Service design anti-patterns

July 12th, 2019 Written by Stein Fletcher

Despite its recent heightened profile – thanks in no small part to the efforts of the UK’s Government Digital Services – the field of Service Design is not as new as you might think. According to a recent article, you can trace its origins from the turn of the 20th century with Taylorism and Human Factors Engineering through to the 1980s when Lynn Shostack first coined the term ‘Service Design’ and it began to emerge as a practice in its own right. Since then, there has been no shortage of articles, books, talks and consultancies describing the benefits, best practices and success stories of this burgeoning field. But what about the failures? What are the pitfalls, the misconceptions, the anti-patterns that can scupper even the most well-intentioned teams?

Here are the most common mistakes I’ve encountered (and made), over the last five years delivering services, and how to avoid them:

Unempowered Service Managers

Turning service design thinking from a plan into implementation takes a lot of work. Often, it requires orchestrating change across a range of areas within an organisation: aligning teams, processes and communications. With this in mind, the person responsible for delivering a service needs to have the knowledge, relationships and authority to make the big decisions required to catalyse the required change. A Product Owner alone won’t cut it. Product Owners should be left to do what they do best: Make timely decisions, set priorities and represent the users throughout the delivery process. An experienced, well-connected Service Manager can not only provide support and escalation for Products Owners but can often be the difference between delivering a cohesive service and disjointed one. Or worse, not delivering a service at all.

Someone’s needs, first

Whilst early incarnations of Service Design were focussed on improving operational processes, starting your design process from the needs of ‘the business’ can often lead teams to lose sight of who they’re providing a service for and why. Inversely, ignoring the needs of the business can lead to impractical solutions and can also have a negative effect on the end user’s experience. For example, reducing the number of questions in a form to make it quicker and easier to complete will increase completion rates and user satisfaction. However, it might also make it harder for someone to review, leading to longer processing times, additional requests for information and reducing satisfaction on both sides. Taking a balanced view of the needs of both service users and providers and considering the impact that certain interventions will have is key to actually improving a service, not just shifting the burden.

Digital service design

Whilst we’re living in a time of the highest internet access and digital skills in history, there will always be someone (likely more than one) who can’t use your digital service. This might be related to a permanent barrier – like a disability or health condition – or something more circumstantial – like waiting for your broadband to be switched on. Digital-only models are attractive to service providers as they create the potential for greater operational and administrative savings whilst providing increased availability to the end-user. However, they can often exclude some people from using the service and lead them to look elsewhere. Similarly, when redesigning an existing service, if you don’t extend your scope to the offline touch-points and support processes you’ll quickly create a disconnected or inconsistent experience.

Understanding your users’ behaviour and designing a service with the appropriate touch-points and channels in place ensures everyone receives the same great level of service.

Up-front process

Service Design is not just making blueprints. It’s not about trying to document a near-perfect vision of the future and then handing it over for someone else to deliver. The output of Service Design should be – as with all other fields of design – the thing you’re designing: the service. The longer you spend designing upfront, the longer it takes to get real feedback, and there’s a real possibility you may get stuck and never actually deliver anything. Detaching design and implementation is rarely effective, particularly when the thing you’re designing has so many moving parts. A more successful approach is to cross the river by feeling the stones, as popularised by Deng Xiaoping: breaking down the challenge into small chunks, designing incrementally and adapting quickly to feedback. It’s also worth emphasising that Service Design doesn’t necessarily have to be done by Service Designers (possibly an anti-pattern, itself). Whilst these individuals can often help give form to an initial vision and coach less familiar team, the goal should be for the team to take responsibility for continuously optimising the service and designing it around user needs.

These are the most common pitfalls I’ve encountered, I’d love to hear from others what their experiences are.


Stein Fletcher, Principal Consultant, Infinity Works London

Written by Stein Fletcher