Ben Holliday

Comparing service design and business design

Just over a year ago, I wrote about comparing service design to business analysis. This was to highlight differences in skill sets, with an emphasis on how service design can bring a new set of approaches and focus to organisations.

In areas of government, and often in large or more enterprise IT-led organisations, service design is still seen at best as interchangeable with established business design functions. Traditionally these will be working in operational programmes and as part of technology and process-oriented business-facing teams. The delivery focus here will be on strategic planning, service or business architecture, and management of future BAU (business-as-usual) processes, technologies, systems and capabilities.

In reality business design functions and how they work are very different to service design or how to think about the design of 21st century services and organisations.

Many organisations are now changing how they work, which means adopting agile delivery methods. But the problem is business design functions still reverting back to waterfall thinking and approaches including upfront design, focused on building and operationalising specifications rather than continuous learning with embedded user centred design. Traditionally business design has placed more emphasis on theory, artefacts and solutions, over learning by doing and exposure to user research. This limits the ability organisations have to adapt to future change and to deliver better services.

How to think about service design

Service design should be seen as a new set of approaches that can work with and reshape existing business design functions. It can be used to design and scale how services work, but it can also influence and shape how organisations are designed to work.

Most importantly, this means that design starts by looking out, rather than taking an internal business-oriented view of an organisation. Starting with the role of an organisation as a service provider and its purpose.

Recognising the differences in approaches to design is important. Where service design starts to add value includes:

  • understanding user needs and assets, working with user research and teams to create value from synthesis and learning activities.
  • working from a user-focussed perspective to reframe problems, shape priorities, and to ask the right questions about organisation design (i.e. taking a service-oriented approach).
  • using visual communication and mapping as a toolset for working with different types of teams (including digital, operational and policy, as well as with senior and corporate leadership).
  • using prototypes to show how things can work.
  • strategic focus of work and artefacts to orchestrate work across a service.
  • understanding and prioritising service patterns from a view of the organisation as a service provider (focussed on creating consistent user experiences across services as well as more efficient service delivery built on common components).

These are all things that service design does well, and business design not so well. This is because these functions were not intended to focus design outputs or build an evidence base for change and service transformation in this way.

You can’t design and deliver good services without user research. Business design functions can be far removed from this way of thinking. Even if they set out to be data-driven or informed they operate to longer feedback cycles that won’t match the pace and frequency of change required for the delivery of modern services.

You will find that existing business design functions have detailed domain knowledge inside an organisation. Understanding and planning for high levels of complexity within operational, system and technology capabilities.

What needs to change is the emphasis put on the outputs of any design activities in an organisation. This needs to be less about individual artefacts being produced, and the notion of being strategic through upfront planning. Instead, the process of designing and delivering better services needs a stronger emphasis on supporting strategic design decisions through delivery.

An approach to design is needed capable of connecting silos and work across organisations, as well as being able to communicate and agree shared goals to support decision making at all levels.

Service design as business design

Service design is business design when we focus on and care about designing for both internal staff and external user experience together as front and back stage of how a service works.

This means service design should be informing and shaping the wider design of how things will work inside an organisation; capabilities like governance, communications, ways of working, employee experience and culture.

“The binding rules and DNA of organisations is where they focus.” –Dominic Campbell

21st century organisations understand that form (organisation design) must follow function (the services that they provide). A third lens is then the operations of functions like finance and governance that make services and organisations act as one together.

Services and problem solving should be the mission here. Organisation design or ways of organising are the means to that end, bringing people, resources, technology together and holding it together to get things done. This shouldn’t be self serving and self perpetuating which is too often the case with how business design works.

21st century organisations by design

The approach to design is a measure of organisation maturity in the internet era. Both in how focussed and aligned an organisation is to the services it delivers, and whether it works from a user-centric perspective to design and optimise everything it does. Making the design of services part of the DNA of your organisation is how you do this.

Design as a continuous process in an organisation is how you move from change programmes to the constant ongoing development of people, processes and capabilities as a way of organising for impact, delivery of better services, and solving real problems for people.

Thanks to everyone who provided feedback on earlier versions of this blog post, especially Dominic Campbell for the clarity on service design as business design.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.