We’ve all experienced change at a faster rate in the last two years than ever before. So how can you regain control, make good choices, empower your team and enhance the student experience in this new world? Here, SUMS Associate Consultants Alan Roffey and Tom Baines explore how service design can transform higher education.


Think of service design and you might think of mobile apps or customer services. But fast forward to 2022 and the need has changed. These last two years of global pandemic have fast-tracked technological innovation by three or four years. Brexit has impacted policy and movement. HE establishments find themselves putting, not just communications, but core services online: this accelerated progress is creating some major challenges.

How can you leverage this to deliver an improved student experience, exceptional value for money and more effective professional services?

It’s now, in this changed world, that service design is a vital tool to help universities think differently, plan wisely and deliver excellence for their communities. What feels like a relentless onslaught might just be the most exciting opportunity in generations to deliver fundamental improvements from the ground up, transforming your offer for the better, forever.

“The UK has transitioned from an economy powered by might and machine to one increasingly powered by services and technology. Design has played a key role in these developments, evolving with economic shifts, boosting productivity and instigating innovation” – Design Council

Technological revolution

Universities were some of the first to be hit by the pandemic: these thriving communities where students, living and studying alongside one another, defined the character of institutions and formed the hub of the student experience. The whole offer and the way university teams deliver it has grown up around this format. So when lockdowns hit, the very DNA of our universities was destroyed almost overnight, putting huge pressures on university staff in a fast-changing and unprecedented situation.

Alongside this, demand for a university education has never been higher. Applications rose by 6% in 2021 on the previous year: almost 3,000,000 of them, in sharp contrast to just 3,000 higher level apprenticeships taken up at the same time.

Universities have had to fast-track their technological innovation. From hosting thousands of lectures online, to supporting lessons and feedback, with staff and students alike accessing their university services online or as a hybrid offer, a multitude of challenges arises.

It is not just about digital infrastructure and security, but the need for a creative approach to sustaining the quality of the undergraduate experience, enabling their research community, running day-to-day facilities and resources, and making it as easy as possible for academic and professional services staff to do all these things.

“… giving employees a say on where digitization could and should be adopted. When employees generate their own ideas about where digitization might support the business, respondents are 1.4 times more likely to report success.” – McKinsey survey

What is service design?

The tight-knit nature of the relationship between universities and their students means that this revolution simply has to be done right. The existing system supported not just students’ education, but also the ability of academics to undertake vital research, of departments to deliver innovation, and of staff to perform their roles effectively. Success or failure dictates student outcomes, knowledge development, service provision and, consequently, universities’ reputations and survival.

Universities are complex environments, with an ecosystem of people, systems and working practices operating collaboratively to create successful outcomes. Services enable staff and students to achieve specific goals – for example, a student to access mental health support, or a staff member to recruit a new team member, or a researcher to buy new equipment for their project. All of these activities are changing fast, and even under normal circumstances they don’t always meet people’s needs. That’s where design comes in.

Services are spread across all university activities and include:

  • Functional tools and technology
  • Processes and policies
  • Working practices
  • Information and data

Service design is an iterative, consultative and contextual process that supports successful multi-user project delivery. In contrast, rapid technological innovation is often highly process-focused, which can cloud outcomes. Service design looks out, whilst tech development looks in. This makes service design the ideal approach when a human-centred organisation needs to deliver radical digital change to people’s experiences.

The process has four main steps: discover, ideate, prototype and test. By collaborating with a range of people throughout the process, it allows changes to be tested and fine-tuned in context.

The strength of service design

Service design spends a great deal of time in the thick of it with service users, delivery teams and stakeholders to ensure services are fit for purpose. It considers how those services work across different locations, professional functions and academic departments. It provides crucial insights into the different groups of people that interact with services, highlighting their needs, pain points and the underlying causes of poor experiences.

Most importantly, service design co-creates solutions with the people who use and deliver them, ensuring that these solutions have the credibility and quality to make successful changes with staying power.

It’s in this exploration of projects in the real world that most is learned: understanding needs, developing concepts and testing prototypes with the very people for whom they are designed. In bringing together diverse service users – including those responsible for delivering them – theories can be tested, improved or revised, and better outcomes developed. Not just that, but new behaviours can start to be introduced even before launch, and, in giving people a say on how services are shaped, you are providing the platform for enhanced take up.

This is why service design cuts wasted time and money, fine-tunes project scope to the necessities, and provides a secure foundation from which to launch vital new real world and digital infrastructure.

We helped a leading, research intensive university to identify systemic issues with their research and enterprise support, open up communications and begin a programme of improvements that has led to over £1.5m being invested in redesigning their professional services.

“Forward-thinking [organisations] combine user insight and data to generate innovations that are novel or radical and that change perceptions and behaviours rather than accommodating them.”Design Council

Commissioning service design

Once you have decided that you need service design, how do you go about finding it? SUMS includes service design capabilities in our work with university members, through specialist practitioners with extensive experience of the Higher Education sector. When commissioning this, we advise that you ‘start with the end in mind’ – here are a few simple starting points for you to consider in advance:

1. What is the problem you want to solve?

  • Think about how it started, what issues it is causing, what would be a good outcome and what could be the worst impact if it is left unchecked.
  • Who within your stakeholders is most involved and what is their situation?

2.  What are you looking to achieve, and why?

3. How will you know when you have achieved this?

4. How can you measure it, and the steps towards it?

5. Consider possible unintended consequences on the primary and secondary stakeholder groups, and whether that will require you to change your goals or approach in any way.

6. Who will you need to communicate with about this; and with what purpose?

Your service designers will want to discuss these things (and more!) with you from the very start of their work. Whilst every design process has key stages, projects will always be delivered in a way that’s tailored to your requirements; shaped around your challenges, ambitions and the people involved. Designers prefer to work with a clear goal, and knowing it from these first steps is a good platform for a successful project.


Even a few years ago, the benefit of design to deliver economic, effective change was widely documented. It’s fair to say that in the current climate of fast-paced, fundamental shifts in behaviour, it has moved from desirable to essential. Harness change with the power of design and your university will be on course to being a Higher Education exemplar in the new world.

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