What is Service Design?

A service is a thing to help users to achieve a goal. It’s a series of touchpoints to achieve an outcome. e.g. ‘start a business’, ‘learn to drive a car’.

A service starts with a need and an idea of the outcome, but no clear idea of how this will be achieved.

Service design is the process of designing this set of touchpoints to meet the given goal.

(Image credit: Lou Downe. See Lou’s great post on sevice design)


Currently there’s a disconnect between a user’s experience of a service and the government’s stated policy intent.

Often senior management will make a pronouncement like “We need a portal so that applicants can upload bank statements”

But your responsibility is to challenge this proscriptive approach, and instead understand the problem and goals before even thinking about building anything.

So ask questions like:

  • Who are the users?
  • What are they trying to do?
  • Why now?
  • What is our motivation?
  • What outcomes do we want?
  • How does it relate to a wider service?
  • What are the key metrics?
  • How will it help users?

To frame your problem statement, focus on the organisation’s desired outcome, and on what the users are trying to do.

That keeps you focused on what you’re trying to achieve, leaving you free to explore how best to achieve those ends.

As you start building, it’s useful to cycle between optimising the big picture of the service (and, as the policy process becomes more amenable, the policy behind it) and the closer detail of a given task. Oscillate between the meta and the matter.

In the future, services will shape government, not the other way round.

One vehicle for achieving this transition is a service community.
Government is made up of disconnected units, but the user shouldn’t need to know how to navigate this complexity. A service community is a group of people whose touchpoints form part of a wider service. Newly-formed service communities include “Start a business”, “Employ someone” and “Import/Export”. They start by mapping out the current service, and then identify opportunities for improvement.

When designing a service, be mindful of:
The end-to-end service (from the user’s first step towards meet their goal, through to a successful outcome)
The front-to-back service (so make sure to include all back-office and technical functions)
Different channels (not just digital!)

The two most important things to do when designing a service:
Understand user needs
Prototype and iterate

Check out IDEO’s Design Kit for service design techniques you can use. (And read about the design project I worked on if you’re intersted.)

To improve an existing service, this flow of activities is useful:

  • Service walkthrough
  • User journey map + service blueprint
  • How might we’ questions
  • Prototype and iterate