Supporting Service Innovation through Design Thinking: The case of an eHealth firm developing digital technology solutions

Mercé Bonjorn-Dalmau

Research output: ThesisPh.D. thesis

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Service innovation plays an important role in business strategy nowadays, with both academics and managers showing a growing interest in understanding which factors are significant for a successful service innovation process. There is a constant search for alternative approaches to innovation, with design garnering emerging interest in management debates. Research into service innovation has, up to now, been mostly focused on customer value creation, which has always been driven by the company, but a comprehensive and contiguous multidisciplinary approach to new service design in service innovation, involving a wider network of stakeholders is required. Design is considered to be human-centred, with a broad and forward-looking approach to solving complex problems – which characterises service innovation. Previous research suggests that a new approach can be promoted by the application of design thinking to innovation management. Design thinking is an emerging approach in a business setting, because it provides a systematic way of creating value solving-problems with, and for all, the stakeholders in the service innovation process in the digital age. However, a deep understanding of how design thinking contributes to service innovation is still lacking. The main research question addressed is this thesis: How does design thinking support service innovation?

The overall goal for this Ph.D.-thesis – completed with funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie ITN grant agreement – is to add new knowledge to the field of service innovation by researching into how design thinking can support an eHealth firm developing digital technology solutions through a service innovation process.

First, this thesis investigates service innovation from a process perspective and begins by establishing that the service innovation process is an iterative process cycle, non-linear, and full of interdependencies. This is achieved by understanding how service innovation processes are developed, and the interdependencies within and outside the firm’s service innovation process. Service innovation processes that involve technology tend to have a very technical and formalised development, and although more stakeholders are involved, there is little opportunity for interaction among these stakeholders. However, for the creation of good technology-driven service innovations, a high degree of interaction with stakeholders during all stages is required. As a result of this interaction, stakeholders become co-producers and co-creators of the value provided in the service innovation.

Second, the thesis outlines and discusses the links between service innovation and design thinking research. The existing literature in service innovation is also added to, by providing more research information on whether there is a relationship between design thinking and the development of service innovation. However, this thesis is, in particular focusing, on the value co-creation provided in conjunction with stakeholders in the service innovation process. In this respect, the importance of value co-creation during the whole process, and framed within a specific health environment is highlighted, since it is a complex market with many stakeholders involved with decision-making in the design and development of the service innovation process.

Thirdly, the thesis delves into the front-end phase of the service innovation process i.e. the first phase, with its fuzzy factors (uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) that are relevant for the development of the service innovation process. The attributes of design thinking listed in the literature and appropriate for application in the front-end, are analysed and broken down, in order to provide a design thinking mindset in the fuzzy part of the service innovation process in a business setting.

Methodologically, the dissertation analyses an embedded case study from an exploratory and qualitative research strategy with an abductive approach. This research builds on a unique case study of the Salumedia Labs company, investigating the service innovation process within this eHealth firm, and gaining understanding of how and why design thinking can support the organisation’s service innovation process. The data collection consists of multiple methods, including observation data, semi-structured interviews, and company meetings.

The overall contributions of this thesis are to service innovation research. First, by opening the black box of service innovation processes and highlighting the role of interdependencies between the activities and stakeholders in the process. These interdependencies affect all phases of the service innovation process, although they are most prominent in the initial phase, the fuzzy front-end. The complexity of a technology-driven service influences directly in the intensity of the stakeholder interaction in the service innovation process. Thus, the stakeholders become co-producers of the service innovation process itself, where the real value creation for both-company and stakeholders- arises. The process therefore requires a higher and increasing degree of interaction with stakeholders during all stages.

Second, this thesis contributes to emphasising the role of design thinking in value co-creation during the service innovation process, bearing in mind that value is generated throughout the entire service innovation process, in a multifaceted and cooperative interactive environment where the stakeholders are the co-producers of that value. Usually, the value of the service in innovation is perceived by the users, but is created by many actors. Also, it is suggested that a design thinking approach is appropriate in business management, because it acts as a facilitator(between the organizations and the stakeholders) for the discovery and production of the value of the service and its co-creation with the stakeholders. Design thinking provides the necessary competences for organizations that are in the process of developing a service innovation process.

Finally, the thesis highlights the appropriateness of a design thinking mindset for the fuzzy front-end, as it can provide a systematic, structured, and exploratory human-centred management approach to dealing with the fuzziest part of service innovation process. The application of design thinking in the management setting provides the company with the design approach needed in their service innovation processes, in order to capture the behavioural change in the supplier-customer relationship and promote innovative services.

Based on the theoretical contributions, the conclusions of this thesis are three-fold.:

The first conclusion stresses that the multidisciplinary interdependencies between activities and stakeholders exist in all phases of the service innovation process and are the main factor in handling a high level of risk and uncertainty in service innovation processes, whilst making clear that the empirical data shows that the front-end (the initial phase) is the most diffuse and needs special attention.

The second conclusion of this thesis is that a design thinking approach clarifies the basis of the service design, in order to generate value creation in the service innovation process. Throughout the entire process there is a complex and collaborative networked ecosystem where stakeholders act as co-producers and co-creators of value.

The third conclusion is that the front-end of the service innovation process requires a systematic, structured, and explorative design approach in order to reduce the inherent fuzziness in this part of the service innovation process. This design approach is the design thinking mindset, because it provides a set of attributes that need to be applied in the frontend stage if the company wants to develop innovative services.

The summary conclusion of this thesis is that: From management research, design thinking should mainly be an innovative approach to developing services; by creating value in a systematic, structured and exploratory, human-centred way; by involving the stakeholders in the process, and by generating innovation management that focuses on solving problems within the service innovation process; above all in its fuzziest part.

Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Southern Denmark
  • Evald, Majbritt Rostgaard, Principal supervisor
  • Munksgaard, Kristin B., Co-supervisor
  • Fernandez-Luque, Luis, Co-supervisor, External person
External participants
Date of defence19. Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - 19. Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

This research is part of the CATCH project that has received funding from the
European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the
Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 722012.


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