Being Holistic in doing Service Design

“…we have seen design grow from a trade activity… to a field for technical research and now… as new liberal art of technological culture”

— Richard Buchanan

Digital Transformations and Service Design

Design work no longer involves working only with creative artefacts. Service designers have been surpassing the realm of product design and communication design to proactively involve themselves in strategic planning either to solve existing problems in the organization or create new avenues for business growth. With depleting global reserves, increasing awareness of sustainability and circular economy, and increasing accessibility to advanced digital capabilities, servitization of business has been one of the important industry transformations of the decade. Product companies are gradually shifting to service based business models this creating new services as their primary customer offerings. Furthermore, the onset of Industry 4.0, advanced digitalization has enabled organizations to build a strong digital technology base to foster their servitization plans and provide better customer experiences.

Holism – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Service design, the discipline in design which focuses its approaches in creating experiential and valuable services as outcomes, primarily vests its approaches around 5 design principles:



designing services that effectively and efficiently caters to stakeholder needs, concerns, and intents.



designing services with participation of primary users, experts, and other stakeholders of the service ecosystem.



deconstructing user journeys into pre-during-post activities to analyze and innovate on.



includes research of case studies that validates designed service interactions and also create effective prototypes for stakeholders to understand the service details and associated complications clearly.



cater to the problems and concerns of all the involved stakeholders in the service system.

Holistic Design has been a critical topic of discussion among researchers in design. Holism in design includes designing interventions (products, services, and interactions) in such a way that it takes care of the needs, intents, and challenges faced by all the stakeholders involved in the given service ecosystem. It includes not just the end customers but also the different types of service providers who provide the intended customer experience.

Easier said than done, in service design practice it gets complicated. An usual service of business organizations involves people from a wide variety of culture, traditional practice, expertise, and domains of work. People whom you collaborate with for design exercises (collaborative design) come from varied domains. They bring years of traditional experience and often have rigid beliefs and genuine concerns. Furthermore, amidst many different models of design idea evaluation, choosing the right method that can predict close to actual impact is a challenge in itself. Analyzing large sets of data and designing an optimal concept that satisfies multiple stakeholders and qualifies multiple parameters of being a ‘good idea for business and society’ requires a systemic design approach.

Holistic customer experience

One of primary objectives of holistic design is to provide holistic experiences to the business customer or primary users of the designed services. Customer experiences are entwined in the value generated out of the complex interactions of the customer with the different service touchpoints (human-digital product interactions, and human-human interactions). Researchers Ioannis Bellos and Stylianos Kavadias in their paper: Service design for a holistic customer experience: A process framework highlight that the optimal design strategy for holistic customer experience can be outlined in terms of the “pricing and investment of the provider’s effort across the different service touchpoints”. Hence, it is important to focus on enhancing interactional experience across the complete journey of the customer, carefully analyzing the encounters and the value it generates from holistic perspectives.

For the ones who deliver the services

Companies have been increasingly investing in design of internal services to provide best-in-class experience to its employees. Service industry is quickly picking up the mantra of “happy employees make happy customers”. We have talked about it in detail in our paper: Transforming organizational services through service design. Happy and satisfied employees leads to customer experience, innovation, and overall business growth. Employees’ retention and productivity can be developed many folds by helping them in maintaining their wellbeing needs, learnings, aspirations to have a positive growth. This subsequently reflects in the productivity of employees and the interactions with customer across the service touchpoints.

Changes in the environment we live in now

Covid19 pandemic’s after effects have been important to how business interactions are transforming now. While social distancing and work from home has limited the face-to-face meetings and social gatherings that we usually used to have, digital mediums are gradually leading to several behavior changes.

Communication is no longer restricted to difficulties of transportation (you don’t have to take a flight to attend a meeting) and you could connect with colleagues from several locations at once. Businesses are adapting to any-time communication (its no longer just 9 to 5), providing more flexibility in time scheduling. This is now seen as a virtue as individuals can carry their businesses comfortably from their own choice of location and can also dedicate time of choice for themselves and their family. It is gradually apparent that wellbeing of oneself and family has been the priority behind many decision making processes for customers as well as employees of the organization.

So, how do we do holistic service design in business?

Business organizations, today, leverage design thinking and agile processes to innovate new products, services, and systems. Design training in the corporate learning pedagogy has been critical in making organizational employees come out of traditional silos of work practices and collaborate across domains to ideate creative solutions to their problems. However, it is important that innovation methods and processes are not just copied from successful case studies but is allowed to emerge from the contextual design process. To do that it is important to have some ground rules or directions to approach.

So, how do we make sure that our design approach is holistic in nature, i.e., effectively and efficiently caters to the problems of all the stakeholders (our customers, our employees, and our business). The idea is simple:

  1. to make sure you understand all the people who give and take from the service (or its ecosystem), their contexts, involvement, and constraints,
  2. gather the right people in the organization for the right problem in hand and do quick design sprints collaboratively, and
  3. take a quality check whether your new design fulfills the objectives you had envisioned and contributes towards holistic value creation.

3-step holistic service design approach


Curate holistic problem inquiry

There are many stakeholders in the service system. Its important to make sure everyone is effectively listened to.


Organize short innovation cycles

Take smaller steps. Simplify, deconstruct problems into shortened scopes and facilitate agile methods in participatory design (people, process, and methods)


Assess completeness in service quality

Service needs to generate the expected outcome in terms of holistic value creation

Holistic and empathetic design inquiry

Empathy is an important issue to create holism in service design interventions. Whereas design practice is trained to derive directions by practicing empathy for all, it is far more a difficult goal to achieve in business organizations. In organizations, given the sheer diversity of users, one standard doesn’t satisfy everyone. Business organizations often end up prioritizing the experience of one section of users, generally the customer, over other stakeholders (like the service delivery staff, its own employees).

Ravi Mahamuni, PhD in service design, also a colleague I had the privilege of working with for the last four years, has explored the concept of Empathy Square to build service designers’ consciousness on collective empathy of the various stakeholders involved in a service ecosystem rather than a single user group or segment. It highlights the act of balancing the needs and problems of four nodes or segments of stakeholders, namely Service User, Service Provider, Human Touchpoints, and Society and Environment. The focus area of the Empathy Square concept is to balance the intents (latent and stated), concerns and constraints, and resources available to each stakeholder segment and then conceptualize a design intervention. This is beneficial to service design process as Ravi also demonstrates in his papers.

What design research needs is to build tools to inquire the different segments of the vast number of users who provide effort and benefit from the service and also triangulate the data gathered from each segment to balance the needs and concerns to derive the final design brief. Here its is important that the plurality of user personas is effectively reflected in the research data.

Engaging into short innovation cycles

Design thinking and service design are critical to innovations on new services, and the industry is enlarging its capabilities to adapt to design-led transformations. Its critical how rigorous user researches are conducted since they are time consuming processes, and how design ideation happens from the rich data sets on user problems that are collected through research.

Competence on Agile Process and Design Thinking has become one of the necessary attributes both for buyers and sellers in business organizations. However, transformation of workforce to agile processes has to escape the traditional bureaucracy of organizations as clarity of goals, process, and timeliness are critical to the later. This is different from the facilitating conditions where innovation process usually survive and flourish. It is important to note that agile processes are bottom-up managed whereas organizations are attuned to work in top-bottom approaches. This needs a separate detailed research on the transformation of agile processes in organizations with regards to the post pandemic changes and the related transformations in organizations.

However, what seems to work is innovating in shorter cycles.

  • Deconstruct and narrow down the problem scope
  • Organize quick but quality research
  • Quicken the collaboration schedules for ideation
  • Implement smaller chunks of services from the entire service concept to validate services and tweak changes
  • Repeat until you can call the designer-ly ‘stop’

This makes sure that resources are judiciously used for experimentation such that quick actions could be taken from the results of quick innovation. Also for businesses, organizational changes are gradual, providing adequate time to internal employees for adapting to new changes. This is where technology enablement takes the center stage by connecting different stakeholders and assessing large sets of user and industry problem data.

Assess and Enrich Service Quality

It is critical to evaluate if the new idea actually makes sense in the customer field and its output qualifies as business for the company. Does it make money? Does it solve the problems of customer? How would I make my resources trained up to the mark that they can deliver the new idea as a commodity to the customers? These are important questions we often ask once we have a lot of ideas and our design team has favored some idea over the others. This is the quality check part.

So how do we assess, evaluate or measure the holistic quality of the service. We need to evaluate how our stakeholders: users, providers, and decision makers are impacted by our new idea. There are multiple models in literature to assess the quality of the service like Technical and functional quality model, GAP model, Attribute service quality model, and 16 other models that N Seth et. al. discuss and compare in their paper: Service quality models: a review. From the models discussed, N Seth conclude that internal service quality is a function of processes and operations associated in delivery service and it directly impacts the customer service quality. So, in holistic design approach, we assess the quality of the service from holistic POVs of service design : whether the new service satisfies the quality dimensions for each of the stakeholder or groups involved in the given service system.

  1. For your customers: Does it build Customer Loyalty? This involves evaluating the service from the purview of the customer experience that one gets from the different involved service touchpoints. This involves evaluating how the technical and functional quality of services, pricing, business models, leads to higher loyalty and experiential value. This is a widely researched topic and there are multiple models to evaluate customer experience. However it is fairly important to not just copy and paste methods from successful case studies of others, but rather carefully pick approaches based on the problem in consideration and the time available for the design process cycles.
  2. For your employees: Does it facilitate Employee Engagement? To inspect the human and technological resources, and related organizational alignments required to create and deliver such customer experiences. It is necessary to evaluate if it create ample employee engagement to innovate, implement and reflect on the service concepts. If the employee is engaged, happy and is able to take care of wellbeing of self, family and colleagues, it will considerably impact the interactions with customer and the quality of outcomes.
  3. For people at large: Does it create Societal Value? It is primary to evaluate the idea from the societal value perspectives (social capital, sustainability) and look at the byproducts that get generated with the new idea. If we undertake circular economy principles under consideration, repair, recycle, reuse, of waste streams from the conceptualized idea can enhance overall returns on investment from the service concept. Creating the right societal value will lead to better promotion of business, consecutively building the organizational ‘image’. Organizational image is how customers and public perceive your service as. Many aspects of the service contributes to the organizational ‘image’: such as the ideology, pricing, word-of-mouth, and public relationships.

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