Tina Weisser
Author - Tina Weisser

Why is the success rate in implementing service design projects still low? Why do brilliant concepts fail when it comes to anchoring them in the daily business of the client organisation?

This article by Tina Weisser is part of the issue Touchpoint Vol. 12 No. 1 - Embracing change. Discover the full list of articles of this Touchpoint issue to get a sneak peek at more fascinating articles! Touchpoint is available to purchase in print and PDF format.

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Where are the barriers to implementing service design projects and where are the optimisation potentials? And are there any influencing factors that service designers should consider in future projects? Finding answers to these questions and better understanding the complex topic of implementation was the motivation behind a three-year international study. The results are 24 influencing factors and the ‘KUER’ implementation model.

Designing for impact means designing for implementation. Today, the focus of most service design projects is on the first phases – only around four percent1 of the methods applied in service design focus on implementation. It is therefore likely that service designers will need to expand their methodological knowledge and skills in order to be more successful in the future. Dealing with this complex issue requires the integration of new skills and approaches. Because the implementation of new concepts requires organisational and cultural changes for the client organisation, techniques from the areas of systemic organisational development and management consulting can be particularly valuable. 

Study design and approach

Within the framework of a three-year qualitative study, implementation projects of complex service design concepts were examined at the intersection of external service design consulting and its clients (for-profit organisations). With the support of approximately 50 experts from the areas of service design practitioners (Hellon, Livework, Dark horse, IDEO, etc.), service providers (EON, BMW Group, Océ, etc.) and business and organisational consulting (Capgemini, Etventure, OSB-I, etc.), explorative interviews and workshops were conducted to identify influencing factors, frequent barriers and future potentials. The many factors found were reduced to a set of 24 and examined for their interrelationships by using sensitivity analysis, an effective system analysis tool designed by systems researcher Frederic Vester2. Sensitivity analysis recognises that client organisations are not only embedded in complex environments, but are themselves complex socio-technical systems. There is broad scientific agreement that due to the complexity of organisations, the consideration of system relationships provides essential insights and perspectives for successful change initiatives. Through a systemic approach3, many of the obstacles occurring in service design projects could be explained. Also 12 general lessons can be derived for practical use.

Figure 1: KUER model with its four phases and main activities
Figure 1: KUER model with its four phases and main activities

Results: Objectives and obstacles

A crucial question is what success can mean in the context of service design implementation. Targets can be purely process- or result-oriented, or a combination of both. Examples of process-oriented success are when employees learn service design methods, spaces for co-creative work are established within the client company, and the organisation prepares for cultural change. In these cases, the successes would be based on the fact that the client organisation becomes familiar with new methods and prepares itself procedurally and spatially for future projects. On the other hand, a result-oriented success is when the new service design concept is introduced into the company's typical way of working, accepted by users and reconfirmed by measurement that it meets criteria such as efficiency, user satisfaction, or return-on-investment (ROI). It becomes obvious that there are different areas of application and success in service design, which in turn depend on the goals and capabilities of the client as well as external consultants. The reasons found for failure are just as numerous. Obstacles may exist on the client side as well as on the service designers’ side. For example, the lack of experience and implementation maturity of external service designers, internal resistance or decision-making dilemmas of top management, lack of user acceptance, or a better offer from competing brands.

Results: 24 influencing factors

Recurring patterns and general influencing factors (see Figure 3 ) could be identified despite the heterogeneous projects found in practice. These factors were examined for their effect upon each other and their influenceability. Six of them can be described as necessary ‘hygiene’ factors and eighteen as ‘desired’ factors. The hygiene factors are key prerequisites that must be present to favour result-oriented implementations. Ideally, they must be considered as early as the contract clarification stage in Phase 1. Because, as expected, not only one or two factors were found, it becomes clear that service design projects are not happening in an isolated and context-free space.

In many cases, service designers spend several years working on individual touchpoints before commissioning and successfully implementing end-to-end, holistic customer experiences. When projects fail, it is reasonable to assume that either one or both parties weren’t ready for implementation, or that the hygiene factors were simply not yet fulfilled at the time.

Figure 2: KUER process model showing the factors and their relationships --
Figure 2: KUER process model showing the factors and their relationships —

Want to get an even better understanding and a practical deep dive into the methods discussed here? Tina offers a workshop specifically tailored to the topic of this article to give you a hands-on learning experience plus valuable tools and methods.

Results: The KUER implementation model 

To date, there is no model in service design research that offers a comprehensive analysis and structure of the influencing factors in the implementation of projects. Based on the empirical results, the KUER model was developed, consisting of four phases and main activities (see Figure 1). KUER stands for ‘Key Prerequisites’, ‘Understand & Discover’, ‘Enable & Define’ and ‘Reinforce & Deliver’. In addition, Figure 2 presents the factors and their relationships. Looking at the KUER process model, it becomes apparent that the entire process begins with the clarification in Phase 1 (‘Key Prerequisites’), but that the phases do not have to follow each other linearly because setbacks and feedback must be taken into account. In Phase 2 (‘Understand and Discover’) a temporary project organisation (‘safe space = physical and mental space for new ideas and thoughts unfamiliar to the organisation and co-creative working’) is set up and extensive diagnostics are carried out. Users, the client organisation and economic parameters must be analysed. Solutions developed in Phase 3 (‘Enable and Define’) are tested in rapid cycles with users, employees and relevant stakeholders and evaluated at decision nodes using a three-dimensional selection mechanism. As activities to support the process and its orientation are used iteratively as required, the transition to the integration Phase 4 (‘Reinforce and Deliver’) is seamless.

Results: 12 lessons learned

A systemic approach to the implementation process helps service designers to achieve a better understanding of the interaction of systemic elements and their causes. The basic insight that there is an unmanageable number of social (groups such as departments) and psychological systems (the individual actor/human) colliding is an important aspect because the connectedness of the individuals involved depends on it. If systems thinking is applied to service design practice, the following lessons (which are all closely interwoven) can enrich daily project work.

Lesson Number 1: Six necessary hygiene factors

It became apparent that the following six hygiene factors are essential for a successful implementation: 1) Implementation maturity, 2) Compliance/C-level sponsorship, 3) Implementation management at all phases, 4) Temporary project organisation, 5) Inter-divisional staff involvement and 6) Personnel capacity.

Lesson Number 2: Implementation starts on day one

The foundations for implementation are already set at the contract clarification stage. It should be investigated whether (and up to which iteration) the six aforementioned hygiene factors could be sufficiently present. An iterative service design process calls for ‘iterative contracting.’4 If one considers the change curves in the change literature, it becomes clear that integrating something new takes a significant amount of time. It is therefore important to accompany the implementation process from start to finish when the new concept is reconfirmed through measurement, testing and anchored in the organisation’s day-to-day activities.

Lesson Number 3: Client organisations cannot be controlled linearly and are always context-dependent

Client organisations have their unique history and reason for existence. Therefore, it is crucial to thoroughly diagnose the organisation (e.g., existing culture, stakeholder expectations, expected resistance) and to build upon their knowledge.5 Client organisations as ‘living systems’ cannot be controlled from the outside, because they cannot be reduced to being mere simple machines.

Lesson Number 4: Working against the system logic creates resistance

It becomes evident that different ‘worlds’ – i.e., system logic, languages, terms, cultures and working methods – meet temporarily when external service designers collaborate with the employees of a client organisation. Resistance from employees is the norm rather than the exception when new and foreign elements are introduced. The unknown endangers the status quo of every ‘living system’ and can create great fears.

Lesson Number 5: Systems and people are oriented towards the meaning they give to things

Tangible prototypes can help employees and executives understand both rationally and emotionally the opportunities and risks of a new service design concept. Because the evidence and the design of service design concepts are closely interwoven, prototyping and storytelling are of fundamental importance: they have the strength to make the abstract vivid for non-specialists and to support social interaction processes. In practice, the prototypes must make the ‘meaning’ of the idea applicable to the organisation, in order to reduce uncertainties. 

Lesson Number 6: Connection capability

Understanding each other is trivial but indispensable.
It is advisable to clarify common terms that include both the service design process and internal abbreviations or terms. External service designers should also develop a sense of the existing corporate culture so as not to be unintentionally irritating and incomprehensible. Being able to communicate with executives is an essential prerequisite.

Figure 3: Brief description of the 24 influencing factors within the four main activities Clarification, Interventions, Support and Alignment. Clarification contains the six so-called ‘hygiene’ factors --
Figure 3: Brief description of the 24 influencing factors within the four main activities Clarification, Interventions, Support and Alignment. Clarification contains the six so-called ‘hygiene’ factors —

Lesson Number 7: Closeness - distance dilemma

Systemic organisation consultants emphasise collaborative approaches, because as employees are empowered by learning new skills and methods, organisational learning takes place and resistance diminishes. Service designers must, therefore, work with the clients in unusual proximity, but always keep enough of a distance to avoid being dragged into the client’s problems. The temporary organisation provides a good framework for this close cooperation. Through early involvement, employees can experience user problems first-hand, recognise their own meaning in the insights found, and thus develop the necessary acceptance for the possibly new or even uncomfortable changes ahead. A crucial result is a shared awareness of the identified problems. Service designers can experience a first wave of resistance when they conduct the diagnosis of the client’s organisation (or, e.g., an existing user journey), using a purely external view without the participation of internal employees.

Lesson Number 8: System logic = survival

If systems (clients) are confronted with their external image (results of user research), which usually involves a lot of negative aspects and an extensive collection of failures, a defensive attitude can spread among the employees, because this can be seen as an attack against the existing system. The system tries to protect itself and restore its balance to ‘survive’. It has been reported that service design projects often come to a halt or lose the necessary priority for the client at exactly this point.

Lesson Number 9: Each action is an intervention

Every activity, such as stakeholder interviews or co-creation workshops, are interventions. However, an effect may only become visible or noticeable in the client organisation at a later point in time. This highlights the strong networking of actors and actions as well as the fact that unintended consequences can arise.

Lesson Number 10: Risk minimisation

Executives must be supported in decision-making and risk assessment. The prediction that the developed concept can be economically relevant in the market, satisfactory from the user's point of view and successful for the organisation regarding skills, remuneration and general conditions within the desired time window, must be proven repeatedly in the process. The more the system logic, culture and interdependencies are understood, the higher the probability of being able to reduce uncertainties and thus convince top management.

Lesson Number 11: Three-dimensional consulting

Ideally, service designers support in three ways: as process, specialist and mindset consultants. Depending on time and role, they can provide both conceptual and process-related support so that employees remain able to work and process reliability is guaranteed. If service designers are not responsible for or do not want to control the process, a successful later implementation is questionable.

Lesson Number 12: Prepare disciplinary borders!

For service designers who are leaving the process at an early stage, because their focus is on conceptual work, it is crucial to think ahead and prepare the disciplinary boundaries for the concepts to not end up in the drawer as “corporate entertainment,” as Melvin Brand Flu (from Livework) calls it.


The KUER model can be used at any time in the process to enable the actors involved to explore new perspectives about the project, to reflect together or to derive options for action. Systematic reflection can promote learning processes and contribute to improving the readiness for implementation. Knowledge of the interrelationships and influencing factors can be used to set up or adapt individual success criteria for service design projects. This prevents negative consequences and unrealistic expectations at an early stage, and preserves both the quality and reputation of the service design approach and the service designers. 

Service designers have excellent capabilities and methodological approaches to support organisations in change projects. Therefore, it is an advantage for the success of transformations if they are accompanied by an innovation project using a human-centred design process. Service designers who want to support the implementation of projects must acquire skills from organisational consulting – especially business management and systemic consulting – or expand their service portfolio together with partners. Connectivity with the company's top management and employees at all levels of the hierarchy must be ensured throughout the process. A fundamental insight is that organisations as social systems cannot ultimately be specifically controlled from outside or by service providers. They can only change themselves and successfully implement concepts. On the long way there, however, client organisations have a great need for professional support.

1 Martins, R. (2012). Poster at Design for Next, EAD 12 Rome.
2 Vester, F. (2007). The Art of interconnected thinking: Tools and concepts for a new approach to tackling complexity.
3 See also Luhmann. N. (1984). Soziale Systeme. Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie. Simon. F. (2015). Einführung in die systemische Organisationstheorie.
4 Mager. B. (2018). Keynote at Service Design Conference, Helsinki Finland.
5 Mager, B. (2010). Service Design and Behavioural Change. Touchpoint Vol. 1 Nr.3: 73-75.


Want to get an even better understanding and a practical deep dive into the methods discussed here? Tina offers a workshop specifically tailored to the topic of this article to give you a hands-on learning experience plus valuable tools and methods.

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