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 application.

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 Marketing1. 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 same.

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.

The Customer Journey Canvas [PDF].

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 used.

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 be.


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 user.

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,” said Chris McGlothlin, the chain’s chief information officer.

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 School.

  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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