No matter what label you identify with inside the content universe, the touchpoints identified in the service blueprint — and in fact, the entire service design process — are goldmines for those concerned with providing content that guides, instructs, and delights customers in need of services of any kind.

If you think of digital content as being integral to supporting digital experiences and marketing strategies, you would not be wrong. Content well done supports your audience (or user) journey through the marketing funnel, from discovery to conversion — and ultimately, retention — guiding the user down the proverbial happy path to obtaining goods or services, without friction, and maybe with a bit of enjoyment along the way.

Content that supports the successful purchase of goods being offered by a brand signal a win for both the business and the customer. Whether completing a transaction in a traditional physical location or on the brand’s app or website, everyone gets what they want when a coveted object or much-needed item is available for purchase and that purchase is made successfully.

But things at the ‘services’ end of ‘goods and services’ sometimes suffer for a lack of attention to detail, especially where content is concerned. Customers seeking services like paying bills or making an appointment not only expect that these types of transactions to be completed without a hitch, but they also expect:

  • Ease of use
  • A clear understanding of the service being offered
  • Content that provides context or explains the options being presented

And there’s another piece to this type of transaction — whether in person, online, or on the phone — that sometimes gets overlooked, and that’s the importance of considering the experience of the brand’s service providers in the delivery of the service being offered. That means if you pay a bill online but that payment fails to post within the time stated on the site or app, a customer service representative should be able to locate your account, understand the steps you took to pay the bill, and provide you with helpful information about why your payment hasn’t been posted.

Similarly, if you visit a home improvement store and purchase an item that requires installation or some other kind of on-site work, but the installers or contractors fail to show up, a call to the store where the transaction was initiated and paid for (or in some cases, a call to third-party scheduling or dispatch services) should connect you with someone who not only has access to all the information about the service you paid for but also knows what to do when the workers you expected don’t show up.

With so much focus on digital experiences that foster the purchase of products or goods, sometimes the service piece gets neglected. The problem with that is, as more brand experiences blur the lines between products and services, especially in digital spaces, customers expect that they will receive services on par with the value of the goods they purchased.

And when they don’t? That same digital interaction — the purchase — that was initially so pleasant can make a customer salty, oftentimes in a very public way. We see you, social media, and we acknowledge the power of the customer takedown.

So what can a brand do to ensure that every touchpoint is positive, (relatively) free of friction, and keeps employees informed and customers loyal?

That’s where service design comes into the mix.

In seeking to better understand what service design is, it might be useful to first distinguish a product from a service.

Service by definition

In seeking to better understand what service design is, it might be useful to first distinguish a product from a service.

In a virtual workshop titled Getting Started With Service Design, offered by Think Company, products and services are defined as follows:

  • Products: Products are tangible; you interact with them. They can be physical or digital — a hammer, a sofa, a phone, an app.
  • Services: You can’t hold a service and assess it in your hands. It’s a collection of touchpoints; a mixture of physical, digital, and human interactions all working together to bring value to a customer. A product is just one touchpoint within a service.

In the book ‘Service Design: From Insight to Implementation,’ authors Andy Polaine, Lavrans Løvlie, and Ben Reason write that service design shares its origin with other modern design disciplines that can be traced back to industrial design, a field that saw its rise in the 1920s.

The authors write, “What [first generation industrial designers] had in common was a drive to use new industrial technology to improve people’s standard of living…[they] strove to turn industrialization into a force for good.”

In more contemporary times, G. Lynn Shostack first (re)introduced the concept of service design — and more specifically, the differentiation between products and services — in a 1982 article titled How to Design a Service.

Shostack wrote, “The difference between products and services is more than semantic. Products are tangible objects that exist in both time and space; services consist solely of acts or process(es) and exist in time only. The basic distinction between “things” and “processes” is the starting point for a focused investigation of services. Services are rendered; products are possessed. Services cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced, created, or participated in.”

Now that we have a clear understanding of what differentiates a product from a service, let’s take a brief look at the roots of service design, how it is defined, and why it’s an important tool for service providers.

So then, what is service design?

This definition of service design comes from the Nielsen Norman Group:

  • “Service design is the activity of planning and organizing a business’s resources (people, props, and processes) in order to (1) directly improve the employee’s experience, and (2) indirectly, the customer’s experience.”

Similarly, the Interaction Design Foundation defines service design this way:

  • “Service design is a process where designers create sustainable solutions and optimal experiences for both customers in unique contexts and any service providers involved. Designers break services into sections and adapt fine-tuned solutions to suit all users’ needs in context—based on actors, location, and other factors.”

There are myriad design methodologies and frameworks that overlap with service design but are distinct in their approach to designing experiences.

Design differentiation: what’s in a name

There are myriad design methodologies and frameworks that overlap with service design but are distinct in their approach to designing experiences. Let’s take a look at a few of the more popular approaches to better understand the relationship with service design.

Design thinking and service design

In my article on Design Thinking, I shared this definition:

  • “Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. ”

And though this process has firm roots in design, it is often used outside of creative teams to approach and solve problems.

Authors Polaine et al explain the distinction between service design and design thinking this way:

  • “We see service design as distinct from design thinking in that it is also about doing design and implementation. It also makes use of designers’ abilities to visualize and make abstract ideas tangible.”

Human- (or user-) centered design and service design

Digital Product Manager Franki Lake offers this definition of human- or user-centered design:

“User-centered design is the overarching framework of processes [emphasis added] that integrate a broad set of practices around understanding the needs, wants, and limitations of end-users.”

By this definition then, user-centered design is a framework, and service design is one of several methodologies within that framework that designers can use to create value for customers.

For those who are more visual, picture human-centered design as the hub of a wheel, with user experience, service design, experience design, interaction design, and design thinking as spokes on that wheel.

Human-centered design as the hub of a wheel

User experience, interaction design, and service design

In answering the question, “Is service design just customer experience, user experience or interaction design?” Polaine and his co-authors answer, “No. They are close cousins to service design, but they are not the same…Interaction and user experience design are often understood as design for screen-based interactions but service design covers a broader range of channels than this.”

Service design: principles, components, and parts

“Turn to service design when you’re looking at a customer experience that occurs over time with multiple touchpoints and you need to understand and address the details of that experience.” — Think Company

As we begin to dive deeper into service design with a content point of view, remember this: as with design thinking (and any other design-centric methodology), content (in its many forms) is a driver — or an integral component — of many products and services.

It’s difficult for customers and service providers to connect the proverbial dots without the right content at critical touchpoints to help reduce or eliminate friction or confusion. So even though we’ve been focusing on design as a discipline, content is very much a part of the service design approach. From this point on, we’ll be looking at the principles, components, and parts of service design through a more content-centric lens.

Service design principles

The Interaction Design Foundation refers to the following five principles of service design, first identified by This is Service Design Thinking authors Marc Stickdorn and Jakob Schneider:

  1. User-centered: Use qualitative research to design focusing on all users.
  2. Co-creative: Include all relevant stakeholders in the design process.
  3. Sequencing: Break a complex service into separate processes and user journey sections.
  4. Evidencing: Envision service experiences to make them tangible for users to understand and trust brands.
  5. Holistic: Design for all touchpoints throughout experiences, across networks of users and interactions.

As content creators, when we’re given the opportunity to establish an agreed-upon set of principles with our design partners at the start of a project, it helps foster the relationship by using a common language and ultimately helps to facilitate a collaborative process to ensure that there is useful content in support of every touchpoint identified as part of a service transaction.

Service design components

The Nielsen Norman Group identifies three main components of service design:

  • People: Anyone who creates or uses the service, as well as individuals who may be indirectly affected by the service, including employees and customers.
  • Props: Physical or digital artifacts (including products) that are needed to perform the service successfully, including physical spaces and digital environments.
  • Processes: Workflows, procedures, or rituals performed by either the employee or the user throughout a service, including customer support, ordering products via an app for pick up, and so on.

Each of the components above involves content: people encounter content that helps them use a service; props, whether physical or digital, usually rely on signage or contextual help to facilitate wayfinding and securing the service needed; and processes are supported by content as well, such as the knowledge bases used by customer service representatives to render service, and microcopy in digital experiences that helps customers get the service they need.

Service design: a sum of parts

“Service design helps us visualize all the touchpoints and supporting activities to identify the real problems before focusing on a solution.” — Think Company

As we look at how to begin leveraging service design to find solutions to service problems — problems that are encountered by both consumers and service providers — we’ll first need to identify the parts of what the Interaction Design Foundation calls the service encounter:

  1. Actors: employees delivering the service
  2. Location: digital or physical environment where customers receive the service
  3. Props: objects used while delivering the service
  4. Associates: other organizations or teams involved in delivering the service
  5. Processes: workflows used to deliver the service

Here again, there are opportunities for content to play a role in service delivery, such as providing the information needed for employees to initiate the service workflows, or supporting information provided to associates to render the service.

Service design in action: Service design is all-inclusive: it considers every person involved in the service experience, including customers, employees, and stakeholders. 

Service design in action: the people and the process

As we move into implementing the work of service design, here are some questions that you’ll want to keep in mind:

  • Who are the people involved?
  • Which customers do you want to focus on?
  • What are those customers trying to achieve?
  • What is the company trying to achieve by offering the service?

The who: customers, employees, and stakeholders

Service design is all-inclusive: it considers every person involved in the service experience, including customers, employees, and stakeholders. As you begin the work of service design, you’ll want to identify people from each group to interview by way of questionnaires, surveys, or workshops.

The what: satisfactory service

Next in the process is to identify the service being sought after or offered. Here you’re seeking to understand the goal of the service from the standpoint of the customer and from the service provider, including the aforementioned employees and stakeholders.

This is the stage where you’ll begin to look at what’s happening before, during, and after the service experience, or as Think Company describes it, looking at a series of interactions that create experiences — the end-to-end journey — or how “all these interactions and activities work together to create one seamless experience.”

The how: service blueprint

As with most methodologies and frameworks, you’ll need a tool (or tools) to capture findings and map touchpoints on the service journey.

Enter the service blueprint.

“With a service blueprint, we can take a step back to look at the whole picture, and how everything works together before making changes.” — Think Company

In addition to capturing the processes or steps involved in securing a service, the Nielsen Norman Group notes that service blueprints also include:

Frontstage components:

  • Channels
  • Products
  • Touchpoints
  • Interfaces

Backstage components:

  • Policies
  • Technology
  • Infrastructures
  • Systems

This information can be captured during workshopping sessions with customers, employees, and stakeholders, on a physical whiteboard or virtually, like the example of a hospital service blueprint below from Miro.

hospital service blueprint from Miro
Image credit: Miro

Start by listing the service process steps, plus frontstage and backstage components down the left side, from top to bottom. Then, working from left to right, use virtual or physical sticky notes or cards to capture the steps and components in a linear fashion.

For more complex services with multiple phases or stages, you may want to add swimlanes to group similar steps, as well as front- and backstage activities that happen along the way.

A service blueprint is a critical tool that will help you capture:

  • Service goals
  • Map touchpoints
  • Customer emotions

As you move from the current state, the service blueprint will also help you identify service gaps that will reveal opportunities to make changes and solve problems that will help create change and move towards future state goals that support holistic service experiences.

Service design in action: the approaches, methods, and teams

Now that you know the who, what and how of service design, it’s time to put in the work. To be clear, the process is quite involved and requires adequate time and resources to make measurable change.

The Interaction Design Foundation lays out a comprehensive list of things to consider when doing service design, saying, “Remember to design for the complete experience. That means you should accommodate your users’/customers’ environment/s and the various barriers, motivations, and feelings they’ll have.”

Highlights from that list include:

  1. Understanding your brand’s purpose, the demand for it, and the ability of all associated service providers to deliver on promises.
  2. Prioritizing customer needs before the brand’s internal needs.
  3. Delivering unified and efficient services holistically — as opposed to taking a component-by-component approach.
  4. Including input from users.
  5. Streamlining work processes to maximize efficiency.
  6. Hosting co-creation sessions, which are vital to prototyping.
  7. Eliminating anything doesn’t add value for customers.

In Designing Services that Deliver, G. Lynn Shostack wrote, “A service blueprint allows a company to explore all the issues inherent in creating or managing a service.”

Some of those issues include:

  • Identifying processes
  • Isolating fail points
  • Establishing time frames
  • Analyzing profitability

According to Shostack, investing time and resources in service design activities, and specifically in creating a service blueprint, “…encourages creativity, preemptive problem solving, and controlled implementation. It can reduce the potential for failure and enhance management’s ability to think effectively about new services.”

By now it’s quite evident that it takes a village to do the work of service design. And while it might be easier to show how poor service delivery hurts the financial bottom line, it might be more difficult to make the case for securing the resources needed to do the work, especially if your team is already strapped for time, or doesn’t have the expertise to do the work.

There are agencies that specialize in this kind of work that you might consider. And another way to go is to make a pitch for teamlancing, either as a way to reinforce to members of your team who will be focused on carrying out the work of service design or to bring in teamlance talent that specializes in service design work and related activities.

The most important thing is that the work necessary to do service design — the research, the ideation, and the prototyping — gets done thoroughly and to completion. Bringing in teamlancers can help with that effort, and can help you succeed in improving service experiences for your customers and service providers.

Intersection of content marketing and service design

Touchpoints: the intersection of content marketing and service design

“Content is a fundamental component of how users engage with a service, and content strategy is the mechanism that enables that service experience to be delivered holistically and consistently across all touchpoints.” — Jennifer McCutchen, Fjord

One of my first forays into the intersection of content strategy and service design happened in a 2016 workshop led by Fjord’s Jennifer McCutchen, whose quote is shared above. I’d first heard of service design from a former colleague — a visual designer — a few years before that workshop, and though curious, at that time I felt that like many design-forward frameworks and methodologies, it would be futile to argue for involving content in an approach that, at least on its face, seemed to be meant only for visual creatives to use to solve problems.

One of the things that stood out during the Fjord workshop — and the thing that kept me coming back to explore the relationship between content strategy and service design — was the concept of mapping content journeys. I’d learned to map content journeys in a workshop environment as well, and after putting the process into practice while working on creating content strategies in support of a variety of digital experiences, I was curious to hear it come up in a conversation around service design.

As the service and the accompanying customer journey is being mapped out and documented on the service design blueprint, content creators can and should be involved to ensure that clear and useful content is being mapped to those journeys. Again, this is where the gaps and opportunities are surfaced, and where content creators can add value to the process.

Customer journey map
Image credit: Audrey Baechle

Content marketers who create branded content in support of services can look for opportunities to create marketing materials for a variety of channels to not only announce the availability of a service but to offer collateral that helps customers navigate the service being offered.

And digital content strategists and UX writers might identify existing content that is lacking or confusing — or worse yet, missing — that would help a customer seeking services through a digital interface.

No matter what label you identify with inside the content universe, the touchpoints identified in the service blueprint — and in fact, the entire service design process — are goldmines for those concerned with providing content that guides, instructs, and delights customers in need of services of any kind.

Or as McCutchen put it, “Illustrating how content is delivered on the frontstage but created and managed on the backstage, as well as how content can either strengthen or weaken the service experience, [helps to] drive home the symbiotic relationship between service design and content strategy.”

Mobile service mishap: a personal case study

“When backstage problems exist, they have frontstage consequences: poor service, customer frustration, and inconsistent channels. Streamlining backstage processes improves the employees’ experience, which, in turn, allows them to create a better user experience.” — Nielsen Norman Group

As with many things I write about, my curiosity about service design was further piqued through a recent service mishap I experienced with my mobile service provider. I helped a family member purchase a replacement cell phone — a product — on an extended payment plan — the service — offered by the provider on their website as an affordable way to manage the expense.

The cost of the phone — $200 — was to be divided into four payments of $50 each, starting with an initial $50 down payment, with the three remaining payments to be spread evenly among three subsequent bills.

A few days after making the first payment — and after receiving an email confirming the arrangement — I began getting voicemails from collections, saying my bill had a past-due balance. This was my first clue that there was a service delivery problem.

Feeling pretty confident that there was simply a lag in communications between systems, I called collections and calmly explained the steps I took, in effect mapping out the touchpoints I’d encountered along the way:

  • Purchased a replacement phone on the website for $200
  • Selected the extended payment plan option upon checking out
  • Processed the downpayment of $50
  • Received a confirmation email stating the remaining payments ($50 each) would be included in three subsequent bills

It all seemed so simple. That is until the representative said there was no such thing as an extended payment option.

Thankfully, after checking with a manager, the rep discovered that extended payments were relatively new, and not everyone in the chain of service was aware of the option. Notes were made on my account and I was told I would not receive any more calls from collections.

Content touchpoint opportunities:

  • Backstage: Internal communications via email, along with a workflow adjustment, to introduce and explain the extended payment option to service providers.
  • Frontstage: Customer receives an email to confirm conversations had with service providers, along with a tracking or confirmation number for future reference.

Everything seemed to be OK until I received another call from collections. I offered the same run-down of steps taken, referred to the first rep I spoke with, and said there should be notes on my account.

The reply was something along the lines of, “I’ve been working here for over 10 years and we’ve never offered a payment plan. There aren’t any notes on your account, so you need to pay the balance today or your service will be disrupted.” Stunned by the saltiness, I confess that I simply hung up.

Content touchpoint opportunities:

  • Backstage: Provide updated — and searchable — knowledge base information for service providers about the extended payment plan option.
  • Backstage: Include a reference number in communications sent to the customer to refer back to notes transactions, etc.

Hoping to speak with someone with a bit more empathy, I took matters into my own hands and proactively called again, ostensibly to “straighten things out once and for all.” Trust me when I say the third time was definitely not the charm in this scenario.

Once I connected with a representative, I attempted to read a second email I’d received from the company confirming the extended payment option.

Collections rep number three was befuddled, but it didn’t take long for befuddlement to give way to patronizing, along the lines of “I’m sure you probably received an email from someone, but it wasn’t from us.” And, “It sounds like you were scammed.”

At that point, I asked to speak with a manager. In lieu of a verbal reply, I heard what sounded like fingers flying over a keyboard, followed by, “Please hold.”

After several minutes, the representative returned and stated, “My manager said there’s an extended plan and I’ll make a note on your account.” I’d like to tell you that after all this happened — all of which occurred during the first billing cycle after the phone had been purchased  — that everything was resolved and the collection calls stopped.

Once the next billing cycle came and the second installment was paid, so too did the emails, with subject lines like “Important Payment Reminder,” the body of which included headings like “Friendly Reminder,” immediately followed by the words “past due” in bold red. Ouch.

If I were to map out all of the touchpoints and missed opportunities for both internal and external communication that would have made this better, I’d need to bill the company for my efforts.

Instead, I hope this unfortunate experience has you thinking about all of the ways that content can help prevent this kind of spectacular service failure and that maybe you’ll even be inspired to try your hand at mapping out my misfortune with the opportunities provided so you can identify ways to improve the service journey with content.

Go deeper: resource roundup

Perhaps you’re ready to take a deeper dive into service design, and you want to add more knowledge and methodologies to your toolbox. Or maybe your company has been tasked with figuring out a way to improve the service experience of your customers.

Luckily, there is no shortage of service design resources in the form of books, interactive tools, free resources, and more, with many available online. To get you started — or to keep you going — I’ve rounded up a starter list for you.

Happy mapping!


Interactive tools

Free resources