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When service design and qualitative research combine

Published 28 Oct 2021 6 minute read

Online qual
Service Design

Do you make it easy for customers (and potential customers) to engage with your brand? Are your products and services answering the key needs of your market?

Why are we asking? Because today we're talking service design research. 

Over time, organisations must revisit the structure and delivery of their services to ensure they are still meeting the needs of their customers. Both internal and external factors to the organisation may force the need to evaluate existing services or develop new, these include: 

  • The evolution of the business.
  • Introduction of new technologies and processes.
  • Entry into new markets.
  • Shifts in consumer attitudes and behaviour.

Before we look at how qualitative research can help with service design, let's define service design.

What is Service Design?

Service design is a process where designers create sustainable solutions and optimal user experiences for both customers and service providers. Its objective is to create interfaces that are useful, usable, and desirable from the client's perspective and at the same time effective, efficient, and distinctive for the provider. 

In other words, a good service design project will provide a co-creation platform upon which to stay close to users, to involve them in design, to generate user feedback on new services. It will also involve mapping customer journeys in order to create the best possible customer and user experience in order to co-create services that drive advocacy.

A service design process

A service design process involves breaking services down into functional units that focus on the service design context. By focusing on the context designers and service providers can tailor solutions to meet users' needs based on actors, locations, and other contextual factors. Designing services to meet the needs of the client involves determining the functionality and structure of services. By focusing on service design organisations can improve customer experiences by aligning their operations to support customer journeys more effectively.

The role of market research in service design

Research has always played a major role in design. If you’re a service designer, or indeed a designer of anything, you’ll need to know a lot about who you are designing for, what problems and frustrations they have, and the environment in which they operate. For service designers, in particular, the need to understand the impact of the service, service experiences and the impact any changes to the service will have on the internal operations of the organisation is at the heart of what they do.

The role of a service designer is all about designing for both the user experience (UX) and the customer experience (CX).  In other words, its about designing and creating a service to meet the user's and customer's needs, wants and desires for that service. 

Design research is what unlocks the required level of understanding and knowledge and offering up first-hand insight into people’s everyday lives - what they do, think, feel, experience etc.

When designing a new service, both qualitative and quantitative research methods are likely to be called upon to build a rich picture of the lives, emotions, attitudes and behaviours, and the actors and artefacts influencing our experiences.

Qualitative research vs Quantitative research in service design

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to a research methodology, but more often than not, designing a service will require the type of deep emotional insights only qualitative research can deliver.

Qualitative research lets designers uncover and explore the context in which people encounter and interact with a service. It offers a complete 360 degree view into the lives and minds of their target audience.

When they use your service, how they use it? What is competing for their attention in that context? And, how you could make it easier for them to give their attention to you?

However, qual and quant research can go hand-in-hand. One supplements and supports the other, there is no defined order in which goes before the other. The order will fall out of the research design and emanate from the brief and objectives. 

Quantitative research is good when you need to understand:

  • the systems and process people and organisations currently have in place
  • the sponsor organisations systems that are supported by the service you are delivering or enhancing
  • which measures the organisation has in place to gauge performance
  • what benchmarks there are and draw comparisons

Qualitative research is the required method when you need to:

  • empathise with the experience of your target users
  • understand the organisations vision for the future and how this resonates with the target cohort
  • comprehend what your peer group is experiencing and feeling

Listening to your target audience will not only give you first-hand experience of what’s taking place, it will also enable you to unearth latent needs, which in turn shines a light on opportunity spaces.

The answers that research delivers should help you identify priorities and give you focus.

Using qualitative research to enhance service design

Research into users, their experiences and emotions is vital to the delivery of a service that meets (and exceeds) their needs and qual research is a powerful tool with which to understand their experiences and need states. 

Whether you are looking to improve an existing service or to create a new service from scratch, qualitative research will allow you to address problems that may not have been identified yet (that are unknown) or which have been incorrectly defined. If you fail to research users needs to metaphorically step into their shoes, you simply won’t know what problem you are trying to solve, or what frustrations are blocking the way.

There are three key areas where research into users will provide value. These include understanding:

  • what your audience wants (user needs)
  • how your new service, or service enhancement, is helping the target user base complete their job to be done
  • how to iterate (constantly improve) the service and how to build a service with and for them

When service design and qualitative research combine

Service design backed by qualitative research helps to frame your activity across the business through the eyes of the end-user. This supports decision-making to be consumer-centric, not just design-focused. The result is the notion of designing from the outside in, rather than the inside out, a powerful external orientation that can help aid decision-making and enable innovation to occur much faster.

Best practice example: when market research informs service design

An insurance company used agents to sell its product. To support their work, it sent out paper brochures detailing what the agents could offer to customers. The company's assumption was that the agents would extract the most important information and convey it in the best possible way to potential customers. When this failed to generate sales, the company assumed that they had a comms issue. They thought that the problems came from the way the brochures were written.

Qualitative research uncovered something different. What the research unpicked was that the problem was an issue of service design. The agent-plus-brochure approach wasn't working for agents or for customers. The agents couldn't easily memorise all the information in the brochures. The customers wanted to look at the information themselves, at a time that suited them.

The result? The company added a QR code to their brochure. It took agents and customers through to an easy-to-navigate app. Agents didn't have to thumb through brochures to find forgotten information. Customers could explore the products at their leisure. Problem solved.

Qualitative research is the only data-driven way to truly understand what motivates these users and customers and to identify both why and how they behave the way they do.

It provides a clear understanding of peoples':

  • Attitudes
  • Behaviours
  • Emotions
  • Needs

Customer-centric design

In the past, research teams were bolted on to the design process but kept very much on the outside. They were seen as saboteurs of the design process and killers of creativity.

Today, however, qualitative researchers (including service design and user researchers) are involved in the process every step of the way:

  •  Analysing data
  • Generating ideas from the insight gleaned
  • Supporting creative and strategic decision-making

Researchers represent the customer but also partner with them to provide the truth. Using online tools and techniques, today's researcher is agile, flexible and quick to provide value and support innovation.

They can quickly interpret results and concepts, drawing data-backed conclusions that legitimise design choices. And when they work together, designers and researchers can tell powerful stories using visualisation and narrative skills, all the while delivering great value and tangible results.

Online qual research and service design

In the world of service design, online qualitative research can generate users feedback at every step of the design process and contribute ideas and inspiration.  Online qual research and research communities go further than traditional methods to deliver results. They allow for rapid testing of ideas and concepts, which enable the sponsor company and stakeholder team to quickly:

  •  Learn
  • Refine ideas
  • Identify challenges

For any form of qualitative research to generate the insight you need, you must plan your research carefully. Know exactly who you need to engage, how you intend to learn, and what you will do with the findings.

Build activities, questions and discussions that elicit the data you need, and analyse and share it carefully.

Data isn’t insight, so the interpretation of your data is crucial in making the right decisions.

Online qualitative research methods eliminate subjective thinking. They bring into play real-life context whilst removing pre-existing bias and hunches.

Using online qual as your research method also reduces cost, risk and time to market. It means you will only build what your users want and need, and enables you to respond more quickly to their changing desires.

To learn more about how user research can help you design great products and services, download our Five tips for running an efficient and effective insight community and get off to the best start possible.

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