Mar 23 How Service Design is Reshaping Government and Business

Service design is no longer a siloed practice. Instead, it’s being adopted across every level of massive organizations—from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies—to help them become more competitive. By prioritizing consumer experience, companies are rapidly gaining mind share and customer loyalty. In this article, I’ll explore how service design is responding to the recent phenomenon of wide-scale adoption, and what that means for service designers in the future.


Service design is based on values like empathy building, collaboration, and customer centricity. But these values aren’t always evenly distributed in large corporations. That’s why companies have begun emphasizing design as a core competency for all teams, not just one department. Some are even gaining design expertise through mergers and acquisitions: 42 design firms have been acquired since 2004, primarily by services companies like banks and consultancies. Roughly half of these firms were acquired in the last year.

Still, there’s no how-to guide for acquiring a service design culture. Here’s how a few companies are tackling the problem.

Representing Users Organically

AirBnb is putting its own spin on the practice of sprinkling designers throughout departments. The company has added a member to each project team whose sole purpose is to represent the user. The kicker is that this team member isn’t a designer; it’s an ordinary project manager. AirBnb hopes that this will address the issue of designers creating solutions only they will love. The user-focused perspective is also meant to add conflict to discussions and ultimately lead to more nuanced experiences for customers.

Experimenting With Customers

Capital One is also focusing on visible user representations. Advocates of design thinking within Capital One created their own lab to help internal analysts understand their customers’ experience. This approach stands out because it’s focused on capability building for analysts. At the start of every project, they get two full weeks of training and weekly check-ins with a coach. When projects are wrapped up, the analysts then become design thinking coaches for other teams.

One of the most attention-grabbing projects to come out of Capital One Labs is Café 360, a hybrid coffee shop and banking institution. It serves as an experimental space where Labs members and customers can try new ideas together. One of those ideas? Teaching people how to access Capital One’s online resources in lieu of a teller interaction, which has benefits for both customers and the company’s bottom line.


A Café 360 location in San Francisco (photo credit: Kennejima via Flickr)

Making Design a Priority

The larger and older the corporation, the more intentional transformation must be. Take IBM for example: the computing giant plans to hire 1000 designers by the end of 2016. The company also has plans to implement design thinking training for most of its management workforce.

As they began this shift from a tech-led company to a design-centered one, IBM leaders realized that traditional design thinking methodology wasn’t the right fit. So they created a methododology that blends design thinking with Agile practices. By distributing a manifesto that explains the process, IBM has positioned itself as a leader in design thinking to those both in and outside of the company.

Federal Government

Policy used to be a linear, paper-based process that moved slowly from abstract theories to practical implementation. But the academics who used to generate policy are no longer inventing ideas. Instead, they’re making sense of what’s emerging from the public consciousness. It’s all happening in innovation labs at every level of government.

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This phenomenon is an acknowledgment that experimentation and discovery are credible paths to public welfare. In a very real way, these labs are prototyping the future of government.

Testing With Transparency

18F is a digital services agency that aims to discover how people work and what challenges they face—before the government tests and scales new initiatives.  The team brings on diverse partners to launch pilots and gather feedback that will improve the government’s digital services. And the agency’s transparency is refreshing: 18F’s website shows each project’s key metrics and GitHub code, so anyone can view its progression. Though 18F is only two years old, it seems lightyears ahead of other government entities when it comes to agility and accountability.

Discovering Elegant Solutions

Service design in government hit a new pinnacle with the UK self-service website The site was honored as the most innovative work of the year, beating contenders from fashion, architecture, and product development.

The team began by gathering insights from citizens. Once the team understood how people interacted with government services online—and what was missing from that experience—they carefully blueprinted the site and brought it to life. The results are extraordinary, especially from a US perspective: rolled all of the UK’s federal websites into a single digital platform. Now citizens can register to vote, pay their taxes, apply for a driver’s license, and do much more, all from one location.


More and more people believe that cities should work like services, rather than a set of functions. City planners are revisiting systems like transport, education, and housing to make sure residents are having personalized, proactive experiences with them. Some cities are even acting like startups: as they adopt service design tools, they’re prototyping and testing new ideas in beta mode.

Co-designing With Users

New York City brought together six partners to explore how service design can help financial empowerment services be more effective and accessible. The first stage was understanding the interrelated needs of NYC’s most vulnerable populations, along with the services they use. The team invited community members to co-design those same services alongside policymakers, advocates, and service providers.

The goal was to create a tangible sense of financial empowerment among users of the services. One member of the team remarked, “We want people to feel part of government, not just be passive recipients. Empowerment also means more active citizen participation.”

Providing Simple Guidelines

The Center for Civic Design is a nonprofit that’s teaching public servants how to design better ballots. The group began by gathering usability data on voters, and then applied simple design principles to the issues they uncovered.


Photo credit: Heather Katsoulis via Flickr

What’s impressive, however, is not the research—it’s the implementation. The CCD understood that officials aren’t designers and would require clear, simple instructions as they redesigned each form. So the Center developed field guides to help busy officials apply design thinking principles in minutes.

Ballots redesigned under these principles have helped voters in Ohio, Utah, Pennsylvania, and other states know exactly what they’re voting for. The CCD’s guidelines are meant to ensure voter intent, but it’s easy to see the potential for broader applications.

What’s Next for Service Design?

Organizational change is considered one of the most challenging aspects of modern management, whether we’re talking businesses or government. By approaching change as a series of experiments rather than policy, we demonstrate the power of incremental change to risk-averse leaders. Here’s how I think service design can make an impact in 2016 and beyond.

Design for Behavioral Change

Service design is no longer about making changes from a single juncture. Instead, we’ll see more employees with service design skills embedded at all levels of a business. Their perspectives will contribute to a greater understanding of design thinking among non-designers.

It’s likely that private organizations will lead this training effort, since they have a vested interest in creating industry advocates. They could offer more accredited service design courses with a focus on employee engagement, from personal coaching to curricula that’s built around a company’s culture.

Involve Citizens in the Political Process

It’s clear that the government is using citizen involvement as a pathway to public policymaking. As design thinking is used at larger scales, there’s an opportunity for politicians to involve their constituents in legislative decision-making through design methods.

There’s also an opportunity for innovative government labs to package and sell their design expertise to other agencies.

Reimagine Cities as Personal Entities

The resilient city is built not just on technologies, but also on systems that connect people to one another. If services can tap into the needs and ambitions of citizens, cities will become a more personal presence in everyone’s lives.

Successful city services will connect people to one another by increasing access to education, jobs, healthcare, and government. They’ll succeed because they’re personal, inclusive, and deeply related to the needs and ambitions of those who use them. We’ll see flexible city environments that can meet the needs of residents today and adapt to changing ideals tomorrow.

As the field of service design steps into a new era, the versatility of design reminds us to never stop learning. There are always new paths to explore and expand, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.