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What service design means. How to use service design in your organisation. How to design more user-centred services.

This resource is for anyone who may have heard of service design but isn’t sure what it means or how to do it. 

It will help you understand:

  • Basic service design principles
  • Why service design is relevant to charities and non-profits
  • How to design more user-centred services

What is a service?

In Lou Downe’s book, Good Services, they say ‘A service is something that helps someone do something’. That something could be small and simple, like buying a coffee. Or it could be big and complicated, like applying for asylum. But what all services have in common is that they help someone achieve a goal.

Charities and other non-profits are service providers

If you run a charity, you’re trying to help people do something that they need or want to do. You’ve designed services, even if you've never worked with service designers.

Service design isn’t just a ‘digital’ thing, because there are no digital services. There may be digital parts of your service, but service design involves thinking about all the online AND offline parts of a service. You also need to consider the people, processes and systems you need to deliver the service.

For example, let’s say that your charity offers free online counselling sessions. You may need to think about:

1. How people start using the service

How do people know if they’re eligible for free counselling? How do they book counselling sessions? Do they use an online form, send an email or phone you? Does the user get a booking confirmation?

Who manages the bookings when they come in? What systems do you use to manage the bookings?

2. How people use the service

Do you send the user a reminder before their appointment? What happens when the appointment starts? What happens if the counsellor or the user loses their internet connection?

3. What happens after people use the service

How do you record what happened at the appointment? Do you follow up with the user afterwards to see if they need more support? Do you ask for feedback on the counselling session?

Principles of good service design

Here are a few simple guidelines for designing good services:

Good services meet user needs

You should design your services based on user needs. If you don’t understand the people who use your service and what they need, you can’t build the right thing.

There are lots of different ways to find out about user needs. You might:

  • do research interviews with your users
  • review existing data that you may have, such as web analytics, call centre data or survey data
  • do desk research to see what insights other organisations have about your users.

It's important to challenge your assumptions about what your users need. Find out how to test what you think you know about your users.

Good services are easy to find and use

You can’t help people if they can’t find your service. What you call your service and how you describe it should make it clear what it is and who it’s for. This makes it easy for people - and search engines - to find it.

Your service users should be able to reach their goal in as few steps as possible. They should be able to use your service without having to make their own 'connections'.

Imagine that your charity runs art classes for people in your local area. The bookings, payment processing and teaching are handled by three different departments.

The person attending the classes shouldn’t need to make their own connections between the different parts of the service. They should experience it as one service, regardless of how many different departments are involved.

Your service also shouldn't have any dead ends. People should know what their next step is, even if they aren't eligible for your service.

Good services feel familiar and consistent

Your service should work in a way that matches people’s expectations, based on other services they may have used.

Let’s say you’re designing an online community. People may have used other online communities before, like Facebook or LinkedIn. These platforms use hashtags to cross-reference topics and the ‘@’ symbol to tag someone. If your community uses different symbols instead, this might confuse them, because it doesn't fit their mental model for how online communities work.

It should also feel like one consistent service, regardless of what channel someone is using. For example, you could use the same logo and tone of voice when you talk about your service on your website, your social media channels and the posters you put up in local libraries.

Good services are accessible

You should consider what barriers might prevent someone from using your service. This will help ensure that you don’t accidentally exclude people based on their circumstances or abilities. Accessibility isn’t a nice-to-have - you should build it into your service from the start to the finish. 

Think about how people contact your service as an example. If people can only contact you by phone, people who are deaf or have hearing loss may not be able to use your service. And if people can only contact you via a web form, you may be excluding people with limited digital skills or internet access.

You can assess the accessibility of your website against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) guidelines, which are an internationally recognised set of recommendations for improving web accessibility. They explain how to make the digital parts of your services accessible for people with impairments that affect their:

  • vision
  • hearing
  • mobility
  • speech
  • cognition (thinking and understanding)

But the best way to design accessible services is to include disabled people when you design, research and test your services.

Find out how to make your services accessible.

Good services are a team effort

Service design isn’t just for designers; it’s a team sport. Everything that a charity does has an impact on the experience of the people that it supports, including the systems it uses and the policies and processes it follows. Everyone needs to work together to build good services. One weak link in the team can cause the service to fall apart.

Learn more about service design

You may want to start with the Catalyst course on design thinking if you want to learn more about service design. This self-study course consists of 5 1-hour modules that will help you:

  • understand the changing needs of your communities
  • test ideas quickly
  • build buy-in for adapting
  • plan what to do next when there’s lots to do.

Sign up for the design thinking course.

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39+ organisations share 50+ Guides to how they use digital tools to run their services. Visit Shared Digital Guides.