service design

Service Design: What Is it and Why you should know about It

Service design is increasingly being used across industries to improve business processes, products and engage customers in compelling new ways. In this article, we’ll walk you through the ins and outs to help you get upto speed with this emerging design discipline. From what it is, why it’s used, best practices and examples of its successful application within businesses.

In this article, we will dive into the topic of Service Design, what it is and what are some examples of great service design. We will walk you through the process of planning and prototyping design for user testing, as well as demonstrate how design thinking can be applied to virtually any challenge: online or off it. 

What is service design?

service design

At its core, service design is understanding the ideal experience of your customer and aligning and optimising all relevant parts of your organisation to support that. It involves envisioning an ideal experience – centralised around your customer’s needs – and then using and organising resources such as people, props, processes, areas, and other tangible variables to create the facilities to deliver it.

Investing in service design can bring considerable benefits to all businesses, regardless of sector and size, but especially in fast-growing large companies evolving in sophistication, including more players and touchpoints. However, you must get things right, as an incorrect design of the service is a recipe for pain points, problems and inefficiencies.

Service design is an art of nuances within the big picture that involves examining all interactions from users’ viewpoint in a specific context. An example of this would be when you have two identical gyms. Each has the same size, space, equipment and are next door to each other. What makes you walk into one versus the other? Service Design! When it comes down to the nuances and little things, humans can be very particular, and those are the moments that define our decisions.

Service vs. Product

In economics, a product is defined as something tangible, while a service provides an intangible experience at the moment, which cannot be “owned”. However, this is no longer the case since nowadays, the line between products and services is a blur, with most businesses offering a varied combination of products & services.

Banks are an excellent example of this. Traditionally you’d need to go to the bank to receive a service; now, you can access those services from anywhere in the world through any device with an internet connection. But, of course, this poses its own set of challenges: in this case, you need to ensure the digital space and the physical experience remain congruent and provide your client/user/customer with the appropriate encounter at each touchpoint of your service.

What does a Service Designer do?

YsYATUucKW0RhJ5rFrwvBVfKMCHE1LgILCh1qH3v3Qqk A3p0wXdo8c5olOcZAg AMv7bbEYE63XhdqHdlBDDtupV8bFfspvizD3eA09LaQF3snmGl9k0D72l3JTCKe16R0mimp

A service designer is not someone who designs a service; they address how an organisation gets something done. The two most important things a designer must take into consideration are: 

  • The experience of the employee
  • The experience of the user

By looking at the interrelated parts of the whole system where a brand operates, the service designer must incorporate design thinking to help understand the needs of people, both emotionally and functionally, while looking at all of the interactions a brand can have with its consumers. Understanding how an organisation’s backstage processes impact the user experience and what is visible and in the forefront will allow a service designer to create well-timed, on-brand, memorable experiences. 

The three P’s of service design

Service design, much like UX design, has many variable components you’ll need to design individually and integrate to create a well-rounded experience. According to Nielsen Norman, the three main components of service design are;

People: This refers to anyone who is a part of creating or using the service and any individual who the service may directly impact. This category includes employees, customers, partners, other customers encountered through the service, and so on. When thinking about this, try to be as expansive as possible with the network you include in your design. 

Props: A prop can be either a physical or a digital artefact, including products required to complete the service successfully. These include (but are not limited to) the physical space in which you provide the service, like the storefront, teller window, room etc. Then there is the digital environment where you deliver your services, such as websites, apps, social media, and other objects, such as digital files, products.

Processes: This refers to any related procedures, workflows, rituals, and sequences performed by either the employee or the user throughout a service. These depend solely on what your service is offering because every service will have its unique way of doing things.

Frontstage v. Backstage

v1MsH2WIi dtqrxDVsjjUi4NIt3peokQkD295sjoUpO8ivm6jyUH2DnCz O7lnSL IS8vx0x

Another thing to consider when designing your service is splitting your processes and moments between front stage and backstage components. Like in a theatre, frontstage refers to what is interacting and facing with the consumer; this could be touchpoints, interfaces, products, anything that allows for interaction with your brand and the consumer. Backstage refers to everything behind the scenes, such as the infrastructure, systems, technology, policies, and everything else that ensures the front will work. 

Example – Restaurant

Let’s say you are designing a restaurant service. The people involved in this design are chef, waiters, hosts, the manager, the food suppliers. The props would be the kitchen, ingredients, uniforms, space, POS software, and everything else you would use to run a regular meal service. The processes in the design would be kitchen preparation, the cleanup, how a waiter takes your order, which way the food is stored, etc. Once you’ve identified critical components of a service, you’d break down where each would work best; front versus backstage.

In a traditional restaurant, it is pretty easy to identify front versus backstage. The service room would be the front and the kitchen the backstage. Still, sometimes these two are not so well separated, especially in those places with open kitchen layouts, so often the backstage is not the traditional kitchen. Still, the place, everything prepared, ordered, managed, this just as the components are tailored to the service you provide. 

The components of great service design

GYZ nvSFPT KsQ6L3Wa NZG7h4QehWAjfr7 WghWjmFiBBcdxOBFlzIhy 3FtXJOpCzkPW ict6GLqmoCTgB6ZlG2TtoHPKsFJVBrUAu FJsqA mzT15ScvNOUgXDHmMsjuvRN0M

Above, you can see the four components of great service organisations. Of course, you can’t design every moment of a service, so picking one that matters is the first step in designing a winning service. After selecting an area of focus, you can optimise when and how you will communicate these to your customers. Once done, you can start to balance out these moments cohesively across all the components involved (digital, physical, interpersonal). 

As you are planning, you have to keep in mind whether these moments are visible or invisible to the customer. Of course, seeing and sensing the entire inner working of an organisation is frustrating, and you want to keep the magic alive. Above all, though, remember to focus on both the people who use and support service delivery.  

5 core principles of service design

The objective of the Service Design process is to holistically and effectively manage the consistency and quality of the service delivered to your customers through the experiences you provide. Getting things right can be challenging; however, to be effective, there are a few fundamental principles that you should follow.


Always keep in mind that you are designing a service based on the user’s experience, which is highly personal and challenging to control. Although, as a designer, you need to understand what the customer expects once they have chosen to interact with your brand, you should use qualitative research to design focusing on your user’s needs. Deeply empathising and understanding your user is the most critical principle to master in Service Design. You should look into their motivations, expectations, consumer behaviours, personal and cultural values, internal belief mechanisms etc. – the more you know, the better!

Keeping your service customer-centred means that you also identify any activity that fails to add value for the customer and eliminate or minimise it. Furthermore, any processes you design should reflect customer needs, and multiple versions of a process are acceptable if customers have different needs. 

Co-Creative & Co-Created

To deliver customer-centric service smoothly and effectively, everyone involved in the service “ecosystem”, be they external or internal and of all levels, need to collaborate in the design. In short, you should involve all stakeholders in the service design process since it requires that every touchpoint that meets your customer align and be consistent throughout. It also allows for individual workers to be given sufficient autonomy to make valuable decisions to ensure efficient communication at any touchpoints!

Always Consider the Sequence

The most effective way to deliver service design is via a unified and efficient system, not component-by-component, which leads to poor overall service performance. In other words, please think of the delivery of your service as a journey, from all points of view, be that the customer, employee, external provider, and how they come together in the experience provided by your business. 

Work is structured around processes, not other constructs such as functions, products, geography, etc. As a designer, you need to think of all the processes that happen until the customer interacts with your business. From the customer’s point of view, every single touchpoint with the brand shapes their perception of it, so you need to understand that all of these events are connected and form part of a larger sequence of interaction & relationship building. 

Evidence = Memory

How can we visualise something as intangible as a service? How do we make it memorable and create solid emotional associations for our customers? By integrating physical elements into souvenirs, merch, samples, special activities, certificates, technology etc. Essentially adding any tangible element to an intangible service can trigger the memory of your consumer. 

It is important to note that you must introduce this tangible evidence carefully and considerately so it does not interfere with but aids the service. Envision the experience as a whole that could benefit or be highlighted by introducing tangible evidence: consider the crucial moments you want your customer to remember. 

Must Be Holistic

“Take every aspect of the service environment into account, and leave nothing to chance”

To create a memorable, positive, and relationship-building experience with your customers, you have to consider the interconnection of each element. Services are about awareness as much as they are about subconscious perception. These two are the key drivers in how your service is experienced and remembered by a customer. It is hard to account for the mood and want of each person, so design everything accordingly. What you CAN do is identify and dominate the knowledge of all the subtle nuances within and around the service. 

Other ways to create a unified and seamless service experience are by keeping in mind and explicitly designing the five senses’ interactions of the five senses (sight, touch, smell, taste, sound). If you have multiple service locations, like branches of a bank, these should all provide the same experience to the customer. Otherwise, they will have difficulty trusting, identifying, and engaging recurringly with your service. 


Service design is an intricate balance of what happens in the foreground (client-facing) and what happens in the background, and how these two complement each other. Preparation, planning, and timing are central to service design since the goal is to deliver a personalised experience to each customer.

Costis L.

As a co-founder of Pine and a curious and passionate design-thinker, I always use my current knowledge to create new things. For instance, I learnt that tomato is actually a fruit, so I risked it all and used it in a fruit salad. It worked.

Add comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.