Demystifying Service Design — Part 1

Part of an epic 2-part series.


We have a pretty clear ideas of what these words mean in isolation. Now combine them into a new term:

Service Design.

This is where it gets more confusing. Service design, does that mean designing of a service, as if you were to say “airplane design” as the designing of an airplane?

Look at this quote from Apple CEO, Tim Cook:

This is an implication that the 3 core offerings that most tech companies provide are becoming less distinct and part of one another. Hardware and software are obvious. But services, not so much. If the lines are disappearing, what are we left with?

We’ve mastered making the product. User experience is a core competency and we use it to make products every day. If making products is what we’re good at, what does it mean to offer a service?

The product and service merry-go-round

Look at this hammer, and let’s assume it’s our product. It’s something we make–we take wood, metal, maybe some polycarbonate, we attach the handle to the head, and send it off to hardware stores to be sold.

This is what we’ve always done when we have a product we manufacture, and likely the core competency of our business. We make hammers and sell them to you so you as the customer can do some hammering. People need hammers, so we make hammers.

Now imagine a spectrum, with this hammer down at the left end.

All you need is a nail.

Way down at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a person holding a hammer who will do your hammering for you. You have a need, and we’re going to take care of that need by performing a service.

Provide you with a hammer, or perform hammering for you. Simple, right?

A classic service model. Intervening when someone has a need and doing it for them.

In reality, nothing is this simple. It’s a spectrum, not a dichotomy. Between full self-serve on one end, and full assistance on the other, there are many different options in between.

Nothing is ever as black and white as it seems.

Maybe you specialize and offer different types of hammers to serve more specific tasks. Maybe you rent hammers. Maybe you have your hammers up in the cloud (HAAS: hammering as a service). Or, maybe you have professional hammering advisors who will tell you exactly how to hammer, but not do it for you.

Designing for service

The word service can trip us up when we apply it to what might be mainly a marketing and UX focused organization that is used to making a “thing” that is held up on a platter as “this is what we have made for you!”

If we take a step back and look at what we as an organization–made up of people, not things–truly do, we can ask: what does it mean to act in service?

It is a different way to think. We act in service to those with a need. If I am a marketer, or UX designer, or a software developer, I might not look at what I do as service. What I do is promote, or build, or manage. Serving someone in the way a nurse, flight attendant, ride-share driver, or hotel concierge serves is totally different. That’s not what we do, right?


Service boils down to two main aspects: Provide and Perform.

In one, you are providing a way for a person to do something to make progress towards their goal. In the other, you are performing an action in service to help them make progress.

We act in service of a human need, there’s no debate about this. If you’re in business and not serving a human need, what are you doing? Even if the people we service are ourselves, we are still acting in service.

The benefits of service design

As we look at service design as serving someone in reaching their goals, we can more easily see how it applies to the customer. I use the word customer, but swap it out for whatever fits your context: patient, client, traveler, etc.

There is the notion of customer benefit. This is something that UX and product design have always maintained and worked towards. “Is it a good user experience” Service design is focused on this principle as well, though maybe not in the exact same context or space. The customer benefit is what all parties should be trying to enhance. From a service designer’s point of view, this could mean:

That’s one side of the benefit.

This next benefit is where UX and design often is lacking: organization benefit. Most of the time, UX doesn’t really work on this. It doesn’t mean they ignore it, but the tasks of designers typically isn’t to design for the organization. Show me an Axure or Sketch wrangler who works on organization design. It’s simply not done at the contributor level.

One of the promises of service design is that it will look at organizational benefit and process. How is the way our organization is arranged and operating benefiting both us and the customer? You can be doing one but not the other, and quite often are.

Service design sells itself as being equipped to tackle these organizational problems as well. An organization's output is only as cohesive and quality as the organization that creates it.

This being the case, service design makes another promise. It’s not only here to design your services. It is here to help you design for service; the way in which you are going to serve. This focuses on how the organization is going to ensure the successful delivery of service to the customer.

Setting the stage

Think of a beautiful, stunning, top notch opera house. The seats, the lighting, the carved wood cornices. The acoustically engineered shapes of the walls. A perfectly honed soundscape.

Imagine the singers on stage in their exquisite costumes, the rehearsed performances, the music, the lighting, the entire atmosphere. All of this put together for you, the audience, the customer.

The more seamless and choreographed this experience is, the more powerful its impact. What the audience experiences on that night is what they will walk away with in their memory forever. Their memory of you and the show you produced. If it’s a good one, they’ll be back for the next time.

What we don’t see–or shouldn’t see–is everything that is happening backstage to make the front stage happen. The crew that is rigging the lighting, the props, the curtains. The catwalks and wires. The performers in the wings waiting for their time to come out.

The backstage is a whole production that requires expertise, practice, and rehearsal that rivals that of the performers — maybe more so.

If this backstage isn’t choreographed just as much as the front stage, the audience experience is ruined. Even the slightest flub can taint the entire experience and be one of the lowlights that the audience walks away with forever. A backstage mistake, even if unseen by the audience, can manifest visibly as a front stage problem.

Stage theory

This is the core principle of service design. We have two stages, the front and the back. The front stage is what the customer sees. The backstage is what produces the front. A front stage can’t exist without a backstage.

There is a nitpick that says “Well if seeing the backstage is a part of the show, then the audience sees the backstage.” False. If seeing the literal backstage is part of the show, it is now a part of the front stage. By its nature, the backstage is unseen.

The backstage is of the utmost importance for a very simple reason: it’s not visible, but it is felt. Felt in huge ways. The front stage is a product of, and constrained by, the health and effectiveness of the backstage.

This concept is easy to understand. In design, we have great influence on the front stage, and might have some deep involvement in the backstage.

But, there’s something else at play here. Something that we might not always have access to, or even have visibility into.

The behind the scenes

Behind the scenes. This is something removed from the backstage and front stage. It’s the murky place where finance, legal, structure, culture, folklore, tribal knowledge, and countless other invisible intangibles exist.

Think about your behind the scenes. How much influence and visibility do you have into it? Some of us might have our hands in it. There are many interested in service design who even occupy roles in this space.

Now, think of the UX and product designers among us. How often is a UX designer applying their design skills to legal policies? The organizational structure? The companies guiding principles? Budgetary constraints?

“Everything is designed.” These are things that are designed simply by existing. Maybe not consciously, and maybe not well. But they are there, and the effects of the behind the scenes resonate loudly through the backstage, to the front stage, and into our customer’s lives. And yet — how often do we dig deep and design these things? Who has even been asked to?

This is crucial to understand in service design stage theory. What we can and can’t do is dictated by our behind the scenes. And yet, rarely does anyone apply any design thinking to it.

We have business folks who maintain it, mandate it, construct it, arrange it, but not intentionally design it holistically with the other two stages. It might not even be possible. Regardless, it must be brought into the light if we are going to know what we can and can’t do on the other stages. They all build up from one another.

The life of the customer

There’s another, even more powerful element. The hardest to see, and the impossible to impact. The customer’s behind the scenes.

The customer behind the scenes is mostly opaque to us. Their lives, other products and services they may use, what is happening to them day to day as they decide on which companies to engage with to help them reach their goals, and which ones they avoid that are not compelling or that they’ve had bad experiences with.

This is out of our control. Accept that. All we can do is study their interactions with our front stage, study who they are, how they approach us. We adapt how we build our backstage, which produces our front stage, to best meet their needs.

Never as simple as it looks

An easy example in the real world is an Uber ride. “Owning the moment.” We whip out our phones, hit a button, and a car shows up. We sit down, text people, check email, and arrive at where we wanted. We get out, don’t tip, and the next time we open the app, we’re asked to leave a review.

Simple. Easy. We use Uber as a model for almost any product or service we’re designing. “We want to be the Uber of customer support.” “We want to be the Uber of snowman delivery.” “We want to be the Uber of turtle babysitting.”

Welcome to anything is possible.

But have you, as designers, every truly thought about what it takes to accomplish an Uber ride? One of our service design community members, Dave, came up with this mock “reverse engineered guess” at the 2-way communication diagram for how Uber might work:

Brainstorm example on how Uber might work behind the scenes — total guesswork.

Is this correct? I can’t say. I can guess that this is a lot more complex than a rider thinks about. In fact, probably a lot more complex than we as designers think about. It takes a whole lot more than the button on the app to make the ride possible. It’s choreography that takes a whole organization.

Think for a moment: how much influence do the app designers, the ones with the wireframes, mockups, usability tests, Sketch files, etc, truly have in the overall end-to-end rider experience?

And yet, isn’t UX supposed to be responsible for how the user experiences the entire end-to-end experience? Or is that the CX crew? Or product management? Or someone else? In that mock blueprint, which group stewards the successful delivery of that end to end?

In an ideal, future state of our digital industry, it would be a service design team. We aren’t there yet. Digital organizations who produce apps and SAAS and other things that happen on a screen don’t see themselves as service providers. They see holistic design and end-to-end as an important principle, but it’s distributed as “think end-to-end and holistically.” Crowdsourcing service design.

There’s a a way to evolve further past this thinking, and it takes re-framing your how you see yourself and your organization:

This is the key perspective shift you must make. There is no one exempt. If you do business with a person, you’re trying to serve their need. You are acting in service.

That means we are all service providers.

Always clap if you liked it!

The story doesn’t end here; go read part 2…

Let’s take a look at how a human experience plays out, and how it can all be broken down in Demystifying Service Design — Part 2. ➡️

But before you go…

You should give this article a 👏🏻 or 50 follow me (Erik Flowers and Megan Erin Miller on Medium (and on Twitter —@erik_flowers and @meganerinmiller!)

Continue the conversation, and join the global Service Design Community of Practice in Slack at