Find out about service design — including what service designers do, who needs to be involved in service design and when.

There are lots of different kinds of design, including:

  • graphic design
  • interior design
  • product design

People who work in these jobs take time to understand a problem before they create a solution.

Designing the right thing

When designing, we have to be sure we’re creating the right thing, before we can design something that works and meets users’ needs.

This applies to anything we design, including:

  • information and advice on a website
  • a transactional service
  • an application form

Service design overview

Service design can be applied to the services we use every day. Marc Fonteijn compares service design to ‘picking one coffee shop over another’. This involves understanding and improving a service by collaboratively designing with people who use, provide and deliver them.

More information is available in the Design Council’s video What is service design

In the public sector, we deal with complex problems, and service design is an approach that helps create solutions focused on user needs. Evidence-based decisions help design better services that are meaningful, effective and sustainable.

A mindset for design

Service design starts by understanding the needs of three groups:

  • service users
  • staff
  • organisation

This understanding is gained by having an approach that is:

  • person-centred — putting users’ experiences at the heart of the process and referring back to the ‘problem’ being solved at every step of the process
  • research-based — building services with quantitative and qualitative evidence of real users
  • co-designed — designing services with and not for users, staff and organisational stakeholders
  • iterative — continually testing and developing the design of a service with the users journey in mind
  • collaborative — exploring beyond the boundaries of the service delivery organisation

Reducing risk

There are many ways that using service design can reduce risk, including:

Building on user research

This helps us understand user needs and ensures the solutions are both fit for purpose and desirable to the people who will use them.

Testing and improving concepts and ideas

Testing and improving during the project with real feedback from users ensures better, more relevant outcomes.


Collaborating helps us visualise research and concepts by drawing pictures and making models to allow complex or ambiguous things to be communicated and better understood.

Who does service design?

Whenever possible a service designer will lead the work, supported closely by other team members. Service designers use various tools and methods to explore questions about services in order to highlight opportunities for improvement.

What do service designers do?

Service designers guide teams through the process of designing services by selecting the most appropriate tools and techniques to:

  • understand users experiences, like observing and interviewing
  • understand the organisation and its staff, using tools and techniques like culture maps
  • visually and verbally communicate insights, like user journey maps
  • collaboratively design possible solutions
  • prototype and test new ideas
  • develop a plan with the organisation to build and deliver the new service
  • measure the impact of the work

In Scottish Government, when applying service design methods to projects, we aim to answer the following questions:

What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?

We ask the uncomfortable questions, like “Do we actually need this?”, “How can we challenge the status quo?”

Who needs to be involved in the process and at what stage?

We ask this to get the right people in the room at the right time.

What is the current experience of users, service providers and organisations?

We ask this to understand the problem and explore the bigger picture.

How can we best communicate the complexity of the service?

We want to know how to use design to tell a story and build understanding.

How can we best collaborate with user service providers and organisations to design and develop services?

We ask this question to make sure collaboration is part of the whole design and delivery process.

How can the impact of the new service design be measured?

We aim to define a baseline and highlight improvements.

When is service design not the right thing?

Service design is about stopping doing things as much as creating new things. Before starting a project it’s worth asking the following questions:

  • do we own the service?
  • is there money, resources and senior leadership buy-in to develop the service?
  • does the service need to be completely changed or would a focused improvement work?

If the answers to these questions are no, then a service design approach might not be the correct approach for you.