It must constantly be borne in mind that the object being worked on is going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some way used by people individually or en masse. If the point of contact between the product and people becomes a point of friction, then the designer has failed. If, on the other hand, people are made safer, more comfortable, more desirous of purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded. (Dreyfuss, 1950, p. 80)

Libraries are in a constant state of evolution as we adjust services to better meet user needs. Incorporating user-centered changes in the design of services allows libraries to stay lockstep with evolving needs and expectations. Librarians have explored a variety of techniques and methods to study and assess user behavior in order to guide changes and improvements to services. Usability studies are a common method libraries have used to find out more about how users access and use information. These have focused primarily on the interaction between humans and computers, but it is also imperative that we study the services and spaces our patrons or customers use (Dreyfuss, 1950). In recent years, libraries have increasingly incorporated traditional anthropological analysis and assessment tools such as ethnographic research into their assessment of library spaces and services in order to better understand the various cultures of libraries and library patrons (Duke & Asher, 2011; Foster & Gibbons, 2010). While this gives libraries a better understanding of user behavior, the type of ethnographic research practicing librarians often have time for tends to focus on bits and pieces of users’ library experiences rather than looking at the entire service ecology of a library and the community it serves. Service design, a holistic, co-creative method, puts the user in the center of the service delivery model and focuses on the users’ entire experience, rather than bits and pieces.

While still a relatively new field, service design and the tools associated with service products are highly relevant to library work. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the importance of the service design methodology as a viable method for assessing and analyzing service delivery in libraries. The paper will also define services and describe the various factors that the authors used to create a successful service design project.

What is Service Design?

What is a Service?

Librarians are not new to designing or assessing services, but we tend to develop each service in isolation from the other services we offer and with little to no user input prior to implementation. For example, circulation policies are usually developed by circulation staff and then distributed to the rest of the library staff. Likewise, interlibrary loan, reference, collection development, and so on all tend to focus on their own policy development. The way librarians typically bring services together is to communicate with one another what each department has decided and then get user feedback by assessing services after they are in place. Service design demands that we look at our seemingly disparate services as a whole entity and from users’ perspectives so that the service is “compelling and indispensable [and] delights the user” (Heath, 2014, para. 1).

To begin to unpack how to do service design, it is important to clarify the meaning of service in this context. Services are intangible interactions that are tied to experience. According to Kotler (2001), a service is “any activity or benefit that one party can offer another that is essentially intangible and does not result in the ownership of anything” (p. 291). Services are the unseen exchanges that happen everywhere and because they are an intangible and cannot be possessed (Shostack, 1984), they are closely tied to experiences, which are highly personal and exist within the mind of the individual (Pine & Gilmore, 1998). Within the context of service design in libraries, the collections and physical space of the library are services in the same way that reference and circulation are services. In order to evaluate these services, librarians need to focus on users’ experiences.

Service Design, a Definition

Service design is a holistic, co-creative, and user-centered approach to understanding customer behavior for the creation or refining of services (Mager & Sung, 2011; Polaine, Løvlie, & Reason, 2013; Stickdorn & Schneider, 2011). It is holistic in that it views the elements that make up a service or an experience as part of a larger service ecology. Under the service design methodology, the library as a whole, (e.g., the physical and virtual environments, as well as all physical service desks or touchpoints), defines a service ecology. Services do not operate in a vacuum, but rather in tandem with other established services. When taken as a whole, the entire ecology is evaluated and assessed to better inform the experience from the user’s perspective.

Service design is co-creative, in that the library design team works with stakeholders, (e.g., users and staff), to co-create or refine services that meet or adjust to customer expectations, while also working with frontline personnel to deliver a high-quality service. At the center of the process is the user and insights into user behavior (Polaine et al., 2013). It is through this lens that services are refined and improved—or even created—to meet user needs and expectations.

Service Design and Participatory Design

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the user experience in libraries. Recent user studies have emphasized including the user in the design process (Foster, 2014; Foster & Gibbons, 2010). This method is commonly known as participatory design, which incorporates the user at the beginning of the design process in order to create a more usable end product. It dates back to the 1970s in Scandinavia (Holmlid, 2009) and was originally used to focus on the work environment. Like service design, participatory design uses ethnographic methods to get at what users need and how they interact with their environment. While not entirely different from participatory design, service design diverges slightly in its approach to service, in that service delivery is always held as the center of gravity within a specific ecology or environment. The aim of service design is to focus on the delivery of service, regardless of what the service is. In this context, the physical space of the library is a service, as is the website, catalog, databases, service desks, and printing, and all of these services inform and interact with one another to influence the total experience of the user.

Participatory design and service design share a similar toolkit, (e.g., ethnography, co-creation, journey maps, blueprints), have a user-centered approach, and are relevant methods for approaching a more user-centered library; and both methods overlap in how they assess and work with users. Service design differs in that it emphasizes the entire ecology in the delivery of service.

For example, when looking at circulation services, consider all of the parts that go into a complete user interaction. In this case, checking out a book may seem simple on first glance and that it only includes the circulation staff member checking out the book and the user. But there are a lot of other elements and people that must be considered. The process of checking out a book starts with users walking into the library and searching the online catalog and the final face-to-face interaction depends on them being able to find the book on the shelves. For the purposes of this paper, we are looking at the overall library ecology (i.e., the physical library, various touchpoints, and all services) as a “dynamic system of services” (Felix, 2011).

Elements of Service Design

Service design is performed through a series of actions focused on observations, interviews, and activities involving users. While there is no prescribed guideline or recipe for which tools or approach to use, there are three basic phases to the methodology: observation, understanding/thinking, and implementing.1 Throughout these phases, a design team and users work together to co-refine existing services or co-create new ones. The final product or goal of service design is to “ensure that service interfaces are useful, usable, and desirable from the client's point of view and effective, efficient, and distinctive from the supplier's point of view” (Mager, 2008, p. 355). The methodology is best undertaken and facilitated by a design team with some different areas of expertise. For example, a balanced library design team will have someone from a variety of functional areas of the library (reference, circulation, technical services, web design, etc.).


Co-creation is a key element of service design. Through the co-creation process, the library design team works with stakeholders in order to create a service delivery model that matches patron and stakeholder expectations (Steen, Manschot, & De Koning, 2011), while taking into account any limitations or access issues at the institutional level. Service design is about finding solutions2 for a given service ecology, which can show up in different ways for different institutions. The scope of a service design project could be all-encompassing and seek to explore every aspect of service in a library, but it is more likely that a library design team would start with one or two services, such as reference service, and then seek to understand everything about that service within the context of the library and the institution.

The library design team should create a user working group (UWG), comprised of a diverse group of patrons, to provide different levels of feedback from their unique perspectives. For example, the UWG that we used at the Reed College Library included students from the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior classes. We were primarily interested in services from the student perspective, but if a library wanted to understand services from the perspective of all patron types, it may be appropriate to recruit faculty and staff for the UWG as well. The design team will work closely with the UWG through the various phases to identify the most important and relevant issues to users and to co-create solutions. The UWG may be assembled as a short-term entity to work on one service design project or they may be created as an ongoing entity to work as consultants on service design and other user-focused projects.

Co-creation is also not limited to working with only external stakeholders,3 such as patrons and other community members. The co-creation process should also include internal stakeholders. Ideas provided by those who offer and support the service are just as important as patron or user input. Co-creation only works when relevant stakeholders are identified and as many as possible are included in the process. In the example of checking out a book, some of the questions that immediately emerge that point to important internal stakeholders include:

  • Was it cataloged correctly?—cataloging

  • Was it shelved correctly?—stacks management

  • Could they find their way around the library? Do they need a map?—facilities, marketing

  • Was there someone available if they needed help?—reference

The library design team may want to create a stakeholder map (see fig. 1) to identify key stakeholder groups for a given service point or service task.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.
Figure 1. Stakeholder map.

Beware the Devil’s Advocate (Especially in the Beginning)

Service design is an open, exploratory process, especially in the beginning and intermediate phases when the team is looking for and clarifying problems and initial ideas for solutions. With that, it is important to be open-minded, optimistic, and willing to take risks. A best practice in service design is to understand the situation, compile possible solutions, and only then, evaluate each idea for the most viable and feasible solution. The devil’s advocate, while sometimes a powerful tool, can also hinder progress, innovation, and solution making. Tom Kelley, the general manager of design firm IDEO, believes that “the devil’s advocate may be the biggest innovation killer in America today” (2005, p. 2) because the focus in conversations initiated by the devil’s advocate are rooted in negativity. Focusing on problems before fully seeking creative solutions and trying out new possibilities can squash new ideas before they have time to be nominally developed. To innovate means to try new ideas and approaches, but finding those requires the ability to think beyond the status quo.

Making the Intangible Tangible and Finding Touchpoints

Another element of service design is making the intangible tangible. Returning to the process of checking out a book, think of the few simple steps we outlined above. A lot of these steps are hidden, and not just from the user, but also from other library staff members. Work tasks are often very isolated from one another in libraries, both physically and mentally. For example, technical services may be in a separate building from the main library building, so while cataloging is a major part of the process for a user hoping to check out a book, the user and the circulation staff member may never see or talk to the person that made it possible for them to find the book in the first place. The circulation staff member at least knows this person exists, but the user may not even be aware of how the library works. When we use service design to create or refine services, it is important to bring out all of the disparate pieces in order to make them tangible and so we can find out where the touchpoints are for users.

Service design “deconstruct[s] service processes into single touchpoints and interactions,” which combine to “create service moments” (Stickdorn & Schneider, 2011, p. 40). Touchpoints occur any time a user uses or interacts with your product or service. They can be between the user and another person, the library website, databases, the physical space, with artifacts such as maps and signs, or any other point at which the user uses a service. They can also occur through third parties, such as when a professor recommends a student contact their library liaison, when a community member reads reviews of the local library, or when users hear from other people they know about their experience using the library. Identifying touchpoints can help tremendously in the process of making the intangible tangible and can help the library design team identify moments of success and failure with a service.


Blueprinting is one tool that can help to make the intangible tangible. Services are processes that are dynamic and time-dependent (Bitner, Ostrom, & Morgan, 2008). As a result, it is important to understand what makes a service possible and to better understand the beginning and end points of a service (Shostack, 1982). Blueprinting outlines the evidence of service delivery—from the layers that are visible to the patron to all the behind-the-scenes workings that are required for a service to be rendered. With the blueprint, the service provider can determine the best delivery method while also understanding potential fail points throughout the delivery process (Shostack, 1984). It is useful to create a blueprint when you establish a service delivery model because it can be refined and reproduced with minimal effort.

Design Ethnography and Observation

Ethnographic methods have been established as a tool to better inform libraries on how their patrons interact with space and resources (Foster, 2014; Foster & Gibbons, 2010). Unlike traditional ethnography that often requires months and numerous trips to perform fieldwork, design ethnography is constrained by workplace demands and time (Salvador, Bell, & Anderson, 1999). As a result, design ethnography requires the practitioner to rely on a wider range of ethnographic tools such as interviewing (structured and informal), photography, and observation.

The purpose of design ethnography is to focus on illuminating “broader patterns of the everyday that are important and relevant specifically for the conception, design, and development of new products and services” (Salvador et al., 1999). The need to be flexible in how the library design group approaches the ethnographic process forces the participants to take what Crabtree, Rouncefield, and Tolmie (2012) refer to as a “vulgar competence” (p. 190) approach, which means that the team needs to quickly understand their environment and users and decide which methods or tools are best suited to gather the necessary insights within a given—often limited—timeframe.

As librarians, our intention is to learn insights into our users’ behavior and patterns. The library design group should borrow heavily from established academic practices as mentioned above in order to grasp who are the library’s users, what are their behaviors, and how do they prefer to interact with the library. Observing is one way to begin to develop this picture; it is the act of witnessing users as they work in the library environment, be it physical or virtual.

Observation involves immersing oneself in the culture of the user in order to take a more empathetic approach to the design process (Segelström, Raijmakers, & Holmlid, 2009). This can be accomplished through working closely with the UWG: one-on-one interviews, having them detail their interactions with the library in a diary, or having them respond to various scenarios. Combined with interviews in a more formal focus group-type setting, the information gathered in these activities can lead to a “thick description” (Geertz, 1973). What this means is the library design team can gain insights into user behavior with the end goal of obtaining a deep understanding of users and their behavior within the library ecology.


A prototype is, quite simply, a physical representation of an idea. The prototype can take many forms, from a simple sketch to a fully functioning desk to simulate a physical touchpoint. The purpose of a prototype is for the design team to develop “a far deeper understanding of a service than is possible with written or visual descriptions” (Stickdorn & Schneider, 2011, p. 192). Developing a working prototype and testing it with actual users helps in the overall design process. A functioning prototype helps move the abstract to the real. A design may work flawlessly on paper, but fail miserably in the wild. Prototypes are quick, inexpensive ways to find these problems before committing to permanent changes.

As with all prototypes, it is important to factor in editing time to fine tune the prototype experience. Rarely is the prototype correct the first time out. They typically need to be refined, tested, and refined again until you find the final product. For a full treatment of prototyping, check out the IDEO design process (Kelley, 2005).


Journaling or keeping a diary is a long-established sociological method for measuring and tracking time allocation (Gross, 1984). The journaling method can inform the design team on how and when users interact with a service (Clark, 2010). A journal or diary also emphasizes to the user the role they play in creating a service transaction. Employing a diary as a method for capturing insights also allows the focus of the diary’s content to be on the user and makes the user into both the subject and the observer (Zimmerman & Wieder, 1977). Additionally, journaling allows the library design team to learn more insights that might not be shared in a traditional focus-group setting. Zimmerman and Wieder (1977) advocated for a user maintained diary because it can be used “as an observational log maintained by subjects, which can then be used as a basis for intensive interviewing” (p. 481).

Service Design, in practice

While there is no prescribed guideline or recipe for which tools or approach to use, the service design process presented here was done at Reed College Library over a series of phases. In each phase, a different goal is reached, the various pieces of the service puzzle are revealed, the overall needs of users are explored, and solutions are developed in order to create a rich, satisfying experience for both users and the staff serving them.

Pre-Work Phase

During this phase, the design team should create the UWG and draft a schedule of activities.4 The activities can change depending on the dynamic of the group and relevancy of the issues discussed and witnessed, but starting with a rough schedule will help to keep the project moving. Each phase and its characteristics and goals are discussed below. Within each section, there are suggested tools and activities to use. These are only examples of activities.

Observation Phase

In this phase, the library design team observes, interviews, and documents acts in order to better understand the problem. In service design, observation means more than just watching; it is about witnessing and understanding the experience. As Salvador et al. state, “our participants do not make facts, they do acts” (1999, p. 37). This phase includes working with the UWG to create documents that help illustrate the actual behavior necessary to complete a task.

During this stage, the team will discover and refine actual problems and then focus on the characteristics and barriers—physical and virtual—that exist when patrons use library services. For example, a library design team may be interested in investigating why their reference numbers have been consistently going down for several years. In this case, the actual problem is ill-defined because while declining reference numbers are the surface problem, the team is still unsure of the real cause. Service design helps to get to the root of the problem. The purpose of the observation phase is to create a foundation for the project. It is also about understanding the user at the most basic level.

The observational and documenting methods used depends on the library environment and the goals for the project that the design team and the UWG have established. Beyond just walking through the library and making notes of activities, the design team might opt to perform a space analysis. Space analyses5 investigate how users use space, where and when they go, and what they do when they get there. Design ethnography builds on space analysis to better understand individual users. This type of study can help librarians identify who users are, what their motivations are, and what similarities they may have with other users. Personas can then be created based on observations to assist in the design process. Design ethnography also uses interviews and talking to patrons in context when and where they are working to get a better understanding of how and why users do what they do. The design team will also learn a lot about patron behavior while working with the UWG. Examples of possible activities:

  • Space analysis

  • Interviews

  • Focus groups

  • Surveys

  • Personas

Understanding/Thinking Phase

The Understanding/Thinking phase seeks to build upon the design team’s observations. In this phase, the design team works with the UWG to begin creating solutions and visualizing behaviors, which should include prototyping. The team may work with the UWG to create a diagram of the customer journey (see fig. 2). The customer journey diagram is essentially a graphic representation of the path a user takes in order to complete a task. The main goal is to document the actual journey required to complete a task. It is important to note that the form of the diagram should be something the UWG members are comfortable with creating. More creative members may draw elaborate depictions or storyboards, while others may want to write notes. The diagram may be created individually by each UWG member and then compiled by the design team or it may be a group activity, in which the whole UWG creates the diagram together. Regardless of form, this activity allows the design team to visualize the actual steps necessary to complete a task from the user’s perspective. For example, as depicted in figure 2, students may look for a book in the stacks differently, depending on why they are looking for it, where they are physically located when they start the process, how they hear about it, how comfortable they are with the library, and so on.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.
Figure 2. Customer journey map—a user looking for book in the stacks (multichannel).

Other possible activities might be to put the UWG in various scenarios in order to capture user thought processes and measure the gap between expectation and actual service delivery, or have the UWG create diaries of their library interactions. The scenarios (see fig. 3) should include situations users may face when interacting with the library. Examples might include having trouble with printing, approaching the reference desk when it looks like the librarian is busy on her computer, or a user attempting to decipher the library floor map to find the correct location of a call number. The scenarios can be depicted in staged photos that are shown to the UWG. The UWG will then write down or discuss their thoughts when they have found themselves in these situations or what they imagine they would think if they have never been in the scenario depicted.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.
Figure 3. Scenario exercise.

Diaries, while time-consuming, are an excellent tool that can help document actual patron behavior and make them more aware of how and when they interact with the library. The diary exercise can be done over a period of a day or a week and requires each UWG member to track their interactions with the library. This activity provides the design team with a view of user interactions from their perspective without actually shadowing a patron. When employed in the user working group at the Reed College Library, the users’ verbal response to the activity was that they learned how much they actually use the library.

Possible Solutions and Testing

A major component of the Understanding/Thinking phase is testing possible solutions. When users delve into and talk about their experiences with the library, solutions begin to emerge. At this point, the design team should gather and document their ideas for solutions. While users often have wonderful ideas, which are the reason they are included at such an intense level in the process, they do not understand the full service ecology, so it is important for the library design team to return to the other stakeholders to investigate the feasibility of the ideas. Some ideas for solutions may fall off the drawing board at this point. For example, a common issue at the academic library where we work is printing. There are a lot of issues that arise around printing, including students not knowing what to do when printers do not work correctly, where the printers are located, who can help them, how much printing costs, and how to get started with printing. A solution that a student recommended was to move a printer to the counter next to the circulation desk so students would not have to find the printers in the library, they could pick something up on their way out, and help would be located at a potential point of need. A staff member from access services on our team pointed out logistical issues for circulation staff, who run the busiest service point in the library. It is just as important to find a solution that works for the people who provide the service as those who use the service.

Solutions that continue to look like good possibilities for implementation should be more fully developed. For simple things like putting up clearer signage above printers or closing a service desk an hour or two later, the design team may decide to jump straight to implementation, but more complicated solutions should be tested first with prototypes.

For example, the Reed College team was interested in solving the problem of where to place the reference desk within our very traditional and quiet library so that students felt comfortable asking questions without disturbing other students. To test possible placement for the reference desk and to help students on the UWG visualize it in different locations, we used a large wardrobe box as a reference desk prototype. By moving the box around, students could concretely visualize a desk in a specific place, to include getting a feel for how the work would flow in that space, where and how sound would travel, and what lines of sight desk workers would have.

Examples of possible activities:

  • Diaries

  • Customer Journey Map

  • Scenarios

  • Prototypes


The implementation phase is the culmination of the work of the design team and the UWG. After the prototyped service has been created and deemed ready to go live, it is time to implement it. During this time, the library design team’s focus shifts to fully documenting, managing, and marketing the new or revamped services.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.
Figure 4. Service blueprint showing overview of user getting book from reserves. This figure illustrates the necessary steps required to check out a book on reserve.

At this point the design team should create the service blueprint, which documents the service. The service blueprint6 (see fig. 4), like those used for building structures, creates a foundation for the delivery of a service or services. It “identif[ies] the components of a step or action [to] reveal the inputs needed and steps covered, and permits analysis, control, and improvement” (Shostack, 1984, p. 135). The blueprint creates for service providers a written record to look at and refer to in the delivery of service. It can also highlight fail points that exist during service delivery. By highlighting the entire process, service providers can realize “these processes are important because changing them may alter the way consumers perceive the service” (Shostack, 1984, p. 135).

Implementation is also the beginning of the management phase of a project. This is where the service changes hands from the library design team and moves to an administrator to manage. Services are live interactions that need to be monitored even after the design team has signed off (Moritz, 2005). After a service has been implemented or redesigned, it will have to be reviewed to see if the executed version meets expectations as determined or defined during the design phase. In the implementation phase, the library design group can gather additional user feedback and review the service blueprints created to fine tune the touchpoints.

Conclusion: Advocating for Service Design in Libraries

Libraries are, by nature, service providers and are an environment that stands to benefit from implementing a service design approach when assessing, refining, and creating services. Even as libraries evolve with technological innovations and new methods of accessing information, the dedication to service is at the heart of librarianship, which highlights the importance of being constantly aware of how services are being provided to ensure the best user experience. The service design approach is particularly promising for libraries because of its holistic focus and co-creative process. With service design, library staff are encouraged to look at all services, how they interconnect as a whole, and from the perspective of users. This can open staff up to a level of understanding of their users that they may not have considered before, especially in light of the functional siloing that is common in libraries.

Implementing a service design methodology can also help the library’s bottom line. Libraries are rarely tied to a revenue model, but they are budget conscious. The service design methodology can assist in the creation and refining of services that are based on demand rather than creating services around national trends. By focusing on actual demand as heard from patrons and working alongside the UWG, managers can be more informed when making budgetary and resource allocation decisions. Taking a service design approach demonstrates a willingness to serve the users of the library rather than merely providing lip service to the service ethic.


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  • Roger Martin in his book, The Design of Business, uses phases, “Observation, Imagination, and Configuration” and Tim Brown in his article, “Design Thinking,” uses “Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation.”
  • It is important to emphasize that creating the scope of a project should fit the environment in which it was created. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate a methodology that can be adapted to any size library, but the library design group should determine scope of the project for their specific library, as they know it best.
  • Stakeholders are defined as all parties, internal and external, that interact or perform a service. This could include library staff, librarians, students, staff, faculty, and even community members. It is up to the library design team to outline parameters and define “stakeholder” in their service ecology.
  • For a more thorough list of possible tools and activities, refer to the website Service Design Tools (, and articles published at the Livework website (, as well Stickdorn and Schneider, 2001 and Polaine et al., 2013.
  • A great tool to measure space usage is Suma ( Created at North Carolina State University, this product can conform to any environment and outputs rich data to be analyzed.
  • Additional resources for creating service blueprints can be found online:, See also Bitner, et al., 2008, Kalakota, 2003, Polaine, et al., 2013, and Shostack, 1982, 1984.