Approaching Service design – holistic, systems thinking

To be as successful as possible, service designers should seek to approach their project with an holistic, systems-thinking perspective.

When a designer addresses a problem, they employ a process and methods largely consistent in their underlying intent:

  • a deconstructionist perspective
  • an understanding born of empathy
  • abductive thinking and synthesis
  • multiplicity of ideas, developed in parallel
  • critique, as a way to objectively review, discuss and improve designs
  • participatory and co-design
  • tangibility

For problems that are broadly around services and service delivery, two additional, qualities of the design process are needed:

  • that it be holistic; and
  • adopt a systems thinking approach

Whilst similar, these two qualities of Service Design are distinct, and represent a significant difference to many forms of design. Further, these qualities stand in apparent contradiction to the deconstructionist perspective of the designer.

Not all design is holistic. Much of the work undertaken by a designer will be relatively narrow in scope. Even within the environment of a service design undertaking, an individual designer will be tasked with narrowly-defined activities, to design specific artefacts or channels. In many organisations, an holistic perspective never materialises. Artefacts, materials, objects simply accrete over time as circumstances dictate. In a small organisation, this holistic perspective is easier to achieve, but also can be difficult to prioritise over more fundamental considerations of the start-up.

In larger organisations, “holistic” is a question of boundaries, usually artificial. At some point, the impact on the overall service experience of the ‘thing’ we’re considering diminishes to the point of insignificance.

For a service organisation, when we talk about being holistic, we mean that both the core service offering and the components of the service delivery are being designed. But there will necessarily be limits, and at times these may seem arbitrary. These limits serve to constrain the design team into an area of activity that can be managed within the project constraints of to e, resources and budget.

‘Holistic’ in the context of service design also refers to the attention paid to “behind the scenes” or “back office” operations. It also refers to a care for all of the people participating in the service system – not just the customers (as is typical).
‘Holistic’ refers to all of the ‘pieces’ of both the core service offering and the service delivery. By thinking holistically, we apply an intentionality to the design of each of the pieces.

Systems thinking takes all of the pieces of the service and looks at how they behave on aggregate. A systems perspective provides an eye for cause and effect; feedback and dampening loops; inputs and outputs. It thinks in terms of instability and equilibrium.
A systems perspective allows us to diagnose queues, manage logistics, the macro-level impact of our design decisions. The individual pieces of the service are not the focus of this perspective, except in so far as they are influencing a specific macro-level behaviour.
A systems perspective also subsumes the experience of the individuals, and the behaviour of the individual. Like the movement of a single ant in the colony, it is the aggregate behaviour of thousands and millions that are significant.

How do these two qualities contribute to the finished service? Ultimately, we take them into account because of the positive influence they have on the end result. So, how would an holistic perspective and systems thinking impact the service and its delivery?

Impact of an holistic perspective

The biggest indicator of an holistic perspective is the clear attention to detail in each and every component of the service. It will seem – to everyone involved – as though someone has thought of everything.

There will also be a clear design language, articulated across all elements of the service. Whether it be the consistent use of colour, tone, personality or space, the language will be evident throughout.

The design language will allow the designer of each separate artefact to act in concert, whilst acting alone. More importantly, perhaps, when the staff are working in their systems, they will see the same design language at play as that displayed to the customer. The language becomes a tangible manifestation of that holistic perspective, and can become a representation of the organisation’s culture.

But what else does an holistic perspective afford you?

The more holistic your perspective, the more likely you are to identify and correct points of discontinuity and fragmentation, inconsistency and confusion. As a design team, and project, your likelihood of overall success is higher, but you also have greater opportunity for tangents and distractions.

An holistic perspective also affords you an opportunity to control, or exert influence over, a wide range of components critical to the success of your service.

Impact of Systems Thinking

Evidence of systems thinking show in the components of both core service and delivery, but especially in the components of the core service. The service offering presents a powerful and coherent whole clearly positioned within an ecosystem of self-supporting and inter-related services.

It is clear that the design team understands all of the inputs and outputs of the ecosystem. They also understand how each component adds value to the others and the dynamic relationship between them.

Changes to one part of the overall system aren’t creating problems in others. For example, a new, more efficient back-office process isn’t wasted due to continued problems with front-line service delivery.

Some examples

The introduction of a public bike share scheme in Melbourne a few years back saw low utilisation rates despite prominent positioning, good design of the various ‘pieces’, and strong advertising.

A key component of the dynamic of the system – the need to wear a helmet – was not taken into consideration in the design of the scheme.

The lack of a means of procuring a helmet within the system had dampening effect on the performance of the system as a whole. Advertising and promotion drove awareness and interest, but the barrier associated with the lack of a helmet creates a negative influence on use.

A clear attempt had been made to fit this system intelligently and thoughtfully within the broad ecosystem of transport in Melbourne. The bicycle racks are positioned along major transport routes and hubs. Perhaps more consideration could have been given to the type of commuting and transport behaviour the city would like to promote. For example, the number of bicycles available at Flinders St Station or the MCG are the same as elsewhere.

On the other hand, care has been take to design, in a consistent way, each of the various components of the scheme The bicycles, ticketing machines, signage and advertising all feel of a piece.

The need for a helmet is central to the ability to use one of the bicycles. In order to improve utilisation of the scheme the City has had to look at ways to provide helmets. That need has been looked at in isolation, and it subsequently shows.

If we look at government taxation, public healthcare, and urban planning, we see systems that operate almost entirely at a macro-level, with little or no attention paid to the individual pieces.

The Apple iPod/iTunes ecosystem clearly demonstrates systems thinking, although perhaps not the holistic perspective we might like. The iTunes store, iTunes itself, and the way these pieces integrate with the iPod (and subsequently the iPhone and iPad) demonstrate systems thinking at play.

This ecosystem has been enormously successful as a result, catapulting the iPod from three years of lack-lustre sales into meteoric success.

And yet the design of the iTunes software and iTunes store – and the App store – is inconsistent, lacks the polish of both the devices and the iOS at the core of these ecosystems, and delivers well below the level of the other components.

Contrast this with Nike+. The design team has put thought and attention to each component of a product/service ecosystem. There is a consistent design language at play across the system.

Further, the pieces fit together in a coherent manner that aggregates to an integrated whole. Nike and their designers have looked at the parts as well as the whole and designed an ecosystem that works down to each element.


Service design projects should aim to be both holistic and take a systems thinking approach in order to deliver the maximum value.  By doing so, the team ensures:

  • The service sits within a considered ecosystem of inter-related products and services
  • That each component of the ecosystem has been considered and designed
  • And that the opportunity for other market players to identify and earn value is diminished.


  • Daniel Szuc

    September 25, 2012 at 1:06 am Reply


  • Alison Sharp

    September 27, 2012 at 8:59 am Reply

    I second that, Dan

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