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What is service design and why is it important?

24 April 2019

The term “service design” was coined by Lynn Shostack in 1982. But what does it mean and why is it so important? Let me explain it to you by giving you a clear example: two gas stations in my hometown Merelbeke.

Gabriëls or Desimpel

Take a look at the two pictures below. What do you notice?

The Gabriëls gas station in Merelbeke
The Desimpel gas station in Merelbeke

The Gabriëls and Desimpel gas stations are right next to each other. They both offer the same products and they charge exactly the same price for those products. Yet, people stand in line to refuel their car at Gabriëls, while the gas station of Desimpel tends to be empty. This is what service design is all about. Service design is what makes people choose for Gabriëls instead of Desimpel (in this case), although they offer the same products at the same price.

There are many different definitions of service design, but here’s our favorite:

Service design helps to innovate (create new) or improve (existing) services to make them more useful, usable, desirable for clients and efficient as well as effective for organizations.

Stefan Moritz,

The principles of service design

Service design is deeply rooted in design thinking and helps organizations see their services from a customer perspective. It’s all about balancing the needs of your customer with the needs of your organization. These are the key principles of service design:

  • Human-centered: When designing a service, we consider the experience of all the people affected by the service: users, customers, but also employees. This is the only way to understand how exactly people perceive your services, how they use them and how they would love to use them.
  • Collaborative: We actively engage all relevant stakeholders in the service design process. We basically co-create the services together with our client’s customers, users and employees.
  • Iterative: Designing a service takes time. We don’t just create a lofty concept and launch it. We start with small experiments and prototypes so we can learn from mistakes, improve the process and iterate towards implementation.
  • Sequential: A service consists of a sequence of interrelated actions. We visualize that sequence using customer or user journey maps. Those maps offer us the opportunity to zoom in on every step of the journey and understand how it works, what goes wrong and how it can be improved.
Understanding the customer journey is an essential part of service design
  • Real: We use user research, testing and prototyping to make sure we don’t rely on gut-feelings to make important decisions.
  • Holistic: Service design is not about patching individual problems, it’s about shaping the entirety of a service. And it’s not only about addressing the needs of your customers. It’s about matching those needs to your organization’s goals and internal processes.

The components of service design

To create a perfect service or user experience, it’s important to get all crucial components of a service aligned. We focus on the following four components: people, products, touchpoints and processes.


Anyone who uses the service or contributes to the creation and delivery of the service at your organization, as well as people who are indirectly affected by the service:

  • Users and customers (e.g. people who need to refuel their car)
  • Employees
  • Partners
  • People indirectly affected (e.g. people living in the neighborhood of the gas station, people standing in traffic jams because of the waiting line at the gas station, …)


Your digital, physical or phygital products will clearly always have a big impact on the customer’s perception of your service and organization.

In the case of the gas station, gasoline is obviously the main product, but the gas stations can also make a difference by offering or improving other related products like fuel cards, products to quickly clean your car while refueling, etc.


Which touchpoints are crucial for your customer and how can you improve his/her experience at that touchpoint? Some examples of touchpoints:

  • Digital: website, blog, social media, chatbot, …
  • Physical: shop, showroom, meeting room

This is where we can find a big difference between the two gas stations in Merelbeke. While the Gabriëls station feels very open, spacious and easy to reach, the Desimpel station is rather small and more difficult to enter. I’m quite sure that most people don’t even know there’s a spot to fuel your car at the back of the Desimpel station as well.


Which processes does your customer go through using your service? And which internal processes, procedures and workflows are necessary to deliver that perfect experience to your customer?

Some examples:

  • refueling your car at the gas station
  • getting an issue resolved by calling the customer service department
  • ordering your fuel card

Frontstage, backstage and behind the scenes

A service consists of a plethora of components, many of which remain unknown for the customer. Think of it as a theater play: when you attend such a play, you only see what’s happening in front of the curtains, while behind those curtains a lot of support processes are happening as well. And without those things happening in the backstage, the play would look completely different.

That’s why when talking about service design, we always break down components into frontstage, backstage and behind the scenes.

  • frontstage: what the audience can see and where the action happens.
  • backstage: the people, processes and tools necessary to make the frontstage happen. The backstage should be invisible to the customers, but often – especially when things go wrong – isn’t.
  • behind the scenes: (restricted) budgets, policies, procedures, etc.

A good service design aligns frontstage, backstage and behind the scenes. Because when backstage or behind the scenes problems arise, they tend to have frontstage consequences.




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