My Service Design Case Study: Building Empathy Through Collaboration

To comply with my non-disclosure agreement, I have omitted and obfuscated confidential information in this case study. All information in this case study is my own and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department or Academy Xi.

The Project

“How might [government department] develop the confidence to think and act differently, so that they support and engage with each other, creating quality service experiences.”

A department within the NSW Government challenged our three teams with the goal of increasing empathy for the organisations customers. It was decided the best way to move forward on this project was to develop new “Ways Of Working” to encourage greater awareness of HCD principles, and increase collaboration and empathy across the organisation.

This project is a part of a larger ongoing project. The blueprints and concepts will fit into the larger project which will be delivered mid 2019.

Time: 3 weeks

My Team: Of the three design teams, my colleague Anthony and I were responsible for the clients’ Back Office teams.


  • Create current state Service Blueprints
  • Produce insights & opportunities from research and synthesis.
  • Ideate against the opportunities and insights to create Service Concepts


• Limited client and employee interaction

• A focus group was our primary research method


Service blueprints that highlight common problems, the critical moments associated with these problems, and opportunities and insights arising from them.

Service Concepts that promote collaboration and empathy across department teams to ensure a healthier customer experience.


Problem hypothesis

Based on the initial brief and a limited amount of secondary research, our team made some risky assumptions and considered ways to confirm them. We did this to help understand the current state challenges our teams may be facing.

One of the main challenges we faced during this project was the lack of face time with the client. Our initial client kickoff meeting was the first time we faced this challenge. However our design lead had been briefed on the necessary information and was able to stand in and lead us through this meeting. It included establishing key challenges, initial “how might we” statements from the client, organisation structure, focus areas, capabilities and strategy, and a vision for what the outcomes may look like. Whilst we got a reasonably good idea of the project from this meeting, had we have had the opportunity to talk directly with the client, this meeting would have been far more efficient and productive. It was a good reminder that things dont always go as planned, and that we need to be flexible and able to quickly adapt.

Research planning

Given the short time frame of the project, and our need to build further skills in facilitation, it was decided that focus groups were the best option to gain the information we needed. As a class, and then in our teams, we discussed and created an approach to perform the focus groups. These groups consisted of 8–12 participants from the different departments. We used workshop method cards to plan our focus groups. These highlighted the need for the goals and activities of the workshop to be clear and concise so as make synthesising the data as effective as possible.

We were initially overwhelmed with the feeling that there was far too much to do in the 2 days we had to plan. However when we broke the focus groups down into stages and identified the cards required for those stages, we were able to prioritise and brainstorm activities for each stage. This simplified the process and ensured we were able to narrow our focus to necessary tasks.

Focus group

The activities with our assigned teams were designed to learn about their human centred mindset, key challenges and opportunities, and how and with whom they communicate on a day to day basis . We were then able to narrow the focus to produce 2 or 3 challenges that resonated across the teams. We used these key challenges to lead us through the last activity, a storyboarding activity focusing on the challenging scenarios our teams face most often. This was the most challenging activity, as we found while the groups participants were keen to share their experiences, there was a technical language barrier I had to overcome. Also challenging was that the participants all came from finance backgrounds, and didn’t really share our love of being creative. This meant we had to pivot the activity from drawing, to a writing exercise, and work with each participant to get the data we needed. If I had the time again, I would have redesigned this activity with the understanding that the participants come from a range of backgrounds, explained what a service blueprint is and how that activity would be of use to us, more clearly. Fortunately we had the assistance of the co-design team to take notes during the workshop and to help us with initial synthesis of the data immediately after.

Overall, I found that I really enjoyed the process of planning and executing the workshop activities. I was able to learn a lot about how people from non creative backgrounds react when given activities designed to encourage them to think and act creatively. I will definitely be taking that into consideration when facilitating future workshops.



The next day back at Academy Xi we began the process of synthesizing the data gathered from the workshop. We first stuck everything we had up on the wall of our war room, and began to identify some themes based on the notes, audio recordings, the co-design team’s synthesis as well as the data from the focus group activities. We were able to use the data as evidence to support our themes, then base our insights on these observations. We then played back the findings with our other classmates so as to improve and consolidate what we found.

Further iteration of the process meant we were able to converge on an area of focus. This team was experiencing challenges due to a system of working in silos, a lack of empathy for other teams; especially customer facing roles, and a culture of us vs them. There were some other insights that became evident, but as they fell outside of our project scope, we decided to concentrate on our in-scope findings.

I very much enjoyed the synthesis stage of this project, though I feel we should have spent more time with the co-design team to learn more about their work and the org in general. There were times during the synthesis stage when having access to their knowledge would have been beneficial. This more holistic understanding of the organisation also could have possibly lead us to other themes, insights and observations.

Synthesis — insights/observations

Problem refinement

Synthesis of the data led us to refine the problem hypothesis into a statement. This was further reinforced after getting feedback from the other two teams, Design Leads and Student Mentors and supported by the evidence gathered. From the problem statement and insights we were able to create HMW’s that sought to improve the problems outlined above.

Service Blueprint

One of our key deliverables was a current state blueprint. While we created these based on separate scenarios, there were clear similarities that meant we able to work together to create the first few stages of the blueprint. As the focus of our individual scenarios shifted, we separated and worked on the blueprints individually. Our blueprints included main step definitions, the actors involved in the experience, the main activities of the service providers. Then beyond the line of visibility our focus was to identify and map the channels in which actions are communicated, the systems that support the said action coupled with the policies that underpin those systems. From this we were able to identify any critical moments, and opportunities that could improve the situation. What emerged was an area of focus for ideation based around problem solving and collaboration.

Further refinement

Our next step was playing back the blueprint to the Design Lead, Mentors and other teams. This validated our insights and fostered alignment within the teams.

We then sought to compare the insights of the blueprints to the insights that lead to our HMW’s, to see if there we were able to further connect and further refine them. In hindsight, had we have been working together with the co-design team during the blueprinting process, their intimate knowledge of the organisation would have made the process much simpler, faster and we may even have ended up with a different result. My question then becomes; were we on the correct path? Would we have found ourselves on a different path with their help? This is something I’ll consider on future projects.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, our client was unable to attend a planned meeting. Our next step was to create a short video to playback our insights and observations. It included highlighting some critical moments and opportunity areas from our individual service blueprints. As a videographer by trade, it was nice to be able to bring extra skills into play, but it highlighted my lack of experience in front of the camera. Both Anthony and I decided we will need to attend some acting classes in the future if we need to perform in under those circumstances again.

Disappointingly, only some of the client representatives were able to watch the video. This became apparent during a later playback session where we presented some of our findings to blank looks and even a small amount of hostility. This could have been avoided/remedied far earlier if the client had seen the video. I learnt then that communicating our expectations regarding alignment and feedback to the client during the initial project stages would be beneficial.



There were many similarities in our themes, observations and insights, which meant we were able to come together as a class and run a very informal ideation session against our HMWs. Basically we threw whatever proverbial mud we could at a wall to see what would stick. From there we used affinity mapping to cluster the ideas into themes, filtering out concepts we felt wouldn’t fit in a human centred play book. This enabled us to focus on ideas relating to collaboration and problem solving with an outcome of awareness and empathy.

Affinity mapping possible concepts

Initial concept

From the ideation and clustering activities, we initially attempted to build a singular play, but after some reflection and feedback, we found our play wasn’t really repeatable. This repeatability was a core component of the service concepts to be included in the human centred playbook, that was a planned deliverable. This was a big setback for our team. Luckily we were able to pivot slightly to consider the activities that could take place before and after our initial play. Anthony’s experience with different methodologies came into play here, as he was able to hark back to his Agile training to consider utilising some components of the methodology within our plays. Conveniently, this also meant I was able to learn a lot about a methodology that I hadn’t had any previous experience. His experience helped lead us to plays that developed a positive, collaborative E2E experience that can be scaled throughout the entire organisation, and are repeatable whenever necessary. Thankfully we were able to complete this pivot in a short period of time enabling us to have a concept mapped out for the planned client playback.

Servcie concept

Client playback and feedback

The client came to us at Academy Xi for a playback and feedback session and our team was first to walk through our story so far. Anthony led out the playback, beginning with the problem statements and the observations and insights we gathered from the focus groups. We then moved onto our Service Blueprints, explaining the stages, critical moments and insights, as well as how we gathered this data. From here we were able to show the client through our collaboration and empathy plays. They loved the ideas, explaining that they had already come up with a new empathy framework very similar to ours, that was to be rolled out in the near future.

Believing the feedback we received meant we should shelve the empathy play in our concept, we decided to focus all of our efforts on the collaboration play. We later found out that this was the incorrect move, as the client believed our empathy play was vital and should be included in the final deliverable.

Other feedback suggested that one of our 2 blueprints was quite systems oriented and was not really as relevant to the scope of our project as the other more experiential blueprint. We were advised to focus on the experiential blueprint.

Concept refinement and Prototyping

After the feedback, we pivoted slightly to focus on building empathy through collaboration. With the help of our mentors we refined the concept making it more robust, efficient and effective. We then created prototypes of the various activities that would occur through our play. This included a problem wall, a segment wall, a kanban wall, problem cards, hypothesis cards, an ideation workshop and idea card concept. We created very basic prototypes of how we expected these to look, ready for the upcoming client expo.

Prototype expo

Thursday of that week was the client expo. Here we set up our blueprint, problem statements, insights and concepts to help illustrate how the process would work, as well as its features and benefits. The purpose was to expose our concepts to a larger audience and gather more feedback from the front line employees on the concept’s strengths and weaknesses. We then took this feedback to further refine the concepts.

It took a little time and some explaining, but the employees were able to understand that we were only there to share evidence based findings, and ways those findings could be addressed to the benefit of all. This could have been made simpler if the employees were better informed about the project, and what we were trying to achieve. It seemed that some knew all about it, while others knew very little. Incidentally, this was in line with our findings that suggested people weren’t collaborating and communicating effectively.



Final Refinement

We made sense of the findings from the feedback and thought up ways to use that feedback to improve the concepts. This mainly came by the way of simplification of the steps. We then expanded on the ideation workshop to communicate its features, risk, benefits, and how it can be effectively used.

First photo — E2E Service concept experience, second photo — Workshop concept in detail


The three teams delivered our work to an audience of around 40 participants that included directors, designers and employees. The idea being to communicate our story so far, what we had learnt, what that meant to our synthesis and prototypes. Along side of this we showed the themes we identified that explained who the employees are, what drives them and their culture and our concept “Empathy through Collaboration” plays. We then displayed our blueprints and ran a Q&A session to finish our presentation. Unfortunately time constraints meant there was very little time for Q&A.

Presenting to an audience of employees, directors and designers

Deliverables and Next Steps

The final deliverables were handed over to the Academy Xi design team, who will utilise the findings, blueprints and service concepts to plug into the larger project where appropriate. A list of what our teams believe are appropriate next steps have been forwarded to both the client and Academy Xi for further consideration.

A Service Design Student