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Service Design in Higher Education

Matt Lisle - Director of Digital Learning Technologies

What is Service Design?

I’ll admit, I’m new to service design. I first became familiar with the term a few months ago when a Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) graduate researcher, Lindsay Kelly, introduced me to the concept. Lindsay convinced C21U to take service design for a spin, and co-facilitated a workshop with me in February. The following post is my attempt to explain service design to others in higher education who – like me – were unaware of its potential. 

My favorite description of service design comes from Marc Fonteijn: “When you have two coffee shops right next to each other, that each sell the exact same coffee at the exact same price; service design is what makes you walk into the one and not the other, come back often, and tell your friends about it.”

Fonteijn’s explanation of service design kicked off a series of one-line descriptions from service designers around the world, including this one from Nick Marsh: “Good service design is the process of deliberately crafting our experience and delivery of services, to make them more valuable for the people that use and provide them.”

Service design is different than product design in that it’s much broader. Product design focuses on the creation of a single product, such as an application or device. Service design aims to orchestrate the products, people, communications, and every other interaction that happens within a service -- all with the goal of eliminating existing pain points and better addressing stakeholder needs. This is particularly valuable in higher education, considering the complex web of stakeholders, processes, technologies, and motivations that comprise most of our services.

What is a Service Blueprint?

One common output from a service design process is a service blueprint. The Nielsen Norman Group provides a helpful introduction to service blueprints. Although there are several different ways to format service blueprints, they generally serve as a map of all the inputs, processes, and outputs within a service. 

To illustrate this concept, the following blueprint charts Lindsay's favorite example: the delivery of a new toy for a pet dog. 


an example of a service design spreadsheet for a dog toy via Lindsay Kelly


The Practical Service Design blog post “Demystifying Service Design -- Part 1” provides a slightly more real-world example of a service blueprint: hailing a ride from Uber.


Graphic via Erik Flowers on the Practical Service Design blog (Medium), post: "Demystifying Service Design -- Part 1" 
Graphic via Erik Flowers on the Practical Service Design blog (Medium), post: "Demystifying Service Design -- Part 1" 


Completing such a blueprint requires stakeholders to break down each task into its elemental components. It also leads to a thorough understanding of each component. This process pushes participants to consider the pain points and ideas associated with each task, which leads to revelations about service improvements. You can use this blueprint template to conduct your own service design with your team.

C21U Case Study: Academic Credentials

The C21U has been exploring the services and tools surrounding students’ academic credentials. As stated in Georgia Tech’s Commission for Creating the Next in Education (CNE) Report, “By the year 2040, learners will acquire skills in a wide variety of ways and in varying quantities, or units. While degrees, credits, and courses may persist as common units of achievement, it seems likely that other units of accomplishment will become common as well.”

We are asking questions such as:

  • How do students earn credentials for learning activities?
  • How do students share those credentials with admissions offices or potential employers?
  • Which types of credentials would admissions offices or employers find valuable?
  • What role does faculty play in the awarding of student credentials?
  • How do faculty endorse their students’ skills, knowledge, and abilities?

We decided to conduct a service design workshop by inviting a variety of stakeholders to create a series of service blueprints for academic credentials. Our participants included admissions officers, registrar’s office staff, faculty, students, and local employers. Each stakeholder group was asked to create one or two blueprints, and share with the rest of the workshop.


working group photo from the C21U service design workshop


In an upcoming blog post, we will share the specific findings that arose out of the workshop. Suffice it to say that the creation of the blueprints uncovered a variety of opportunities for improvement. Most importantly, the workshop prompted interesting conversations between the stakeholder groups that otherwise would not have occurred. As with most universities, Georgia Tech is a complex ecosystem of stakeholders that naturally leads to silos. Finding the time to get people together in a room to discuss their work will always be a valuable experience. A few examples of these conversations include:

  • The admissions group and the employers group found that they had many pain points in common, particularly around evaluating applicants’ knowledge, skills, and abilities that don’t appear on a traditional transcript.
  • The student, faculty, and employer groups were surprised to learn about the steps that others took when requesting, writing, and reviewing letters of recommendations for student internships.
  • The registrars group was surprised to learn about some of the students’ confusion around the acquisition of their academic transcripts.

This won’t be our last service design workshop -- there are countless opportunities for us to conduct these workshops throughout higher education. What if we brought together stakeholders to discuss mental health services at Georgia Tech? Or, academic advising? Or, career services? Or, online learning? Our hope is to facilitate these types of workshops as we pursue initiatives coming out of the CNE report, and to provide tools and templates that enable others around the campus to complete these activities on their own.

About the Author

Matt Lisle headshotMatt Lisle is the Director of Digital Learning Technologies at the Center for 21st Century Universities. He brings a combination of professional and academic experience in the fields of instructional design, web design and development, and content strategy to his work. His main professional focus is the creation and development of technology-enhanced learning experiences. Prior to coming to Georgia Tech, Matt served as Digital Course Design Coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin and as Creative Director at Enspire Learning. He holds a master’s degree in Instructional Technology from the University of Georgia.