Service Design: Defined

Words by Jane Curtain.

There are many perceptions of what Service Design is and isn’t. Even designers sometimes struggle to agree on a single definition. As a term, Service Design is increasingly morphing to become synonymous with Experience Design, making it difficult for some to identify Service Design as a unique profession or discipline.

A common misconception about Service Design is that Service Design is merely the deliverable of a service blueprint. However in reality, a blueprint is merely an illustrative tool, and it is by no means indicative of the discipline of Service Design - nor should it necessarily be the deliverable.

A design isn’t finished unless it’s being used.

How many times have we seen beautifully detailed, high-fidelity blueprints produced as an end goal, and then sadly rarely or even never referred to again?

Service Design has a very specific definition and goal - to create and support an optimal end-to-end service experience.

Over-emphasising the methods and tools like service blueprints commoditises the discipline and more often than not devalues this end goal. For genuine systemic and profitable change to occur within an organisation, Service Designers should always be focusing on that end-goal and working with the relevant subject matter experts and decision makers to support this.

Many areas of design share the goal of improving end-user interactions. But Service design has a few must-haves:

  • The Research - Extensive upfront ethnographic and behavioural research to truly understand customer needs.

  • End to End - Service Design must encapsulate the entire end-to-end user experience across any and all touch points.

  • The Backstage - The behind-the-scenes activities and mechanisms that enable the desired end-user experience to be delivered as planned.

In other words,

Service Design involves the entire ecosystem and is comprised of everything that helps a user to meet their needs.

This includes the front stage - i.e. all the bits the user typically touches, sees and feels; apps, websites, emails, text messages and person-to-person conversations.

It also includes the back stage - i.e. the bits users don’t see, including the behind-the-scenes processes, systems, staff training, and even organisational culture.

Service Design is comprised of everything that contributes to the end-user experience: the front stage and the back stage.

Service Design is comprised of everything that contributes to the end-user experience: the front stage and the back stage.


Service design brings the user experience and the service integration to the centre of the design work, which helps shift the attention from a single touch point to the entire ecosystem.

Service Design and other disciplines

First, let’s look at some common definitions of three types of design:

  1. UX Design is usually focused on the interaction between humans and digital products or services.

  2. Experience Design is the practice of designing a range of products and services, focusing in particular on improving the quality of the customer experience across the end-to-end journey.

  3. Service Design is much like Experience Design, except that it also includes the critical backstage activities of People, Processes and Technology that enable the experience to be delivered as planned.

UX Design, Experience Design and Service Design all share the same goal of improving the experience of customers interacting with an organisation. The differences are highlighted below:

new table Service Design.png

Unlike UX Design and Experience Design, Service Design has a wider goal of seeking the permission/buy-in from the organisation by identifying, improving and changing the behind-the-scenes support structures that enable an optimal customer experience. It involves the design of the entire ecosystem, and that of course includes that of specific products and services interactions within that ecosystem.

For this reason, Service Design must work collaboratively and harmoniously with other areas of design.

Customers might be fully aware of the touch points or interactions they have experienced, but they are not necessarily aware of the behind-the-scenes activities that are essential to enabling those experiences.

Let’s consider an example

Time to head to the theatre, to see Service Design stage theory in action. The front-end customer experience might include:

A trip to the theatre: the front-end customer experience.

A trip to the theatre: the front-end customer experience.


Each of these activities involves extensive behind-the-scenes planning, strategic choices, deliberate processes, staff training and/or enabling technology to ensure a smooth or optimal experience for customers. 

Let’s now examine just one of these activities to consider how customers might receive the tickets they have purchased: 

  • Do customers expect to receive their tickets digitally, sent in the mail and/or collected at the venue?

  • Can the vendor enable choice with respect to sending tickets? 

  • What decisions need to be made to enable these choices?

  • Should customers be charged additional fees for one/some of these choices?

  • What technology is needed to send digital tickets?

  • What happens if a customer cannot access their digital ticket?

  • What postal arrangements are needed to send tickets in the mail?

  • What happens if a ticket gets lost in the mail?

  • What arrangements are needed with the venue to allow ticket collection there?

  • What happens if a customer doesn’t have suitable identification at the collection point?

The customer simply expects a seamless front-end experience. But the service designer must also consider all of the necessary activities behind the scenes to deliver that seamless experience.

So why Service Design?

I love working in a field that is focused on improving the end-user experience.

We are all customers, we are all consumers, and we are all end-users.

We can recognise good experiences from bad experiences, and we intrinsically know what we like and don’t like, and why we have these preferences. Service Design gives me the opportunity to address the “how” part of the equation - i.e. How do we make systemic changes to the ecosystem that ensure the desired customer experience is delivered?  

It’s exciting, it’s challenging, it uses Human Centred Design at its core, and it drives real change.

Service Design is evidence-based. It relies on the results of genuine research to understand and therefore act upon end-user needs. Evidence talks. There is no better decision-making data than genuine evidence, and I particularly enjoy uncovering that.

I notice that many parts of an organisation operate in silos and their challenges are often the result of them focusing on one touchpoint discretely in an end-to-end journey. Organisations rarely have time to look inwardly at themselves to consider genuine change and to break down the silos, so they focus instead on short-term solutions.  

Service Design helps to rattle the cage - to address and to change the internal behaviours, processes and systems that ultimately drive the end-user experience. The service must work in a way that does not unnecessarily expose users to the internal structures of the organisation. It helps us think more holistically about the organisation as a whole. This benefits everyone - from customers to staff, and ultimately leads to success.



Martial artist. Realistic optimist. Human Centred Design geek. Jane Curtain is IE’s Service Design Director. When she is not researching or delivering seamless customer journeys, you can often find her decorating very, very elaborate cakes.