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What is Service Design?

Service design focuses on mapping each touchpoint an individual has with a service provider in order to improve their experience and create a positive relationship between the two.

In our recent Service Design: Where Social Impact Meets Innovation webinar, we define service design, describe how service design fits into the social sector, and break down how organizations can apply it practically. In this first of a three-part blog series, we are delving deeper into service design to provide you a better overall understanding of its principles and approach.

Think back to a recent time you’ve taken a flight. A general timeline of moments involved in this experience includes: thinking about a trip, considering options, booking it, traveling to the airport, checking in, going through security, boarding the plane, arriving at your destination, and picking up your checked luggage. Of that timeline, the actual flight itself is just one part of the experience. There are lots of different pieces that go into the whole process, from engaging with services, digital tools, people, and places. 

What service design does is help companies and organizations to better understand all the parts of their delivery to and relationship with customers and target audiences.

The main components of service design

  • Touchpoints: A touchpoint is the particular point of interaction between the customer and the service. In our example, it could be the booking website, the check-in kiosk, or the plane.
  • Actors: In service design, actors are all the people involved. This could include customer support, flight attendants, pilot; gate agent, or the other travelers.
  • Service: The service itself is the instantaneous exchange that doesn’t result in a transfer of ownership. This is how it differs from products. For our example, it’s the plane ride itself. When you take a plane ride, you don’t go home with the plane (or the product). You are experiencing the service of the ride itself. Another way to distinguish a service is that is has a beginning and an end. One example is a rideshare (like Uber or Lyft). You book your ride at the beginning. The end is when you get your receipt as you exit the car. The service is the rideshare, and you can’t take that home with you! 
  • Front-stage: This includes all the pieces that the customer directly sees and interacts with. From the customer’s perspective, this could include going through security, boarding the plane, finding your seat, and picking up your bag at the carousel.
  • Back-stage: The back-stage includes all the pieces that the customer doesn’t directly see or interact with. For example, the website, customer service triage, x-ray checking bags, and loading bags from the plan to the carousel. These are all the systems, policies, and structures that influence the customer journey. Even though you don’t see or directly interact with the software, you do experience the resulting interface.

So what this airline example shows is that there’s A LOT that can be involved in one service delivery. We’re talking about coordinating people, infrastructure, and processes. And service design is all about understanding this service delivery, and then working to improve it, so that your audiences have a positive and fruitful experience.

Service design FAQs

As service design is still a somewhat new concept in both the commercial and social sectors, it is often confused with other closely-related concepts such as design thinking and customer experience. Here we answer some of the most common questions we are asked by our social sector partners when it comes to taking a service design approach to their work.

Q1: What is the difference between ‘service design’ and ‘design thinking’?

A: Service design and design thinking are similar processes. The biggest difference is that you can apply design thinking to anything (e.g., career planning, a work project, meetings), but service design specifically applies to services that a company sells or provides to its target audiences. While there’s a lot of overlap in terms of techniques, tools, and artifacts, service design has some unique ones, too, such as service blueprints.

Q2: How I can get service design adopted internally?

A: Our biggest advice to get buy-in from your teams is to help them understand that service design has an impact. We have the data to prove that organizations can increase indicators such as more applications, higher fundraising, and more audience engagement when the systems are more in sync and the process has been better designed.

Q3: What are the biggest challenges when implementing service design?

A: One common challenge is that it often requires several different departments to meet, align, and make decisions, which can be super difficult for larger organizations, and have larger time and budget implications. Another challenge when conducting service design is that it is still a fairly new term, though the concept has been around for a while (you may have heard a similar concept called “customer experience”). This can make it more difficult to evangelize and standardize in your team.

Service design is smart design

Evidence shows that improving individual moments across a larger experience or engagement can significantly improve the final outcome and long-term relationship. Ultimately, service design principles and processes can be directly linked to your organizational goals, effectively increasing your impact and improving the lives of the people you serve. 

In our next blog post in this series, we will focus on how service design applies to the social sector specifically through both concepts and real-life examples.

To learn more, watch the webinar!

Request a free copy of the webinar recording today.