Why designers should learn service design

The power of the service blueprint.


Dina Zuko

2 years ago | 9 min read

Service blueprints are sometimes called ”a gateway drug to service design” and I can truly agree. I primarily work with user experience design and research, but I have used service design methods from time to time. Primarily a light version of the service blueprint when I want to map touchpoints across channels and time.

Then, a few years ago I was involved in a major project, we were doing massive changes to improve efficiency in the employees’ workflow and to improve the user experience of the software they were using. The market was getting saturated and the company needed to keep making money.

I did massive insight research and we gained an incredible insight into the employees’ and third-party suppliers’ behavior, motivations, and needs. I translated the insights into a service blueprint and had great suggestions on how we can improve the service… but we were only to focus on the new software.

We were all disappointed. I remember talking about this with one of the project managers involved, a brilliant woman with tons of experience, and she told me that the company would never reach high numbers without improving the whole working procedure. I agreed, but it would take me years before it truly sunk in.

It took me years to become aware of what a powerful tool a service blueprint truly was. Now, I use it whenever I can and I am drawn to the complexity that it uncovers.

Are you selling a service or a product?

There is a trend in consumer demand away from ownership towards experience and utility, and many industries have transformed their business from product to service. Customers want to get from point A to B, they do not necessarily need to own a car. They want to watch a movie but not stack DVDs that they will not watch more than once.

They want to have a hole in the wall but not have an expensive drill in the toolbox (the average drill is used about 13 minutes during its lifetime according to Reason and Løvlie). With services, customers have better access to experience and utility while saving money on wasted ownership.

This is a major shift. Even though consumers have accepted Spotify and Netflix it could take some convincing to give up a car, an own wardrobe, or something else that has personal value. Organizations, on the other hand, need to shift their offers to orientate around providing access and convenience rather than products alone.

This means leaving a known and trusted model for something less familiar, and that is why the service needs to be a desirable alternative to trusted norms. There are a very good article on transforming products to services if you want to learn more about this trend, “From Product to Product-as-a-Service, A new business model shaping the future of industries”.

Most modern design disciplines can be traced back to the tradition of industrial design, a field defined during the 1920s. While the industrial design principles are great when manufacturing tangible products the same mindset to designing service can lead to poor customer experience.

For example, when a customer does not get the same offer in the store as online, or when customer service personnel uses a different tone and language compared with the language used on the companies website. These problems are due to companies selling services are structured in silos. According to Ben Reason and Lavrans Løvlie, the authors of “Service Design: From Insight to Inspiration”

“The division of the silos makes sense to the business units, but makes no sense to the customer, who sees the entire offering as one experience.”

To design and sell amazing services, methods from service design are needed. Selling services instead of products has many advantages. One is that the same product can be resold without additional manufacturing costs. Another, but probably more important, is that physical products can easily be copied, but service experiences are rooted in company culture and are much harder to replicate.

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What is service design?

Service design is about improving service quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers. It is about joining the silos together from a customer perspective to create a service. Understanding people is at the heart of service design.

Not just the users or customers, but also the agents interacting with customers, the backstage processes, and your client. To put people at the heart of services, to design a great service, we need to know who they are. We need to understand customers’ needs, behaviors, motivations, and relationships to the service.

For service designers, the objects of design are experiences over time in the right context, and when services are consistent across touchpoints and time, they deliver great experiences. Unlike a product, which customers purchase once and may use over time, services are usually the process of a time-based experience.

But to the answer to why so many services are poorly designed lies in the lack of attention paid to the invisible elements of time and context. Here is an interesting example of the importance of context by Reason and Løvlie regarding the design of ticket machines.

“After a recent upgrade, the graphic design of the screens is much more pleasant, but the overall interaction flow is slower and therefore worse due to the extra animation and display overhead. In the context of a design studio, the flow makes some sense, but in the context of rushing for a train and needing to buy a ticket, it is a disaster.”

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Services require us to design systems that adapt well to constantly changing parts. Using service design as an approach highlights all the moving parts that needed to work together. That way you can build resilience into the design, services will adapt better to change and perform longer for the user.

Designers are (hopefully) empathic towards the needs of the ends users but as service designers, we need to extend our empathetic skills to understand what our clients’ needs and motivations are, just as much as those of our end users.

Our clients are people, too, with their own needs, motivations, and behaviors. Designers also need to understand that a service needs to have a business case like an unmet need, a gap in the market, or an underdeveloped marker.

The key to making the business case for service design is to focus on how you want the work to change customer behavior, and then estimate the potential impact on the business in numbers. It is a dual role, as a service designer you represents both the end-user and the service provider, and you need to design a service that is beneficial for both.

If you want more information about what service design is there are two great articles that describe service design in-depth, “What’s Service Design? And Why Does it Matter?” and “So, like, what is service design?”.


Service design places more emphasis on qualitative over quantitative research methods. Statistics are great, but not very actionable for service designers, we need to know the underlying reasons. Reason and Løvlie write that,

“Quantitative research methods are great for creating knowledge and understanding of a field but not for transforming knowledge into consumer insight. For that, you need qualitative research methods. With qualitative research, you gain consumer insight and you can help organizations take actions based on the insight.”

Service design involves research across all the stakeholders of a project, from the managing director, staff, third-party suppliers, and of course, the end-user. Because we can be confident that services that are based on genuine insight into the people who will use them and the people who deliver the service, will deliver real value.

Many of the insights-gathering methods used in service design are drawn from ethnography. Research is done in-depth and over time, we want to understand people at different stages of their relationship with the service. We want to research the different journeys people might take through a service and how they transition through the various touchpoints.

One again, context is the king, context is critical to gathering insights into people’s interactions with touchpoints. The context needs to be the right one, if you want to know how customers interact with the staff in the store you need to do your research there.

For more about context read “What UX from 1989 can teach us — How important is the user context when designing amazing products?”.

Service Blueprint and touchpoints

A service blueprint is about capturing the big picture and interconnections. It helps you structure, design, and align touchpoint interactions as they unfold over time.

A service blueprint is a map consisting of a frontstage and a backstage. The frontstage is anything that the customer experiences. It is divided into channels and the channels are divided into touchpoints, points of interaction between the customer and the service provider.

It could involve interaction with different agents like staff in a shop (Face-to-face channel) or customer service (Phone channel). Or it could be a digital interface like a website (Web channel) or an app (Mobile channel). The backstage processes are everything else that goes on behind the scenes to make that happen.

Image from “Service Design: From Insight to Inspiration” by Ben Reason and Lavrans Løvlie

Frontstage and backstage need to work in harmony. Service designers need to align insights from backstage staff with customer needs. Frontstage agents need tools and infrastructure backstage to deliver the utility and experience to the customer.

The backstage agents need to understand the connections between different backstage elements of the service and how they need to interact to deliver the required frontstage user experience.

Backstage consistency and robustness are crucial to success. For example, when frontline staff is frustrated at internal systems and procedures, they become disempowered and inflexible. This leads to poor customer experiences and service failures.

The entire purpose of a service blueprint is to ensure that all the different elements across all touchpoints are not designed in isolation. So that designers can understand how different touchpoints work together to form a complete experience. It gives service designers a platform to systematically test people’s different journeys through the system.

By making user journeys maps through the blueprint you will see where and how the user interacts with the service. You can track their path across time and touchpoints, and reveal where the real value was created and where opportunities were wasted. That way you can map put find touchpoints that have the greatest impact on the service experience.

Image from “Service Design: From Insight to Inspiration” by Ben Reason and Lavrans Løvlie

What is most important to look for is variation in quality between the touchpoints and the gap between expectations and experiences. This was a big Aha-moment for me, but when you exceed expectations at a certain point, you have already set yourself up to disappoint at the next interaction if you cannot deliver at the same level.

When you set consistent expectations in each interaction and fulfill them in the next, people will get what they expect, they feel that the quality is right.

A minimal gap between expectation and experience means greater customer satisfaction. So, sometimes, you may need to consider reducing the quality of a certain touchpoint to enhance the overall experience of quality in the service. Great service experiences happen when all touchpoints play in harmony, and when people get what they expect over time.

Adaptive Path offer a nice guide to service blueprinting if you need a quick guide, “Download Our Guide to Service Blueprinting”.

Great books on service design

What I covered in this article is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to service design but hopefully, I have convinced you that as user experience, or product designer you have much to gain by learning service design and including service design methods like service blueprints to your design and research repertoire.

There is no easy trick, you need to read books or take a course to truly grasp and understand service design and the complexity of it. I would like to recommend three great books:

They cover research methods you can use to gain insight. Detailed instructions on how to create blueprints, what to focus on, and how to zoom in and out from service blueprint to specific touchpoints.

For more books about service design, read 7 Service Design books worth reading by Diego Mazo.


Created by

Dina Zuko







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