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Service Design Tools and Methods

What is service design?

When you ask ten people to define service design, you get 11 different definitions. The field of service design is so multifaceted that experts have not been able to agree on a specific definition.

UK Design Council says, “Service design is all about making the service you deliver useful, usable, efficient, effective and desirable.” The Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, in a rather verbose manner, says, “Service design is an emerging field focused on the creation of well thought through experiences using a combination of intangible and tangible mediums. It provides numerous benefits to the end user experience when applied to sectors such as retail, banking, transportation, and healthcare.

“Service design as a practice generally results in the design of systems and processes aimed at providing a holistic service to the user. This cross-disciplinary practice combines numerous skills in design, management, and process engineering. Services have existed and have been organized in various forms since time immemorial. However, consciously designed services that incorporate new business models are empathetic to user needs and attempt to create new socio-economic value in society. Service design is essential in a knowledge driven economy.”

The five principles of service design thinking

Since there is no common definition of service design, a better way to think of it is to distill the principles of service design and use them as guidelines in your design work.

Marc Stickdorn outlines the five principles of design thinking in his book:

  1. User-centered
    • Services should be experienced through the customer’s eyes.
  2. Co-creative
    • All stakeholders should be included in the service design process.
  3. Sequencing
    • The service should be visualized as a sequence of interrelated actions.
  4. Evidencing
    • Intangible services should be visualized in terms of physical artefacts.
  5. Holistic
    • The entire environment of a service should be considered.

Service design methods and tools

There are a wide range of service design methods and tools used by practitioners. The tools can be used in any combination at any stage of the project of designing services. This note captures only the most popular ones used in the field.

1. Stakeholder maps

What is it?

A stakeholder map is a visual representation of the various groups involved with a service. For example, in a healthcare sector, the stakeholders for service design are not only the patients, but also their families, their medical insurers, the physicians, the hospital, and the regulatory bodies. By representing all stakeholders on a map, the interplay between various groups can be analyzed.

How is it made?

First, draw up a comprehensive list of stakeholder needs. The aim of the map is also to highlight stakeholders that the service provider did not mention (or may not even be aware of). Interviews and desk research are often conducted to create a stakeholder map. Then, find how these stakeholders are related to each other and how they interact with each other. A visually engaging map, with internal and external stakeholders identified and their relationship charted, can be created by using the smaply application (see Figure 1) and referenced throughout your service design project.

Figure 1: A sample stakeholder map for airport service design project; courtesy of smaply

Why is it used?

A stakeholder map provides a medium to highlight issues concerning each stakeholder group. Groups can also be categorized according to their importance and influence, with previously neglected groups perhaps being reconsidered once the influence they exert on others is revealed.

2. Personas

What is it?

Personas are fictional profiles, often developed as a way of representing a group based on their shared interests. They represent a character with which client and design teams can engage.

How is it made?

Collate research insights – from interviews, shadowing, and other methods – into common-interest groupings, which can then be developed into a workable character. The key to a successful persona is how engaging it proves to be, and thus, a wide range of techniques – from visual representations to detailed anecdotal profiles – can be used to bring these characters to life. For example, a not-for-profit organization, dedicated to developing leadership skills in young girls in Canada, created a persona each for a “parent-girl” and for a “teenager” (see Figure 2). smaply provides an easy interface to design the personas and use them in the project.

Figure 2: Sample personas; courtesy of smaply

Why is it used?

Personas can provide a range of different perspectives on a service, allowing design teams to define and engage the different interest groups that may exist within their target market. Effective personas can shift focus away from abstract demographics and towards the wants and needs of real people. For instance, when an airport design team defined a persona for an international traveler with limited English language skills, they realized the importance of self-explanatory signage in the airport and focused accordingly.

3. Customer Journey Maps

What is it?

A journey map provides a vivid but structured visualization of a service user’s experience. The touchpoints where users interact with the service are often used to construct a “journey.” This journey details users’ service interactions and accompanying emotions in a highly accessible manner.

How is it made?

First, create the various personas of the service users, as explained earlier. Then, identify the steps in a journey for each persona. For example, an airport service design team could capture these steps as “Anna checks in,” “Anna arrives at the airport,” “Anna checks out the flight gates,” and others. Also, identify the touchpoints where users interact with the service. Touchpoints could take many forms, such as face-to-face contact between individuals, virtual interactions with a website or mobile app, and interactions over the phone. Once the touchpoints have been charted, expand the journey map to include detailed descriptions for the steps and any aha moments and pain points for the persona. For example, “Anna almost forgot to check in and is thankful the app reminds her to do it.” These aha moments and pain points present opportunities for innovation.

This exercise involves interviewing and shadowing the users and the customer-facing teams, video ethnography, souring through online blogs and social media, and if possible, bringing the customers in the journey mapping workshop itself. The journey mapping exercise takes several iterations between “out in the field” research and “in the room” workshops.

These aha moments and pain points present opportunities for innovation.

Why are they used?

The overview provided by a journey map enables the identification of both problem areas and opportunities for innovation. The journey maps are used to visually represent both the current state and the desired state of the service.

4. Service Blueprints

What is it?

Service blueprints are a way to specify and detail each individual aspect of a service. This involves creating a visual schematic incorporating the perspectives of the user, the service provider, and other relevant parties that may be involved, detailing everything from the points of customer contact to behind-the-scenes processes.

This raises awareness of each team’s responsibilities in providing the service.

How is it made?

Service blueprints are often co-created amongst various departments or teams that may exist within the service-providing organization. This raises awareness of each team’s responsibilities in providing the service. A collaborative workshop is a very effective forum for this kind of co-creation, which is often aimed at constructing a “living” document that the teams of the service provider feel they own. This notion of a “living” document relates to the idea that a blueprint should ideally be periodically revised as users’ lifestyle and motivations change. samply allows an easy interface to create and manage service blueprints (see Figure 3).

Why is it made?

By describing and outlining all the elements contained within a service, the blueprint allows the most crucial areas to be identified. Service blueprints show the processes that lie behind the critical service elements around which user experience is defined. They are often produced in draft form at the start of a service design project to explore those aspects of the service that can be reviewed and refined. The service blueprint provides a clear roadmap for the actual service delivery.

This will lead to higher user satisfaction with the organization’s services.


Service design is incredibly useful for complex organizations where multiple stakeholders are involved in the provision of the services. Organizations must commit to the service design by allocating a set budget and time for the user research and insight generation prior to the implementation. This will lead to higher user satisfaction with organization’s services.

Figure 3: A sample customer journey map and service blueprint for airport service design; courtesy of smaply

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