Service Design Thinking

16 January 2017 10:18

(updated: 16 January 2017 10:26)

Service Design Thinking

Design thinking is not a new term, and originally appeared in the 1950’s. However its recent popularity can be traced to Tim Brown from IDEO, and an article in Harvard Business Review in 2008.

In the article, Brown identifies many aspects of design, but one aspect has been repeatedly used and reused - his identification of  design thinking as integrating Viability, Feasibility and Desirability (Brown 2008).

  • Viability describes the underlying business case and business model.
  • Feasibility develops technological potential and the ability to deliver the innovative solution.
  • Desirability relates to how the market, and particularly individual customers will emotionally connect to the innovation. Each project requires a unique mix of viability, feasibility and desirability, and designers have an important role in integrating them.

Many different disciplines could do this integration, but design thinking has some skills up its sleeve that make it prevalent at the moment as the integrator. Firstly, the designer utilises an explorative customer-centric process. This innate understanding of what a customer needs, together with an ability to translate it into something desirable, makes the designer a good choice as an integrator. Further, design, as a visually strong discipline, has the ability to develop, describe and share ideas visuallly with a team, and this shared understanding is becoming increasingly important, now that teams are becoming more and more cross functional.

Designers are strong on prototyping solutions, and see a prototype not as a final solution, but as one of many possible solutions. Designers prototype, because by doing so, they fail repeatedly, and this repeated failure (failing forward) gives knowledge, insights and understanding that is incredibly valuable for a project team, particularly early on in a project.

Add to this, the designers creative skills and a whole feast of other skills (a recent piece of work carried out at AHO identified 17 valuable skills of relevance to a project team), and you can see that design thinking is relevant for todays innovation climate. 

Service Design is the application of design thinking to service, and service designers “Design offerings, to provide experiences that happen over time, and across different touch-points” (Clatworthy 2012). In service design, the goal is to provide memorable customer experiences that are promised and proposed to the customer as offerings, and accessed through multiple touch-points as they travel along their customer journey. Interactions with touch-points make the service offering come alive for a customer, and 

time can be short-term, such as a purchasing a ticket at a train station, or long-term, such as a life-long relationship with an insurance company. Touch-points are often physical objects or people, but can also be intangible such as the smell of warm bread at a supermarket.

The three aspects of design thinking; Viability, Feasibility and Desirability are still at the core of service design thinking, but the object of design is different. It is not a product, but rather an offering, delivered through a series of interactions with touch-points over time. This means that the designer is bridging high level, zoomed-out concepts, such as the offering (and how it might fit the market and the provider), with zoomed in details, in terms of interactions with specific touch-points (the experience of using the service). Service design, therefore is as much about the ability of the organization to deliver an offering, as the design of the offering itself.

Service Design is still a very young field, and spans areas from designing individual touch-points to the designer participating in the transformation of service organizations. This is not surprising, since the touch-point has become the embodiment of a company strategy. Indeed, recent work carried out by AHO, together with Telenor and other CSI partners shows that service designers link the strategic, tactical and operational levels of a service organization. We can therefore expect to see more from service design in the future. Watch this space.


Brown, Tim. (2008). Design thinking. Harvard Business Review, 86(6), 84.

Clatworthy, S. (2012). Bridging the gap between brand strategy and customer experience. Managing Service Quality, Vol. 22(2), 108-127

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