The user's context matters

How to improve UX with service design tools


How can we take the principles of design and stretch them to examine the intangible aspects of UX?

Tara Wilson wants to paint her second bedroom. She begins by
searching the web for pictures of bedrooms in order to get a sense
of various decoration styles. She views photos on her iPhone on her
way to work and shows a co-worker some of her ideas during a break
on her desktop computer. Later that evening, she informs her
friends about her conversations at work and shares the photos she
looked at on her Facebook wall using her iPad.

This cross-device behaviour is not uncommon. A
recent study
[PDF] by Google shows that 90% of users are now
moving across devices to accomplish a goal. The report discussed
how context matters. Where is the user? How much time do they have?
What are they currently doing? Their situation is incredibly
important to them, so why not consider it when you are designing
how they may interact with your app/site/platform/product?

The high points of the Google report state that mobile is the
starting point for any inline interaction, tablets are starting
points for shopping and travel planning and desktops are starting
points for more complex activities. Digital products (web and
mobile apps) are really not products themselves, they are services.
Let’s use the right tools to design them and arm your team with
insights that guide the structure of your product, site or

We hear plenty of talk about the power of design. It is a very
pragmatic discipline. Look around you, nearly everything you touch
has been designed. For this particular scenario, design attempts to
ask (and answer) questions such as: what should the customer
experience be like? What should the employee experience be like?
How does a company maintain a consistent brand essence and stay
relevant to its customers? How might we take the principles of
design and stretch them to examine the intangibles?

Service Design Tools

Service design is nothing new. It can be traced back to 1977
when G. Lynn Shostack wrote an article entitled Breaking Free
From Product Marketing
1. In this article she spoke
about tangible and intangible evidence in the context of a “vision
of reality”. A few years later, How to Design a Service
was published in the European Journal of Marketing (1982). Then in
1984, what may have been the first-ever service blueprint was
published on a shoe-shine2. While the tool and the
practice have evolved, the essence and ideology remains the

There are two main tools that can be used: customer journey maps
and blueprints. A customer journey map is a map describing what a
customer goes through on a daily basis. A blueprint is an example
of an ideal state and experience for the users. We’ll examine them
both in more detail; however we will spend more time unpacking the
customer journey map as this is the tool that can provide, in my
opinion, the greatest benefit.

The Customer Journey

At its most simple rendition, a journey map is separated into
three stages; before, during and after the experience of a product
or service.

Customer Journey Canvas

The customer journey map is an oriented graph that describes the
journey of a user by representing the different touchpoints that
characterize their interaction with the service.

While this holds true most of the time, Jamin Hegeman at
Adaptive Path modifies it slightly: A journey map is visualization
over space and time, of a user accomplishing a goal. Many different
practitioners have different opinions on how journey maps can be

Jamie Thomson, Senior Experience Designer for Mad*Pow in Boston,
states two reasons for using a journey model: Firstly, to
synthesize the research for finding the pain points of the
ecosystem, and secondly envisioning how things could be once you’ve
identified the pain points. This leaves you with the image of an
ideal experience (side note: Many persona tools use an “ideal
experience” within them).

  • Stages (time)
  • Actions (doing)
  • Emotions (thinking and feeling)
  • Touchpoints (place)
  • Opportunities (insights for your app)


Going back to our heroine, Ms. Wilson: How do we break down the
experience into before, during and after stages? There may be
multiple sub-stages within each. It is important to note that at
this point we need to have done some user research and have a user
story and/or a user persona.

In a story form, how did Tara’s journey begin, which has now led
her to paint her room? We can break this down into a sequence of
events: Before she paints, during the painting process and after
she’s finished.

Tara is contemplating painting a room. What are the different
points of input she would receive when it comes to painting a room?
This could be split into active and passive. Passive are things she
experiences without making an intentional effort, such as when
visiting a friend’s home she walks by a bedroom and notices the
colour of the paint on the wall. Or she sees an advertisement on a
billboard or television that may not be for paint, but has a
bedroom scene. All these inputs will affect her decision. Actively
however, she may seek advice from friends and family and search for
ideas online.

She plans to paint a room: Purchases paint samples, tries out a few
and then decides. She acquires the necessary supplies (purchased
and borrowed) and finishes the painting. Maybe she tweets about the
process. Solicits help from family and friends on Facebook, or
perhaps she just hires a contractor to take care of the job.

After cleaning up and placing the furniture back to where she
wants, she takes photos of the finished room, shares it on the web,
posts about her experience on Facebook, tagging her friends who
helped out while others comment on the great job.

We could break that journey up into more distinct behavioural
stages such as:

  1. Pre-contemplation (before thinking about it)
  2. Seeking inspiration (thinking about it)
  3. Planning (decision making)
  4. Gathering supplies (action)
  5. Executing on the work (action)
  6. Enjoyment and sharing (advocacy)

Journey maps are about what is, not what should


Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the product team at a paint
manufacturer (Benjamin Moore, Olympic, etc… pick one!) and we’re
looking to create something that’s engaging for the user. Mash up
the customer journey with the information from the Google report:
Context is king.

At this point we will need to consider what level of granularity
we wish to proceed with. As we map out the journey there can be a
tendency to dive straight into the details: What button did the
user click on? How long did they take between step 1 and 2? A good
practice is to start at a high level then drill down and to what
point you wish to stop. Similar to how we broke down the stages
from before-during-after in six distinct phases. The actions
necessary make up each stage.

It is not about the size of the resulting artifact it’s about
the process that you go through. I have seen many types ranging
from low-fidelity prototypes of post-its on a whiteboard to a fully
rendered 3 feet tall, 5 feet wide works of graphic design. The
final artifact is up to you and what fills you’re needs. I’ve seen
journey maps become vehicles for obtaining buy-in from stakeholders
as well.


The emotional content of the journey model give you insights in
to how a user is thinking and feeling at various stages. Perhaps
Tara is anxious about gathering supplies as she’s a single woman,
who needs guidance now that she’s on her own and doesn’t have her
father to call upon for home improvement advice. Or during the
painting she runs into a problem and needs to figure out how to
solve it before proceeding. Capturing the emotions assumes that
there has been some research on your persona. You can make
assumptions if you don’t have research, but be cautious, you need
to recognize that you are operating on assumptions and need to
consider validating them before you proceed.


Let’s define a touchpoint by what it is not: Touchpoints are not
channels. Desktop versus mobile may be a channel, but the
touchpoint could be an email confirmation that you click on via a
mobile, desktop or tablet device. If we take Tara’s example,
purchasing supplies. it is an action and the touchpoint could be an
online hardware retailer where she can order them for delivery, or
Tara could physically go down to a local hardware store to pick up
the materials. The objective of the phase is accomplished but the
channels are different. This is a touchpoint.

Think relationship instead of interaction.


Finally, this is the gold your digging for and the reason why
this is exercise is so important. By examining the holistic
experience of your user, now you can get a sense of where they are,
what they’re doing, and what mental and emotional state they are
in. This will guide you to finding new ways to interact with your

Opportunities are often related to pain points identified in the
journey. The opportunities for Tara are, for example, automatically
emailing some tips on paining interior rooms on the day after her
supplies arrive that she ordered online. By knowing what she
ordered and when it arrives there’s an opportunity to deliver
useful, relevant information at the appropriate time. Of course,
these are ideas that would need to be validated going forward. This
is a great lead into Blueprints, which are how to take the insights
in order to design the ideal state.

Service Blueprint

When you think of a blueprint, you often think of an architect’s
drawing, something that plans for something else. That’s exactly
what a Service Blueprint will do. It takes the insights and
opportunities and brings them to life by putting them into a space
for customer and service interactions. A Service Blueprint has the
following information:

  1. Stages (from journey map)
  2. Physical evidence (tangible)
  3. Actions (what the user does)
  4. Interactions (Front-stage: visible to users)
  5. Interactions – (Back-stage: invisible to users)
  6. Supporting processes

Below is an example from Adaptive path. While the Service
Blueprint is a bit more like a grid, the information used here can
plan a scenario of just how a user may interact with your product
and service.

A Service Blueprint by Brandon Schauer, Adaptive Path

Two big elements on the Blueprint are the line of interaction
and the line of visibility. These highlight how a user interacts
with your product, and the line visibility delineates what is
actually being seen. In Tara’s case, when she ordered the painting
materials, after charging her credit card, the system placed an
order with the warehouse to pick the items; they were picked,
packaged and shipped to her address. None of this was visible to
her, although some services have made various changes by giving
light to transparency in this.

Take Domino’s Pizza for example. Their online ordering
web-application allows you to see exactly what stage the pizza is
at until it arrives at your door. “At Domino’s we’re obsessed with
great service. We measure performance. Now we can prove it every
step of the way,”
Chris McGlothlin, the chain’s chief information

Service design will not solve all of your problems. In
Uncommon Service, authors Frances Frei and Anne Morris
tell us that you can’t be good at everything. Rather than trying,
use a journey map and a blueprint to focus your efforts on making
the most meaningful impact on your users. You’ll discover more
insights and provide a better experience which keeps your users
coming back to your site or app over and over.

There are many other tools of service design that can be used in
user experience. For more information take a look at:

C. Todd Lombardo has over 15 years of experience creating
change in the corporate world. Initially, he trained as a scientist
and engineer, he spent years in corporate marketing until crossing
over to advisory and professor roles. A bit of a generalist with a
slant towards design, you can find him working on UX projects,
communication projects and strategy projects, in addition to his
adjunct faculty appointment at Madrid’s IE Business

  1. Lynn G. Shostack, Breaking Free from Product Marketing, in
    Journal of Marketing n° 41 1977.
  2. Designing Services That Deliver G. Lynn Shostack Jan 01, 1984
    Harvard Business Review.
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