After 13 weeks of working with the UPMC Neurosurgery Clinic, directed by Dr. Amin Kassam, we have decided to produce a small communication design piece. Compared with other projects, which have mostly focused on technological solutions, producing a booklet feels a little uncomfortable. I catch myself thinking, “This is it?”

Well, actually it’s not. In addition, we are also providing the clinic with a design guide that outlines our research, observations, insights, and possible concepts that they can reference as they continue to shape the clinic into a more ideal vision.

Service design is a holistic approach that focuses on understanding the service first before introducing products into the service. I see it as applying design thinking to a system to understand what products or behaviors might impact the system in a positive way, with a perspective that all elements within the system, from product to human behavior, are interrelated and form the service.

What this means is that there are intangibles that make up a service that you can design for but not actually see manifested in the form of a product. This is what has been making me feel uncomfortable, as the potential impact of our efforts and deliverables are not easily viewable.

Despite this discomfort, I know the small communication design piece will have an immediate impact on the patient experience and quite likely the way the clinic sees itself, which may lead to further positive changes in their behavior. And that’s not something I would have felt comfortable about without having done all the research in order to understand how all the parts of the service affect each other.

The design guide—also a print piece—will serve to embody the presence of our design team and of design thinking in the clinic. Embody design thinking? Yes. We found that by having us around and sharing our process and perspective helped the clinic staff make immediate changes in the way they viewed their work and the patient experience, which led to behavioral change that we had not expected. The great thing was that the staff would openly confess to being inspired by our presence and perspective to make changes themselves. This is definitely an intangible that we’ve essentially already delivered. But it’s difficult to see without a bit of reflection.

The aforementioned might not have been successful without having formed a good relationship with the clinic staff. This is a key point to service design. The people who deliver the service need to be on board with what you are doing. To this end, involving them in the process early and often is highly important. We accomplished this by presenting our initial research findings with lots of photos of them and quotes from them to show that we understood their experience. There was an immediate change in their behavior toward us after that because they then saw us as their colleagues.

So while the only design artifact we are introducing that patients will see is a small print piece, how it relates to the whole, and the behind-the-scenes design guide, and the other intangibles I mentioned, means that we are delivering a lot more than is apparent by looking at the individual artifacts. Understanding that relationship is the point of service design.