What is Service Design?

Robbert Jan van Oeveren
Written by
Robbert-Jan van Oeveren
Mar 20, 2019 . 16 mins read
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Welcome our latest exploration into the dynamic world of service design. We believe this methodology can transform entire organisations and markets and tackle our society’s biggest challenges. We delve into what service design truly entails and why it is essential to create meaningful user experiences in today’s fast-paced digital landscape.

Whether you are a seasoned designer, a business leader, or simply curious about the potential of service design, we provide you a clear understanding of its principles, practices, and real-world applications. Join us as we uncover the layers of service design, from its definition to its implementation, and start shaping the future of businesses and users across all industries.

The definition of Service Design.

Service Design is the practical and creative application of design tools and methods, to develop new or improve current services. We see it as the activity of orchestrating people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service to create value for all stakeholders involved, build a distinctive customer experience and maximise business potential.

As Service Designers, we have a service-dominant view of the world, where all interactions between an organisation and a user are regarded as services. People don’t want a drill, they want a hole in the wall. Or even more specifically: they want to keep the memory of their grandmother alive by hanging a frame to the wall. The drill is just a material component to deliver a service.


*Service Design definition inspired by the Service Design Network.

But how do you explain service design to your mom?

Explaining Service Design is often challenging due to its complexity, involving multiple disciplines and intangible elements, such as human emotions and behaviours, that vary per context. So, we want to make it simple for you to explain to anyone – even your mom:

Service Design is an approach to designing optimal service experiences for the customer. All touchpoints, actors and moments that support the service are taken into account. Let’s take two mobility examples.

When you look at biking, for example, it is the difference between riding your bike vs. riding a Swapfiets.

Swapfiets looked at the biking experience and learned that most students (in the Netherlands) need to ride a bike. They are unskilled in maintenance, do not care about owning a fancy bike and are most scared of their bikes getting stolen. In addition, they saw many people dismissing their old bikes instead of repairing them, leading to a lot of trash. 

Therefore, Swapfiets created an entirely new user experience, where you use a nice bike, that they will repair when needed. This closes the loop of old, broken bikes, and frees the user from worrying about the bike breaking or being stolen. All you need to do is lock the bike and save Swapfiets’ phone number. 

And because students get older and get jobs, but are now used to this service, they have expanded their target group and product portfolio to a variety of bikes ranging from basic to fancy and electric.

Another great example of successful service design is Uber. When you look at short city rides, it is the difference between taxi and Uber rides.

Uber revolutionized the industry by rethinking the entire ride experience, from ordering to payment. When do people want a ride? What do they want to know? What are their fears and pains in a taxi? 

They addressed common customer concerns and desires by enabling app-based bookings, providing fixed pricing, and transparent route and driver tracking. The user-friendly interface is a complete game-changer from the typical taxi services.

Uber might not be the employer of the year, but they understood customer needs like no other when creating their innovative ride service!

Using the double diamond in Service Design makes sure you create solutions that actually solve the most important problem, in the best possible way.

What is Service Design to us?

We have covered the simpler version to explain service design to anyone unfamiliar with the design and innovation world. Now, it is time for us to take you through our take on what service design is and what its power to build better experiences is. 

Our definition of a service:

A service is the delivery of value through a series of interactions (touchpoints) between a customer and a business.

Our definition of service design:

Service design is the activity of orchestrating and designing all touchpoints of a service to improve the customer experience – either as a way to improve existing services or create entirely new services.

Our service design principles

In our day-to-day design work at Koos, we hold on to a set of 5 design principles. These principles are mostly about our way of working and the mindset you need to have when applying Service Design. Let’s explain them one by one. 


  • User-centred

Everything we do, we do from a user perspective. Service Design is having a passion for the customer and improvement, focusing on needs, questioning everything, and not rushing into solutions.


  • Holistic

We look at the total service ecosystem, from the early start till the end of the customer journey. Service design is orchestrating all the different touchpoints of a service to improve the customer experience.


  • Co-creative

We work in diverse multi-disciplinary teams during the full length of the project. With the customer at its centre, Service Design creates a cross-disciplinary language and stimulates collaboration between departments.


  • From surface to core

Our starting point is at the surface: the experience of the customer. Once we understand what is happening at the surface we can drill it down to the internal processes, structures and systems.


  • Iterative

Service Design is an iterative and continuous learning process. You can always take a step back if you are missing data or you find out your solution is not fixing the problem in the right way. And these iterations – going back and forth – help you make different choices the next time because you’ve learned and reduced uncertainty.

The design and innovation process

Innovation is the process of bringing new ideas to market. It is a process that deals with a lot of uncertainty. At the start, you simply do not know what the results will be. Luckily, there is a process that helps us to deal with this uncertainty.

Bring in the double diamond! This widely-known framework with steps of diverging (creating options) and converging (making choices) helps you navigate uncertainty and make sure you create solutions that actually solve the most important problem, in the best possible way.

It starts with understanding your customers, the business and the context to identify relevant opportunities for design and innovation. Then, imagining how the (near) future could look like, design new concepts and validate your riskiest assumptions. It is a process of learning, where you gain more and more knowledge through every iteration.

However, our process does not stop after the double diamond. We also want our greatly designed and validated service innovations to be implemented to make a real impact. So, say hi to the Double Diamond, Double Donut! In the create phase you have to design, build and orchestrate your new product or service through various design and feedback cycles, and get ready to go live! Once it’s live, the job is not done yet – measure, learn and improve the customer experience to further scale your business. 

This model shows in one overview how to move from human-centred design to implementation. It combines our service design, design strategy and UX practices in one holistic approach, applicable to all domains. For every phase in the double diamond, double doughnut, there are different tools and methods to explore possible problems and opportunities.

More about our approach? Check out our blog ‘How to design for real impact: the Koos Approach

What makes a good service?

A great example of applying service design is our project with Eurocross. We started unravelling the customer needs of people suffering medical accidents while being abroad. The main problem voiced by patients was that they were experiencing communication overload due to the sheer amount of phone calls with different parties. Furthermore, a lack of transparency and overview caused patients to feel insecure. 

Based on these insights we created a digital patient portal that helps patients to stay up to date about the progress of their case file. The application aims to make the process more transparent and less confusing by creating a single source of truth. Furthermore, it decreases the number of unnecessary phone calls and mitigates communication overload. By digitising the process, we optimised the customer experience reducing 25% of the time spent and stress caused by it. 

Another example is one of our projects with the Dutch Railways for the NS youth proposition. By conducting in-depth interviews with the youth, we got an insight into their needs concerning train travel and mobility. This way we could generate ideas that were relevant to the needs and desires of this age group.

In a design sprint, we validated many ideas through user tests. The clear favourite turned out to be the NS Youth Person’s Day Ticket: one day of unlimited train travel for €7.50. The new ticket is now being sold through the NS app. This resulted in 71% of Dutch youth being encouraged to take the train more often using a youth railway card.

The value of (service) Design

Everyone who practises Service Design is convinced of its value. Service Design efforts lead to happier customers, more engaged employees, shorter innovation cycles and higher revenues. However, it is not always easy to prove this. The right systems to measure are often not in place, the isolated effect of a service innovation is hard to measure, innovations take a long time to reach the market, etc. Luckily there is research data.


McKinsey and company conducted what they call ‘the most extensive and rigorous research’ into design. They assessed 300 publicly listed companies and measured how well they integrated design into their company. Then they compared that with their financial performance.

The main conclusion? Companies that put design at their core increase their revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts.


For more details, check the report ‘The Business Value of Design’.

For example, in the healthcare industry, service design has been used to improve patient experiences and operational efficiency in hospitals and clinics.

In the financial sector, banks and insurance companies have applied service design to develop more user-friendly digital services and streamline customer service processes.

In the public sector, service design methodologies have helped governments and municipalities enhance the accessibility and effectiveness of public services.

These case studies typically highlight how a deep understanding of users’ needs and behaviours, combined with a systematic approach to designing services, can lead to significant improvements in service quality, customer satisfaction, and operational performance.

The value of design can also be explained via the research by PWC on the importance of a great customer experience.

For more details, check the report ‘Customer Experience is everything’.

In conclusion, customers need to have a great experience to be more loyal to your company and share their experience with others. Applying Service Design within your company will unlock the potential of creating a great customer experience.

Implementing service design in your organisation

It is easy to state that companies should implement design to be more successful. However, transforming your company into a customer-driven organisation is not easy. Through trial and error, we have created an effective approach: the Service Design Maturity Model, consisting of five levels. Can you spot at what stage is your organisation at?

Each level in the Maturity Model has its characteristics and challenges, but more importantly: we have created a growth strategy for each level. So do not make the same mistakes we have made before. Instead, fast-track your transformation with us.

Design is more than a feeling: it is a CEO-level priority for growth and long-term performance

— McKinsey & Company, the business value of design

Service design and beyond

We have some answers for you regarding frequently asked questions about service design.


What are the essential tools and methods used in Service Design?

The essential tools and methods used in Service Design often include customer journey mapping, service blueprints, stakeholder maps, and need-based personas. By far the most frequently used tool is the Customer Journey. This is a great tool to spot opportunities for service improvement by helping to visualise the end-to-end customer experience and identifying key interactions and pain points. 


What are common pitfalls or challenges organisations face when implementing Service Design?

Organisations face several common pitfalls or challenges when trying to implement Service Design principles.

One major challenge is the lack of understanding and buy-in from senior management, which can result in insufficient resources and support for service design initiatives.

Another challenge is the siloed nature of many organisations, where departments or teams work independently, making it difficult to implement the holistic, cross-functional approaches required for effective service design.

Additionally, there can be resistance to change, especially in well-established organisations with deeply ingrained processes and cultures. Overcoming these challenges often requires strong leadership, clear communication of the benefits of service design, and the development of a culture that values customer-centricity and continuous improvement.


What is the difference between Service Design and Design Thinking?

Service Design is the practical application of Design Thinking to the development of services. However, the biggest difference is in the practitioners.

  • Design thinking is mostly practised by non-designers. It is more about a mindset, a way of thinking. It is about using a process of diverging and converging to solve a wide range of problems. A lot of ‘soft’ factors are involved, like team dynamics, changing mindsets and user-centricity.
  • Service Design is mostly practised by designers. It makes use of more elaborate and extensive design methods, focuses on the development of services and can directly impact all facets of an organisation. Applying tools is important and business objectives are service-related, like increasing NPS or minimising churn.


For more information check our blog ‘The difference between design thinking and Service Design’.


What is the difference between Service Design and User Experience (UX) Design?

Service Design and User Experience (UX) Design, while overlapping in their goals to improve customer experiences, differ primarily in their scope and focus. Service Design looks at the entire service ecosystem, aiming to optimise both the front-end customer experience and the back-end processes supporting it. It is about orchestrating and designing all touchpoints a customer might interact with and the internal processes that enable those interactions.

On the other hand, UX Design narrowly focuses on the user’s interaction with one of the (digital) touchpoints of a product or service, ensuring that these are intuitive, efficient, and satisfying. UX Design is a component of the broader Service Design process, which encompasses a wider range of considerations including service delivery, employee experience, and operational efficiency.


How does Service Design integrate with Agile or Lean methodologies in product development?

Integrating Service Design with Agile or Lean methodologies involves focusing on iterative development, customer feedback, and process efficiency. Agile methodologies, with their emphasis on flexibility, rapid iteration, and stakeholder involvement, complement the holistic and user-centered approach of Service Design. By incorporating Service Design principles, Agile teams can ensure that the products or services they develop are delivered efficiently, meet the real needs of users, and align with the overall service strategy. Similarly, Lean principles of minimising waste and focusing on value from the customer’s perspective align with Service Design’s goal of creating efficient and effective services. Combining these methodologies allows organisations to be customer-centric and efficient in their service development processes.

Robbert Jan van Oeveren
Written by
Robbert-Jan van Oeveren
Mar 20, 2019 . 16 mins read
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