My Crash Course in Service Design

Discovering the Wonderful World of Service Design

Not long after “accidentally” discovering the world of design thinking, I was introduced to the equally wonderful world of service design.

Oddly, my first exposure to service design came during a significant setback in my career. A new venture I had helped to launch, was failing.

At the time, we were new entrants in an industry experiencing significant growth. The industry was one that the company I worked for (a Fortune 500 organization) was well-positioned to lead. My team spent significant time with potential customers to understand their needs and determine whether our new venture would delight them. We developed some amazing products that were part of this concept.

However, our new concept never took flight after launch…  We were surprised and at a bit of a loss.

black and white man young lonely

Photo by jim jackson on

Learning about Service Design through a Failure

We quickly saw that our customers were not delighted by our new concept. The “amazing” products we developed still seemed “amazing”, but were not “hooking” customers. We couldn’t pin-point a primary driver for the slow start of our new venture.

It seemed like many “little things” just weren’t “clicking”. We heard from both prospective and actual customers that their experience was “clunky” and “awkward”. Our employees responsible for delivering this experience said the same. We quickly dove deeper into these observations and had the following epiphanies:

  1. Our view of “the product” did not match our customers view –  We took too narrow a view of what we considered to be “the product”, focusing heavily on the tangible product at the expense of the more holistic customer experience. Our team underestimated the significant value our customers placed on components of the service experience beyond tangible product. We missed on these intangible components and thus missed the opportunity to delight our customers.
  2. We conjured an ideal customer journey without building the infrastructure to support that journey – The customer journey we mapped looked great on paper and made intuitive sense. However, we discovered soon after launch that some components were incredibly difficult for us to deliver. It seemed we were frequently missing a key enabling technology, capability, or employee skills-set to deliver on the ideal customer experience. Playbooks and policies leveraged from previous projects actually inhibited us vs. enabling us. In hindsight, some mechanics of our service experience were obviously flawed from the get-go and we were shocked to have missed such details.
  3. We created a customer experience without including all the right cross-functional team members – Specific teams (including my own) drove the creation of our proposed service experience. We were focused, hit timelines, and delivered the product as scoped. However, we realized shortly after launch that other teams within our organization would have been much better suited to develop certain components of our service proposition.
  4. We didn’t have a structured mechanism or process to quickly view the full service experience and diagnose issues – We didn’t have a blueprint of our service experience. The actions we took to trouble-shoot seemed ad-hoc, unfocused, and not strategic.

Months later, a friend at a different company introduced me to service design blueprints and talked about his work in service design. I immediately wished I had known more about service design prior to launching our concept. We could have avoided many pitfalls.

Service Blueprint

(Service blueprinting using the method developed from Erik Flowers and Megan Erin Miller at Practical Service Design – highly recommend these guys!)

As I brought service design principles and tools back to my workplace, I quickly realized that there was little to no awareness of service design within my organization.

Diving Headfirst into Service Design Basics

There was no question in my mind that service design could make me a stronger business leader and innovator. I became fueled by a burning desire to immerse both myself and my team in the discipline.

(NOTE – Skip to the bottom of this post if you’re interested in seeing some of my favorite articles and resources from my immersion into service design) 

It felt natural for me to fall in love with service design as the worlds of design thinking and service design overlap significantly. They share many of the same principles (e.g. user/human-centric) and tools (e.g. customer journey maps, personas, storyboards, etc.). Some would even argue that they are basically the same.

As I increasingly referenced service design at work, I started receiving more specific questions about what service design is and how it differs from design thinking.

What is Service Design?

I’ve seen many definitions of service design, some of which create confusion as to what it actually is. Below are some of my favorite definitions from sources I trust:

Service Design Week – IQPC – “Service design represents the umbrella discipline for the creation, optimization and execution of value exchange to a user or customer. It is not limited to exclusively physical or digital interactions, a single product/service, or customer-facing touch points, but is inclusive of the holistic service blueprint, including the backstage actors/services and partners involved in service delivery. Due to it’s holistic nature, service design is best illustrated through five unique flavors:”

What is Service Design - SDW

IDEO U “Service Design is the craft of tying together human, digital, and physical interactions, over time, to create an experience that meets the needs of your customers.”

Service Design Network – “The activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers. The purpose of service design methodologies is to design according to the needs of customers or participants, so that the service is user-friendly, competitive and relevant to the customers.”

Nielsen Norman Group – “Service design is the activity of planning and organizing a business’s resources (people, props, and processes) in order to (1) directly improve the employee’s experience, and (2) indirectly, the customer’s experience.”

Based on these definitions, I’d describe service design as a holistic approach in understanding the multiple actors/components that comprise a service and the comprehensive experience(s) these elements work in tandem to create.

How is Service Design Different from Design Thinking?  

This is a question I’ve frequently heard and seen people explain in many different ways. It can be confusing. Take this recent conversation from a public service design group on Facebook:

Difference between service design and design thinking

I believe service design and design thinking are similar and very complimentary to one another, but also slightly different. There are some great articles that illustrate some of the differences between the two. Some of my favorites are below:

Why Great Service Design is Critical to the Success of Any Organization

Unfortunately, there isn’t a turnaround element to the story I mention above. As proud as I was of our team’s work in launching this concept, it ended up failing.

However, I learned a valuable lesson in the critical role service design can play in an organization’s success. I learned this lesson first-hand from seeing what happens when  service design principles are not applied.

I now regularly apply service design principles (e.g. co-creation, user-centric, holistic) and tools (e.g. service blueprint) in my daily work. These principles have compelled me to adopt a different, more holistic approach in my work creating new concepts and experiences.

This is welcome change as I’m confident service design will ultimately help me deliver better experiences for my customers and build the optimal infrastructure of front-stage and back-stage actors to help deliver this experience.

Interested in Learning More about Service Design?

Join me at Service Design Week in Boston from 10/15 – 10/18. It’s run by the same folks who put together Design Thinking Austin which I attended earlier this year and found to be an incredibly rewarding experience.

Service design’s close relationship to design thinking and the unique value it’s brought to my career has compelled me to immerse deeper and connect with fellow practitioners.

Like my Austin experience, I hope to learn, connect, and have fun, while transporting valuable learnings back to my workplace.

Boston Skyline - Service Design Week

(The Accidental Design Thinker is a proud media partner for Service Design Week 2018!)

Also, take a look at some of my other “go-to” service design resources below!

Service Design Resources

Collection of My Favorite Service Design Resources

Service Design History (I’m not a history buff but these articles are incredibly insightful about the origins of service design and how it differs from other related disciplines)

Service Design 101


  • ‘Service Design: From Insight to Implementation’ by Andy Polaine
  • ‘This is Service Design Thinking’ by Marc Stickdorn and Jakob Schneider
  • ‘This is Service Design Doing’ by Marc Stickdorn, Jakob Schneider, Adam Lawrence, Markus Edgar Hormess

Tools & Templates

Online Training Courses

DISCLAIMER – I haven’t taken these 2 courses but I’m a fan of IDEO U’s other courses and believe Jon is a wonderful instructor

Facebook Groups

  • Service Design Group, Design Thinking, Service Innovation – Largest service design group I’ve seen on Facebook
  • Service Design Drinks – There are many “Service Design Drinks” (SDD) groups on Facebook, mostly based in Latin America and Europe. SDD for Lima and Madrid are two of the largest.



As always, let me know what other great service design resources I might be missing!

  1. […] October, I also had the opportunity to participate in Service Design Week which was a fantastic deep dive into the world of service […]


  2. […] October, I also had the opportunity to participate in Service Design Week which was a fantastic deep dive into the world of service […]


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: