What is a service blueprint and why do you need one?

A complex service represented by nodes and connectors.

A service blueprint can help you understand the complexity of the landscape that faces the people you’re aiming to help – and inspire improvements.

In simple terms, it’s a diagram or visualisation of the components of a service and the connections between them. That makes it sound simple, though, which it is not.

Putting together a comprehensive blueprint takes time, research, and input from a range of stakeholders and subject experts. Because it’s very unlikely any one person has a clear picture of the entire service from beginning to end.

And people will also have contradictory views which need to be unpicked and reconciled.

“They're based around a journey a user will take and they reveal all the things which contribute to each step and make it what it is,” says Sparck healthcare strategist Dave Black.

But they’re not the same as user journeys, even if they might seem similar at first glance.

“Service blueprints offer a more process-oriented view than user journeys,” says Thaddeus Parsons, head of the service design practice at Sparck. “They act as a high-level map for improved services. Or completely new ones, because they’re also a great tool for defining what should be.”

Service blueprints are about the journey

“It’s not just the artefact itself that has value but also the process of putting it together,” says Dr Emma Murphy. “It’s based on research and understanding and so, even if you never present a final blueprint, you learn so much.”

Her colleague, James Medd, agrees:

“The act of creating a service blueprint itself is often more valuable than the resulting document. Getting stakeholders across the client team to think critically about what happens at every stage and layer of a service highlights inefficiencies and opportunities.”


Then, once you have a document, it’s how people use it that matters.

“That single artefact that we can all gather round is a great facilitator for meaningful discussion,” says Thaddeus Parsons.

“Discussions around service blueprints are a great way to bring out a variety of perspectives about the service we are building,” says Stephen Salhany. “We don’t just get to see the service from the inside out, but also from the outside in, including the interconnected nature of its components.”

The hope is that these deep, broad discussions, with all the key players gathered together, will lead to useful insights. Such as what?

“Service blueprints can be a good way of highlighting the departmental silos within organisations,” says Simon Penny, providing one example. “Mapping services horizontally shows how they transcend departments and cut through the vertical silos that represent them.”

And, as James explains, a blueprint can also highlight risks and potential points of failure:

“If there are things happening across five layers of my blueprint at once it makes me question the risk of having so many coordinated events. Are the data connections reliable? Are the people processes prone to delay? Is the integrity of the data coming in from the user good enough to trust all 5 layers operating in unison?”


All that discussion and insight is useless, though, if it doesn’t lead to action. But, in Emma’s experience, it generally does: “I’ve just come off a discovery where our service blueprint was incredibly complex but became a prompt for decision making and, ultimately, moving forward.”

Not everyone loves service blueprints

Even within the happy and harmonious Sparck service design practice, however, there are dissenting views.

Harriet de Wet, who leads the Sparck design contingent on NHS.UK, describes herself as “chair of the #BanTheBlueprint campaign”, and argues that they can sometimes be too detailed to be helpful:

“Blueprints are not Google Maps. We need to stop building them as if they have the same 'zoomability'. Imagine an image of earth with absolutely every place name and road visible at once – overwhelming and unusable. If you must build a blueprint, don’t do it like that!”


Thaddeus Parsons is a blueprint advocate but can see Harriet’s point:

“You need to think about purpose, context and audience when deciding on the level of fidelity for your blueprint. Unfortunately, sometimes people want to throw in the kitchen sink as well. A map that is too similar to reality, with every pebble and kink in the road, is useless. The same goes for blueprints overloaded with too much detail. They take too much work to maintain, so they quickly become outdated, and therefore cease to be useful. In fact, they become a pain in the—"


And, of course, Harriet isn’t actually totally opposed to blueprints:

“I find it exceedingly useful when joining a new organisation, especially a complex one like the NHS, to spend some time going through previous blueprints. This helps get my head into things like the language, systems, and stages of the user journey. And it is an absolute joy seeing a well-made blueprint where the creator has been able to beautifully balance detail and legibility.”


Outcomes, not outputs

The ultimate value of a service blueprint is in when and how it is used. If it gets looked at once, never updated, and never thought of again, it’s arguably a failure.

“Seeing our client be able to talk through the blueprint with other stakeholders was a magic moment for me!” says Emma Murphy. “It should always be a living, breathing artefact which helps make the tacit explicit – things like user experience, processes, systems, data, actions, and connections.”

In a recent discussion about the service blueprint on my current project my colleagues talked about using it as an anchor. If in doubt, get the blueprint out, to remind ourselves of user needs and pain points, and how the small detail we’re working on this week connects the whole.

“Crucially, effective service blueprints are an artefact that readers without vast amounts of design maturity can decode,” says James Medd.

Tips for creating a great service blueprint

“User journeys and the key pains and needs in them should form the spine of your blueprint,” says Thaddeus Parsons. “Start there then add layers that show how any single phase or step is, or needs to be, supported.”

Dave Black suggests some important questions which can be used to shape a service blueprint, and which it can help to answer:

  • Which systems are in use?
  • Which data is transferred?
  • How does it feel to the user and which steps come next?

Both James Medd and Harriet de Wet are keen to emphasise that the level of detail is a crucial thing to get right.

“There are some super impressive and intricate diagrams out there that are essentially noise to a lot of stakeholders,” says James.

“Try to include frontstage, backstage and behind the scenes layers where they’re relevant,” says Thaddeus. “A layer for KPIs is helpful to emphasise the importance of measuring success, for example, especially for those moments that matter in the service experience.”

He also suggests adding a separate layer for overarching considerations such as sustainability – something which perhaps hasn’t happened in the past as much as it should.

His final piece of advice is this:

“There is no single way to create a blueprint. Project context and your audience are key considerations. Follow those and you'll be all right.”


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