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Create the top-level catalog structure

Your catalog structure can create your service catalog’s success or failure. Make sure your design sets you up for success.

Key insights

  • Aim for six to ten top‑level customer‑driven categories that cover most requests.
  • Offer bundles for end‑to‑end use cases that align with a specific business outcome.
  • Improve search with metatags and naming conventions using customer language.
  • Guide users to help them make the right choices and build transparency.

Identifying the right set of categories at the right level is a big pain point in service catalog design. Many organizations struggle with either too many categories—often as many as 100—or with too many levels in the catalog hierarchy. Search and navigation are ineffective without intuitive categories to filter search results and terminology in natural customer language.

Many organizations also don’t realize that the goal of the service catalog is to drive informed decision‑making on what to request not simply provide a list of things customers can request.

Your service catalog request structure must:

  • Be easy to navigate
  • Use simple, customer‑focused language
  • Include the information that drives decision‑making and builds transparency

Note: Make sure the catalog manager on your team works closely with the service owners to design the catalog structure. They’re both responsible for ensuring customers can access the right catalog items for their needs.

Identify six to ten top‑level categories

When we walk into a grocery store, the aisles are arranged based on how we think about (or categorize) our needs. They’re not arranged by where the goods come from—even though it might be easier for the grocer to store and track goods based on the supplier. As a customer, it would be a lot harder for us to find things we need if the aisles were arranged based on the supplier. We would need to remember the supplier for each item and keep switching between the different suppliers to compare items.

The same logic works with the categories in a service request catalog. Many organizations create categories based on the different teams, groups, or functions that fulfill or own the service request. This leads to categories that don’t necessarily make sense to the customer and make it harder to scale the catalog.

Instead, create six to ten top‑level categories based on how your customers think of their needs.

Use this common set of categories that typically apply to all organizations (not including HR) to get started:

  • Hardware – Requests for hardware products that meet your business needs, including phones, tablets, and laptops
  • Software – Requests for the range of software products available for installation on corporate laptops or desktops
  • Business applications – Requests for support and management for in‑house or third‑party business applications, not including desktop or other personal productivity applications
  • Communications – Requests for services aimed at facilitating communications between employees and customers or other employees, such as telecommunications, email, Slack, Jabber, groupware, etc.
  • IT infrastructure – Hosting service requests for servers, applications, or other forms of compute infrastructure, including requests for shared technologies that underlie other services, like network, storage, global backup and recovery, and data archiving
  • Facilities – Facilities management service requests, including moving and relocation, location improvement, new furniture, furniture repairs, fixtures, cubicle modifications, and decorative services, on a companywide basis
  • Office – Requests for office services, such as printers, printing services, office supplies, and document shipping and delivery
  • Security and access – Requests for security‑related services, including badge and key requisitions

This basic set of categories probably looks very similar to the actual items your customers can request from your organization. In addition, you can also expect to have some categories specific to your organization, or you might have specific catalog items called out at the category level based on demand or transaction volume. You may also want to tailor or change the catalog items highlighted at the category level based on changing user needs, changing business context (like a service promotion campaign), or to personalize the experience for individual user groups.

For more details on editing and maintaining catalog categories, refer to the NowSupport video on creating Service Catalog categories.

Define a three‑step catalog hierarchy

After you have the top‑level categories defined, define the right depth in each category. Once again, having six to ten subcategories under each top‑level category is ideal.

Heads up! Aim for no more than a three‑step hierarchy: top‑level category > subcategory > catalog item.

Figure 3: Example of a three‑step Service Catalog hierarchy structure

Here are the common questions we get from customers and our take on the associated best‑practices:

  • How many catalog items should my catalog have? It’s not a question of how many. Instead of thinking about your volume, be conservative in the number of categories you use (no more than ten). And ensure you have no more than three steps to an individual catalog item’s hierarchy. You can even have 1,000 catalog items (based on the three‑step hierarchy structure, that’s 10X10X10) if you categorize them well.
  • Can we place a catalog item in multiple categories? Yes, you can. Your goal is to make it easy for customers to reach the catalog item, and different customers may have different paths to reach the same catalog item.
  • Should we create separate catalog items for the different options possible within a request? Avoid creating multiple, similar catalog items. Instead, build flexibility within the catalog item to allow users to pick between multiple options (such as different laptop configurations) within the request form. Use Service Catalog variable question choices to develop that flexibility.
  • What should we do with catalog items that don’t fit in any top‑level categories? For catalog items that don’t logically align with any top‑level category, create an “other” category.
  • How many data fields should my catalog items have? It depends on what you need to capture and why. Never ask for information that you don’t really need to approve and fulfill the request.

Create bundles that address end‑to‑end customer outcomes

Customers are often looking for a specific outcome with needs that require multiple catalog items and coordination between multiple fulfillment teams. For example, a manager looking for a new‑hire onboarding package or an application developer looking to set up a new server may require coordination from different teams to deliver.

For new‑hire onboarding, the hardware team provides all the required hardware, the software team adds all the applications, the learning and development team builds a queue of required courses, and so on.

To set up a new server, the infrastructure team configures the server, the security team provides access authentication, and the applications team configures the right integrations.

To ease the process of creating these requests, create “bundles” that align with end‑to‑end use cases or outcomes that customers are trying to achieve. Each bundle will trigger requests for multiple catalog items scoped within the desired use case. The ServiceNow OrderGuide API will help you create such bundles for your service request catalog.

Commonly, ServiceNow customers include:

  • Remote office setup
  • New‑hire onboarding
  • New server request

Tailor your terminology to incorporate customer language

When customers look for catalog items, most prefer to use search over browsing through lists to find what they want. Many organizations do offer advanced search functionality, yet their customers still struggle to find what they need in the service catalog. Often the root cause is the IT‑centric terminology they use to name and describe their categories or catalog items.

Instead, take a focus group approach to work directly with customers and come up with the right terminology for the categories in your service catalog. Also, identify the different terms that different customers use to refer to a given catalog item or category. You must use those terms to configure keyword search for catalog items, especially with the help of the right meta tags.

To create effective focus groups:

  • Create multiple small focus groups—max 10 people per group.
  • Include representatives from different customer groups, including different personas, functions, and geographies.
  • Include representatives from all customer types—end users, service fulfillers, and support desk representatives.

Some customers conduct card‑sorting exercises to receive unbiased feedback from customers on their preferred language.

Heads up! Don’t just engage with customers in the beginning to understand their terminology. Instead, engage with customers in small, diverse groups on a regular basis to continuously improve the terminology you use in the catalog.

Include the right information in the catalog to inform decision‑making and build transparency

The service catalog is not just a menu of different items customers can request. It must include all the information customers need to make informed choices.

Many calls to the support desk are from customers requesting product information and updates on existing requests they’ve already placed through the catalog. On consumer websites, organizations provide details, like product comparisons to other options and delivery information, with transparency into shipment tracking. Learn from them: Aim to build similar decision‑making support and transparency for the requests your customers make. This will help reduce the number of support calls customers make just to get a status update on their requests.

Include this information in your service catalog for decision‑making support and transparency:

  • A definition of the service that corresponds to the catalog item—what it is and what it helps accomplish
  • A clear explanation of what is included in the service
  • Pricing information (actual value or high, medium, or low)
  • Delivery time expectations
  • The approval process requirements
  • The name of the fulfillment owner (requires additional configuration)
  • Comparison with other similar options available (Include it as part of your item description so users are less tempted to customize over using something out‑of‑box.)

Not all information is relevant, or accurate, for all kinds of users. Many organizations provide different offerings to different users based on their geographic locations or the functions they perform. We recommend using the ServiceNow user criteria feature to tailor the information you provide to users. But don’t over‑complicate authentications. Instead, consider defining user criteria only at the top level either based on geographies or functions like IT, finance, etc.

Conduct a card-sorting exercise
  1. Provide a set of index cards with suggested categories to each participant.
  2. Show the participants a list of existing catalog items and ask them to assign, add, delete, and change the categories individually, based on what makes most sense to them.
  3. Consolidate the findings. Most likely everyone will have different interpretations of the categories.
  4. Create new categories and meta tags based on: qualitative information based on user comments; and quantitative information based on cards that appeared together most often and how.
Conduct a card-sorting exercise
  1. Provide a set of index cards with suggested categories to each participant.
  2. Show the participants a list of existing catalog items and ask them to assign, add, delete, and change the categories individually, based on what makes most sense to them.
  3. Consolidate the findings. Most likely everyone will have different interpretations of the categories.
  4. Create new categories and meta tags based on: qualitative information based on user comments; and quantitative information based on cards that appeared together most often and how.
Expert Tip


Strike for the right level of information depth. Too much information can overwhelm customers and hinder their decision‑making. For example, pricing shown as high, medium, or low may make more sense than actual values.

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