Service design 2.0: from marketing and maps to future-proof strategy

Service design 2.0: from marketing and maps to future-proof strategy

Service design is changing and, these days, service designers often find themselves operating on the fuzzy border between design and strategy.

When service design first emerged as a discipline in the 1980s it was aligned with marketing and was about mapping or documenting services as experienced by the user.

At that time, there was a clear line between products (things you can own) and services – things you pay to have done but that don’t result in you owning anything, like painting and decorating, or accountancy.

Over the years, with the move to digital in all aspects of life, that line has blurred. Increasingly, businesses are built around selling services rather than products.

Adobe is one example that might be familiar to most designers. They used to sell graphics software in big boxes, with updates every year or two, but now sell monthly subscriptions.

In this context, businesses need to keep users happy and engaged with the service. They need them to recommend it to peers. And to resist the temptation to switch to the competition.

With that in mind, they need to put the needs, values and demands of their users at the centre of everything they do.

It’s this shift in attitude that means that today service designers are:

  1. in demand
  2. doing way more than just mapping
  3. dealing with ever-more complex systems and problems.

We’re seen as people who can tie multidisciplinary teams together and set the direction of travel.

But to meet that need, we need to be versatile, flexible, and ready to play several different roles, including:

  • Negotiator
  • Stakeholder manager
  • Facilitator

Case study: service design as strategy

I want to tell you about a project I worked on which stretched my definition of service design.

In fact, it worked as a lab for myself and my team (the service designers Marialuisa Dubla and Simona Mancusi) to understand how service designers can support a client who is trying to define their direction of travel – especially at an early stage of discovery.

In this project, our client wanted to design, launch and be running a start-up studio within a few years.

The project brief was summarised as: “How might we shape and communicate the vision of the start-up studio?”

The client made it clear that he needed to have conversations with stakeholders and experts first, before moving forward.

He explained that this typically helps him think, define, and establish connections in his new ventures.

This is where he asked us to begin.

And so, the question we, as researchers and designers, set out to answer for ourselves was a little different: “How might service design facilitate strategic conversations?"

We used a range of different methods and tools to facilitate and support strategic conversations throughout the double diamond design process:

  1. Workshops – the kick-off workshop was our first important strategic conversation.
  2. Interviews – we spoke to more than a dozen start-up business and innovation experts.
  3. Informal conversations – using a co-created slide deck to shape the agenda.
  4. SWOT analysis – what were the business’s strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats?
  5. Stakeholder mapping – who needs to be engaged and involved, when, to what degree?
  6. Service maps – visual aids to support stakeholder discussions.
  7. User personas – who is this service for?
  8. Business model canvas – a visualisation of the business start-up checklist.
  9. Visualisations of marketing materials – including the website.
  10. Resources and tools – for example, Miro boards condensing the above.

How service designers can help

I came away from the project above with some clear ideas about how service design can support strategic conversations.

Making the unknown known

Service design makes sure strategic conversations include different perspectives, leading to empathetic and informed decision making.

It does this through user research, people participation, and a focus on inclusion. How do we make sure nobody is being left out of the conversation, or pushed away from the service?

Through research and validation, service designers also extrapolate insights that enrich and elevate strategic conversations.

Making the intangible tangible

Service design helps participants clarify the way forward with maps and models that transform abstract complex thoughts into tangible structured visions.

In this way, service designers reduce complexity and make it easier to think clearly about the problems we want to solve.

These design materials represent ‘boundary objects’ – artifacts that facilitate mutual understanding between groups or individuals.

Facilitating processes

Service designers can support strategic conversations by leading activities and providing a structured but flexible framework to guide participants on their path.

Active empathetic listening allows service designers to mediate between different voices and points of view, supporting stakeholders' negotiations.

Structuring chaos

By developing maps and visualizations, service designers provide a scaffold for thinking, providing a structure for abstract thoughts.

They reduce complexity for leaders, supporting strategy formulation and development.

What clients want from service designers

Another valuable output from the research project was feedback from the client.

If we think of them as the user, and look at the journey they went on, what worked well?

And what could have been better?

Establish trust

Building trust takes time and effort and is as much about emotion as it is process.

For service designers to build a transparent and efficient relationships with clients and stakeholders they need to communicate clearly the intentions behind each design proposal.

This point is critical to enabling strategic leaders to be open with designers about what would otherwise be invisible motivations and worries.


We can’t design and facilitate processes if we don’t understand the client’s needs, goals and fears.

The designer Anna Meroni said that designers play the role of therapists by listening actively, and asking questions, so unspoken feelings and concerns can surface.

This process benefits the client as it helps them to articulate complex thoughts and ideas.

Communicate in the right way

Designers need to work out which ways of communicating make clients feel most comfortable and in control. It helps to understand the client’s language, and try their best to speak it back to them.

Providing information in the right format, through the right medium, makes it more likely it will be taken on board and understood.

And it increases the chances of them using the tools we provide.

Evaluate timing and relationships

When facilitating strategic conversations, designers should consider the relationship between the people in the conversation.

Have they spoken about the topic at hand lots before? Or is this the first time? How much do they already know?

This will affect the depth you need to go into in workshop materials and activities.

Deliver dynamic materials

When delivering design materials, it is important for designers to underline that they’re not finished or definitive.

Otherwise, the client might be nervous of using them, or reject them as ‘not right’.

These materials are iterative models: they are meant to be torn down, built up, reshaped, and evolved.

Introduce complexity slowly

To help the client understand, service designers should introduce design tools gradually.

Start with the simplest and move toward the most complex.

Get buy-in and comprehension by describing and justifying the use and benefit of each tool.

Service design is now tied to strategy

This project helped me explore the frontier between service design and strategy.

It helped me think about the service design practice and role, and the many different parts we can play.

Since then, I’ve found myself on this frontier more and more often, helping clients not only map their service as it exists today, but also to plan its future.