How to tackle iterative service design

Paul Roberts
5 min readMay 13, 2021
Think cake

Designing a new service and experience isn’t a one off event. It requires constant engagement with users to gather feedback to help refine and improve the design. As you experiment and test, you’ll discover additional opportunities that will change your service for the better. You should take an incremental approach but marry it with a long term view and pivot as you go.

So where to start…

Start with cake

Incrementally better cake

Trying to describe delivering and evolving a service or experience over time can be hard. Talking in horizons feels nebulous but the cake analogy can help. When you first set out on baking you might well decide to make something simple that doesn’t require too much effort and where the failure threshold is low. For example, this might be a simple sponge cake.

Over time, as you learn more you might decide to get more creative. You might experiment with adding different flavourings, colourings and layers. On getting more feedback from your grateful friends you might decide your next version will be even better. Based on that feedback, you’ll find yourself adding some toppings, a glace cherry or even a candle or edible decorations. What you’ll notice about each version is that you’re delivering a complete experience albeit with complexities, textures and designs changing over time.

In the product world, you’ll often hear people talking about minimum viable product (MVP) and that first cake is a great example of MVP. It’s tasty and does the job. But it might not be enough for your sweet tooth friends, nor compete with store bought cakes. Over time you’ll want to impress them more, but each time you still need to deliver a full functional cake that delivers on the basics.

Let’s get practical

  1. Work up your personas

Personas aren’t loved by everyone and typically get a bad press when people mix segmentation with a design persona. Your personas should be kept simple and give an overview of the target user your experience is aimed at. Imagine you’re designing for business class passengers. As a group of individuals they will share some common attributes and expectations. Your persona is there to ground everyone on who they are building for. Don’t forget to test your personas in the real world. For example, visit a business class lounge and share a glass of wine to immerse yourself and your fellow passengers in insightful conversation.

2. Map the future experience in horizons

Take time to sketch out the future service design and experience you intend to deliver. Break the experience into horizons so you can show how it develops over time. To keep it simple, think about using a polaroid photograph format. This means using a simple image with a clear description underneath. You can also include as bullet points the capabilities that are necessary to realise the experience in the real world.

The great thing about polaroids is that it keeps the experience simple, accessible and means teams can simply take out a set of experience cards to talk through everything from design through to capabilities and even metrics.

Remember that these designs are not set in stone. As you learn more during design, testing and rollout you’ll want to update your design and pivot as necessary. You might find the need for new capabilities or discovery that recently delivered capabilities can enhance your design even further.

Your near term experience will be much more detailed as you’ll have greater clarity about what is possible. The further out in time you go the design will be more visionary but it’s always a good idea to take the long view as this will drive conversation with leadership about future capabilities and investments.

An experience over time

3. Take your design (polaroids) out for a spin

No good service design is possible without putting it through its paces in the real world. You can run basic prototyping efforts to test out your ideas with real users. You can even take a set of polaroids out of a pack and talk through an experience. Users won’t hold back and will happily tell you what you’ve got right and where you’ve gone awry.

Getting their feedback will see you update your design, incorporate new features and potentially remove friction that you hadn’t spotted before.

Landed safe and sound! 🛬

4. Highlight the magic moments

Not every part of your design will wow the user. Most of it should deliver an experience as intended and one that meets the user’s basic requirements. However, there are times when you will want to exceed expectations with something that really makes the user sit up and pay attention. These magic moments are opportunities to back up your proposition and to provide users with proof of why their decision to use you was the right one.

Experience card

5. Align design and roadmap

Having your design is great, but your teams need to know when it is going to be delivered. This gives everyone from leadership to implementation teams visibility on what can be expected and when. Teams will be able to see how the service and experience evolves over time depending on the new capabilities that are delivered.

Having this single, integrated view will help teams have more valuable discussions about design, capabilities and implementation.

Building better over time

6. Watch out for unnecessary complexity

Simplicity and brevity is key when designing a new service or experience. Behind the scenes implementation requires detailed scoping and requirements documentation but make sure you don’t over complicate your design effort. Journey maps or service blueprints can become unnecessarily detailed, very quickly. Beware of ending up with content that sits on a shelf and is so high fidelity that no one wants to touch it. Designs should be low fidelity in the early stages to allow for constant re-work and pivots as you learn more.

Service design is fun and hopefully the cake and polaroid mentions get you thinking more creatively about how to explain service design and getting your project started. As always, see and enjoy it! 🥳

If you want to learn more give me a shout. You can find me on Medium or LinkedIn. 👨🏼‍💻



Paul Roberts

Work in travel tech. A fan of applying disruptive thinking to age old problems. Passions include writing, reading, ski touring and travel. Opinions are mine.