Gassia Salibian - Alexandra Pratt
Author - Gassia Salibian - Alexandra Pratt

As service designers, we could talk endlessly about the times our designs were foiled. Not by customers, but by the stakeholders needed to implement the service.

Our insights, blueprints and prototypes may fail to stand up to an onslaught of objections. During implementation, our goal warps and cracks until it is barely recognisable, diminishing the value of our efforts and of the service. We set out to understand why these objections arise by interviewing 13 senior level service designers across academic, commercial and non-profit sectors, as well as an organisational psychologist.

We found four types of objections representing service design risk areas:

  1. Legal or Regulatory risks – threaten project feasibility
  2. Business and Brand risks – lower revenues
  3. Operational risks – increase costs of
    doing business
  4. Organisational risks – spur conflicts among team members

Interestingly, nearly 70 percent of projects suffer from organisational issues. In response to this, we developed a set of
tools to help service designers with some of the most challenging aspects of team-building and collaboration.

“The essence of team building is ‘in-group/out-group’,” says Reza Ahmadi, an organisational psychologist.

“When the individual members in a team are working on a shared goal, they unite. If they are working on different goals, you’ll see the symptoms: breakdowns in communication, disengaged team members, passive-aggressive decision making, slow progress, high stress.”

Here are some symptoms of organisational risks being present, and the challenges they present to a service designer:

To be successful, service designers must know how to influence stakeholders, align their goals, and motivate them to prioritise the customer’s needs throughout the project lifecycle, and perhaps beyond. We present two toolkits for service designers to influence and manage stakeholder relationships successfully.


Everyone we spoke to agreed that a successful project meant having the right people engaged early on. They reported spending three times as much time on stakeholder engagement than they had planned, and one spent 80 percent of her time, on average, engaging with internal stakeholders.

The activities we developed rely heavily on the service designer’s innate strengths in user-centred design. Building on those strengths, our approach treats internal stakeholders as a set of customers.1

PART I: Identify Internal Stakeholders

Exercise: Stakeholder Brainstorm

  1. Participants: Service designers and core team
  2. Materials: Sticky notes and markers
  3. Instructions: Post prompting questions. Using sticky notes, write names of all stakeholders relevant to each question. Include titles and departments.
  4. Prompting Questions:
  • Who will be the project decision makers?
    Our research confirmed that it is essential to have the right support from executives who communicate the project as a priority. Some interviewees said they would not take on a project without that level of executive support.
  • Who is sponsoring the project?
    Checking for executive sponsor is imperative because service designers often have little power and no direct access to key resources.
  • Who is responsible for the project?
    If they have high visibility and other high profile projects, it brings valuable clout and credibility to the project and team.
  • Who is working on related projects? Are there opportunities to align or collaborate?
  • Who could obstruct the project?

  • Who else could support this project? To attract the right partners, think of who the project might be a ‘win’ opportunity for.

PART II: Empathise with Internal Stakeholders

Schedule interviews with stakeholders to understand their attitudes, needs, fears, goals and behaviours. (Refer to Part IV for topics you will want to cover.)

PART III: Assess Stakeholders’ Relationships with You and the Project

Exercise: Stakeholder Relationship Assessment

  1. Participants: Service designers and core team
  2. Materials: Sticky notes from Part I, findings from Part II and markers
  • Move the sticky notes from the previous exercise onto a matrix of Influence vs. Stakes. ‘Influence’ refers to an individual’s clout within an organisation and ‘Stakes’ demonstrates their level of investment in the success of the project.
  • Once all sticky notes are plotted, use a marker to indicate their ‘Customer Degree of Separation’ – how removed they are from interactions with a customer at a touchpoint. Use a 1-5 scale, ‘1’ being someone with direct contact with customers (e.g. the person is a support representative) to ‘5’ for those who are four or more levels removed from customers.
  • On a separate sheet, indicate the ‘Temperature’ of each person, reflecting their attitude toward the project as ‘Warm’ or ‘Cold’.
  • Using the same set of stakeholders, map them a second time. Move the stickies relative to how much ‘social capital’ you and the core team have with that individual. Reza (the organisational psychologist) describes how social capital works: “If you’ve helped somebody, usually the process of reciprocity is at work, whether it’s apparent or not. Goodwill is built up and asking for help is a lot easier.”

Combined, these two maps will give you a sense of how much time and effort will be needed to bring certain people on board, who can be activated immediately and who should be ‘benched’ in early stages.

PART IV: Synthesise, Reflect and Plan Stakeholder Engagement

Translate your findings into a working document with all information from the previous activities. Then decide how to best engage each individual.


How should you go about aligning their interests with those of the customers you’re representing? First, you must clarify what your stakeholders really mean when they use certain terms. As Bernie Geuy, a service designer at University of California, Berkeley related about her team, “While everyone would say ‘we care about service,’ to the developers that turned out to mean delivering functionality, whereas to us it was about making a frictionless experience. We were valuing the end user’s experience over everything. They were valuing the system stability and maintainability. When they have a mountain of work to do for a large, complex project, ‘good enough’ or 'functional' sounded pretty good to them.”

“In retrospect, we should have established some criteria to test what we, the designers, assumed to be true about the project team – what drove them, and how they collaborated.” – Bernie Geuy, service designer, University of California, Berkeley

PART I: Identify Key Experience Indicators (KEI)

  1. Participants: Service designers
  2. Materials: Sticky notes, journey mapping software or physical map
  • Using a high level journey map(s), place sticky notes identifying what matters most to the customer — their desired outcomes — at each stage.
  • Number the metrics in sequence. These are the ‘Key Experience Indicators’ — the metrics you will care about most throughout the project. Use these as your own goals and metrics in the next exercise.

PART II: Clarify and Share Stakeholders’ Goals and Metrics

  1. Participants: Service designers and core team
  2. Materials: Sticky notes and markers, poster paper
  • Set up a 1 to 1.5-hour workshop to co-define individual, organisational and project success metrics with all stakeholders.

“Establishing KEIs with business partners increases credibility in our work because it sets a clearly defined benchmark in a way that is familiar to them. KEIs are especially powerful if you can combine qualitative and quantitative metrics. KEIs describe how the new experience aims to fulfill a customer need while also reaching a tangible business outcome, down to the impact in dollars and cents.” – Raphaelle Loren, Experience Strategy & Design Lead, Wells Fargo

  • Have each stakeholder write their primary goal or desired outcome(s) for the project. One colour of sticky note should be used to capture their goals as individuals relative to the project, and another to capture their organisation’s goals.
  • KPIs: Next to each goal, in the same colour sticky note, have them define the metrics they are measured on as individuals and the metrics that their organisation reports on. These are the goals and metrics that each stakeholder will care about most during the project.
  • Targets: Have stakeholders articulate their target outcomes for their metrics (e.g. decrease call volume by a certain percentage, achieve net positive sentiment in social media, etc.)
  • Measurement: Have each stakeholder define how their individual and organisational KPIs are calculated.

PART III: Align on Shared Goals and the Right Metrics

Exercise: Goals and Metrics Clash Detection

  • Building on your workshop from Part II, have each stakeholder share their goals and metrics
    with the team.
  • The service designer shares the customer’s goals and metrics — i.e., KEIs — and explains where the KEIs came from and why they are important.
  • Have the stakeholders map each of the KEIs back to their own KPIs. Have them ask, “Could (or would) my metrics suffer by delivering on this KEI?” If the answer is ‘no,’ then there is no conflict. If it’s ‘yes’ or ‘maybe,’ use the following exercise to resolve them.
Example KPIs and how they map to KEIs --
Example KPIs and how they map to KEIs —

Exercise: Goals and Metrics Clash Resolution

There is no point trying to coax stakeholders to use the KEIs you identified. They simply don’t have the same goals as your organisation and their success is not measured in the same way yours is. Instead, choose the KPIs that will support KEIs such as ‘low churn rate’ for the sales team, ‘high conversion rate’ for marketing, or ‘reduction in call volume’ for customer support functions.

  • Together with the stakeholder, ask: ‘How might we deliver on the KEI without negatively impacting the stakeholder’s metric?’ Explore two avenues:
  1. Change the metric: Ask, “Might there be a different metric for that goal that would not conflict with
    the KEI?”
  2. Change the design: Ask, “How might we change an aspect of the designed experience — a process, product, or policy — to deliver on the KEI in a such a way as to support (or interfere with) the stakeholder’s KPI?”

“Align as early as possible on the specific metrics that are both important and achievable.” – Susannah Staats, Service Design Director, Playworks

  • Assess feasibility: For any new KPI you identify, ask “What would it take to adopt the new metric instead of or in addition to the one used by the organisation today? Is it feasible now or should it be left for a future project?”
  • Agree on Alignment Method: Document and publish the agreed-upon goals, metrics, KEIs and KPIs, including the mapping. Refer the team back to them when new disagreements or prioritisations arise.

There is no silver bullet for service design project success. But these tools can empower service designers to keep customer experience at the forefront of what businesses deliver, at all stages of the project lifecycle.

1 Customer Degrees of Separation concept by Barbie Fink, Director of Customer Experience at Adobe who said, “I treat any internal stakeholder like they’re my customer.”

Alexandra Pratt
Alexandra Pratt - Design Strategist

Having worked across sectors — education, healthcare, finance, and tech — her versatile toolkit brings customer-centred strategies to life. She holds an MBA in Design Strategy from California College of the Arts and a BA from NYU.

Gassia Salibian
Gassia Salibian - Principal at Future-Proof

Her work removes business risks from innovation processes for startups to global corporations. Gassia holds an MBA, a Masters in Architecture from Columbia University, and a BS from MIT. She serves on SDN’s National Chapter Board.

This article is part of Touchpoint Vol. 10 No. 1 - From Design to Implementation. Touchpoint Journal is available to purchase in print and PDF format. Become an SDN member, or upgrade your community membership, to be able to read all articles online and download the full-issue PDF at no charge.




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