The Problem with Service Design

March 14, 2019

Sometimes, once you’ve defined the problem, it seems obvious.

Everyone agrees that, of course, that is the root cause of the problem and it must change. And then, like that famous cartoon doing the rounds, everyone votes for change but no-one wants to change themselves let alone lead the change. And so the problem persists.

Identifying a problem to be solved is not enough to solve it. Furthermore, you cannot disconnect the people who identified the problem from the team that is charged to solve it. Which is, however, what usually happens in many service design projects and which is why, anecdotal evidence suggests that only 20% of recommendations are actually implemented. Usually the easy ones.

Why does this happen?

Let’s take one step back. The double diamond suggests that there are two distinct phases to service design. The discovery phase and the delivery phase. The discovery phase is broadly similar for most projects and initiatives. The human centred research you need to do, while industry specific in some aspects, still is follows the same pattern from retail to medicine. Which means that it is predictable and can be planned for. The people involved are enthusiastic and, as they unravel cause from effect, are able to present a compelling customer-centric view point to the rest of the company, that highlights problem areas and suggests some possible remedies. Some of those remedies are easy fixes while others can be wicked problems.

At this point the executive board thanks them for their input. If an external design team was involved, they present their findings and bask in the glow of a job well done and hand over back to the company.

And so it begins.

While the recommendations may be unequivocal, they are also experiential. Suddenly the experience of the problems, the empathy for the user, is left only in a document while internal politics and presumptions take over, again. Because of the lost in translation that happened, there are not enough advocates left from the discovery team to push the whole solution out to the company and only some of the recommendations get acted upon. Usually the ones that optimise things from the business’ point-of-view.
Another common failure of taking only the conclusions, and not the methods, back into the company is pin-ball machine like rejection of new ideas. The idea is launched into the company and then bounced around by different people and chief-rejection-officers. Enthusiasts and converts to the idea are the flippers trying to keep the idea alive, but with enough effort, every good idea eventually ends up in the gutter.

One more problem

An additional problem with service design is that, as stated, discovery is a predictable process. But delivery is not. Depending on the problems uncovered and the business / industry you’re in, some solutions may take years to develop and implement. This in itself creates a problem because maintaining enthusiasm for a long time is difficult. Both in the c-suite as well as the design team. And if the team responsible for execution was not part of the discovery process, then 18 months after the problems were first presented, the solution will have very little practical relation to the problem anymore.

So, how do you solve the problem of the problem?

The key is actually in the methodology of service design itself. It cannot be something some people do. It must become the way everyone works. Furthermore, the teams cannot be split up along the process. Instead, the whole point is to have integrated multi-disciplinary teams working from the beginning of discovery all the way to the end of delivery together. Only in this way, will the empathy for the customer’s problems carry over to the end solution, without being a) lost in translation or b) rejected by the pinball machine of NIMBY (not in my backyard).

Empathy is the intangible ingredient that is incredibly difficult to carry over in documentation and reports. By cutting the discovery process off from the delivery you often lose empathy for the problem you’re trying to solve. If also the work method changes from deeply customer centric to a waterfall process, then it is no wonder that 4/5 of these initiatives fail.

Design is not an aesthetic exercise

For companies to become design led instead of process led is a challenge. Service design is a method deeply rooted in strategy and cannot easily separated from the overall approach to managing a business. The concept of putting the customer at the heart of all development, and continuously testing potential solutions with users, is often uncomfortable and always time consuming. For companies used to doing things first and asking questions later, this presents a problem to the whole culture of the organisation.


The Danish Design Council developed a theory of design steps, which show the maturation of organisations in the application of design. It is only in the fourth stage the company starts reaping outsize rewards, but that really requires everyone to realise the importance of the customer centred approach.

Viewing design as a nice to have, or as a piecemeal approach to improving isolated touchpoints, cannot deliver the results that organisations would like. The piecemeal approach, with rigid attitudes towards areas of responsibility often causes the waste of resources and time that ends in the conclusion that service design has little to offer. After all, the results from the discovery process tend to be obvious in hindsight and therefore don’t seem unusual nor unattainable using conventional management and research techniques. Except they are.

Strategy is easy. Execution is hard.

To excel at execution the people working to deliver must have a bone-marrow level understanding of the problem and why it needs to be solved in a certain way. That makes execution really hard but also makes the difference between the brands we love and the stuff that we buy. Allowing the design team to work together from early discovery to product / service launch, with the authority to make decisions and use resources will deliver the services and products people love. And show the whole organisation how solving customer problems does solve company problems while improving the bottom line too. Introduce different teams to take over half way, and all you’ll deliver is more of the same-same.