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Season One

Service Design

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On this episode of the Clearleft podcast, it’s going to get messy. You’ll be hearing about …dead badgers.


Badgers do live in Brighton and they do get hit by cars and they do need cleaning up.


It’s a complete muddle to be honest.


But before we get to the roadkill, we need to talk about service design.

You’ll be hearing from designers at Clearleft, Jon Aizlewood, Katie Wishlade, and Richard Rutter.

But you’ll also be hearing from people who’ve spoken at Clearleft events. We’ve been running events like UX London and Leading Design for quite a while now. We invite the best and brightest minds in the business to share their experiences.

Today, you’ll hear extracts from talks by Kerry Bodine, Jamin Hegeman and Lou Downe, who literally wrote the book on service design. It’s a topic that’s been growing for a while now.


It was about 2010 and service design was the next biggest thing and it was everywhere. And I thought, Oh God, that’s really what I used to do when I did ergonomics. Cause I designed loads of systems basically or services. And this is the thing, it’s all sort of the same thing.

But ergonomics is not cool. That’s the thing. Whereas service design is now cool. So I was thinking, I think I could prove that I could do this service design thing cause I just did it under a different hat.


So service design is a much more holistic approach to all the different aspects that end up being the service that someone uses.


And I actually, I found it quite frustrating.

Cause it can be highly sort of philosophical almost in, it’s like the way they speak. I went to work for this service design agency and they’re really nice people and everything, I thought I’d made it when I got a job there because they’re really well-respected, everything. But I literally did not understand what they were on about for three months.

I’m not even joking. I’m not even joking. Like their level of bullshit was just unbelievable.


Okay. Let’s see if we can cut through the bullshit.

To start with, what exactly is service design?


I think good service design is basically just good UX design without the confines of the screen.


Typically user experience, more product focus, probably digital actions between a person and that thing. Service experience. Looking at that ecosystem, looking at the relationship between all the different parts.


Every single interaction that a customer would have with an organization.


So that said, you could argue, and I have seen proof of this in the past at Clearleft, that most of our designers have that mindset anyway.


I then went to work at a service design agency, and I think that they would definitely say that Clearleft don’t do service design but I don’t think that’s true.


I think when we’re looking to win work, to engage a new client, then I think we wouldn’t necessarily use the term service design unless they already were. I’d be slightly hesitant to describe what we do, as an offering, as service design.


So we will start to kind of touch upon the boundaries to say, “Actually, what’s happening over there? With this? With that? With the other thing?”, that goes usually far beyond our initial mandate and our initial remit, as far as the screen based work that we’re doing with that client at the moment.


I think it’s about remit really. And being involved in those conversations. And I think that sometimes, like traditionally UX agencies, you know, they kind of got handed a project once all those nuts and bolts and things have been decided and they were involved in doing the layer over the top where we all know that actually it doesn’t work like that.

When you’re designing the layer over the top, you realize things underneath it that would have been better in different ways.


Certainly the way that we do at Clearleft, when we’re looking at designing a digital service or particularly the digital aspect of a service, in order to, to get that whole set of interactions smooth, there’s a whole load of stuff behind the scenes that needs to get sorted out and joined up. And that’s where service design comes in.


Katie has a post on the Clearleft blog called, Are you designing a product or a service? It’s got a flow chart diagram that you can walk through at, The first question is, “Can you drop it on your foot?”


We are belittling ourselves by calling things products when they’re actually services.


In product design, if you are asked to design a product, whether that’s physical or digital, and you go through whatever design process you happen to go through, at the end of it, you’re going to have that. If someone asks you to like, please redesign this website at the end of it, you better have a redesigned website.

In service design, the question is a little bit more open and the answers are also open. So in going through the process, it could be many things. It could be not technical, could be very technical. It could be one touch point. It could be numerous touch points that you are using in conjunction to solve the problem.


And that usually equates to kind of, yeah, a longer relationship looking at other aspects of their business, not just a screen and stuff that we were originally commissioned for.


I think that there’s a tendency for, particularly agencies, for example, to just work on what someone sees above, whereas service design is considering everything in a way. So what’s the business model? What’s the content? So it’s not just creating the framework for that stuff to live. It’s creating the whole business in a way.


Personally, I love the iceberg metaphor, thinking about everything that the customer can see and touch and hear and interact with is what we see above the water line. And then everything below it is kind of this big, scary, ominous, very complex, organization and system that is supporting the tip of the iceberg there.


So service design is thinking very broadly about user experiences, but focusing very much on kind of user outcomes and how you deliver those with the full kind of end to end focus, I guess.

Not just thinking about the product and the user needs, but also thinking about the experiences of all of the teams that are responsible for delivering those outcomes. And that could be, like, the call center or the developers that work on it or the users themselves and kind of everything that that contributes to those experiences.


This is essentially the core in my mind of service design. It is looking very broadly at all the different interactions and everything that is required to support and deliver that experience as planned.


Design is just decisions.

Sometimes you don’t even need to use the word design. It’s just making good decisions.

And I think it’s sort of zoomed out state, that’s what certainly design thinking enables people to do. Like, think of the whole problem. Think of the users, think of the, you know, the journey that they go through, what they’re trying to achieve to the business goals, like it’s just enables you to make better decisions.


So service design takes design methods and craft. And applies them basically to designing services. That’s, that’s really all it is.

Particularly looking at how we’re defining a service and orchestrating it. And when I say it, I mean all the things, the products, communications, interactions, operations, culture, structure of the organization.


Alright, I think I’m starting to get it. If you’re doing UX design or product design, it sounds like you’re designing one part of something bigger. And that bigger piece is the service.

It’s like they’re concentric circles and the outermost widest circle is service design.

Maybe I should draw a diagram.


But really the customer experience lens, I feel is so much broader than UX, and that’s why, yes, I’m drawing Venn diagrams.


Every time I Google service design or, you know, I, I tried it with UX, I tried it with user centered design. It’s all the same. What you end up with is a thousand diagrams of, you know, essentially kind of five circled grids, some kind of sort of certainty about a process. And the fact that we spend so much of our time talking about this type of stuff means that we have a very undeveloped industry of actually talking about what it means to design a service.


I’ve been doing a lot in the service design community and, over the years get questions of, what is service design?

How does that compare to other kinds of design? What do I need to do to be a service designer?


There is service design and there is the design of services and service designers consider those as quite different things.


I want to get away from this and to actually understand what it is we’re designing and talk about service design as a really, really simple thing, which is this: Service design is the design of services. Services help people to do things.


This is really what service designers are doing. They are designing that ideal journey and everything else that needs to be put into place, that’s going to create that experience for that journey.


Service design is the design of services. Services help people to do things. I like that.

But in order to help people do things, it sounds like you’re going to get stuck into anything that might possibly affect their experience.


Another way to think about it and the domain is you’ve got the customer. It’s very important of course, and the various things that they go through, their journey.

That’s, that’s the customer experience. But then there is often people that they have to interact with. So the experience of the staff and everything that supports the staff and the organization, the products, the tools, the processes, the structure and the culture. And if those things are not working right, you feel it as a customer.

And that frustrates a lot of people. You give your information in one part of the organization and then go to another part of the organization and they don’t have it. That’s probably because they’re silos.


This is what government looks like, they all work in a completely different way, completely different silo. We have a number of different occupations as well within government that all need to work together on those end to end services that don’t right now. And the cultural barriers between these, these different occupations are real.


If the culture of the organization is not customer centric, they’re probably not making decisions that are in the customer’s interests.


I actually want to tell you a story about an organization that manages their experience pretty poorly. United Airlines. I flew United over here. Has anyone flown United airlines over to the US? Yeah. Or within the US? I’m sorry.

It’s, it’s not always the best experience. And, ironically they decided to create this campaign. It’s actually a revival of a campaign from the eighties called Fly The Friendly Skies.

And so they have all of these words connected to the word friendly, so nonstop friendly. This picture I took in the subway station in San Francisco. It says “our experience makes all the difference to yours. Fly the friendly skies”.

And when they launched this campaign a couple of years ago, they sent out an email to all of their mileage plus members. So everyone who’s part of their loyalty program.

So you can see some of the language. It says “Friendly now means more than it ever did. It means being user-friendly. In other words, flier friendly," with a little service mark there. “We’re giving you an unmatched global network with more onboard product features, better technology, and of course, great customer service.”

Well, a friend of mine is one of their 1K fliers, which means that she flies over a hundred thousand miles every single year. And she got this email and that very same afternoon, she took a flight from Miami to Los Angeles. And as she was getting on the plane, she walked up to the flight attendant and she said, “You know, I get a little bit chilly on these long flights. Is it possible for me to get a blanket?”

And the flight attendant said, “Oh, well, where are you seated?” And she said “I’m, I’m back in 11A" And the flight attendant said, “Oh, I’m very sorry, but we can only give blankets to people in first class.” And so she said, “You know, I’m 1K, does that make a difference?” And the flight attendant says, “Well, if I give a blanket to you, I’m going to have to give a blanket to everybody.”

And so my friend says, all right. And she goes, and she sits down in her seat and cause she’s one of the first people to board, she’s on the plane early. And she’s sitting there and she remembers this email that was sent to her that very morning, and she gets mad.

So she picks up her phone out of her bag and she calls the 1K hotline and the very well intentioned person, customer service rep on the other end of the line says, “Okay, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take your phone. I want you to walk up to the front of the plane and hand it to the flight attendant.”

Yeah. Nervous giggle there, right? Yeah. So she got her blanket and she also got one very pissed off flight crew, and when they came through with the drink cart, they completely ignored her, would not give her eye contact.

So more onboard product features? Nope.

Great customer service? Definitely not.

And what drives me crazy about this story is that a couple of weeks later I was talking, on a flight with probably one of the best United flight attendants that I had ever had the pleasure of, of, you know, getting to talk to and be served by. She was just incredibly friendly and, and really wanted to make everyone’s experience fantastic on that flight.

And so I was talking to her, cause you know, I’m into all this customer experience stuff and I was like, “Oh, so you know, that email that they sent out to all the mileage plus members a couple of weeks ago?”

And she was like, “No, what are you talking about?”

And so we had one part of the organization making promises to customers and in fact some of their most loyal customers and not even telling the other people in the organization who needed to keep those promises, telling them about the promises that they’re out there making.


We have a lot of focus as designers, often on customers, but not on the people who are serving those customers. And that can be overlooked and to the detriment ultimately, of the experience of those customers.


I guess when someone is using your product or service, they’re a user and designing that experience they’re having is user experience design. But even when they’re not actively using your product or service, they’re still a customer. Designing for that is customer experience design. But service design goes even further than that.


It’s not just the customer that we need to care about. We need to understand the needs of the business.

Also need to understand the needs of the people in that business. It’s not just the customer that you have to understand and sometimes understanding the customer is the easiest thing. Understanding what the business is trying to do, trying to support the staff that is really difficult.


The important thing to get right about those things is the infrastructure that sits underneath your service and your infrastructure defines how your service works. It’s not just this kind of beige thing that you just sort of stick your service on and then it, you know, kind of, it’s the plant on top of your nice table that disappears into the background.

It’s actually a fundamental part of how your service works.


Okay. So service design involves the plant and the table that the plant is sitting on. Got it.

I wonder if there’s a better metaphor we could use?


Another way to think about it is front stage and backstage. So front stage is things that the customer could see. Backstage, things you can’t see. So service design is looking at both of those things.


In the service design world, they often use different metaphors to talk about the work that they’re doing.

So they use a restaurant metaphor and they are talking about front of house and back of house. Or they are using a theater metaphor where they’re talking about onstage and backstage. My colleague Amelia likes to use a Downton Abbey metaphor, thinking about people who are upstairs and downstairs.

And the interesting thing about this is that there are certainly people who work downstairs who come upstairs to serve the royals and the elites. But there are lots of people that stay hidden behind the scenes. Well, what happens behind the scenes can have a direct impact on what’s happening upstairs with the family and all their visitors as well.

There was one episode where the cook is going blind, and so she accidentally put salt instead of sugar in some raspberry dessert, and it creates a huge embarrassment for, for the family. And so it’s important to realize what’s happening behind the scenes has an important impact on what’s going on with the customer experience.


Isn’t there a danger here that service design could mean literally everything? I’m worried about scope creep.


As a service designer, you are not able to design everything.

There’s too many things to create. So you need to have that appreciation for what others bring. And not just designer designers, but what a process engineer could bring. Or what an HR person could bring or what the agent on the phone can bring to help design that experience.


I think one of the really interesting things about our services though, is that they’re really only as strong as the weakest link.

So one thing that we’re doing at the moment is to actually bring together the people who are working on those services, and help them to work as much like one team as possible.

Give them the permission and the space and the time and the money and the data to be able to actually work together.


So to do truly effective service design, you might have to try to change the whole culture of an organization. That sounds hard.


That cultural change aspect is something that service designers are very focused on. And again, something that might be a bit different from the work that you’re typically doing on a day to day basis.


We actually kind of need to acknowledge that organizational change is a privilege. And it’s something that I’ve become really acutely aware of, in the last couple of years that, you know, we spend a lot of our time just shouting at organizations just saying, “Why can’t you change? You don’t get it. Why are you not putting more effort into changing?”

And the reality is that people can’t. Because they’re afraid of losing their job. They don’t have time to work with other people outside of their team. Or they don’t have access to the kind of data.


How do you make sure that all these things are coming together because the teams that are focused on particular parts of the experience aren’t necessarily popping their head up and looking around and going like, wait, how does this fit with everything else?

Like they’re focused on their work.

Problem I see is we don’t have really good tools or processes to easily bridge anything strategy with implementation.


There is an emerging role called the journey manager. And just as a product managers are responsible for creating the vision and then, shepherding the execution for the particular product that they are responsible for, journey managers are doing the same thing.


Alright, journey manager. Maybe we should talk about journey design as a subset of service design. We could call it JD. Or does that already exist as customer experience design, CX?

Either way, I feel like service design might just be too big to wrap my head around. How about a compromise? Does the term digital service design makes sense?


I probably would call myself a service designer, I think, but of digital things. Yeah.


Digital service design. It does make sense to me. But it veers onto the designing of the services to some degree, or it’s a case of you’re starting with, like the service is primarily delivered through a digital medium. That’s probably another way of looking at it. And so the interface is, is digital but the service design behind that interface and beyond that interface won’t be.

There’s all sorts of human interactions and all sorts of business and organizational aspects to be taken into account, to be joined together to get that smooth experience and the fact that that service is delivered digitally is really where digital service design comes in as a, as a useful description because there are plenty of other services which are, are designed through service design but are not delivered digitally, like social care, for example.

Or, your experience in a, in a physical place or how a warehouse might operate. All of those things are services which are designed through service design, but are not clearly digital service design. They may have digital aspects on the fringes of them, but when you’re looking at particularly something like social care or how a hospital works, that’s service design, but not digital service design.


At my last company, we used the phrase digital service design, which isn’t quite right to be honest, because service design, as I say, is thinking about, you know, even digital services have delivery components and like stuff like that. So it’s much more, should be much be much more holistic.


Looking back on the work that Clearleft has done, I was trying to recall if we’ve worked on projects that you could call service design. Or at least digital service design.


Well, one example that comes to mind, and this was a case where we were brought in on the face of it to improve a form, was for the local council, for Brighton council. And they have a form on the website where citizens can report, problems in the street that need cleaning up like graffiti or broken glass, or excessive litter, all of these kinds of things. Things that our local council is there to, to try and sort out.

And they knew that the form was problematic. It didn’t work very well on small screens. It was almost impossible to use on small screens, but that’s more kind of technical fundamental that could be fixed.

But they also felt quite rightly that the form itself wasn’t designed very well. It was asking some odd questions. It also made you put in your contact details. For actually no apparent reason. As it turned out, contact details weren’t used.

So yeah, we were brought in to redesign the form and just by our very nature, like we’re seeing this, these odd questions, like for example, this made us chuckle.

If you’re reporting, as you might well do, a dead animal that needs to be, disposed of because it could be a health hazard, you were given a finite list of animals. You know, fox, seagul, these kind of urban creatures that you would find lying around, but there was no reason for you to have a finite list of animals, and it didn’t necessarily cover all the animals that you might inadvertently come across.

Like there wasn’t badger on the list, for example. And badgers do live in Brighton and they do get hit by cars and they do need cleaning up and so on.

So there were problems there. And it was just a strangely specific list.

And so we were asking then, well, can people just type in the animal that needs, disposing of, for example. And the answer actually was yes. It didn’t really matter. As long as it wasn’t livestock, it didn’t matter what sort of animal it was. So you didn’t have to specifically select one type of mammal over another.

So we could make the form much, much simpler from that point of view. and just like, just type in what needs to be sorted out here.

And then it turned out that that applied really to all of the problems that the council would be sorting out. And we only found this out by going to the depot, to the people that go out in the vans with their cleaning equipment and tidy up the rubbish and, and clear up all of our streets for us.

Only by talking to them did we find out how they use this information. They don’t seem to recall having any input into the form in the first place, but they’re the ones who was lumbered with using what, what people provide.

And one of the other limitations that we found was that you had to use a map, to drop a pin on the map to say, “this is where the problem is”.

And again, that wasn’t very helpful because you could drop a pin on the map by typing in a street name. So people would just type in West Street, for example. Or Western Road. Now Western Road is about two miles long at least, and it would just drop a pin in the middle of Western Road. So it really wouldn’t help the people find the problem.

And so we found it was much easier, once we realized how the locations were used, to let people just type in, “it’s outside the King’s Head pub" or something like that.

But by talking to the people who are using this information, we could actually make the interface easier to use, knowing the kind of information that was easiest for those folks to use.

And what we had to do is make the point that we have to go and talk to these people because this form could be designed much better, but we don’t know why these weird questions are being asked.

It was just a case of the likes of us coming in, asking the right questions, asking questions in the first place, to be able to uncover these opportunities that hadn’t been uncovered before.

Because, you know, no one goes to the depot and talks to the people who are cleaning the streets.


Okay. All right. That all sounds great. But isn’t that just research? And pretty much all our projects at Clearleft involve some level of research. You need to do the research in order to do the design. What tipped this project over into service design?


We found out also by talking to depot and going there and seeing how they were using stuff, that all of the reports that came in were just printed out and you had a big pile of reports. And they were dished out to the people with the vans going to the different parts of the city. And it was very literally paper-driven, very manual.

And then when they were out dealing with the things, they would sometimes phone back to the supervisor in the depot to say, “ Well, there’s this report of graffiti, but it’s on private land, so we can’t go and sort it out”.

Or they would use WhatsApp or something like that to make their working lives more effective.

And so there was a load of bits here. We thought, well, we can just join this up quite easily. And eventually we managed to get the system in place quite quickly and simply, working with the council’s very can-do in-house development team, to join a system together where eventually the people cleaning the streets could be issued with cheap tablets to be able to just mark things as done or show where things were difficult for them to do or impossible for them to do. And that would get tagged and go back to the supervisor and so on. And it wasn’t to force them onto these platforms. It was just quicker and easier and sort of paving over cowpaths that they were already setting down.

But it meant we could close the loop that if you did provide your contact details when you reported the problem as a citizen, then the council could contact you at the end to say this is done. But you didn’t have to provide those contact details. Who you were was really irrelevant to what the problem was. But if you did, then you could find out that it was successful or not.

And that was all done from virtue of being asked to redesign the form.


There’s a quote from the Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen that designers love to reference. He said “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context; a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment and an environment in a city plan.”

In this case, Clearleft had been brought on to redesign some form fields in a form, a form in a webpage, a web page in a website, a website in an organization, an organization in a city.


So it was sort of digital service design, but it was digital service design that helped join a very physical service.

I’m trying to think whether we looked at it at the time and said, Oh, this is a nice piece of service design, or whether that badge, that label was applied afterwards. I think probably afterwards because it just felt like a natural piece of design. You could just see all of these things that needed to be joined together. You could see that there was a system, a digitally based system, so it was very much in our comfort zone from that point of view, even though it’s solving real world outside problems.

That just got called design really, I think.


You’ve been listening to the Clearleft podcast. You heard some bits from talks by Lou Downe, Kerry Bodine, and Jamin Hegeman, who all spoke at UX London, an annual event run by Clearleft. Thank you to them for helping me understand service design. I think.

And thanks to my colleagues, Jon Aizlewood, Katie Wishlade, and Richard Rutter.

If you want to find out more about the project Richard worked on for the Brighton council, check out the case study section of the Clearleft website: I think it might be my favorite part of the Clearleft website.

If you like the sound of digital service design, you can hire Clearleft to help you with that. Send an email to

How are you liking the podcast? If you have any feedback, you can write to me,

Thanks for listening.