What is the discovery phase?

The discovery phase of any service design project is one of the most important and one of the most intense.

You start understanding the service as it currently exists (if it does) and where you want it to end up.

Personas, user journeys and other familiar items from your UX research toolkit are just as useful in service design as they are on a normal UX project – but now you will be paying closer attention to how those user journeys intersect with the way the business delivers them.

Who do I need to run a discovery phase?

Depending on the makeup of your team for the discovery phase you may have people who fulfill a number of these roles and skillsets. For the purposes of this guide we will assume you have the luxury of an individual person for each.

User researcher

You are going to be doing a lot of research in this phase so a dedicated user researcher is very important. There will likely be a huge amount of research data to analyse after and subsequently distill into personas, journeys and user needs.

Service designer

Having the Service Designer as part of this phase ensures they become familiar with any current service proposition and what the business wants to achieve.

They are responsible for ensuring the service hangs together as a whole so will be involved at every stage.

They will producing a service blueprint as one of the main outputs to this phase.

Business analyst

The Business Analyst can help you churn through the mass of documents you are likely to have to deal with, make connections with stakeholders and help organise research sessions with staff and customers.

They can also help you understand the operational side of the business and act as a note taker during research sessions.

They can also be your conduit to keeping the business informed on how the project is progressing.

UX Designer

As we know, UX designers often wear many hats and it is likely they can get involved and add value to any of the discovery phase activities. They can also take a sharper focus at any digital parts of the service and to map out journeys.

What are the discovery phase activities?

Organisational structure

You will want to get a handle on how the business is set up, and what departments deal with what. Learn who your key stakeholders are early so you can bring them on board and speak to them. Business Analysts can be a great help here so go make friends.

Stakeholder interviews

This is where you pick the brains of the people within the business. You will be looking to speak to CEOs, Managing Directors and other senior staff to understand the direction the business wants to travel in (i.e. the vision) and the current state of play. You might also be able to get an early indication of the kinds of KPIs the business is looking for from this transformation.

Customer services are a fantastic source of knowledge about common customer queries and pain points and it’s always fascinating to see the tools they have (or don’t have) at their disposal to help customers.

Staff on the ground can relay things that senior management aren’t necessarily aware of. They are the ones that ultimately deliver the service to the customer, so make sure you understand their world and the tools they use.

Internal document review

Normally there is a wealth of documentation present within the company’s archives. strategy documents, marketing documents, roadmaps, objectives. Some will be useful, some not.

Finding the people to connect you with this information can be a challenge as it is often sitting within various departments or produced by people who have since left. Try and identify this upfront with the client before you kick off your project to save time.

There is generally a lot to go through so the sooner you get your hands on it the better.

Existing research

Businesses often conduct or commission research into their customers or the market. This is a great resource which you can use to validate your findings against and gain additional insight.

Desk research

Baby doing desk researchA bit of poking around the internet can often yield interesting insights from whitepapers and studies in the same or similar industries. You might discover useful trends and emerging customer behaviors in this phase.

Take a look at the businesses’ social media, online and bricks and mortar presence where applicable and see how they communicate with their customers on those channels. Can the customer do everything on every channel or is it fragmented?

If there are any online analytics available they might be worth reviewing to see if there are any obvious drop offs in the journey.

User research

This is where you conduct your usual user research phase to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. You will use techniques such as:

You will leave this discovery phase with a good indication of where and how customers are interacting with the business, where they are struggling and what their goals and motivations are. Try and understand if they use other similar services, and if so why.

You also need to understand the staff. Deep dive into their day to day activities, what tools they use and what their pain points are. Often helping staff do their job better improves the end service for customers.

Contextual research

Ticket machine in Glasgow train stationService design lends itself well to contextual research. You should get out there and experience the service yourself.

If it is for a train company then go and sit in a station for a while. See how they deal with delays, announcements and so on. Are there often big queues? What are the facilities at the station?

Try and order tickets in a few different ways such as online, using a self-serve machine or at the ticket counter. Take a few train rides. Do the toilets have toilet roll? What is the decor like? What are the staff like? What food can you get? Is the signage clear? Did the train arrive on time?

All these small things add up to the service the customer experiences so note down everything.

Competitor analysis

You will also be wanting to see what competitors are doing and understand their service too. Use a similar contextual research approach to experience their end to end service. You can also add questions to your user research around other services users may have used.

Analyse your findings

Whiteboard postit mappingThere will be a lot to sift through so it’s important to get around a white board with your team and identify key themes and user needs you have uncovered. It is also useful to start to sketch out the service as you understand it from your various research.

You can also start to come up with initial ideas for improvements, or even a completely new way of delivering the service.

Service blueprint / Service map

Service blueprint exampleThe service blueprint is one of your main outputs from the discovery phase and is a complete end to end map of the service.

After doing all of the above discovery activities you are in a great position to start visualising the existing service and how customers and the business interact with it.

How you visualise this is up to you as it can depend on the service being mapped. But at it’s core it will normally cover:

Physical evidence

This is the physical manifestation of the service that the customer will be seeing or interacting with at this stage. For example, a bus or ticket machine.

Customer action

The action the customer is trying to perform at that point. For example, finding the price for a route.

Front stage action

The visible actions taken (usually by a staff member) to service the customer action. For example, answering a query about a route. This stage is marked behind the line of interaction.

Back stage action

Non-visible employee actions taken during the interaction.  For example, inputting the route into their staff terminal. This stage is marked behind the line of visibility.

Support processes

Back end processes that support this action. For example, a system which calculates the ticket prices for certain routes. This stage is marked behind the line of internal interaction.

Optional service blueprint details

You can make your service blueprint as rich as you like. Some other common things to include can be:

  • The time between different stages
  • Failure points
  • Channels

Free service blueprint template

To speed things up we have produced a basic service blueprint template which you can use for free to kick start your own.

We recommend printing it out as big as you can and sticking post its on it.

Service blueprint template

Download free service blueprint template v1.0

How do I choose Alpha projects?

You have now identified where the issues in the current service are, what customers want from it and mapped it out. You will probably have some idea of how you can improve it. It is important to be confident with your hypotheses at this stage.

It is now time to break down a list of potential Alpha projects. Put more simply, Alphas are experiments you want to run to test out your ideas in the real world. They are measured against your KPIs and based on your research and hypotheses.

You will usually need to cherry pick the projects to take forward first with the business. Normally these are chosen due to a mix of business priority, difficulty to execute and impact on the customer or staff.

An example of a candidate Alpha project could be ‘improve station platform signage’ because your research has shown passengers often end up at the wrong platform due to lack of visibility.

What’s next?

Next time on the Beginner’s guide to Service Design we will take a look at how to actually run an Alpha phase.

Image courtesy Brandon SchauerKurt and Becky


Chris Mears

Chris is co-founder of UXmentor.me. He has worked with clients such as the UK government, Just Eat & Which? with a focus on service design and transformation.