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What is service design?

Service design is a process of understanding and designing service models—how an organization can successfully provide services to people. The service design process includes research, strategy, and prototyping of these services. It includes analyzing, redesigning, and optimizing internal teams, infrastructure, communications, and other aspects of a service to improve its effectiveness. Successful service design leads all stakeholders through the steps necessary to deliver a service that helps organizations better serve their customers while meeting business goals. The key to this approach is a holistic view of your current or prospective customer journey(s), and a process that aligns marketing, sales, service, and support towards delivering a consistent, delightful user experience across each stage of the customer journey. Continue reading for definitions of commonly used service design terms.

Canadian Digital Service (CDS)

The CDS, or Canadian Digital Service, is the department of the Canadian Federal government whose focus is to improve digital products and services delivered by the government. They collaborate across all of the federal government’s services and products to put user needs at the forefront of government service delivery.



Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is an approach that monitors the interactions and outcomes of a product or service after launch through validated learning and ongoing iteration. The objective of this approach is to find ways to consistently improve customer experience and optimize your organization’s efforts. This is driven by the unique opportunity in digital, where you can track and learn from every interaction, every person, every click or tap that occurs across digital channels.

Validated learning helps us pinpoint where we can focus efforts to improve customer experience and service delivery on an ongoing basis. This involves using user analytics, user testing, and other data gathering to inform these efforts.

The iterative process of continuous improvement means continually working to increase conversions, drive engagement, and make sure the team is working optimally towards meeting user needs and business goals.

Our approach to continuous improvement


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Current state

Current state is a term used in service design, often during service blueprinting, to identify the current service model and customer experience for an existing service.

The current state of a service includes everything from the processes in place, to the current customer journey, to the people and other elements operating “behind the scenes” that allow a service to be fulfilled.


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Customer journey

Also known as: consumer journey, user journey

The customer journey is the path the user takes in deciding whether or not to purchase and continue to use a product or service. This includes their journey in making a purchase decision as as well as their journey during and after experiencing the product or service.

At each stage of the customer journey, the user has needs and goals. By understanding these needs and goals, organizations can engage with customers across physical and digital touchpoints to help users move through each stage of the journey.

Often, organizations look at the customer journey through the lens of the touchpoints where they know they’re already interacting with consumer. This is a limiting view that can dearly cost an organization as the customer journey typically extends beyond direct touchpoints through an extended series of stages that don’t necessarily or even can’t involve your organization. This is why it’s so important to understand the journey from the customer’s point of view, and then confirm of there are places across that extended journey where your organization can have an impact.


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Customer journey mapping

Also known as: journey mapping

The customer journey map helps identify each stage of a consumer’s decision-making path, including before, during, and after using a product or service.

Interviews, observation, and other tactics help determine the customer’s decision-making process. Customer journey maps also identify consumer pain points organizations can address by modifying a product or service to better connect with, serve, and retain customers.

With a customer journey map, you have a clear path for improving service delivery across the entire organization while meeting customer needs and expectations.

Our approach to customer journey mapping


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Dark patterns

Dark patterns are ways that organizations or designers nudge or trick users into taking action that they might have not intended, or that make it intentionally difficult for a user to complete a task.

An example of a dark pattern is a process that makes it very difficult for a user to cancel a subscription. By hiding options within multiple menus, writing instructions that confuse a user (e.g. making them think they succeeded in completing a task when they didn’t), or requiring multiple unnecessary steps to complete a task, these kind of user hostile dark patterns set a bad tone for your customer relationship.


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Diary study

A diary study is a type of qualitative user research, which typically involves a user recording their activities, thoughts, or behaviours over time at regular intervals (for example, when you wake up, or just before bed, each day for a week, after a phone call, or each time you brush your teeth, and so on).

This type of qualitative data helps teams better understand user behaviour, especially in cases where it isn’t practical to observe users directly. A diary study enables organizations to see how the usage of a product or service varies depending on different contexts and over time.

A public transit user recording when they took public transit, along with their experiences, thoughts, conversations, and differences about each trip over a period of two weeks would be an example of a diary study for a public transit agency.


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Digital transformation

Digital transformation is the changing of organizational processes and capabilities by leveraging technology and new interaction models. Through digital transformation, organizations can provide a superior customer experience and optimize team efforts.

Digital transformation can extend product and service delivery to provide increasing value, hone existing digital channels and products, and define new initiatives that drive customer engagement and retention.

Digital transformation is not just about technology, as it impacts people and processes through core tenets such as human-centered design, continuous improvement, and upskilling to grow the digital maturity of the organizational and team members.

Our approach to digital transformation


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Edge case

The term edge case is used to describe an atypical or less commonly encountered use case or user for a product or service. The traditional approach implies that the edge cases are more difficult to solve and serve fewer people and therefore are to be avoided. The long-held belief is that organizations can serve most of their addressable market without solving these tougher challenges.

As a result of this traditional approach, edge cases would often not be accommodated by a  product or service, making it more difficult or even unusable in these cases.

For example, for a website, an edge case could be considered someone who would exclusively view the site in high contrast mode due to an uncommon vision impairment. However, this kind of consideration would be a common benefit for many users, not just those with a particular kind of vision impairment. Dismissing such a benefit because it may impact only a small percentage of users would be a detriment to the overall product and could require a significant effort to accommodate in the future.

As such, we know now that solving for the more difficult use cases first—particular when they lead to more ways to access content and engage with an organization—leads to much richer products or services that ultimately require less time and resources to capture market share.


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Ethnography or ethnographic research

Ethnography describes a form of research that involves the observation of people. It is a qualitative research method based on observing ideally natural behaviour and speaking with users in context.

For example, an ethnographic study for a research question for a pharmacy would involve observing and speaking to pharmacists in situ at the pharmacy. This kind of unobtrusive approach to research within the natural environment aims to gain genuine data about how someone behaves and direct insight into a process.

This is especially vital in understanding people and processes where it may be impossible or difficult to accurately document, reflect, or draw insight from other, non-observational research methods such as user interviews or surveys.

A complement to an ethnographic study, or a best compromise where this kind of direct observation may not be possible, could be a diary study.


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Evaluative research

Evaluative research is a type of user research that aims to determine or evaluate how well a product or service is meeting the needs of its users.

Evaluative research is key to identifying specific issues with a product or service that is in development or already in market. As such, evaluative research practices typically occur once a product or service is in development, rather than during early exploratory phases.

Research methods used as part of evaluative research include usability testing, A/B testing, and first-click testing, all aimed at gaining insights into participants’ behaviour while using a product or service and on an ongoing basis.


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Experience mapping

Also known as: user journey mapping, product journey mapping, user paths, user flows

Experience mapping is a design tool for mapping out the end-to-end experience of an existing product or service, or for mapping out a proposed experience for a new product or service.

In contrast to customer journey maps (which take a broader view of the steps and factors for a customer to consider and engage with a product or service), experience mapping focuses on the steps users need to take as they move through a specific user experience flow designed by an organization. For example, the steps required to check your balance in a banking app, or all the possible ways you can get to a page on a website.

An experience map can be used internally, to understand all the paths and options for working through your website, app, or another product or service. This can be a vital tool to understanding the full scope of your offering.

Experience maps can also be expanded upon to include a user’s behaviours and feelings throughout the experience. In this case, to identify opportunities for improving each of the stages in the flow.

They can be crafted manually or be created from existing analytics and secondary research in order to give you a full scope of your product or service and begin to identify and improve how a user will work through your product or service, if there are any missing or cumbersome steps, and how to more efficiently manage your product or service.


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Future state

Future state is a term used in service design to describe, especially in service blueprinting, the process of mapping out the ideal or expected structure or model of a current or new service. This includes the customer journey, the different touch-points in the service experience, and all of the behind the scenes factors like policies and processes and how these can be adapted towards an ideal or expected structure.


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Generative research

Generative research, also known as exploratory research, is a type of research typically used in the earlier stages of research, strategy, and design processes. Generative research can include activities like user interviews, ethnographic observation, or workshops with the aim of validate a market opportunity, concept, or to understand what users need in order to better conceptualize a product or service.

Through generative research, teams can find ways to innovate from the building blocks of a comprehensive understanding of user pain points, contexts, and potential use cases of a product or service.


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Intersectionality is a way of describing and understanding how different identities that an individual might have (e.g. gender, race, sexuality, class and so on) combine to create different experiences when navigating the world.

Rather than looking at people through the lens of a singular identity (e.g. identifying as a woman), intersectionality looks at all the identities a person has, as well as more fluid factors like circumstances and ability. The combination of these considerations affects how a person engages with a product or service, interacts with people, and perceives the world.

Since it is a more holistic way of viewing people, intersectionality forms the backbone of inclusive design and diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI) work.

Learn more about intersectionality


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Jobs to be Done (JTBD)

Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) is a model for understanding what circumstances and needs cause someone to act or seek a solution in any given situation.

This framework is applied in product strategy, service design, and user research to help organizations understand what motivates a person so that the organization may align a product or service to that person’s objective and desired outcome.

In its purest sense, a person will consider an outcome they wish to reach in order to satisfy a need. That is the job-to-be-done. This could be turning on the TV to decompress after a long day. It could be drinking a milkshake while driving to work to feel full enough to get through the morning.

Understanding this foundational need allows an organization to consider alternatives, competitors, and opportunities to fulfill the foundational user need, or JTBD.

In this video, Clayton Christensen talks McDonald’s, milkshakes, and JTBD.


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Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

An OKR, or Objectives and Key Results, is a framework and management structure that organizations use to define large, overarching goals. They are goals that are quantitatively (numerical or metric) measurable. They are ambitious organizational goals, not small objectives within a project.

One example of an OKR would be:

Objective: “Increase the engagement and inclusivity of our internal team structure”

Key result 1: “Employee turnover down 10% over the next two quarters”
Key result 2: “Implement a diversity team and at least 3 events or initiatives to boost inclusion”
Key result 3: “Raise employee engagement ratings by 30% over the next two quarters”

From these larger, big-picture OKRs, your organization can define smaller indicators of success within initiatives using KPIs (key performance indicators).

In a marketing OKR framework, a KPI for a website might be something like “maintain a bounce rate below 70%”, while the key result this would inform is “Hit 100% of each quarter’s goals for closing new business”. There would be a series of KPIs that would inform this key result so that you could both validate how the KPIs impact the key result in order to refine them and check on the KPIs on a more frequent interval to understand how you’re trending toward the larger quarterly goal.

Both OKRs and KPIs are key for setting measurable goals and growth plans in organizations in order to achieve impactful, transformative organizational objectives.


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Ontario Digital Service (ODS)

The Ontario Digital Service (ODS) is the digital arm of the Ontario government, working to improve access to and delivery of government services. Employees of the ODS work on everything from service design, to content, to product design and development, all driven by the Simple, Faster, Better Services Act passed into law in 2019.




Also known as: User personas, profiles, archetypes, avatars

Personas are example profiles of customers, based on characteristics identified in user or market research. They help organizations paint pictures of how different characteristics may impact how users experience a product or service by identifying common goals, needs, and behaviours for a given user group.

Personas at their best are the result of user research, including qualitative and quantitative data from talking to and observing users. Organizations use personas to identify the needs of their customers and understand broader user group characteristics.

At their worst, personas are focused on demographic data that implies an average set of customers to target or engage with that does not help improve product or service delivery. It is always best to begin with jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) and use cases to craft an understanding of how customers will engage with your product or service, before considering other aspects of a customer such as demographics.

Implementing personas in the strategy or concept stage of a project can identify gaps and uncover new business opportunities, while personas considerate of intersectional factors can build a rich understanding of the nuance and diversity of a user base.


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Qualitative research

Qualitative research describes data collected in non-numerical or non-statistically relevant ways.

Qualitative data can include quotes from interviews, observations from ethnographic studies, or notes from a diary study. This data can be used to form a more holistic picture of users and participants, help build a case for specific product or service use cases, and is great for building empathy towards users among stakeholders and design teams.


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Quantitative research

Quantitative research describes data collected in a measurable, numerical, and/or statistically-relevant format.

Typical formats for collecting quantitative data include rating scales, various large-scale surveying methods, evaluative usability testing (using metrics like time to task completion and the number of clicks), and analytics like heat maps and A/B testing.


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Service blueprint

Also known as: service map, service mapping, service journey, or service blueprinting

Service blueprints are a service design method that allows teams to visually map out the front-stage (what the customer sees) and the back-stage (internal teams and processes) in order to have a clear picture of the service delivery model—all the processes and requirements of providing a product or service to customers. Through identifying the steps that both customers and employees take in the process, areas of friction and improvement can be identified.

Service blueprints are the result of user research and information gathering around current state operational models. These two activities combine to better understand the needs and behaviours of people currently participating in the service delivery process, which is then consolidated into a set of blueprints and journeys.

In the strategy stage of redesigning a service, service blueprints are invaluable for their capacity to systematically understand and map the often complex steps involved in service delivery.


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Service Design Global Conference (SDGC)

The Service Design Global Conference (SDGC), is an annual service design conference put on by the Service Design Network (SDN). The conference is held over two days, attended by professionals and organizations who practice customer experience, service design, and design thinking.

Held in a different city every year, the theme of each annual conference shifts alongside the changes in locale, ranging from sustainability, to building the future of service delivery and design, and much more. The conference is a staple of the service design industry event calendar.

Service Design Network (SDN)

The Service Design Network (SDN) is an international association of service design professionals. Every year, the different chapters of SDN hold events, meetups, workshops, and more, to grow individual and organizational service design capacity, as well as publishing the Touchpoint Journal with case studies and new methodologies.

Say Yeah team members Lee Dale, Kate Matesic, and Janavi Vengatesh are members of SDN.

System strategy

System strategy is the essential framework for driving customer experience and organizational effectiveness. This framework helps accelerate internal decision-making with an approach that uncovers key opportunities to drive customer engagement and retention while optimizing operations.

For organizations that are looking to improve product and service delivery, system strategy provides the roadmap to accomplish this. It aligns operations and channels with the customer journey in order to uncover new market opportunities, accelerate organizational objectives, and define new efficiencies in delivering product and service.

Our approach to system strategy


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Also known as: touch point, point of contact, customer touchpoint, consumer touchpoint

Customer touchpoints refer to any interaction an organization has with a customer.

All the interactions between a customer who discovers your organization online for the first time, to eventually acquiring your services, and then engaging with your service on an ongoing basis. These are all touchpoints.

This could include browsing your website, speaking to a sales representative, downloading a PDF, ordering something online, receiving a shipment, and so on.


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Universal design

Universal design is a method of designing environments, services, and products to be usable by the highest number of people in a given population. Univeral design has its origins in architecture and industrial design but has recently expanded to include digital products and services.

The Ronald Mace working group developed a standard set of seven principles of universal design in the 1990s, from which all universal design processes originate from. Some universal design principles include flexible use, simple use, and tolerances for error. When using this design philosophy, designers create a single solution designed to reach the most people, with the goal of not needing to develop additional solutions for people with different needs.

The seven principles of universal design shown through drawings of hands performing different actions
The principles of universal design: equitable use, flexibility in use,  simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use. From the Interaction Design Foundation.


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Usability is a general term that describes how an interface or experience functions for users. It refers to how users can perform tasks in a frustrating-free, efficient, and delightful way.

The more usable a product or service, the less difficult it is to engage with, the easier to understand (or more intuitive), and the more pleasant the experience will be for users.

Usability is a key tenet of interaction design, product design, and service design.


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Use case

A use case in design or software development is a way of identifying specific needs that a person might have in engaging with a product or service to accomplish something.

Use cases go beyond the person’s needs, objectives, and outcomes to include describing how the people and systems involved interact with each other through the flows and engagements that are necessary to achieve the goal.

Use cases are a way of determining what the design requirements should be when delivering a product or service, including mapping these requirements back to user goals and actions, interface behaviours, and organizational needs and objectives.


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User interviews

User interviews are a research tactic where researchers or designers talk to a user and ask them questions to gain insights needed for the design process. User interviews are typically used in the earlier stages of the process, and form the foundation of exploratory research. These interviews can be structured, semi-structured, or free form.

User interviews can help you define a product or service concept, identify user pain points, and understand your users on a deeper level to better define design requirements.


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