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What is a service? – an exercise

13 January, 2011

When talking about a service surprisingly few people can easily rattle off a definition. In my experience, people generally have some concept in mind but don’t think about it very consciously. No surprise because it is intangible, open yet time-bound, and a mix of things, feelings and goals.

The definition I like (an amalgamation of many sources so none in particular is referenced) is the following:

A service is the seeking and receipt of a specific outcome of a customer across a range of interactions and touchpoints over time.


As I train designers in the field of service design I have come up* with an exercise to dig into what a service is at a personal level – so people who need to design services really get what it means from a thinking, doing, user-human perspective. (NB: the definition of ‘experience’ I subscribe to is what people think – do – use. This is a key reference in the following exercise)

The following exercise takes about 15 minutes. I run it before any training on service design 101, customer experience mapping, service blueprinting or when talking non-designers (generally managers – more on this in a future post). I’ve run it about 12 times now so I’m pretty confident that it works.

What you need:

  • Whiteboard
  • Group of people – no more than 8 if you can help it – especially if you want everyone to contribute

To begin:

  • Ask: “What’s a service

Write the question on a whiteboard and ask what do people think. There isn’t an expected answer – this question usually reveals that people don’t have a clear view of what a service is. You often get ‘product’ answers: ‘it’s a thing’, or an academic response” ‘it’s the exchange of money for desired goods’ or a business answer: ‘it’s a transaction’.

From the random verbatim comments you capture on the board, follow-up with: What’s different about a service from the perspective of 1) a business? 2) a customer?

By now the participants realise that most of their answers are from the business perspective – not a feeling, thinking, human-customer perspective. You may get some customer representation but a strong business perspective is more common. And this is good – if everyone in the room is articulate about what a service is you can wrap up early!

The reason to ask what’s different about the perspectives is to get them thinking at a high level about the engagement of a service by a customer, and all that’s involved regarding the access and delivery of a service.

At this point you can give a definition (this is useful if talking to managers) or you can say: ”That’s great if you’re not certain because the point of the following exercise is to drill into what a service is from a customer perspective.”

Starting the exercise:
Get to a blank screen on your whiteboard and start by saying “what we’re going to do now is explore a service – I want you to think of this from your personal perspective, you as a private citizen – not you as a civil servant (which is where I work) or as a business person (who the civil servants facilitate the design with). You’re likely to have to remind people of this throughout because they may slip into ‘functional’ language or try to turn it into a ‘business problem’ for them to solve.

Below is the output you’ll ultimately produce. The numbers correspond to the sequenced components of the exercise as follows:

1. Write up the service topic you’re exploring

It has to be one that you can extract a specific and simple service (not a product) – this sounds like a no-brainer but quite difficult to come up with the right kind of service for the exercise, one that bears some relation to your own business but isn’t your business, and truly has multiple interactions that aren’t just one business.  I have used two services and service topics that work well:

  • parking a car – which starts with “Who owns a car” – you can explore local councils, police, parking buildings, garages, maintenance, regulatory agencies – it’s a very rich example. Or
  • redeeming points in a loyalty programme – which starts with ‘loyalty programmes’ – which is the example we’ll be using.

As you write-up your service topic, in this example “loyalty programmes” ask the room “who belongs to a loyalty programme, like FlyBuys, Frequent Flyer miles, etc?” to get the conversation started.

Write-up and ask the following:

2. Why?” […do you belong?] – capture what people say
3. “What’s involved?” […in belonging to loyalty programme?] – capture what people say
4. “What organisations?” [are involved in a loyalty programme?] – capture what people say

5. Identify the think, do, use, (i.e. definition of experience) interaction, touchpoint elements

  • Think – you all have different drivers motivators for belonging
  • Do – you all do different things to maintain and utilise the loyalty programme service
  • Use – there are different touchpoints, activities, organisations you use to access loyalty rewards and manage points
  • Touchpoints and interactions – there are different people, organisations – some obvious, some not so obvious that you or the loyalty programme is connected to to make the loyalty programme work

This is the first part of the exercise and hopefully, some nods and revelations ensue – “ah, yes it isn’t just a transaction”, “people do do things differently”.

6. Now you’re going to take the above and pick out an actual service related to the topic. In the example it’s:

“Redeeming points for a toaster” (this is deliberately crossed out and replaced with “Getting a toaster from flybuys” because what customer would really say “redeeming points”?!)

7. From here, you’re basically facilitating the conversation about what it’s really like, based on the experience in the room of getting a product from flybuys
What are the steps and activities, thoughts and considerations that actually take place?

NB: You should do a private practice run before you do this with a group – just to avoid people starting at ‘I go online and redeem the points’ so you can prompt them to start at the point of ‘I want a new toaster’.

Often someone will dominate and believe their experience is the common experience and expect the discussion to be wrapped up quickly. It is real delight when someone else pipes up with “You do that? I don’t do it that way” followed by a “me either!” It’s like they become humans talking about their different and valid experiences and expectations – which is exactly the point.

8. Underneath the experience and activities capture separately the touchpoints and interactions
People often do well in this because they get channels – but they don’t always see all the users, and you can help them draw this out

9. Because this example is used as the intro to customer experience map training, circling this section represents the experience that can be mapped because it represents how the service is experienced

10. Because this example is used as the intro to service blueprint training, circling this section represents the service that can be blueprinted becuase it represents how the service works

I have not run this exercise without success. The exercise itself is enjoyable to run and I have had extremely positive feedback from people who’ve gone through it. I think it works because people are able to engage at a personal level – by sharing, they become like the abstract customer they are designing for, they walk in a customers shoes because they are customers. And by hearing other “customer” experiences they realise their experience isn’t the only, or even the right one. With many customer and many experiences this is where the value of service design can be demonstrated.

I’d love to hear any feedback or suggestions you may have.

* Getting the exercise to this point wouldn’t have happened without directional input and finessing from Rachael Smith. Every designer needs a collaborator!

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Leslie permalink
    31 August, 2011 4:42 am

    What an insightful exercise. I think the key here is that a service is really not a service unless it meets a user goal that is meaningful. Thanks, Mel.

    • 1 September, 2011 12:03 am

      Agreed. Thanks former Mrs Design Mentor ; )

  2. stani permalink
    3 December, 2011 1:51 am


    could you please provide the source for the used definition of service?

    “A service is the seeking and receipt of a specific outcome of a customer across a range of interactions and touchpoints over time.”

    • 3 December, 2011 6:39 am

      The source is me, based on 7 years of trying to define it simply from seeing multiple definitions.

  3. 25 November, 2012 1:23 am



  1. links for 2011-01-20 | Michael Ong | On9 Systems
  2. Também teremos Design de Serviços | Interaction South America 2011
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  4. Not a year in review, because it’s nearly February…so it’s more an annual post! (Still with the long titles though) |

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