What is Service Design? Service Designers’ Favourite Question…

Last week I wrapped up my professional journey with Fidelity International with the last workshop aiming to define directions for the service design practice at the company.  It was interesting to share observations, lessons learned and reflections on how service design discipline has evolved over the years across various industries and how design has become a multidisciplinary domain where boundaries between graphic design, web design, UX/UI, service design, etc. are hard to define. Service design is a team sport and us such requires skillset and expertise across all aspects of a service or a business. As a discipline it shapes customers experience, business models, configurations of platforms and products, leading to improved service offering or a new innovative proposition.

We started the workshop with sharing our understanding of what ‘service design’ was. The favourite question of anyone working in the discipline: What is Service Design? A discipline, a practice, a set or principles and methods based on design thinking, empathy, a customer-centric approach, customer journey mapping, a mindset and a cultural shift…

In fact service design is all of that and more. Our individual professional career journeys may have shaped our understanding of what service design and which definition we have felt comfortable adopting. In my experience, either working for large multinational companies, or while networking at various design events, I met practitioners who moved into service design from technology, user experience design, web design, business consulting, project management, change management, or customer research. Nevertheless we all share a common set of customer-centric principles that constitute the core of service design discipline.

According to the recently published book Service Design Doing  service design has 3 main directions of evolution: (i) service design related to setting up new services within current business scope or transformation (e.g. DIGITAL would be included in here),  (ii) innovation where we are exploring new boundaries and changing the business landscape by stepping into the unknown and (iii) launching improvements in existing business. This is a large area to cover and requires different skill set in each of them, but underlying focus should remain the same with focus on customers.

Here are some of other definitions that have circulated over years, originating from various sources:
  • ‘Service Design helps to innovate (create new) or improve (existing) services to make them more useful, usable, desirable for clients and efficient as well as effective for organisations. It is a new holistic, multidisciplinary, integrative field.’  – Stefan Moritz
  • ‘Service design is the application of established design process and skills to the development of services. It is a creative and practical way to improve existing services and innovate new ones’ – live/work
  • ‘Service design is all about making service you deliver useful, usable, efficient and desirable.’ – UK Design Council
  • ‘Service design choreographs process, technologies and interactions within complex systems in order to co-create value for relevant stakeholders.’ – Birgit Mager , Service Design Network
  • (Service design is) design for experiences that happen overtime and across different touchpoints. – Simon Clatworthy International Journal of Design ‘Service Innovation through Touch-points: development of an innovation toolkit for the first stages of new service development’
  • Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the serviceprovider and its customers.
  • ‘ When you have 2 coffee shops right next to each other, selling the exact same coffee at the exact same price, service design is what makes you walk into the one and not the other, come back often and tell your friends about it.’ – 31 Volts www.31volts.com/en/servicedesign
  • Service Design helps organisations see their services from a customer perspective. It is an approach to designing services that balances the needs of the customer with the needs of the business, aiming to create seamless and quality service experiences. Service design is rooted in design thinking, and brings a creative human-centred process to service improvement and designing new services. Through collaborative methods that engage both customers and service delivery teams, service design helps organisations gain true end-to-end understanding of their services, enabling holistic and meaningful improvements.  – blog.practicalservicedesign.com
 Service design is a mindset, a toolset, a process, a cross disciplinary language, a management approach.

With its focus on delivering change and improvement through an iterative, design-led approach, Design Thinking in many ways is a backbone of Service Design. While their activities and approaches might differ in some respects, both share common goals, and are carried out in similar settings. Moreover, lines are often blurred by practitioners that use the terms interchangeably, and introduced new terms such as ‘Service Design Thinking’.

What we’ve learned since, though, is that well-designed touchpoints alone are not sufficient. For example, an organisation may have done a great job ensuring their website gives prospective clients the information they need to make an informed purchasing decision but, if the service agreement they are asked to sign is convoluted and difficult to understand, all of that work at the touchpoint level is wasted. The work of service designers today is largely concerned with organisational transformation: optimising internal processes, policies and structures to ensure that the back-of-house and front-of-house are aligned to the needs of people using services. In this regard, service designers are venturing into the area of organisational planning and design, the traditional domain of management consultants. This work requires more complex tools reflecting journeys across many touch-points and touching on the fiefdoms of a diversity of stakeholders (e.g., Finance, HR, and IT): service blueprints or touchpoint maps are great examples of these kinds of tools.

What are the key ingredients necessary in delivering an exceptional end-to-end service experience at scale? How do service designers help?

Service designers are experts on facilitating service design projects, but there are mostly not experts on specific subject matters—and they don’t need to be. They can help to establish service design (or however your organisation calls the discipline and related activities) as a common language within the organisation connecting various departments and disciplines. Tools and methods of service design help to constantly slip into the shoes of users, co-create between departments, and iteratively develop and improve solutions. What is essential for this is budget, time and money, for the core service design team as well as the extended project team to be able to really do service design on a sustainable basis.

Service design is often interchanged with systems design, user experience or design thinking, is it an issue?

There has been a lot of discussion around definitions and boundaries of service design. Even in my last service design workshop at Fidelity we shared number of definitions. When you are part of the internal service design team working within the company, you are working across the disciplines and domains of expertise to  address real customer and business challenges. Ultimately service design is the umbrella that spans domains such as system design, user experience design, technology, business operations etc. What is more important then the exact definition is the result it enables when being properly applied. What all these terminology discussion have in common is that customers just don’t care. They pay for, or give their attention and time, and they want organizations to co-create some value for them, by helping them, by taking away their problems or by realizing their goals. And while doing so they expect organizations to meet or even exceed their expectations, respond to their rational and emotional needs. Ultimately the role of service design is to make it happen.

More on Service Design at UK Design Council: What is Service Design.