Why UX Professionals Should Care About Service Design

By Laura Keller

Published: March 21, 2011

“We don’t design user experiences in isolation. We’re always aware that there’s a human component to them.”

I’m very excited to be kicking off my new UXmatters column, Service Design: Orchestrating Experiences in Context, with this discussion of the value of service design to UX professionals. In my column, I’ll explore the concepts of service design and how to leverage its practices to optimize the user experiences our companies and clients look to us to create.

Three Essentials in UX Design

There are three essentials in user experience design:

  1. Visualizing and documenting design solutions to communicate them to others who implement them

As UX professionals, we do this really well. There is no shortage of ways to document a current user experience or what an ideal user experience should be, including wireframes, prototypes, customer maps, customer journeys, scenarios, and workflows. Oh, my!

  1. Tracing all elements of user experiences back to human needs and interactions, so we can create products that are meaningful

We generally do this well, too. We don’t design user experiences in isolation. We’re always aware that there’s a human component to them. Whether it’s primary research we’ve done ourselves or a book we’ve read about someone else’s research, we relate everything we do to human beings and their needs, behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, and emotions. We know that this is what differentiates our products from those of competitors who complain, “We have people who can do UI design, but we don’t have anyone who can help us understand our users.” To trace human interactions, we have a myriad of approaches, including ethnography, task-based interviews, surveys, remote usability testing, and analytics.

  1. Conceiving of user experiences holistically
“User experiences comprise systems of elements that we should design holistically—not in isolation of each other.”

User experiences comprise systems of elements that we should design holistically—not in isolation of each other. The broader our perspective and the larger the context of a user experience, the greater its impact and value. Unfortunately, appreciating that everything we design is a system is where I think we’ve not stepped up our game. Sure, we do a great job on a tactical, micro-level. We know how to optimize a Web site’s or mobile application’s layout, content, features, navigation, and functionality. But I’m not talking about user experience at that level. I’m talking about game-changing, human experience–altering, business-impacting system thinking.

Many of us talk the talk: “It’s the entire experience that’s important. … We design holistic, end-to-end user experiences. … It’s critical that we understand multiple touchpoints with our customers.” Sounds great, but this chatter and discourse belies a truth that we often don’t want to admit: we rarely ever get to do it.

How do I know this? Because poor experiences continue to outnumber the great ones. Every day we see glimpses ourselves or hear stories from others of customer experiences that fail at the macro-level. The disconnect between airports that led to an 11-hour tarmac delay. The insurance company that didn’t communicate the right prescription coverage to a pharmacy.

These are not the same kinds of problems that exist at the level of Web site information architecture or user interface design. The solution of these design problems requires a broader and far-reaching perspective—looking at who’s involved; what systems, processes, and communications are in place; where they occur; and where things fall apart.

To be clear, a macro-experience that you create is only going to be as successful as its supporting, micro-level experiences. The details matter. For example, making it really easy to look up and understand your medical benefits on an insurance Web site (micro) is useless if the doctors who treat you have no access to that information (macro).

I want UX professionals to avail themselves of this game-changing, human experience–altering, business-impacting, system-thinking opportunity. For this reason, I have a passion for service design, a relatively new field that I believe offers UX professionals an opportunity to have the level of impact to which we all aspire.

Service Design Primer

“Service design is the activity of planning and orchestrating all tangible and intangible elements of a service … to create an effective service experience.”

Service design is the activity of planning and orchestrating all tangible and intangible elements of a service—including people, processes, time, communications, objects, technology, infrastructure, and space—to create an effective service experience.

I can best illustrate service design through an example: Imagine a service experience you might have eating out. Your experience of and expectations for eating out vary depending on whether you’re buying food from a food truck, a fast-food chain, or a high-end restaurant. In this example service scenario, let’s assume you’re eating at a basic, local sandwich shop.

You enter the shop, notice a menu on the wall, and a customer who is currently ordering, then approach an employee who is waiting behind the counter, at the register. A dialogue something like this might take place between you and that employee:

Employee: “Hello, what can I get for you?”

You: “I’ll have the turkey club on whole wheat.”

Employee, who enters the information into a computer system, then asks: “What cheese would you like?”

You: “None, thanks.”

Employee: “Can I get you anything else?”

You: “A Coke.”

Employee, who again enters the information into a computer system, then says: “Okay, thanks. Your total is $6.50.”

You, handing the employee a $10 bill: “Here it is.”

Employee, gives you your change and says: “Your order number is 12, and we’ll call you when your food is ready.”

You sit down at a table and wait for them to call your number. When they do, you approach the counter again and take your tray with the sandwich and soda you ordered from a different employee.

The Sandwich Service: Tangible and Intangible Elements

“Because service design is the effective orchestration of the various elements of a service, it’s critical to have an understanding of what those elements are, including those that are not readily apparent.”

Because service design is the effective orchestration of the various elements of a service, it’s critical to have an understanding of what those elements are, including those that are not readily apparent.

First, people are involved in a service. In our example scenario, the people who are most obviously involved are you, the customer, and the employees you interacted with—who are front-office employees. This co-created exchange, the quasi-scripted interaction between the customer and employees, helps catalyze the sandwich service. However, in the design of services, it is also important to consider the other customers who are in a shop, because they can impact the experience of those around them. For example, an indecisive customer who constantly rethinks his or her order delays the service of other customers and likely frustrates them. This kind of frustration is a less tangible element of the service, but it is important to manage it.

Less obviously, there are back-office employees—for example, those who prepare the food or stock the inventory. They are also important to delivering a successful service experience. After all, without them, you don’t get your lunch. If its designer doesn’t consider the back-office employees in the sandwich shop service design, they might have communication issues with the front-office employees—and you still might not get your lunch—or it might be wrong.

Second, processes are involved. The verbal exchange that occurs between the customer and the employee taking the order has a flow and linearity to it. Part of the process also exists in the computer system the employee uses to record the customer’s order, handle the monetary exchange, and communicate the order to the back-office employees who need to complete the order.

Third, the space of the sandwich shop is part of the service experience. Knowing where the menu should be, where people queue to place their order, where they can wait, and where they can retrieve their order are all spatial considerations a service designer needs to plan to create an effective service experience.

Some additional elements of this sandwich shop service include the following:

  • objects—the menu, receipt, order number, and, of course, the product itself—the food
  • time—waiting to place an order, then waiting for the order to be served
  • technology—the computer the employee used to take the order and communicate it to the employees in the kitchen

What’s so intriguing about all of these design elements is the mix of intangibility and tangibility they encompass. The overt elements of a service we can observe directly are often the easiest to intuit. However, the intangible elements of a service—the processes, time, emotions, and expectations—are equally important design considerations. Only when all of these elements come together in concert, through service design’s orchestration of these elements, is a service effective and successful.

Why Care?

“Service design presents interesting synergies and opportunities for user experience, because of its implicit, holistic, contextual, and inclusive nature and its potential impact.”

If you conduct a search for service economy on the Web, you’ll find a myriad of resources that paint a picture of a world that is becoming much more heavily reliant on services. New services are continually being designed—for reasons that range from cost-effectiveness to sustainability—and existing services continue to evolve. Service design is critical, because if the elements of a service experience are not aligned, the service can fail. Services that fail to deliver what they promise won’t survive.

Service design presents interesting synergies and opportunities for user experience, because of its implicit, holistic, contextual, and inclusive nature and its potential impact. We need to look at design solutions through a more service-oriented lens: thinking broadly, contextually, and holistically. We need to consider the intangible, softer, and less overt aspects of services, just as we consider the functional, obvious, and tangible aspects of the experiences we design.

We need to tweak our design methods and forms of documentation to account for this shift in perspective. We likely need to take a more iterative and collaborative approach, exposing the insights we’ve garnered to the various people who are involved in a service. And perhaps most difficult, we need to quickly shift from user-centered thinking to systems thinking. In service design, no single element or entity is at the center, although the outcome—a successful service experience—is decidedly humanistic.

I’ve just scratched the surface here, but I look forward to exploring these concepts in more detail in upcoming columns.


Great article, Laura.

It’s amazing how service design gets such little attention—from business and service providers! This is a huge area for UX folk to get involved and make a difference.

Looking forward to more discussion on the subject. I’m thinking of adding service design to my traditional UX work.

Nice article, Laura, and it’s good to see a piece that isn’t just, “SD is just what UX already does.” Moving organisations from top-down thinking to a customer-centred view is already a big leap, though obviously that’s what UX folk understand very well. Moving from a user/customer-centred viewpoint to understanding the whole complexity holistically is a real challenge and probably isn’t going to happen in one leap.

What’s noticeable is how the terminology is missing right now, and this is especially pertinent when you move out of typical service scenarios like the restaurant to complex services such as communications, healthcare, mobility, finance, and so on. What is a nurse, for example, in the healthcare system? User, customer, client…? None of this is really an accurate description because, of course, she is both a service provider and receiver at the same time. It’s here where the perspective of UX and CX starts to become difficult to apply and, I would argue, where SD is a more useful lens. We hope to expand and explain much of this in our book.

Hi Laura,

Great and timely article. I’ve been thinking a lot about introducing SD into the company culture—this article really helped clarify my thinking.

I think one reason we get so focused on the tactical is that we, as technologists, are limited in our scope and influence. If my job were creating an ordering system for MacDonald’s, I’m not sure how much I would be permitted to address the design of the counter menus or the wait time for the customers. I would have to know what’s on the menus and how to optimize the ordering system to decrease the wait time, though.

I think it’s the same for most developers. Either the boss or a client sends them an email message saying, “Build us this Web site!” It would be more difficult to come back to the boss/client and say, “Let me help redesign the script for the customer service personnel.”

Hi Laura,

Thanks for your article. I recently had the pleasure of coordinating/hosting the Chicago Service Jam as part of the Global Service Jam. Here in Chicago, we brought together designers from a variety of disciplines and levels of experience to work on a service design challenge. The event was meant to bring people together who are interested in learning more about service design and its components—more so than a competition. I agree that awareness of and skill-building in service design is critical for designers. We all learned much from the process. I’m also working with a corporate client looking at the experience of deaf customers in their retail stores and drive-thrus. If you’re interested in seeing our final video presentation for the Service Jam, please visit our site. I’d love to get your feedback.

Thanks again,

Byron [email protected]

Wonderful article. In the previous company where I worked, it seemed difficult to communicate this—even from just the level of the print pieces matching the online experience! But all aspects of the business are involved in an experience—it isn’t just one button on a Web site or one page of the employee intranet. I’d love to see organizations embrace a User Experience team that provided insights into all touch points of the experience with the company and into internal processes, systems, and applications.

It’s also true that the user isn’t necessarily the end user. The end user is served, however, when the customer service rep has the information they need displayed on their computer monitor, so they can relay that information to the customer—and the customer service rep is happy and efficient because they have the information they need. It is definitely a whole system. Thanks for the article!

Thanks everyone for the feedback and comments on my first column, I really appreciate it!

Apolaine: I completely agree that the complexities of people’s roles and how they define themselves and are defined by others is a really challenging, but interesting aspect of Service Design (SD). It’s actually where the theatrical metaphor breaks down, because the character someone is playing will vary depending on context and, often, who they feel accountable to. Looking forward to the book!

Byron: I did the NY Jam! It was a wonderful experience. I’ll ping you separately about your video.

Ashley: In a meeting at work, someone asked me, “Does service design always involve a customer?” and I said “Yes.” It led to an interesting dialogue because colleagues were asking, “What about if I go to HR within my company? That’s a service….’” So, similar to the comments Apolaine posted, the definitions of customer, user, employee, and the various people involved in a service are incredibly important to determine—and they’ll often change with context.

Thanks, Laura. A very helpful broad perspective. As William pointed out, my difficulty is seeing a way into selling SD to the owner of the customer relationship. They may be less inclined to take some of our practices on board when more traditional approaches are seen as the way to inform what they do. For example, I’m thinking of standard marketing activities such as surveys or getting user input by proxy—that is, from the clients as against the client’s users.

Ivor Tillier

Ivor, William, that’s great feedback. It’s definitely no easy fight—and it can be laborious enough to be considered a fight—to get the opportunity to have service design-type impact in an organization. None of the options is easy: finding advocates, socializing the value of service design effectively, managing culture change, getting access to those higher up in the organization, starting small when you know the big thing should be done, and so on. And these are particularly difficult when your role is supposed to fit squarely in [X] box.

I think I have a topic for a follow-up article!

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