Published:
Dec 1, 2023

Service Design Heuristics

In 2014/15, Nick Crampton and I worked on a set of 10 service design heuristics, as part of our work at Usability Matters. We were inspired by the idea of usability heuristics, including the now classic Nielsen Norman set. We were curious about whether we could distill a set of principles that could be broadly applied to services as evaluative and generative tool.

The 10 Service Design Heuristics

Since then, there have been many more explorations of service design principles, such as Lou Downe's excellent Good Services book and principles and Daniele Catalanotto's Service Design Principles book series.

The original set of heuristics Nick and I developed is reposted here, including examples! It's interesting to see how services have evolved, and how these principles remain timeless! 

Address real need

Solve people’s problems while providing value that feels like it’s worth the effort.

Base service models on needs identified from contextual research with people.

A good service should make life easier. Understanding how actors (any person involved in the creation, delivery, support or use of a service) interact with a service in the real world is the best way to understand how well the service performs.

Things to consider:
  • Is the value the service provides to actors worth the effort of interacting with it?
  • What real needs does this service address?
  • What needs could be better addressed?

Service example: GOV.UK

In 2013 the UK government set out to redesign 25 of their major services to be simpler, clearer and faster to use. These are services that people interact with every day and in are in many cases mandatory (such as visa applications and prison visit bookings).

One of the guiding design principles the Government Digital Services (GDS) team adhered to was to “start with needs” (and further clarified “user needs, not government needs”).

Screen-capture of Government Digital Services 10 guiding design principles

This guided a shift in approach from providing “articles” from each government agency explaining how to use the various services they provide, to structuring all communication based on user needs (or “tasks”).

Screen-capture of the GOV.UK website

This shift meant that user needs could now be grouped and prioritized, which led to a service experience that is much more user-centred (rather than government-centred) and that allows people to find the information and go through the transactions they need with considerably less cognitive effort. The gov.uk team used traffic and search data to determine which needs people were trying to meet. Understanding needs in context using available data was a key input into the grouping and prioritization of needs.

Using the new GOV.UK site certainly feels worth the effort when the answers a user is looking for can be found with a few short clicks. It also meets strict accessibility standards, so that as many people’s needs as possible are addressed.

Clarity of service offering

Provide a clear service offering, in familiar terms. Actors should easily grasp if a service is right for them, and what they are trying to deliver.

This heuristic asks how easy it is for an actor to understand what a service does and whether it is right for them. Clarity comes from demonstrating a clear value proposition.

Things to consider:
  • What can this service do?
  • How might an actor interact with it?
  • Is it clear if the service will be a good fit for an actor and vice versa?

Service example: Actors’ Fund of Canada

The Actors’ Fund provides aid to individuals in the cultural or entertainment industry who are in need of emergency assistance. The process is initiated when a request form is submitted. This process requires detailed review and a quick response to ensure that eligible applicants get the critical funding they need and that the disbursement process meets due diligence criteria.

Prior to the redesign, it was unclear to applicants if they were eligible to receive aid, and what types of costs the aid would be able to cover. This led to much frustration and wasted time for both applicants (who might go through the whole application process only to find out they were never eligible), and for caseworkers (who spent too much time discerning if an applicant was eligible and following up).

The redesigned Actors' Fund application form


The redesigned application form clearly outlines what eligibility criteria must be met to apply and what costs the Fund can help right up front before the application process begins.

Results from initial testing showed the number of incomplete or ineligible applications were considerably reduced. By clearly communicating the service offering upfront, the service experience is much smoother for applicants and service providers.

Build lasting relationships

The service system should support appropriate interactions, allow for flexibility of use, and foster ongoing relationships. The right level of engagement supports an evolving service experience.

The quality of the interactions that actors within a service system have with one another throughout the customer lifecycle, and how they build on each other to result in an overall positive service experience forms the basis of this heuristic.

Things to consider:
  • When is it appropriate to provide self-serve options?
  • When is a human interaction more appropriate?
  • Does the relationship between actors evolve over time or does it start at square one with each interaction?

Service example: Apple My Support Profile

Apple provides My Support Profile, an online tool that allows customers to keep track of the products they own, any service cases or repairs related to those products as well as communication preferences.

The profile allows Apple’s customer service team to build an enduring relationship with customers, having access to all previous service cases and outcomes as well as providing customers with a better sense of control and visibility of their relationship with Apple support.

Screen-capture of the apple support/profile website

Apple’s VoicePass functionality in the profile eliminates the need for lengthy explanations from customers about a technical or service problem each time they call. Customers identify the issue or type of service required through the web interface and the customer can choose at what point they would like to initiate a human interaction with a service representative by either phone, SMS or live chat.

Screen-capture of the apple support options page
Alternate service example: NYC 311

Many municipal governments around the world provide less than stellar service experiences via their non-emergency hotlines.

Residents must usually call interactive voice response (IVR) systems to get information or lodge complaints and must often sift through lengthy lists of options and re-explain their situation to several city staff members as they get passed from one department to another.

Screen-capture of the NYC 311 website

The City of New York overhauled their customer service experience in 2013. The revamped service includes an improved web interface and a mobile app that allow residents to, among other things, better triage and track complaints to NYC service staff.

Residents who have a complaint with the city can self-select from common categories or issues and provide further details to the city support staff. A unique case number is generated, the resident gets a confirmation email and they can check back on the status of their complaint at any time.

Screen-captures of the NYC 311 iPhone app

Residents no longer need to re-explain their complaint or even remember convoluted case numbers as a continuous, evolving relationship is fostered between residents and NYC service staff. NYC 311’s customer satisfaction ratings now surpass even the highest-performing private-sector call centres, according to a study conducted using the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Centre at NYU explains the impact of this service:

“For the first time, we now have a real handle on what troubles New Yorkers. And New Yorkers have a place they can communicate without having an intermediary. In a city as large as New York, knowing who to turn to is the most difficult challenge there is. It’s amazing how fast it’s become part of the city’s culture.”

Leverage existing resources

Consider the whole system and what existing parts could be used to better deliver the service. Find opportunities to augment, repurpose, or redeploy resources.

Good service design finds ways to build on existing systems and assets.

Things to consider:
  • Are there ways to piggyback on what currently exists?
  • Can the service be more efficiently deployed or create additional value with existing resources?

Service example: ColaLife

This service piggybacks aid delivery on Coca Cola’s global distribution network. Simon Berry’s ColaLife charity saw an opportunity to transport life-saving oral rehydration solution (ORS) to remote areas of places like Zambia — where diarrhea was the second-biggest cause of easily preventable death amongst children.

ColaLife’s Anti-Diarrheal Kit in AidPod Mark VII
Image Credit: ADK in AidPod Mark VII courtesy of Simon Berry, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

ColaLife developed a wedge-shaped container (AidPod) that fits between the necks of bottles in a Coca Cola crate to make use of the space that would otherwise be wasted. The package also acts as a measuring cup and storage container. This type of multi-use touchpoint exemplifies leveraging existing resources.

Distributors and wholesalers inspect different crates and bottles
Image Credit: Different crates and bottles courtesy of Simon Berry, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Interestingly, many of the current anti-diarrhea kit retailers have not made use of the Coca-Cola crate compatibility. However, by gaining access to Coke’s wholesalers, ColaLife is also leveraging the principles that allow Coke to be so successful at distributing its product.

What makes this a successful service design is that by taking advantage of Coca Cola’s existing distribution network ColaLife has been able to make their kits affordable enough so that all service partners (wholesalers, distributors, retailers and, of course, customers) benefit.

Building on what already exists, and making sure that each touchpoint creates value by being multipurpose creates a strong service proposition.

Consistency across channels and at all scales

Continuity of brand, experience and information should exist around the entire service system. Actors should be able to seamlessly move across channels.

This heuristic helps determine if a continuous service experience exists as actors move between the different channels through which a service is delivered and at all scales of the service, from micro-interactions through to the overall service relationship.

Things to consider:
  • Is information provided to the system in one channel available and consistent in others?
  • Do all touchpoints feel like they belong to the same brand and experience?

Service example: Starbucks

The Starbucks rewards program gives customers the option to top up their Starbucks card balance on their phone with a mobile app, online with the Starbucks website, or in store with the help of a barista.

Any card balance or profile changes are reflected in real-time across all channels. This means that regardless of the touchpoint a customer uses, the information will be up-to-date. In tandem with this, the experience and brand feels consistent in terms of visual design and tone of interaction.

This holistic multichannel experience also extends to payment and earning rewards. Paying for a cup of coffee can be done with a physical rewards card or using the Starbucks mobile app. Reward points are also updated in real-time on the customer’s account without any action required on the customer’s part.

Starbucks’ multichannel experience allows for smooth channel switching as well as providing a consistent brand manifestation across the board — exemplifying this heuristic.

Screen-capture of Starbucks app

Graceful entry and exits

Provide flexible, natural entry and exit points to and from the service. Consider when it is appropriate for actors to jump in, or to achieve closure.

This heuristic asks if the service can begin and end at natural, appropriate moments for all actors.

Things to consider:
  • Can a customer start interacting with the service when they want?
  • Can the customers stop interacting with the service on their own terms?
  • Is it easy to pick up and put down a service interaction?
  • Can the service provider still complete the transactions they need to maintain the service while allowing customers to come and go as they please?

Service example: Public Transit Passes in Toronto, Canada and London, England

Getting around quickly is an essential part of city life. The experience of gaining and maintaining access to public transit runs the gamut between archaic and clunky to smooth and modern from one city to another.

In Toronto, Canada, weekly and monthly Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) passes are available, but they are only activated on the first day of the week or month respectively, regardless of the day on which they are purchased. Passes can also only be purchased at select stations between certain hours and only certain payment methods are accepted.

These rigid entry and exit points to the service mean the actual value of the passes decline continually as the week or month continues while the cost remains the same.

TTC Metropasses provide rigid entry and exit to the system, decreasing in value as the week or month continues, while the cost remains the same.

The Oyster program in London, UK, on the other hand, allows customers to access the transit system through a cashless, pay-per-use model.

A customer can obtain and activate an Oyster card whenever they choose, either online or at ticket booths around the city, allowing for smooth entry to the service. The cards also allow precise, distance-based fares since customers scan in and out of the transit network.

Oyster cards don’t have a fixed expiry date, as customers can continuously top up their cards, either automatically or manually online or at a kiosk. This means that customers can choose to exit the service on their terms once they have used up their credit.

These graceful entry and exit points help provide a better overall service experience in London than the rigid options for accessing transit service in Toronto.

Oyster cards allow for flexible entries and exits to and from the public transit service in London, UK
Image Credit: londondesigner.com via Compfight cc

Set expectations

Let actors know succinctly what to expect. Assist understanding of where they are in the system through the design of environments and information.

Nobody enjoys feeling adrift in a process or environment they don’t understand. This heuristic asks if people can orient themselves in a service experience, through such factors as the design of specific touchpoints themselves, or the design of supports, for example maps, supplementary information or assistive interventions.

Things to consider:
  • Do actors know what will happen next?
  • Is it easy to locate themselves physically within a bricks and mortar touchpoint, (like a store), or conceptually within a process, (like a billing cycle)?
  • Is it easy to way-find within the service?

Service example: Zipcar

Zipcar does a great job of setting expectations across multiple aspects of the service. Since it relies on a self-service business model, it is critical for Zipcar to embrace this heuristic.

Setting expectations is done well through the design of physical onboarding materials. When a new member joins Zipcar, along with their “Zipcard” (membership card and access key) they receive a simple welcome kit in the mail. Along with the basic steps for first-time use, customers are also presented with the “6 simple rules” of using a Zipcar. Covering these at one of the first major touchpoints takes care of most of the common questions a new customer might have and sets behavioural expectations. It also helps the customer orient themselves in the process of using and returning a Zipcar.

Photos taken of Zipcar flyer with their 6 simple rules noted
Zipcar pays attention to setting expectations

Another example of good expectation setting is the “Where I live” information that is included with a Zipcar reservation confirmation email. This granular, detailed information assists people in locating their vehicle, a crucial touchpoint and service interaction.

By paying attention to expectation setting, Zipcar maximizes the opportunity for successful service experience.

The “Where I Live” information in a Zipcar reservation confirmation email guides drivers to their car step-by-step.]

The right information at the right time

Tell the actors and the system what they need to know with the right level of detail, at the right time. Weigh the costs and benefits of providing more or less precise information.

People are inundated with information and data. Good service design helps actors make informed decisions without becoming overwhelmed.

Things to consider:
  • Does the service strategically curate and filter information so that it is contextual and timely?
  • Are actors provided with the information they need at the point of decision-making?
  • Is the balance of precision and ease of comprehension appropriate for the service?

Service example: Uber

When an Uber passenger wants to get picked up in a hurry, it’s crucial that the driver know the passenger’s location with quite a high level of precision in order for the pick-up experience to go smoothly. A positive service experience hinges on either reliable GPS data or accurate manual entry by the passenger.

The difference between whether the driver thinks the passenger is standing on the north or south side of a busy boulevard can mean the difference between a speedy pick-up and a drawn-out, frustrating wait for the both passenger and driver (and a potentially dangerous experience for the driver if a phone call or U-turn is necessary). The precision of this data has a high impact on the service experience.

Screenshots of Uber app, setting pickup location and requesting an uber with payment
Hailing an Uber requires some high-precision location information from the passenger to ensure a smooth service experience.

On the other hand, a precise drop-off location is not crucial information at the time of hailing, though it does help the driver choose the most efficient route before the passenger even hops in.

Is the cost of asking the passenger to enter their drop-off location worth the value to the driver of being able to pre-chart their route?

Alternate service example: Fresh City Farms

Fresh City Farms delivers organic produce to Torontonians’ doorsteps every week. In this service experience, a fair amount of ambiguity is acceptable and may even be desired.

A customer may identify general categories of produce they would like each week, such as citrus fruits or leafy greens but they will not be able to choose which exact orange or bunch of fresh spinach ends up in their basket. They also have the ability to rule out a certain food if, for example, they hate broccoli.

Screenshot of Fresh City Farm "How it works" page, noting the steps: Get a bag, Add other groceries and We deliver. You Eat
Fresh City Farms supports an acceptable amount of ambiguity in the experience of selecting food items.

Furthermore, the mystery of what food items might be in the next box of produce can provide a bit of excitement for an adventurous epicure. For those who want to know what to expect ahead of time, an email with ‘expected bag contents’ allows for planning. Fresh City Farms offsets any uncertainty around how to prepare an unfamiliar foodstuff by providing handy recipe cards with each delivery.

The information provided is timely, and at the right level of detail.

Another acceptably imprecise aspect of the service information is the drop-off time. For most customers, so long as the basket is sitting on their doorstep when they arrive home (and on hotter days so long as the produce has been packed in an insulated bag or is left in a shady spot) they will not be interested in what precise time the produce is delivered. This allows Fresh City to optimize delivery routes for efficiency and sustainability.

In this case, the cost of potentially providing customers with delivery notifications is probably not worth the minimal value it would add to the service experience.

Actor autonomy and freedom

The service ecosystem should fit around the habits of those involved. Do not expect people to adapt their life or work styles to suit the service model.

Increasingly complex and busy lives in some parts of the world mean that good service experiences are expected to be convenient. This heuristic asks if the ways people actually want to interact with a service are supported.

Things to consider:
  • Are there specific times when this service is unavailable?
  • Why are these necessary?
  • Does the service model match the actors’ life and work styles?
  • How are unexpected requests handled by the service?

Service example: Having a parcel delivered

The typical delivery of a large, expensive or sensitive item can generate a fair amount of frustration for the customer and delivery person due to a lack of actor autonomy and freedom.

Customers who work outside the home or cannot be available for an entire 8-hour window find this service model causes friction with their lifestyle.

Even those customers who do make the effort of being home during that window have the unpleasant experience of being afraid of leaving their front door unattended (even when nature calls!) for fear of missing a knock at the door or a buzz from downstairs. The service model expects people to adapt their behaviour to avail of the service, and this causes frustration.

Delivery drivers are often not provided with mobile phones by courier companies for liability reasons, further complicating the experience for customers and delivery staff by failing to match the ways in which people expect to live and work. For those who live in apartment buildings or have a broken buzzer, not being able to be contacted by phone is a surprising and unexpected example of the service not supporting actor autonomy and freedom.

Alternate service example: Doddle

Doddle is a parcel collection, sending and returning service in the U.K. that acts as an intermediary, accepting parcels on a customer’s behalf and holding onto them until it is convenient for the customer to come collect them. The infrastructure is built around railway stations, which offer a convenient service location for those who travel through transit hubs on their commute. Coupled with long opening hours, Doddle provides a service that fits around 9-to-5 workers’ lifestyles.

Doddle has disrupted traditional postal and courier services by providing more autonomy and freedom to customers.

By providing customers with more autonomy and freedom, new business models like Doddle’s are disrupting traditional postal and courier services that are not adapting to people’s current life and work styles. These alternatives emerge as denying autonomy and freedom in service use and delivery creates friction for all stakeholders.

Appropriate pace and rhythm of delivery

All actors should experience and provide the service at a suitable and sustainable pace.

This heuristic asks if the timing of how the service is experienced feels right for that service.

Things to consider:
  • Is this a service that should be delivered at a pace that is quick and efficient or one that is more slowly savoured and enjoyed?
  • In terms of rhythm, how often do actors need to interact in order to maintain an enjoyable service experience?
  • Is the pace comfortable and sustainable, or might it cause frustration or inconvenience?
  • How many interactions does it take to complete a service task? Too many? Too few? Just the right number?
  • What would the impacts or opportunities be of varying the pace and rhythm?

Service example: Momofuku Milk Bar, Noodle Bar, Daisho, and Shōtō

Momofuku is a Japanese restaurant chain with locations in New York, Sydney and Toronto. Within each Momofuku restaurant are several smaller dining experiences each with a distinct pace, rhythm and overall style.

On one end of the scale is the “Milk Bar”, a totally self-serve snack and confection shop that feels more like a candy aisle than an upscale restaurant. Customers choose the pre-packaged treat they would like and pay for it as they exit the restaurant — much like a traditional grocery or fast-food experience.

Similarly, the “Noodle Bar” takes more of a “fast food” approach, offering a set menu of street-food style dishes in a more casual, youthful and noisy environment with minimal interaction with staff. Food is delivered promptly, as is the bill. The experience is efficient but still pleasant.

Screenshot of momofuku's webpage
Momofuku’s Noodle Bar has a faster pace of service delivery that feels appropriate for the more casual setting.

On the other end of the scale, “Shōtō“ is a very high-end, personalized experience. Diners are treated to a personalized menu, prepared in front of them by a personal chef. The experience is all about savouring the experience and time is of little consequence.

Screenshot of momofuku's shoto page
Momofuku’s Shoto experience has a much slower pace, where every detail is tended to by the attentive chef and serving staff. This is appropriate for the high-end service experience.

By offering diners several options that each address a different need by delivering the dining experience at the pace and rhythm appropriate to that experience, Momofuku has built a growing fan-base around the world.

Service Design Heuristics - A Beginning

Our aim when we created these was to have a set of heuristics will be used as both an evaluative tool and a generative tool when thinking about service design.

The examples included illustrate just a few of the ways the service design heuristics can be applied and thought about. There are many complex layers and levels to a service, and the heuristics could be applied through many lenses.

We see opportunities for this tool to be used to inform and complement measurement and data strategies. What metrics might be relevant to a certain heuristic? What data can we capture that will inform service improvement? What existing data can be triangulated or matched to particular heuristics? The heuristics are an additional tool in an evaluation toolkit.

The heuristics can also be used in the context of a competitive review, and may reveal opportunities to differentiate or compete in novel ways.

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