Illustration of a brain inside a head

26 Oct 2017

Service design: reflections from the field


From prototypes to digging deep into user experiences - here’s what we’ve learnt.

The public realm of services we experience is delivered by a rich mix of institutions across the public, private, and third sector. At Snook we’re fortunate to experience all these different perspectives. People often think they are quite different but we’ve been struck by how the diverse organisations we’ve worked with, from small charities to the UN, face very similar challenges. These are our observations, what do you think?

1. Services are still being launched with little to no user research and testing

Despite the growth of the service design sector, we are amazed by the number of organisations who still launch services with little to no user research and even less testing. We suspect it may be due to a lack of awareness of the service design industry, with companies relying on a build and they will come attitude. Furthermore companies might be weary of the perceived cost. However, investing in service design from the offset is a lot better than designing, developing, and launching a service and getting it wrong – both for the company’s bank balance and reputation.

2. Clients have been burnt by new services not delivering

Some of our clients come to us at a point of crisis. They have launched a new service or  product and it has failed. This usually ends up in it needing to be withdrawn as they haven’t seen the sales, income, or cost-savings that they had anticipated. Events like these have a huge impact on the state of mind of the client and a huge impact on the project. It tends to make the organisation go one of two ways. Either they are very keen to try to something new or they become risk-averse and wary of change.

3. Launching a digital touchpoint without designing the entire service behind it

Over the past couple of years, there has been a huge push to digitise services across all sectors, aiming to meet user needs, do more with less, and reach new markets. However, a digital touchpoint (a feature on a website, a new app, or a new online form) doesn’t exist in isolation. It needs to be embedded in an entire service, linking up with internal communication channels and responsibilities.

4. Focus on the needs, not wants

While surveys have their use they can also be misleading. This is because they focus on what users say they want instead of focusing on what they really need. The Hawthorne effect can cause people to modify an aspect of their behaviour when they’re observed, giving answers that may not reflect their true needs and wants. In addition to this when we ask people what they want, quite often a logical response is created – there’s a level of expectation or desired behaviour vs real behaviour.

An example of this would be when we recently asked people what they want from a restaurant, healthy options came up pretty high. But observations showed that, even when healthy choices are available, people still choose unhealthier options. They said they wanted variety but later on in the conversation mentioned having a baked potato every day.

The researcher must also able to look at future needs. We met two different people who were delighted with their new accommodation and would have given a 5-star rating in a survey. However when we visited them, we could tell that their new housing would become unsuitable in the medium term. User research needs to go beyond what people say they want to do to (surveys), observe what they actually do (shadowing), and get to why they do what they do (ethnography).

5. Expecting a fully-fledged solution out of a discovery phase

For teams who have never done an agile project before, jumping into design and implementation can be a challenge due to the pace. For example, there might be a temptation to expect fully-fledged solutions too early in the process. A research project identifies opportunities, however, it doesn’t identify all the ins and outs of what you need to do in the future. It can give you a list of things to think about before designing a pilot (alpha) which will then need to be tested further.

6. What do you already know?

Although a user-centred approach might be new to the organisation, it needs to absorb the ‘usual way of doing things’, ignoring them would actually increase the risks of the project. Similarly we need our contact points within the organisation to become data-detectives or insight-detectives addressing the following questions:

  • What do you already know about the subject?
  • What previous projects have been done?
  • Is there any survey data available?

Utilising cross-reference quantitative research with the qualitative insights will yield a deeper understanding.

7. Don’t just jump to the first idea

Some opportunities to meet user needs will jump to mind pretty quickly. It is always tempting to jump forward and think we’ve found the solution. However, just because it’s the first idea doesn’t mean that it’s the best idea. Instead, you need to brainstorm dozens of new ideas. You can ask yourself:

  • What might be a quick fix?
  • What If we could do full redesign without any financial or logistical constraints?
  • What might we be able to design given the organisation’s appetite for innovation, investment, and risk?

Exploring these answers allows us to come up with stronger solutions.

8. Don’t skip prototypes

“Prototypes help find the problems with the design of your service and decide how you’ll solve them, make some estimates about how much your service will cost, identify the biggest risks for the beta stage, as early as possible.” – Government Digital Service Service Manual

Skipping the prototype phase is also a costly mistake.

Prototypes allow you to dig into needs and how people might use a service and functionalities. See them as a continued research tool, not just a building block. The Devil’s in the detail and getting the (deceivingly) small functionalities or language points of a service right make a big difference.

9. Make your pilots as small as possible

We often encourage clients to make the pilots as small as they can get get them. The point is to continue to test and monitor a new service in a live setting. It will be a lot cheaper to get it wrong with 100 customers than with 1,000. A small pilot means that the clients have the capacity to monitor it and not be overwhelmed.

Some clients have really been struggling with this. They are keen to apply the new approach or new technology to the areas that have the most potential in terms of income or cost saving. We are advocating instead, to start with the low-hanging fruit to give you space to learn, make mistakes, and most importantly deliver value to users early on.


We are user researchers and service designers. We live and breathe with the idea of digging deep into user experiences, journeys, and motivations before designing anything. We then prototype, test and iterate. With every project we need to remember that our clients come from a different starting point, with varying expectations and apprehensions. We need to continue placing ourselves in their shoes to take them on a journey with us.