The what not the how of Service Design

Sarah Drummond
9 min readJul 17, 2017


When it comes to Service Design as a discipline (with a capital S and D) it seems, on some occasions, we have become obsessed with the tools and methods and lost sight of what we’re actually trying to do.

We’ve become obsessed with the how and not the what.

In this post, what do I mean by Service Design?

Service design is the practice of designing services. But here I’m referring to the established industry of Service Design TM , commonly depicted as a standardised set of tools and methods for designing a thing, done in a particular order.

What do I mean by the what?

The product or service you’re trying to build and ship. Product in a sense where the user experience is larger than one interaction. In simple terms, what is it that you’re trying to design?

What do I mean by the how?

The process and methods used in which to design the thing you created.

I tweeted this recently and it seemed to pick up a fairly agreeable online response.

“Since when did design become about process only. The process is the thing we do to get to an output and outcome. A persona isn’t an outcome.”

I’ve watched the evolution of the discipline in my professional career grow from early pioneers into a fully marketable franchise. It seems, lots of people ‘want to get into Service Design’ (and I couple design thinking with this).

For a while, this seemed really positive. There was a need to define it as a separated discipline to help institutions recognise they need to build capacity to design services. It supported those who had little grasp on their users or know services could be consciously designed, particularly for the ‘digital age’.

I’m witnessing a more negative tipping point right now, when the defined discipline becomes too formulaic because it’s been commoditised and we forget, at the essence of this, it is about designing services and creatively solving problems for organisations and/or systems.

We’re focusing too much on the how, and not enough on the what.

Lets reflect on the evolution of the discipline.

Recently, I interviewed Chris Downs, Boss 1 of Normally, as part of a film I produced for Core 77. Chris was an original partner at Live|Work, one of those early and inspiring pioneers. He talked about the three phases of Service Design from his perspective:

“We saw phase one was dominated by a small set of pioneers building the first generation tools like customer journey maps and blueprints, evangelising the benefits of service design in an emergent digital world. Phase two was when Organisations started to get hold of those tools, and then they were trying to deploy those tools, trying to find a way of learning those tools. Projects started to become more about capability building, people learning to think about customers and journeys. In phase three, those tools have been learned and are being mastered, so people are now using those tools, they are not making them or learning them, they are using them.”

And Chris on the future,

“The future of Service Design won’t be made up of master planning tools like blueprints, a new set of tools are coming out. People on the ground working in silos in multi-layered complex organisations are trying to lift themselves up into operation as service designers. They will use a different set of tools — tools that are about delivery and iteration and improvement. That is a really exciting phase to be in.”

We’re talking about the future of Service Design, echoed by Steve Pearce (Skyscanner) and Louise Downe (Government Digital Service) as a form of, ‘live design’, where design processes are alive inside an organisation. Always focusing on improving the output, in their case, Government and travel services. Without this focus on the what, it means nothing.

This is exciting, this evolution of service design into a new set of tools that are alive within an organisation. Surely our new role as in-house service designers or agencies is to help build the user-centered products and processes that will create sustainable ways for design to live in the hands of everyone working in an organisation. Surely that’s our new job?

Despite a very bright future ahead, I am concerned. I have witnessed very formulaic approaches creeping into the process or the methods being wrongly misconstrued for some kind of ‘bolt-on’ innovation process for large consultancies.

This is a reflection based on some recent experiences and conversations with people across a variety of sectors who are trying to improve services but not sure that ‘Service Design’ as a capital S and D discipline is really there to help them out.

I’m not belittling any work out there, in fact there are amazing companies, people, individuals working hard under a Service Design banner (me included) who I respect but some of these edge cases are concerning me and it matters because if business is really to invest in well-designed services, the discipline of service design must live up to its proclamations that it can make an impact.

That glitzy user experience beats the unsexy business decision side

I had a conversation recently with Matt Edgar who is the new head of design at NHS Digital. We were discussing their need to grow Service Design talent in his team and what he is looking for.

Matt needs curious people, who can interrogate the need for services, not just map out the ‘ideal’ user experience.

Take the GP pages on NHS choices. It would be easy to pick up some Service Design methods and map the user experience with a plethora of new functions, co-design it with users, prototype some of it. Sure, we’ll all say yes it’d be great to get updates from the GP, yes we’d love to know our GP’s favourite colour, yes it’d be great if the rating stars twinkled (you get the picture here).

But really, the real problem lies in understanding how GPs work, and how to make sure the information on their pages is accurate and meaningful to patients. What we don’t need is more features, what we need is to solve the problem of how we support practices to keep data up to date and ‘online’. This isn’t to say NHS Digital has an issue with this, they’re already aware of this, but it paints a great picture of the thinking needed.

The issue is, I’ve seen this countless times when reviewing Service Design work for business who have commissioned it. Rather than considering decommissioning, understanding where and how the service is sustainable, the actual problem or question the wider connectivity to the business plan and strategy, we end up with a ‘nice to have’ user journey. But it’s not actually needed, and in many cases, worth spending public money on to theorise what the user experience ‘could look like’.

Co-design groups told us to jump off the cliff

My mum used to always say to me ‘If I told you to jump off a cliff would you do it?’ — in reference to doing everything my brother said.

I see this cliff jumping throughout the use of a ‘Service Design’ approach.

Here’s what it looks like.

So we’re in a co-design session, we’re brainstorming ideas people want to see for a new service, lets say, a digital channel. They’re listing a whole bunch of stuff, and it makes the cut. It’s literally like sketching everything they say then putting it online.

For me, co-design groups are a form of design-led research, building early prototypes with customers is about understanding what people need, not what they want. A designer’s role should be about taking this insight into working up the most plausible solution to the problem they are trying to solve and when appropriate, continuing that dialogue with users into delivery through regular testing and communication.

Unfortunately I’ve seen far too many ‘co-design’ projects go down this direction with terrible results, either being directly implemented or ending up in a co-design report of what the service should look like. There are examples out there of Government funded projects that explicitly utilised design approaches but ended up with a terrible product because the how became more important than the what.

Show me something you made

I do a fair amount of interviews and portfolio reviewing at Snook. What I’ve become really conscious of, is when I ask to see something someone has made, I’m greeted with a walk through of a portfolio with a string of official sounding methods and an explanation of the design process.

‘So we started with some research, we then ran some co-design sessions, then we synthesised the themes and stakeholder mapped them, building on this we ran some testing, we mocked it up…’

By the end of my first question, I’ve still no idea what the thing was that was designed, what it is and what it does.

This is becoming more common.

What I’m seeing is an over emphasis and focus on design methods and process. Before showing me the thing, the research is presented first without a clear explanation of the brief.

This seems to be a product of recent Service Design training courses where students are focusing on ensuring they learned ‘the methods’ but didn’t really get the opportunity to try out any real ‘live design’.

The designers I’ve hired the most haven’t studied Service Design explicitly. Often they’ve been from a product, graphic or user interaction background who happen to show a flair for thinking laterally about services. Their craft comes first, a real depth of understanding their design practice. Conversely, we’ve hired or worked with business analyst roles and people with organisational experience who pair well with designers.

Again here, it seems the training has become focused on the how and not the what.

We must, when delivering training in service design ensure the teachers have experience of delivering an actual service or can provide a connection to people who have designed and delivered services in an organisational context. Without that knowledge, then it’s just theory and methods, and there are books out there for that.

Can you do the ‘persona’ bit?

Service Design has become commoditised because agencies need to sell it. I know this because I run one. And, sometimes, this is OK because it’s attached to a wider project of discovery and design and well, you need to itemise deliverables because that’s how procurement works. But, it’s a slippery slope, where larger business consultancies who deliver projects for top tier clients see you as the creative ‘folk’ and the deliverables you itemised become the actual deliverables for them.

Can you do one of those post it sessions and get some ideas out?

Can you deliver some of those personas — how many can we get?

Can you do the user journey mapping bit?

It’s not ok, both for us to accept this kind of work as an industry and not question what the point of it is — yet, I know this happens all the time. We can and should not be delivering tools as outputs unless there is an absolute guarantee that the information and knowledge packaged into that output will be of benefit for a team to drive forward their decision making.

Our role should be to question the what — what is this for, what is the purpose?

I hold my hands up and say, we have done this. But it feels soulless at the end, and you think, why did we spend time being the show pony for ‘innovation’ and not delivering something of value?

So what do we do?

Basically, we have to stop fetishising the methods, the how, and start re-focusing on what it is we’re trying to do. Service design is everybody’s business. It’s a team sport for organisations and on a day to day basis of delivering actual services with delivery teams, who don’t tend to spend much time on creating complex visual reports, personas or lengthy (can’t print in-house) journey maps that no one can read.

We’ve commoditised Service Design to sell it and in order to make it accepted by business, made a set of processes, tools and methods to make design predictable. It’s become the risk-averse way to make decisions.

The formula we’ve created has eclipsed the original intention, that services are better when they are designed.

Where once it was an exciting opportunity for services to be designed by designers and challenge delivery models of 21st-century business, the over processing of it has made it as predictable as the businesses we were trying to change in the first place.

We need to get back to the what, not the how.

This is a cross post from

If you’re educating or running a course in Service Design, I’d love to connect and about how we support students to develop ‘live design’ skills.



Sarah Drummond

Founder @wearesnook @dearestscotland @cycle_hack @mypolice | Service Designer + Boss | GOOD Magazine’s Top 100 influencers 2016|Google Democracy Fellowship 2011