Formica Corporation

Service design sprints deliver speedy solutions

Fast, easily learned tool looks beyond the floor plan to improve workplaces
Thursday, January 25, 2018
By Chris Wheeldon

There are countless articles about new workplaces that look great. Interior designers do an excellent job of creating innovative, fresh spaces. Some firms even go so far as to provide change management to help businesses adapt to the new environment. At the same time, it’s not unusual to hear that people are unhappy in new spaces — they complain that they’re too noisy, too open, too this, too that. There are many unmet needs that people hope will be solved in their new environment that really can’t be solved with physical changes.

Many organizations are seeking workplaces that enhance well-being. Where once LEED certification was cutting edge, now that’s considered table stakes as employees demand workplaces that provide more than just a desk and shelter from the rain.

The physical design of a workplace satisfies basic human needs for things such as clean air and water, shelter, health and personal security, but can only contribute to needs of well-being. For example, it can enable, but not cause, a sense of connection. It can reflect status (the corner office or having a better view) but not create it. Truly satisfying those needs comes from interactions between people. So how does that happen?

Service design sprints are a way for workplace teams to create better workplaces by improving or creating new services for them. Let’s unpack the words to understand how they work.

Design is a people-oriented approach to creating. Done properly, it steps back and looks at the big picture, realizing that the whole is more than just the sum of the parts. It asks questions rooted in empathy, which is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation.” In other words, putting oneself into the shoes of others. In a workplace, these others include the occupants, the service support people and those who approve changes — financial, legal, managerial, etc. Thinking like a designer means considering an ecosystem of people, not just one or two.

Service design, as the name suggests, specifically creates new services. It thinks about the journey of the customer and the touch points that people encounter as they interact with a service, and looks for ways to improve the effectiveness and experience of those touch points. Service design changes negative or neutral experiences into positive ones by remembering that services are parts of a system and that people who use a service do so because they want to get something done.

Design sprints have become popular in the past few years with the rise of agile software development. Their popularity has exploded since the publication of Jake Knapp’s book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days. This book laid out, step-by-step, a fast way to create a new product or service and start to test it in just one week. Tenny Pinheiro applied this model to service design in his book The Service Startup: Design Thinking Gets Lean, which describes how small teams can quickly converge, tackle an unmet service need and build highly focused solutions that address those needs.

A service design sprint has three main parts:

  1. Empathize with the people associated with a service to get a true understanding of the problems they experience with it. This teaches the sprint team to fall in love with the problem to be solved and not with any particular solution. People don’t care about that new shiny thing they’re being shown if it doesn’t help them with their job.
  2. Create a minimum valuable service or MVS. Many people have heard of the MVP, or minimum viable product. The MVS also focuses on the minimum — the smallest solution to a problem — which, in a sprint usually means only one or two touch points. Value means to the people involved. Solutions are valuable because they get people’s jobs done in a better way, not because they’re cool.
  3. Test the MVS with experiments. The first version of a MVS will be full of untested assumptions — that the solution fits the need, that it’s legal, that it’s affordable, and so on. Circling back to that ecosystem of people and gathering their feedback will burst some of those assumptions pretty quickly. The first version of the MVS is like a sketch — created quickly and easily changed. Its purpose is to help the team learn what is valuable and what is not, as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

Now iterate the process. After testing the solution, revise it and test again. And again. Build-test-learn-repeat, documenting along the way — approvers will need evidence of the value being created. As the solution becomes more sophisticated, it will more closely resemble a final implementation. The experiments will become more involved as more complex details are addressed. The proof of value becomes richer and more robust. Or it proves a lack of value and gives permission to try a different tack without having to spend a lot of time and money building something that doesn’t work. When startups talk about “fail fast, fail early,” this is what they mean.

Service design sprint case study: The DECK

The DECK is an innovation hub in Osaka, Japan, that combines co-working, digital fabrication and open innovation. In early 2016, the founders decided to create a space where a diverse group of people, working closely together but on different activities, would spark ideas off one another for the benefit of all. Facing tight timelines to the planned opening, they decided to use a service design sprint to decide how to best accomplish this.

The sprint team started with research of what others had done and then interviewed potential users who had extensive knowledge of co-working, collaboration and co-creation. This revealed several opportunities for a great experience that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Selecting one with high priority, the team created a minimum valuable service model of proposed initial customer experiences, plus action plans for efficiency. The other ideas were parked — not abandoned — for later consideration.

The DECK opened in September 2016 and provides a variety of services and events. The team there continues to develop and test new offerings.


By applying empathy, conducting experiments and gathering evidence, workplace teams can more truly understand problems and create solutions that are valuable to a comprehensive ecosystem of their stakeholders. This can reduce resistance to changes, by creating a shared vision of the problem and its solution, involving those affected by the solution, and addressing concerns while it’s still being built. Finally, it can save money and time by solving the right problems with solutions that everyone recognizes as being right.

Chris Wheeldon is principal consultant for Two Ravens Consulting Services. He is a service design sprint master, a former corporate real estate manager and was innovation centre program manager at Cisco Systems.

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