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Service modelling

The phrase ‘service model’ is something I’ve found myself using more and more in recent years. I’ve seen it used elsewhere in different contexts as well.

So what are service models? Here’s my definition:

“Service models are a way for organisations to create, test, and scale the design of whole services.”

If a business model is how an organisation operates, then a service model is how we shape and align design decisions to ensure consistency and quality as we build, pilot, and scale whole services.

This is also different from how I think about operating models, or more detailed blueprints for how something is intended to operate. A service model is more how to design whole services, but starting from smaller component parts of what will eventually be part of much larger complex systems with interdependencies.

Models or modelling?

Just like service design is about designing services, a service model is really about service modelling.

It’s this aspect of how we can think about service models that I think is most useful. A service model is a way of being intentional about delivering more joined up services and user journeys.

Service models are like sticks and glue. They are scaffolding for ideas to connect and develop, a way of holding things together within a set of agreed constraints. Most importantly, they shape what is being designed as a set of materials that we can work with.

What makes a service model?

This is a list of ‘materials’, or the outputs I think about when working with a service model:

  • Vision as a model for doing
  • Hypotheses to test
  • Life events & scenarios for context
  • Measures for impact
  • Patterns to build with
  • Design principles to guide decisions
  • Prototypes to make ideas, concepts and ways of working real

Everything here is interrelated. As with any type of modelling they are all things we can build with. Everything here is also a type of design output. They are all things we can gather people around, interrogate, align to, or find answers from.

Used in the right ways, we can use these materials when modelling a whole service. Together, they act as a guide to align and focus work in an intentional way.

Key components of service modelling

Vision as a model for doing

A service model needs to be anchored to a clear vision statement or strategy.

The problem with most vision statements is that they’re not fully aligned (if they’re aligned at all) to the things an organisation is actively doing and prioritising now.

A service model is how you can align ‘then’ with ‘now’.

Hypotheses to test

You can prioritise work on parts of any ideal future state (vision) by starting to work with the riskiest assumptions that you think are being made. Hypotheses are a way of understanding, capturing and testing these assumptions.

A hypothesis-based approach is a way of focusing on designing and scaling smaller component parts of a whole service. Will Myddelton‘s post about scaling up the Local Offer service is a good example where he talks about Gall’s Law and how complex systems that work are invariably found to have evolved from simple systems that worked.

Life events & scenarios for context

Working from first principles and starting with smaller, more contained models is where understanding context and scenarios is important. You can learn about how best to model more complex service interactions and touch points through early testing of much simpler models, working directly with people that will use and/or deliver parts of a service. For this purpose mapping life events/scenarios can be a useful perspective alongside first hand research to understand user needs.

Measures for impact

A hypothesis-based approach means that you need to understand what to measure. An agreed approach, or shared understanding of how to measure progress towards any proposed future state, and defining and referring back to measures for impact needs to part of any working service model.

Patterns to build with

When services are intended to develop into full solutions and operate at scale, then this is where we need to recognise patterns to build with.

Understanding and focusing on service patterns is a way of organising joined-up end to end services so that things will be more seamless, familiar and consistent. You can choose to look at the component parts of a whole service as things that are separate, or you can start to look more closely for common service patterns, relationships and interdependencies.

Patterns are all around us if and when you start to look for them from a whole service view point.

Design principles to guide decisions

Aligning to an overall vision, design principles can help guide decision making.

Design principles should clearly set out values and considerations to support design decisions in all parts of a service, across different types of interactions and touch points. Used effectively they should be clear about how a whole service is intended to work, and the shape of the relationships and outcomes that this should create.

Prototypes to make ideas, concepts and ways of working real

Finally, prototyping is how all of these materials come together. Prototypes are how we make things real. They are how an ideal future state (vision) becomes ‘now’, and they are how we put ideas into the world in a controlled way to see how they really work.

Solid but flexible foundations

The success of any service model will be dependent on the conditions you help create inside an organisation.

Whenever I’ve presented or talked about service models I always add the caveat that continuous communication, explanation and sharing of a model is as important as the model itself.

As a service designer, if you’re working with a service model approach, what will be most important is constantly aligning work across an organisation back to the component parts of the model as things are prioritised, designed, built and being delivered.

A service model is then only as good as how it adjusts to everything else around it. Organisations are made of moving parts, and therefore the parts of any service model will need to change over time through learning, collective thinking and shared understanding.

Service design that scales

The reason I started thinking about ‘service models’ is because service design doesn’t scale, or having enough designers in an organisation doesn’t scale.

If an organisation wants to take a more ‘service’ based approach to how it organises and manages what it does, then this will always require more realignment than the number of designers it is then able to hire. A service model is how you can start to embed and align design approaches across an organisation when you only have a small number of design specialists or champions.

Service models always exist in some form, but they aren’t always explicit or written down. And sometimes there might be multiple service models working against each other in an organisation which need surfacing.

Most organisations would benefit from more design, But working on the presumption that most services have never been designed, designing things at scale is the challenge here. Where designers can influence is by creating, socialising, and aligning service models in ways that give teams the autonomy and support they need to make better design decisions themselves.

Footnote: Highlighting work elsewhere and to give credit to others that have influenced my thinking here. Parkinson’s UK have been doing excellent work and scaling what I would describe as a new service model approach. I also think emerging work in health, like Tero’s work defining services, products and platforms at NHS Digital is another example of how new models for understanding whole services are emerging. This builds on Kate Tarling’s work around service taxonomies and also some previous FutureGov work.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.