What is your service design philosophy?

Neil Williams
6 min readFeb 7, 2021

What is your service design philosophy? Someone put this question to me recently during an interview, and at the time, caught me a little off-guard. I struggled for a moment, tried to divert the conversation and mumbled something about the need for rigour in research and process. My answer must have been as unsatisfactory to them as it felt to me, as they repeated the question later before giving up. After the interview, I wrote down their question and swore to revisit it. Not being able to offer a coherent answer left me feeling very uncomfortable. Surely I must know my philosophy?

My recent studies have meant that I’m more accustomed to answering questions about my political or moral philosophy than to reflect on work. I write to make sense of my thoughts, and this short article attempts to pull together the strands of beliefs that I hold on ways of working, into a service design philosophy.

The online Cambridge English dictionary entry for philosophy.

Reveal the invisible and connect experiences

Okay, so these ideas aren’t new. They can be found in several books on the subject [Designing the Invisible by Lara Penin, or Service Design, by Andy Polaine, Lavrans Lovlie and Ben Reason, to name just two great examples]. I’m not attempting to break new ground here. Instead, I’m looking to crystalise my thinking about working within large organisations and the value that strategic design can deliver.

So what do we mean when we talk of revealing the invisible? I suspect most would start with something like; uncovering our “users” needs. While this is undoubtedly important, there is an inherent product-centric mindset in this statement and a focus on individual channels or touchpoints. How do we design a better product with the features the users of our product need? The insurance industry uses the term product to describe the policies sold, or the digital channels used to sell or service them. Unfortunately, few things industry insiders consider products are products in the eyes of those that use them. From a customer perspective, they are very much buying a service when they purchase insurance. In contrast to industry insiders, customers don’t think about insurance regularly, often don’t understand their coverage, and for the most part, hope never to need the service.

When dealing with intangible services like insurance, it is just as crucial to understand and visualise the gaps between channel touchpoints as the touchpoints themselves. Many pain-point and value opportunities exist in the gaps between touchpoints. Thinking from a product development perspective makes it difficult to see or act on gap insights. Often customers will talk about the gaps in UX interviews, but they don’t fit with the product roadmap. Here service design can make a real difference, by mapping gap insights and presenting them from a fully connected, customer-centric perspective. In this way, service design expands engagement opportunities beyond the individual digital channels and touchpoints associated with “product” design and development.

The blind men and the elephant.

The parable of the blind men and the elephant can be traced back at least 2,500 years to Buddhist India. Many cultures worldwide tell a version of the story, and the narrative is widely known. The parable goes something like this: Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant and describes the creature based on their limited subjective experience.

Illustrator unknown — From The Heath readers by grades, D.C. Heath and Company (Boston)

“The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear”.

In some accounts, the blind men begin to distrust one another and come to blows. [Does this sound in any way familiar]? The parable’s moral is that humans tend to claim truth based on their own limited, subject experience and disregard the fact that other people’s subjective reality is equally “true”.

Large organisations are subject to the same blind man and elephant problem individually and within silos. Individuals, often inadvertently, retain crucial insights in their heads, while silos within organisations lock knowledge within the group. Valuable insights are generated over time and left to die in spreadsheets and presentation decks, while individuals leave organisations and carry with them years of knowledge.

In my experience, even within a single department, for example, operations, one team rarely knows the full process, or what happens to the information they pass along. This model of working is very much a product of industrial thinking. Often, early on, this type of specialisation and optimisation works well. But over time, organisations become increasingly complex, fragmented and opaque. A significant part of the service designer’s role is to bring all this critical information together and make it visible so that teams can make more informed decisions. This means obsessing about the customer journey whilst also making sense of and visualising the backstage processes that enable, or more commonly, disable the customer experience.

The metaphor of theatre.

Service designers use theatre and frontstage-backstage as a metaphor for complex organisations. In the theatre, the backstage includes lighting and the lighting crew, electricians, props, costumes, designers, stagehands, and artists enabling the performers to interact with the audience. The equivalent backstage in large organisations is typically the operations personnel, data systems and processes that manage the flow of documents and information. Like the theatre, the insurance backstage includes people and processes that enable the customer service staff, agents, brokers and customer-facing digital channels to perform onstage for customers.

Vienna Opera Backstage, Austria. © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar

The backstage in large organisations, as in theatre, can be complicated. In insurance, there are many players and systems including; underwriters, finance teams, databases, manual and automated process handling, payment gateways and much more. Mapping all these touchpoints creates visibility beyond the touchpoints themselves. Working in this way reveals the gaps and flow relationships between touchpoints. Those involved upstream and downstream are often unaware and surprised by the reasons for hold-ups and are unaware of each other pain-points. Organisations typically don’t suffer from a lack of knowledge. Instead, they breakdown or struggle to transform because of a lack of knowledge sharing and strategic visualisation.

If you walk through a typical corporate office, you will likely see two things displayed on the walls. First, internal brand messaging and alignment slogans will be everywhere; painted on the walls, stickers on glass, displayed as large colourful posters and on noticeboards. Secondly, you will likely come across whiteboards covered in sketches of sprint schedules, or technology stack diagrams. Large organisations are extreme; they display abstract, highly macro messaging, and at the other extreme, micro-level delivery details. Many organisations neglect space for ecosystem maps, blueprints and journeys that enable informed discussion about strategic priorities.

Connect people to the information they need to make the best decisions.

So what is my service design philosophy? Gather insights, bring the outside in, change organisational perspectives from insider to outsider, connect people across the organisation. Map and blueprint with intent, revealing the invisible across the full human experience. Find space on walls in visible areas to display maps and blueprints as living artefacts. Use these artefacts to foster discussions, enabling faster, open and risk reduced decision making. Map to help teams work more effectively together, aligned around clear goals.

My turn now to pass on the question: What is your service design philosophy?



Neil Williams

Service designer, design strategist and researcher working in Hong Kong and across Asia.