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  • Jesse Grimes

Six Hacks for Service Designers in Agile Settings

Service design is a holistic activity which should align with organisational strategy. What should you do if you find yourself in a Scrum team?

In this article — also published in the Service Design Network journal Touchpoint (Vol. 9 No. 2) — I propose several ‘hacks’ for service designers in Agile teams.

Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned service designer, or just starting out, there’s a good chance that your education and first project experiences consisted of relatively luxurious spans of time in which to carry out your work. Several weeks to carry out contextual research? No problem. A few more to build and test a prototype? Nary a complaint. With the mandate to scope your projects and determine your timelines, you could move through your chosen methodology at a pace that suited you. But thanks to the growing adoption of Agile, you might find your way of working thrown upside down.

Ideally service designers deliver our best value when we stay outside the “Scrum” (literally and figuratively), fulfilling our strategic role and avoiding the hectic pace and too-narrow focus of two-week sprints. Our work should provide guidance to tactical and operational activities, rather than playing a direct role in them. But sometimes such a detached position isn’t feasible, and we need adopt the Agile mindset, accept that we’re led by a product owner (and not a service owner), and find a way to work within a team.

Fear not, service designers in Agile settings! Here are six hacks you can carry out to expand your strategic perspective and influence, while still working to tick items off a product backlog and get that next iteration of your product (service!) out the door. These have been devised thanks to the consultancy work of my previous employer (Informaat) and hands-on experience with several large Dutch organisations who have transitioned to Agile, and where service designers such as myself have played a role in Agile teams. After all, while being limited by an operational role makes true service design difficult, the Agile transformation itself does provide chances to strengthen the role of (service) design in the organisation.

1. Canvasses are your friend

Set aside time to focus the team’s attention on the strategic aspects of your project, and use existing canvas-based techniques to do so. Despite the fact that Agile teams work under tremendous pressure to deliver incrementally, everyone will benefit from having shared input and a common understanding of the “big picture”. If they haven’t initiated the activity themselves, invite product owners and the rest of the team into short, intensive sessions to fill in documents such as a Business Model Canvas and Value Proposition Canvas, as early as possible. Even better, consider canvasses designed expressly with service design in mind, such as the Lean Service Creation toolkit from Futurice. When multiple service designers are operating independently, make sure to connect and share the same vision, principles and ecosystem view. You’ll be surprised the value these activities and deliverables generate.

2. Involve your team in involving your customers

Involving real end users in the design process is crucial to fulfilling the expectations of a service designer. And despite the fact that your Agile method might have iteration and user testing baked-in, there’s often the assumption that testing is carried out exclusively by UX’ers and service designers. Instead, convince non-designers to observe research sessions. The investment of an hour’s time looking over the shoulders of real customers can pay great dividends by replacing the fuzzy concept of end users with living, breathing humans. And where existing user research methods prove problematic in an Agile team, help identify more suitable, leaner ones.

3. Create a CX Design Library

While this hack requires the effort of several disciplines in the team, it delivers great value and helps ensure that as a service grows, it does so efficiently and maintains a consistent end user experience. The library consists of sets of documents which are created, maintained, and consulted by four separate teams:

  • Brand and communications team (Brand value and principles, Brand identity, Tone of voice, Image library)

  • Design management team(Channel and design principles, Reference designs, Structure and navigation templates, Patterns and UX guidelines)

  • Digital identity team (Digital identity, Pages and templates, UI components, Elements)

  • Front-end team (Reference code (web components), Platform-specific code)

While these documents may already exist (in which case you can be proud to be working in a well-honed machine!), they are likely stored separately, updated irregularly, and difficult to find. Seize your strategic mandate and your orchestrational skills, assemble them in an easy-to-refer-to library, and rest well, knowing that your team will be even more efficient as they deliver consistent experiences.

4. Construct a Journey Dashboard

More and more service designers are naming their data scientists and analytics team-members as their ‘BFF’s. And that’s because as today’s complex services become even better developed and delivered, they have the potential to generate immensely valuable data on how they are used by customers. Don your orchestrational cap once more, and team up with a data scientist to discover just what insights you can glean from the sea of data. Categorise these insights using Google’s HEART framework (‘Happiness’, ‘Engagement’, ‘Adoption’, ‘Retention’, and ‘Task success’). And then oversee the creation of an internally-accessible dashboard on which the data can be continually monitored. Too often, the power of analytics is focussed on dry ‘web stats’ (unique visits and referrals) or commercial performance (conversion figures and dropouts). Instead, apply a service design approach, starting from an analysis of individual touchpoints, and deliver a dashboard in which service experience is measured and displayed at a journey level. You’ll deliver valuable new insights to both your team and higher-up stakeholders, and you’ll get a holistic view of how your service is performing.

5. Sprint ahead of the rest

In Scrum (as one of the most-applied Agile methodologies), the team progresses through a sequence of milestones that are repeated in sprints as short as two weeks. While your routine might be driven by sprint plannings and demos, and your focus driven by the product backlog, you can also partially disengage from this cycle, and work in advance of your team. If your backlog indicates that a complex new feature starts development two sprints from now, why not prepare yourself? Set aside a portion of your time to carry out feature-scale ideation, prototyping and research (or even a small-scale service blueprint), and do so in conjunction with your UX partner. Once that sprint begins, the design work will be better informed, and you won’t have the feeling that you cut corners simply because you had to start and end your work within one sprint.

6. Chip away at the ‘pure product’ mindset

I’ve had heated discussions in which I’ve tried to convince product owners that — despite what their job title suggests — they were truly creating only an element of a larger service. In large organisations, product owners bring with them a laser-sharp focus on delivering excellent products to the market. But sometimes you need to force them to recognise the fact that their product won’t launch into a vacuum; it will exist and be used alongside many others in a complex and rich customer experience. You’ll need to work in two directions. Firstly, from a service level: Ensure that product owners are aware of each other’s initiatives. An organisation wants to deliver a consistent (and delightful) customer experience that doesn’t lay bare the fact that the products themselves were independently developed. Think in touchpoint terms if it helps: If your product owner is responsible for the app, have they briefed the call center on a new feature that might suddenly generate support calls for which the agents are unprepared? Secondly, work from a product level: As you work within your Agile team, step back continually and evaluate for yourself how the latest iteration of your product fits within the bigger service picture. This is a product-service alignment, and while not part of a pure, product-based methodology, is critically important when the product is a component of a larger service.

In closing, I’d like to reiterate that the application of service design is already compromised when it only influences tactical and operational activities. To fulfil your strategic capabilities as a service designer when you’re working with only an operational focus, try and convince your organisation to raise the profile and increase the mandate of service design by placing it at a more strategic level.


These hacks were inspired by the SDN Netherlands event presentation “5 Agile Design Hacks, and How To Do It Properly in the Near Future” by my ex-colleague Rob van der Haar on 19 September 2017, and by my own experience.


This article also appears in Vol. 9, №2 of Touchpoint, a journal published three times per year by the Service Design Network, and providing in-depth coverage of all aspects of the service design discipline.



Jesse Grimes

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