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Service Design

by Megan Grocki
8 min read
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Great service design means everyone is on board with creating the experience the audience wants.

Mention service design to your UX colleagues and you may find yourself unwittingly engaged in a game of Buzzword Bingo. Whether you call it “service design,” “holistic design,” “multi-channel experience design” or “cross-channel design,” chances are you’re all talking about the same thing. And your next challenge is defining exactly what you mean when you say “service design.”

The field of service design is still young and evolving. And its interdisciplinary nature makes it difficult to define. In fact, according to the first-ever textbook on service design, This is Service Design Thinking, no common definition of service design exists. And the authors propose that limiting ourselves to one definition could constrain this new way of thinking.

Isn’t It Just Good Marketing?

As someone with experience in both marketing and experience design, I’m intrigued by the ways in which the fields of marketing and service design overlap and complement one another. Creating great user experiences to promote positive associations with a brand is hardly a new concept to marketers. But service design looks at user satisfaction more broadly—at every point in a given experience—and seeks to enhance it by infusing a brand’s essence across all products, systems, services, and interpersonal interactions.

Here are a few things to consider when we compare marketing and service design:

  • Traditional marketing has focused on the 4 P’s: product, price, promotion and place. Modern marketing adds participants (the people involved in the transactions), processes (the flow of the interaction), and physical evidence (real-life or virtual surroundings and concrete clues).
  • Marketing is about organizations creating and building relationships with customers to co-create value; design aims to put stakeholders at the center of designing services and preferably co-design with them.
  • Marketing researchers study customers to develop insights into their practices and values; designers can use insights as the starting point for design and add a focus to the aesthetics of service experiences.
  • Marketers tend to have backgrounds in social science. Service designers generally come out of art and design schools.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether service design is just one facet of marketing or vice versa. What matters is that an understanding of how people interact with each other, with things, and with organizations is central to designing services.[*]

What a Production!

Think of everything that goes into a really stellar performance, whether it’s a ballet, a Broadway musical, or a film. You need a script or score, a director, light and sound people, and a host of other specialized professionals. It takes months of work to create those magical two hours that transfix an audience. Service design is remarkably similar. The customer/user may never know everything that went on “behind the scenes.” All she knows is whether her experience was great, so-so, or downright abysmal.

At Mad*Pow, we’ve helped many companies create positive customer interactions by helping them with those three new P’s: participants, processes, and physical evidence. When Aetna wanted to create a unified member messaging strategy, we began by conducting interviews with Aetna plan members to gain insight into the pros and cons of their experiences, their expectations, and what types of information they wanted from their health insurance company, and when. Was it easy to understand their benefits and claims? What types of interactions were the most or least frustrating? What questions did members ask most frequently when they called Aetna member services? What channels for communication and interaction did they prefer?

Research told us that we needed to ensure that people know about any special programs that are available to them so they could get the most from their benefits. This information would now be delivered whether they were calling the call center, reviewing their mailed explanation of benefits, viewing the website, or reading an email they had received. Another objective was to help members avoid the frustrations associated with having to pay more than they thought they would need to, which in many cases can be prevented by doing some upfront research. We knew we would need to get in front of the potential for frustration by instead building awareness of tools that Aetna has to “know before you go.” These tools enable a member to check provider quality and cost before their visit, to decrease the surprise factor.

Identifying potential trouble spots and visualizing a better member journey helped us develop a comprehensive communications strategy, approach to governance, and process that provided the framework for Aetna to get the right message to the right person at the right time. We learned that there were certainly optimal ways to craft and deliver different types of messages; that they needed to be highly relevant to them personally, triggered based upon preference or specific events, and tailored to the delivery platform.

The new strategy also provided Aetna’s internal team with a new approach for accomplishing business objectives. Now customer service, marketing, and many other lines of business collaborate around how to optimize each channel to help their members get from point A to point B. There is an understanding that a member may not start and finish in one channel; rather, their awareness is built and interactions weave across channels.

In this case, service design included traditional research, desktop web, mobile web, and text message design, CSR desktop design, and member communications strategy development—nothing that’s necessarily unique or groundbreaking, but all critical factors to think about when creating a seamless, positive customer experience.

Deal with Reality

Now let’s look at an example from the field of obesity prevention in healthcare, where there is a growing interest in programs and products that motivate individuals to swap unhealthy behaviors for healthy ones.

We can approach the challenge of behavior change with the belief that the problem of adoption and engagement can easily be solved with fun interfaces, sleek design, and feature-rich technology. But if that were truly the case, anyone who’s ever downloaded a bestselling diet or fitness app would be rocking skinny jeans and form-fitting t-shirts.

A more comprehensive approach to tackling obesity looks at the problem as more than the simple equation: too many calories in + not enough calories out = supersized nation. It takes into account socioeconomic factors such as family income, job status, and neighborhood safety, as well as interpersonal relationships, family challenges, etc.

One example of this holistic approach is Engine’s Southwark Rise project. Engine, a British service design and innovation consultancy, was charged with the task of “exploring childhood obesity and the challenges of creating better life chances for children from the most deprived backgrounds.” The highly successful project used “accessible methodologies and simple tools” to “provide useful frameworks for understanding the challenge and opportunities to build alliances both internally and externally.” Of the 20 Southwark parents recruited to serve on the design team, all twenty committed to further involvement in the project.

Setting the Stage for Excellent Service

Good service design anticipates trouble spots and sees them as opportunities to positively change a user’s experience to one of first-rate service. These trouble spots are defined by the frustration and anxiety they cause for the customer/user. Service design allows us to proactively address the tough spots and resolve them smoothly and skillfully.

Online retailers have become particularly savvy about overcoming some customers’ aversion to shopping outside of a brick–and-mortar store. “What if I don’t like the color, the fit, the fabric? What if it doesn’t fit? Will I have to pay a fortune in return shipping?”

A UIE article circa 2009 discusses the early days of online retailing and a study of how people bought hiking boots online. While REI and LL Bean offered virtually identical boots at similar price points and with similar marketing copy, users were way more likely to buy their boots from REI. Why?

REI’s site featured images of the hiking boots’ soles, while the L.L.Bean site only had one view. And this, it turns out, mattered to buyers. UIE’s researches assumed that the decision to post multiple views of the shoe was rooted in market research. But when they called REI to confirm this theory, REI’s designers told them that it was actually the photographer’s idea. This particular photographer had worked in an REI retail store and had observed many a prospective buyer turning the hiking boots over to see their treads. So, the web designers translated that in-store experience into a valuable online equivalent. That’s service design!

Beyond Center Stage

Great service design goes beyond a corporate mission statement or flawless information architecture. It means that every one of a company’s employees understands that customer care is an integral part of the job. When problems arise, these employees step up and make things right.

Apple also shows up regularly on Bloomberg/Businessweek’s Customer Service rankings. And here’s one example that shows why. A friend of mine bought his daughter an iPod touch for her birthday. A few days later, they made a trip to the Apple store to buy a protective case. While they were there, she dropped the touch, and, of course, the screen shattered. A store employee who saw the whole thing go down rushed over and, without even checking with a manager, offered to replace the touch at no cost. As my friend posted on his Facebook page, Apple now has a customer for life.

Now, I don’t know whether Apple has a written policy on “dealing with clumsy customers.” But I do know that Apple’s culture is one that fosters teamwork, passion, and loyalty from their employees. And respect is key to the organization’s management style. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that employees feel empowered to make on-the-fly decisions like replacing a kid’s broken iPod Touch.

Of course, you don’t need to be a corporate behemoth to delight your customers. The other day I had a client meeting in Boston. Rather than battle rush hour traffic, I decided to hop on the C&J Trailways daily commuter bus to Boston. What did I get for the cost of my ticket? Free parking at the station, free wifi on the bus, TV’s and headphones, and a silent cell phone policy to ensure a peaceful ride. And to top it off, they even provided a complimentary pre-ride snack to tired commuters (like me) waiting in line to board in the morning.

Are You Ready for Your Close-Up?

Regardless of the channel—social media, web, mobile, in-store, product experience—organizations that want to deliver great user experiences have to take time to educate their employees at all levels and at all touchpoints about what the company stands for, what it means to work there, and what kind of experiences they need to ensure for all users.

Great service design means everyone involved is on board with creating the experience the audience wants. Take it from me, that can’t happen without a common goal, proper communication, and lots of practice.


Kimbell, Lucy. “Marketing: Connecting With People, Creating Value,” from This is Service Design Thinking. 2010, BIS Publishers.  [back ^]

post authorMegan Grocki

Megan Grocki, Megan bakes the best brownies on the planet. The end. Actually, that's just the beginning. Sassy, smiling and straightforward, Megan’s a senior member of Mad*Pow’s experience design team. With over 15 years of experience in research and experience design, Megan specializes in helping clients discover the attitudes, intents and behaviors of their users and understand what is truly important to them. By being the ultimate user advocate, she is able to improve the organization and presentation of content and refine the messaging in a way that rings true with the audience(s) and meets business goals. She has worked with clients including Bank of America, Aetna, Constant Contact and McKesson to sharpen their understanding of their audiences and design new digital experiences steeped in rigorous research and design thinking. She has been able to flex her marketing strategy muscles, creating new brand identities and developing clear and meaningful strategies for evolving brands. Until recently, Megan was also the mastermind behind Mad*Pow’s marketing strategy. From evaluating market conditions to directing digital marketing and social media strategies, Megan guided the marketing direction for all our events and promotional activities while collaborating with sales to support them in generating maximum buzz. Now that she has passed the Marketing torch, she is happy to wear just one hat as Experience Design Director. Prior to Mad*Pow, Megan served as marketing manager with Momenta as well as senior product manager and user interface manager at Bottomline Technologies. Megan holds a BA from the University of New Hampshire and is always seeking to continue her education by attending conferences, seminars and reading her weight in UX books. She is a founding member of the NHUPA. Her speaking gigs have included Refresh Boston, the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix, the 2010 Usability Professionals' Association International conference in Munich, 2010 UPA Boston and Interaction11 in Boulder. In addition she served as IxDA’s Interaction12 conference program director. A die-hard tennis fan, Megan enjoys traveling the world, splashing in the waves at her favorite local beach and coffee shop-hopping around town with her husband and two young children. Megan is on Twitter at @megangrocki.


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