A Beginner's Guide to Service Design

Design Sketch

By Susan Wolfe

A service, unlike a product, is intangible — you can’t hold it or touch it. Rather, it’s a series of intertwined, specifically orchestrated activities. Services unfold over time across steps and channels. Also unlike a product, both the production and consumption of a service happen simultaneously. The service is the interplay between the customer and service provider.

Service design is a practice that contributes to delivering a great user experience. In fact, the quality of the service is frequently what makes or breaks a person’s experience with an organization. Whether service design is being used to improve existing services or create new ones, it takes into account the needs of both the customer and the service provider.

Why Does Service Design Matter?

Service design is a big deal because we engage with services much more than we engage with specific products. We take public transportation, go out to lunch, manage our money, go to concerts, get medical help, pay our taxes, register our cars, and so forth. Certainly, there are tangible products and tools that we — and service providers — use in the process, but that’s only part of it. From the service design perspective, it’s that overall exchange we care about — and that exchange needs to work for all parties. We certainly notice when it doesn’t, and we, as customers, simply look elsewhere the minute it fails.

The more complex and interconnected our world gets, the more opportunities there are for service failure — making good service design more critical than ever. Service quality often suffers due to the complexity of linking systems together in a way that makes sense to both customers and service providers. Service designers must come to the rescue, and many designers who previously focused on designing digital interfaces are now turning their attention to services.

Where Service Design Intersects With UX and Product Design

Service design is becoming a high-profile skill in industries such as financial services, health care, social services, and beyond, popping up in ads for product design and user experience roles. However, it’s nothing particularly new. When talking about UX design, many people’s first inclination is to think about digital products. But UX design is as much about physical products and services as it is about digital services. It’s also about ensuring that an organization has the processes and skills in place to deliver on the promise.

Although they ultimately have a slightly different focus, at the highest level, the philosophy of service design and UX design is the same:

  • It's holistic. It involves considering all channels and players involved, and understanding what happens before, during, and after any interactions.
  • It’s user-centered. It puts the experience of all of the people involved at the heart of every decision made.
  • It embodies design thinking. It uses the designers’ approach and methods to balance people’s needs (desirability) with what’s doable (feasibility) and what’s appropriate for the business (viability).
  • It’s increasingly the differentiator between companies. As a product or service becomes a commodity and the barriers for consumers moving between providers are lowered (think financial services or telecommunications), it’s the quality of the service and experience that determines whether people embrace your offering.

Designing Services = Designing Businesses

In a feature-rich, constantly-on world, thoughtful service design gives organizations a unique opportunity to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Businesses are now innovating and redefining themselves based on their service in several key ways:

  • Improving routine services, like renewing a driver’s license or getting a cell phone plan. In the case of a driver’s license (where there’s no competition), delivering better service is good for everyone. In the case of a telecommunications provider, it can be the difference between retaining or losing a customer.
  • Totally overhauling an experience, such as Disney’s introduction of its MagicBand to park visitors. The MagicBand wrist band facilitates payment, placing orders, making restaurant reservations, entering your hotel, finding the rest of your party, and even delivering greetings from Disney characters who know you by name. The technology is one thing — but it’s the people and processes that make this all happen.
  • Revolutionizing an industry, like the way Airbnb and Uber reimagined accommodation and ride services by upending who provides the services, how they are acquired, and the interchange between providers and customers.
  • Going from product to service, like how Square provides small-business loans to customers using its point-of-sale solution, or the aircraft jet engine manufacturer Rolls Royce offers support services based on the fact that it’s already collecting usage data.

How Do We Approach Service Design?

Service design requires big-picture thinking. This means not merely focusing on designing the particular products and tools used in the interchange between customers and service providers, but also understanding and optimizing how everything and everyone fits together — who does what, when and how they do it — to achieve a desired result. As service designers, we talk about the “line of visibility,” and study both the “onstage” activities (what the customer sees and hears) and the “backstage” activities (services, processes, and tools used behind the scenes), and we choreograph the interplay.

As illustrated in the figure below, when designing (or redesigning) a service, we take a top-down approach, starting by focusing on the desired experience, and from there considering the interactions, touchpoints, and procedures needed to create it. Armed with this knowledge, we are able to determine the best products and tools to use, and we design these to optimize the overall experience.

Service Design

To be successful, we must:

  • Have a clear understanding of the reason and demand for the service, and the ability of the provider to deliver.
  • Focus the design on customers’ needs, ensuring that the service will be valuable and efficient.
  • Treat “unusual” circumstances and typical situations as equally important in thinking out the requirements to accommodate them, as that’s when service often breaks down.
  • Design with input from users of the service, and collaboration with all relevant stakeholders providing the service.
  • Prototype the service before developing it in full.
  • Start with a minimum viable service (MVS), and use an iterative design process based on feedback and analysis to refine and add to the service.

Service Design at General Assembly

User experience design students at General Assembly learn to think holistically. UX is not merely user interface (UI) design; it’s about the before, during, and after use. UX design involves applying user-centered design techniques like research and low-fidelity prototyping to ensure that you’re solving the right problem before polishing the solution. When you learn about UX design at GA, whether it’s through our full-time Immersive program, part-time course on campus or online, or a short-form workshop or bootcamp, you learn to think about the overarching ecosystem you are designing for. Students train to recognize that people’s experiences are formed over time, based on interactions across individual and broad touchpoints. They also learn how our roadmaps allow us to focus in on figuring out how to get there from here.

Meet Our Expert

Susan Wolfe, who teaches GA’s User Experience Design Immersive in San Francisco and Sydney, has practiced UX design, run consultancies, mentored project teams, and introduced UX design practices and cultures into organizations around the globe. She has established and managed in-house UX teams within software, hardware, and services companies in the Silicon Valley. In her work, she takes a holistic service design perspective and applies the most appropriate user-centered design thinking techniques to identify issues and ultimately create the optimal experience.

“Merely going digital doesn’t guarantee success. The world needs UX designers now more than ever to ensure that the needs and desires of the users are balanced with the goals and objectives of the organizations.”

Susan Wolfe, UX Design Immersive Instructor at GA San Francisco and GA Sydney