the approach to fit that. For example, in many cases we might start the project smack bang in the middle, where user research has happened and the problem has been defined so our attention is more focused on idea generation and design. Having said that, we would, and can at any time, go back through the first diamond (that’s focused on research and testing hypotheses) to test that we’re still on the right track and to validate any new assumptions. What’s great about the Double Diamond, though, is that it shows us how it all comes together.

The Double Diamond. Graphic created by me (Nat Pearce).

The fact that you’re asking this question means that you already have the right mindset so shoutout for that. As you’ve clearly identified, it’s so important to balance the parts that the customer sees (the frontstage elements) with the all important people, processes and systems that are needed to make the service happen (backstage and behind the scenes). That’s essentially the key to service design. We use the below venn diagram to help us find this balance. This forces us to consider desirability (customer-fit), viability (business-fit) and feasibility (technology-fit).

Venn diagram for Desirability, Viability and Fesaibility. Graphic created by Tom Tyler of SPARCK.

We’d suggest assessing where there’s imbalance in this framework and use stakeholder or actor maps to understand who to engage to enable you to rebalance. Most often, rebalance can be achieved by inviting the right people into the room, so figure out who they are and how you can bring them along the journey. And, remember, it’s never too late to invite new people to the party. That goes in business and life, too.

A great tool for challenges like this is the service design favourite, the Service Blueprint. To create your own, you should start by mapping out the different areas and stages of your service and how the current technology and processes are supporting that. You then want to add the needs of your customers, in particular the unmet needs. Having this all on one page should help open up conversations with your teams. I’d ask the question to your team: Where can we make small tweaks that get us closer to our strategic goals or meeting these unmet needs? This doesn’t have to be approached as a massive overhaul. Small changes accumulate over time so, although these changes might feel insignificant and tactical on their own, they are incremental and feeding into your bigger strategic aims.

Yes, we’ve had to do a lot of this under the current circumstances! It’s important to understand the physical ways of working in the project and identifying the key rituals and moments that matter. Once you have a clear view of this, you can start to look for digital tools to replace the physical interactions. For example, in SPARCK, we use whiteboards and post-its for literally EV-VER-RY-THING. And, I mean, everything. So it’s pretty painful not to be able to do that in these lockdown times. But, lucky for us, there’s miro which is an online collaborative whiteboard platform and the best thing to ever happen to us — no joke.

A screenshot from one our SPARCK team miro sessions

There are digital tools for pretty much everything these days but, in this process, you need to be extra careful not to remove all human and emotional interaction from your processes. These interactions are hugely important for the motivation, morale and well-being of your teams so build these in and be creative! Finally, always put a buffer in for the transition as it’ll almost always take longer than you expect.

Theme 5: Accessibilty

The answer to this one is quite simple and that’s that accessibility should be underpinning everything you do in service design. It should be a part of your design principles from the beginning to make sure that it’s not forgotten and it’s considered at all stages. That’s just good design practice!

Theme 6: Becoming a Service Designer

Yes! This is one of our favourite topics and it’s a joy to see more people join the service design field. Something to note is that we, Alicia and I, didn’t actually start our career journeys as Service Designers, so we’ve been on this journey ourselves.

The first step is to read, read and then read some more. There’s a whole load of resources out there, so to make things a bit easier we’ve included a few of our faves below. Secondly, find yourself a mentor (or three). You want someone who is experienced in the service design world and can offer you some sage words of advice, and who you could potentially even shadow. Then, take what you do today — that could be your job role, voluntary work or even your living situation — and start applying some of the service design tools and techniques. Being a Service Designer is such a broad role that you’re probably already doing some of it, and now you just need to build that out further — to bring it back to the iceberg or stage analogy — to include the front stage, backstage and behind the scenes.

For example, Alicia started her career in marketing, where she quickly got bored of creating campaigns that just thought about the creative outputs and product sales. So she started to look at what else played into making a product sell — there was obviously the needs of the target audience, but there was also a number of influencing factors that contributed to the success (or failure) of products that just hadn’t been on her radar before — and so she began to map that out the elements of the product development and sales process, who and what was involved and where it did (or didn’t) respond to user needs, or the company’s capabilities. This not only helped Alicia get out of some awkward conversations about declining sales figures, but also helped the wider team understand where there was room for improvement and how to prioritise their focus. Needless to say, this also proved to be a new career path for my good pal and what a great choice that was!

For me, I started my post-graduation, faux-adult life in banking, joining a graduate scheme at RBS. This was no real surprise given that I studied Economics at univeristy. My graduate scheme centred on back office processes which, although I quickly decided this wasn’t for me, gave me an invaluable insight into what it takes to keep a bank running. In other words, I’d seen backstage and behind the scenes. After my graduate scheme, I moved into the bank-wide strategy team where I specialised in digital and payments strategy which was where I became fascinated by understanding customer needs and behaviours, and mapping their journeys. The issue I had is that I was still too far removed from actual banking customers so I sought out roles where I could get even closer. My final role at the bank was in their digital design team for their mobile app where I was delighted to be responsible for embedding design thinking into our day-to-day which meant speaking to customers all the time, and designing solutions based on our insights. So, it’s fair to say that, during my stint in the world of banking, I’d successfully moved from behind the scenes to front stage, and the rest is history.

Of course, there is another side to this — you may be doing this internally in your current company, but how do you then transition into a service design role in another one? It’s important to start promoting yourself as a Service Designer. We come in many guises, so a title isn’t everything, it’s about the content you share and the intent that you demonstrate — LinkedIn is a great space for this. Also, events can be crucial in connecting you with fellow Service Designers — we’ve included a few below — and get involved in hackathons and workshops where you can start building your service design portfolio.

Finally, if you’re unable to shift your ways of working in your current job to practice your service design skills, then there are other options. You could volunteer at a local charity and take them through the Double Diamond to help you learn by doing, or you could even create a fictional brief to experiment in your own time. At SPARCK, we actually ask our interviewees to do exactly that. We give them a brief and we ask them to present back how they’d approach it. These case studies will be essential for future interviews to show your capability. It also shows your determination for the field since you’ve bought this into your world, against the odds!

Shoutout to our awesome Service Designers at SPARCKWill Sharples, Toby Marks, Davide Gianni— for adding a few of their tips into the mix.

The fact that you’re a UX designer is awesome! It means that you’re only a hop, skip and a blueprint away from being a Service Designer!

Building on from the answer above, it’s time to expand your view beyond the user’s perspective to the other components that are involved in providing and delivering your product, and ultimately the service within which that product exists. Be prepared, we’re moving beyond the “touchpoint” and the screen, into a world of ambiguity that can be fun, but also deeply uncomfortable (and you need to be cool with that). This is where the tools below, the service design community, mentors and events can support and provide those all important words of comfort.

Each project will be different, and you’ll find yourself needing to be an expert in all kinds of industries, playing in a space that you would previously have associated with strategists and managers. Ultimately, you need to position yourself as a facilitator, guide and advisor who works with and coordinates the relevant individuals and teams who can help provide the answers, while you bring them together to deliver a service that works not only for users, but also drives value for the business and is one that the organisation has the capabilities to deliver. Think of yourself as the maestro, the orchestrator, the choreographer…like the sound of that? Then check out the links below.


For more methods, insights and case studies than you can shake a stick at — directly from the mouths of Service Design legends. They also do a week long school.

They do what it says on the tin — connecting you with some of the best knowledge, people and events in the industry. You can spend hours, even days losing yourself in all the resources available.

We’re a big fan of the phrase “less talking, more doing” and the Global Service Jam will help you to do exactly that. In one weekend, you’ll connect with people interested in service and customer experience in locations all over the globe.

This community is an active one, and we like to challenge ourselves with other people’s opinions, approaches and techniques. With this in mind, Medium is a great place for that daily insight and debate — tailor your interests to what best suits your design journey and you’ll receive daily articles that reflect your preferences — I always like it when an article either makes me tut and shake my head, inspires or even baffles me. It all helps in creating your very own Service Design toolkit.

About us

Nat & Alicia both work at SPARCK, a design and innovation consultancy, where they’ve worked with a range of clients and industries.

Nat is a Strategist and Service Designer, who started her career in the world of banking before joining SPARCK in 2016, shortly after it had launched. Since then, she has helped to shape and grow the company into what it is today, while also working with a range of clients including Amnesty International, HSBC, NHS and ITV. She is also part of the leadership team at SPARCK where she is responsible for their People & Culture strategies, leading and coaching their managers, while overseeing Brand and Marketing.

Alicia is a Service Designer who started her career in the creative industries, leading the strategy and marketing for international SMEs and startups before joining Design Council UK, where her love for all things service design rocketed to a whole new level. Prior to her role at SPARCK, Alicia led the redesign and implementation of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s design-thinking programme, that puts design thinking at the core of their clients’ international export journey. She joined SPARCK at the beginning of 2019, where she has led projects with clients such as BP, ITV and top UK retailers.


SPARCK is the design and innovation consultancy born out of BJSS, a leading technology company. We are a collective of thinkers, innovators, strategists, designers and do-ers. Together with BJSS, we not only design great things but we deliver, too.


We’re a design and innovation consultancy which exists to make positive change.

Natalie Pearce

Written by

I help companies design purpose-driven strategies, cultures & services that grow their impact in the world⚡️



We’re a design and innovation consultancy, within a leading technology company. Together, we not only design great things but we deliver too

Natalie Pearce

Written by

I help companies design purpose-driven strategies, cultures & services that grow their impact in the world⚡️



We’re a design and innovation consultancy, within a leading technology company. Together, we not only design great things but we deliver too

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