Great service delivery can be a tough nut to crack. In Canada, we pride ourselves on publicly funding many of our social services to make them widely accessible—and that’s something we should be proud of. A shortfall of our system is that providers often don’t feel they have enough money to provide the same kind of top-notch services that privately-funded social services can afford. It’s easy to become very focused on the basic end of actually delivering the service—as long as Cory has someone to call to make an appointment to address his mental health challenges, and he eventually does get to speak to a qualified person, we’re delivering the service. It’s easy for the other details to become extraneous.

But those details are important. How the service feels is a crucial aspect of the service’s success. How might we ensure a great service experience?

Service Design and Service Standards

Service design is a whole field of work that focuses on crafting and delivering a good experience for people receiving a service. A service could be anything from a plumber coming to fix your water heater to a probation officer checking in with a client.

A service standard is a set of criteria that enables providers to build and deliver high quality services that promote the values and guiding principles of those providers.

Example: Dignity by Default

At Overlap, we worked on a project called Designing Better, where we talked to people with lived experience with mental illness and addictions, used our design research tools to gather information about all aspects of their day-to-day lives (see our blog post on using a journal as a research tool for an example of the engagement methods we used). A need that arose over and over again throughout our research and across participants was something fairly basic: to be treated with dignity.

“A need that arose over and over again throughout our research and across participants was something fairly basic: to be treated with dignity.”

We also engaged with service providers to understand what matters most to them. We reviewed other sectors’ wisdom on how to design services really well within a system and then applied that to our context. We also reviewed what we already know about designing service within our sector. This includes incorporating principles and frameworks such as Drs Minkoff and Cline’s Comprehensive, Continuous, Integrated System of Care, Recovery concepts and Service Design principles.

To address the need for dignity in the context of what’s most important to providers and related best-practices, we came up with a set of services standards for this particular network of services—though these could arguably be used in many healthcare settings. These service standards were designed to promote dignity by default. 

Eager to hear more about the project? Read our full report here. 


Above are the first 8 of the 17 service standards we came up with.
See the full report for all 17 standards.

How do I use a service Standard?

Service standards shouldn’t be put in a report and tucked away on a shelf. They’re meant to provide a foundation for all of the services you deliver. They bring your values and foundations to life. Here are a few tips and notes to keep in mind when you’re thinking about using a service standard:

  • A service standard is an applied tool rather than a framework or strategy. It contains a set of commitments that the organization promises to honour when delivering a service.
  • Keep your service standard top of mind, and make yourself and your organization accountable by posting the service standards in a common space for everyone to see—clients and providers alike.
  • Reference it often—particularly when you’re considering delivering a new service.
  • These commitments support your organization to design and consistently deliver quality services based on outcomes and experience.
  • Service standards also give a way to share your commitment with the people they serve by describing what people can expect to receive from services and how services will be delivered.
  • A service standard should be iterative: continue to revise them as you try it out and learn from it.

For the Dignity by Default service standard, we designed a workbook for service providers to use as they apply the service standard to a new or existing service. It prompts providers to think using the standards and apply the lens of the standard in a very deliberate way.

Service standards are a widely applicable tool for ensuring your services are of the quality and experience that your organization strives for. Our inspiration for this service standard came from Gov.UK’s set of Digital Service Standards—an impressive set of standards for determining “whether a [digital] service is good enough for public use”. Check out their service manual here. 

A service standard is a tool to enable you to deliver services at the quality that you strive for, and to hold yourself accountable to that quality. What are the standards for the service experience your organization seeks to offer? Jot down the standards you, personally, strive for. Are you meeting them? Is your organization?


 for more information about our approach to helping healthcare organizations “get to better”.