Service design

Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers. Service design may function as a way to inform changes to an existing service or create a new service entirely. The purpose of service design methodologies is to establish best practices for designing services according to both the needs of customers and the competencies and capabilities of service providers. If a successful method of service design is employed, the service will be user-friendly and relevant to the customers, while being sustainable and competitive for the service provider. For this purpose, service design uses methods and tools derived from different disciplines, ranging from ethnography (Segelström et al., Ylirisku and Buur, 2007, Buur, Binder et al. 2000; Buur and Soendergaard 2000) to information and management science (Morelli, 2006) to interaction design (Holmlid, 2007, Parker and Heapy, 2006). Service design concepts and ideas are typically portrayed visually, using different representation techniques according to the culture, skill and level of understanding of the stakeholders involved in the service processes (Krucken and Meroni, 2006, Morelli and Tollestrup, 2007).

History of service design

In early contributions to service design (Shostack 1982; Shostack 1984), the activity of designing service was considered to be part of the domain of marketing and management disciplines. For instance, Shostack (1982), proposed the integration of the design of material components (products) and immaterial components (services). This design process, according to Shostack, can be documented and codified using a “service blueprint” to map the sequence of events in a service and its essential functions in an objective and explicit manner.

In 1991, service design was first introduced as a design discipline by Prof. Dr. Michael Erlhoff[1] at Köln International School of Design (KISD). In 2001, Live│Work, the first Service Design and Innovation consultancy, opened for business in London. In 2003 Engine, initially founded in 2000 as an Ideation company, positioned themselves as a Service Design consultancy. In 2004, the Service Design Network was launched by Köln International School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, Linköpings Universitet, Politecnico di Milano and Domus Academy in order to create an international network for service design academics and professionals.

In the first joint manifest of the network, the concept of service design was described in the following manner:

Service design is an emerging discipline and an existing body of knowledge, which can dramatically improve the productivity and quality of services.
Service design provides a systematic and creative approach to:
  • meeting the needs of service organizations so that they may be competitive
  • meeting the rising expectations of customers regarding choice and quality
  • making use of the technological revolution, which has vastly expanded the possibilities for creating, delivering and consuming services
  • addressing the pressing environmental, social and economic challenges of sustainability
  • fostering innovative social models and behaviors
  • sharing knowledge and learning
The service design approach is uniquely oriented to service specific design needs and is rooted in the design culture. Thus, the service designer contributes crucial competencies. The Service Designer can:
  • visualize, express and choreograph what other people can’t see, and envisage solutions that do not yet exist
  • transform observed and interpreted needs and behaviors into service possibilities
  • express and evaluate the quality of design in the language of experiences
Service design...
  • aims to create services that are useful, usable, desirable, efficient and effective
  • is a human-centered approach that focuses on customer experience and the quality of services rendered as the key value for success.
  • is a holistic approach, considering the integrated way of strategic, systematic, process-oriented and touchpoint design decisions.
  • is a systematic and iterative process that integrates user-oriented, team-based, and interdisciplinary approaches and methods in ever-learning cycles.

While foundational, many of these definitions have since been developed and advanced.

Characteristics of service design

Service design is the specification and construction of processes that delivers valuable capacities for action to a particular customer. Capacity for action in Information Services has the basic form of assertions. In Health Services, it has the basic form of diagnostic assessments and prescriptions (commands). In Educational Services, it has the form of a promise to produce a new capacity for the customer to make new promises.

Service design can be both tangible and intangible. It can involve artifacts or other elements such as communication, environment and behaviors.

Several authors (Eiglier 1979; Normann 2000; Morelli 2002) emphasize that services come to existence at the same moment they are being provided and used. In contrast, products are created and "exist" before being purchased and used. While a designer can prescribe the exact configuration of a product, s/he cannot prescribe in the same way the result of the interaction between customers and service providers (Holmlid, 2007), nor can s/he prescribe the form and characteristics of any emotional value produced by the service.

Consequently, service design is an activity that, among other things, suggests behavioral patterns or “scripts” to the actors interacting in the service. Understanding how these patterns interweave and support each other are important aspects of the character of design and service (Holmlid, 2012). This allows greater customer freedom, and better provider adaptability to the customers’ behavior.

Service design methodology

Together with the most traditional methods used for product design, service design requires methods and tools to control new elements of the design process, such as the time and the interaction between actors. An overview of the methodologies for designing services is proposed by (Morelli 2006), who proposes three main directions:

Analytical tools refer to anthropology, social studies, ethnography and social construction of technology. Appropriate elaborations of those tools have been proposed with video-ethnography (Buur, Binder et al. 2000; Buur and Soendergaard 2000) and different observation techniques to gather data about users’ behavior (Kumar 2004) . Other methods, such as cultural probes, have been developed in the design discipline, which aim to capture information on customers in their context of use (Gaver, Dunne et al. 1999; Lindsay and Rocchi 2003).

Design tools aim at producing a blueprint of the service, which describes the nature and characteristics of the interaction in the service. Design tools include service scenarios (which describe the interaction) and use cases (which illustrate the detail of time sequences in a service encounter). Both techniques are already used in software and systems engineering to capture the functional requirements of a system. However, when used in service design, they have been adequately adapted to include more information concerning material and immaterial components of a service, as well as time sequences and physical flows (Morelli 2006). Other techniques, such as IDEF0, just in time and Total quality management are used to produce functional models of the service system and to control its processes. However, it is important to note that such tools may prove too rigid to describe services in which customers are supposed to have an active role, because of the high level of uncertainty related to the customer’s behavior.

Because of the need for communication between inner mechanisms of services and actors (such as final users), representation techniques are critical in service design. For this reason, storyboards are often used to illustrate the interaction of the front office.[2] Other representation techniques have been used to illustrate the system of interactions or a “platform” in a service (Manzini, Collina et al. 2004). Recently, video sketching (Jegou 2009, Keitsch et al. 2010) and prototypes (Blomkvist 2014) have also been used to produce quick and effective tools to stimulate customers’ participation in the development of the service and their involvement in the value production process.

Service design in the public sector

Due to new investments in hospitals, schools, cultural institutions and security infrastructures in the last few years, the public sector has expanded. The number of jobs in public services has also grown; such growth can be associated with the large and rapid social change that is calling for a reorganization of the welfare state. In this context, governments are considering service design for a reorganization of public services.

Some recent documents from the British government (United Kingdom Prime Minister Strategy Unit 2007; Public Administration Select Committee, 2008) explore the concept of "user-driven public services" and scenarios of highly personalized public services. The documents propose a new view on the role of service providers and users in the development of new and highly customized public services.

This view has been explored through an initiative in the UK. Under the influence of the European Union, the possibilities of service design for the public sector are being researched, picked up, and promoted in countries such as Belgium.[3]

Clinical service redesign is an approach to improving quality and productivity in health. A redesign is clinically led and involves all stakeholders (e.g. primary and secondary care clinicians, senior management, patients, commissioners etc.) to ensure national and local clinical standards are set and communicated across the care settings. By following the patient's journey or pathway, the team can focus on improving both the patient experience and the outcomes of care.

A practical example of service design thinking can be found at the Myyrmanni shopping mall in Vantaa, Finland. The management attempted to improve the customer flow to the second floor as there were queues at the landscape lifts and the KONE steel car lifts were ignored. To improve customer flow to the second floor of the mall (2010) Kone Lifts implemented their 'People Flow' Service Design Thinking by turning the Elevators into a Hall of Fame for the 'Incredibles' comic strip characters. Making their Elevators more attractive to the public solved the people flow problem. This case of service design thinking by Kone Elevator Company is used in literature as an example of extending products into services.[4]

Service design education

The first service design education was introduced at Köln International School of Design in 1991. Several other schools are now proposing service design as the main subject of master studies or as part of the academic curriculum in interaction design or industrial design.

Bachelor programmes

Master programmes

Doctoral programmes

Executive programmes


Networks and conferences

The Service Design Network (SDN) is an international partnership among professional consultancies, universities and public institutions to promote service design and to exchange knowledge and expertise about cases and methods. SDN and its national chapters organise events and annual conferences in different countries.

ServDes, the Service Design and Innovation conference, is the premier research conference cycle for exchanging knowledge within Service Design and service innovation studies. Beginning in 2009 as a yearly Nordic conference, ServDes has now become an international bi-annual event. The conference archive from past conferences includes a large number of academic contributions on different aspects of service design.

See also


  1. Moritz 2005, p. 66.
  2. E.g. Albinsson, L., M. Lind, et al. (2007). Co-Design: An approach to border crossing, Network Innovation. eChallenges 2007, The Hague, The Netherlands.
  3. Thoelen and Cleeren (ed.), Public Service Design. A guide for the application of service design in public organisations, 2015
  4. Stickdorn, Marc; Schneider, Jakob (2011). This is Service Design Thinking (2015 ed.). Hoboken New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons. pp. 63–64. ISBN 9781118156308.

Further reading

Keitsch, M., Vavik, T., Morelli, N., Poulsen, S. r. B., Koskinen, I., Holmlid, S., Blomkvist, J. a. & Edman, T. 2010. "Learning Labs for User-Driven Innovation (LUDINNO)". Oslo: Nordic Innovation Centre.

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