Service design is a creative and collaborative practice that determines precisely how an existing service should be improved or how a new technology or product should be delivered as a service, commercially and at scale.
Services are the formalised means by which people exchange things of value with one another, with businesses and other organisations. In other words, to live in our modern societies is to be a consumer and producer of services. There’s no getting away from them.
Design is the formalised activity of improving something in the world or giving form to new technology for the very first time, making it useful and usable. More fundamentally, the activity of designing has the potential to create new value, value for customers, businesses and society.
Service Design marries these two crucial human endeavours into a practice that today is driving economic growth, social innovation and policy-making around the world.
A creative and collaborative practise that determines precisely how an existing service should be improved or how a new technology or product should be delivered as a service, commercially and at scale.
Where did service design come from?
The idea that mass-produced services can be designed through a formal engineering-like approach was described in the 1980s. Art-school educated design with a big ‘D’ made the jump to the world of mass-produced services at the end of the 1990s, fueled mostly by the emergence of the ‘world wide web’. In the twenty or so years since, Service Design has evolved from a niche practice within strategic marketing, IT and interaction design into a mainstream product development and management practice in many global, customer-driven businesses.
The brilliance of service design is rooted in its essential eclecticism and fuzzy, interdisciplinary boundaries.
Like the Magpie in European folklore, Service Design has stolen all the best and shiniest bits from several professional domains and woven them into a hybrid practice.
Engine’s practise, like others, is an assembly of the shiniest bits of the user-centred design method, strategic marketing, brand development, new product development, business analysis, social science research methods, software development, product management, people development, change management, visual and information design and story theory, as well as many other trinkets.
The masterstroke is that as a hybrid practise, service design is accessible to all and as such powerful and well-suited to the kinds of creative, empathetic, optimistic and collaborative work that must take place at pace in response to urgent business and social challenges. Such challenges require all the available experts. Diverse perspectives are vital, as are the abilities firstly to listen, to empathise, understand and to connect the best of the best insights and ideas to give form to new solutions.
It’s essential to be able to represent the workings of a service and people’s experiences of it on a page. Easier said than done, given that a service is not a ‘thing’, it unfolds over time and is co-produced by its users. There are several ways to represent on a page an approximation to a service. The one most loved by service designers, and their clients is the service blueprint.
Service blueprints were presented in an article in Harvard Business Review in 1984 by the businesswomen and now philanthropist, Lynn Shostack. Shostack’s father was a mechanical engineer, and Lynn went to art school (perhaps, the perfect ingredients for a service designer) before eventually becoming a marketing consultant.
A service blueprint isn’t just a beautiful spreadsheet or flow diagram (nor should it be). It captures the idea that providing a service involves several parts of an organisation working together (or not). The ways the organisation does this results in an excellent or poor experience for customers, and those delivering the service. For some businesses, seeing their service for the first time in this way leads them to reorganise teams and realign priorities — powerful stuff.
There’s a challenge for leaders in complex organisations where many teams are working to do the right things for customers. Because the service blueprint represents the service, it represents the organisation too. It sets out the territory for action — a giant, organisation-wide to-do list on one page with each team able to see the role they play.
Service blueprints become vital management documents, delignating roles, defining blocks of work and their priority.
Central to the way service blueprints represent a service is their depiction of what’s happening behind the scenes when customers use a service. Service blueprints are to service designers what musical scores are to musicians — the technical drawing for a performance and an emotional experience for those on the receiving end. (Take a look at forms of dance notation.)
‘Total design’ and ITIL (geekery)
In 1991 the engineer, Bill Hollins, wrote the book, ‘Total design: managing the design process in the service sector’. In the book, Bill describes the difference between a product-centred design process and a service-orientated one. He describes services and service businesses as having multiple components and sub-systems that need to be designed as one to work well — and that doing so requires its own, clearly understood design process. Bill remains close to our hearts at Engine as he tutored two of Engine’s Directors, and we continue to define service design in one sense as ‘total design’.
The service design process is suited to the design of systems of people and technology working together to produce excellent outcomes. Technology is central to all services but is only a means to end. Well-designed services weave technology together with physical places, objects and people into a harmonious system to create value.
That the roots of service design extend in one direction into engineering isn’t a surprise. The mass-production of services requires engineering solutions as well as amazing sensory and aesthetic choices. The idea that services are engineered was made geekishly real by the creation (again in the 1980s) of ITIL (the Information Technology Infrastructure Library).
ITIL, developed for the UK government, helped standardise IT management practices, the practices underpinning the design and performance of government services. ITIL defines services as the product or organisations and has four ‘Ps’, People, Products, Partners, Processes. These ‘Ps’ remain to remind us what services are and what service designers ought to be able to apply design methods to.
User experience (UX) is a person’s direct experience of a digital or physical product, at the moment they are using it. The customer experience (CX) is a person’s experience of a service, business and brand, which might include their use of many products.
Yes, customer experience is an experience of a business, not just a product or touchpoint. Interestingly though, customers don’t need to be directly interacting with the service — in the moment — to be experiencing it. For example, a customer might be waiting for something to be delivered or installed in their home. Some elements of the customer’s experience are intangible, yet you can still design them.
So, UX design (UXD) is the design of how a person experiences a product, usually a digital one, directly in the moment. Customer experience design (CXD) is the design of how a customer experiences a service and business, overtime and even when they are not directly interacting with it.
Use DX to describe something more holistic than UX and encompassing customers’ experiences of the digital touchpoints of a service.
Service design (SD) encompasses all of the above and much more.
The goal of service designing is to make existing services easy to use, more accessible and more beneficial, more profitable to operate and in the case of public services, produce better outcomes for people and society. These seem straightforward enough. However, when making the case to invest in service design projects, the benefits need to be clear and quantifiable.
For most businesses, the reasons to commission a service design project — internally or externally — are the same as the reasons to invest money in any initiative that improves business performance by driving sales, improving margin, avoiding or reducing costs, or making costs more predictable.
Beneath the headliners, there are other great reasons to commission service design projects, particularly when businesses want to operate differently, automate processes, use data creatively, improve the experience for their employees, step-up to lead the business eco-system in which they operate — or to challenge their industry model.
Up until the end of the last century, people associated ‘design’ with giving form to material things — manufactured goods and graphical objects. Then these objects became full of electronics their users could control, and the internet happened.
Today, designers are designing services — systems of things that create value for customers and businesses. Service Design evolved as a meta-discipline. It encompasses most other design disciplines and so much more. As such, it provides a way to bridge the worlds of design and business. Design leaked-out of design studios and art schools and into corporations. Design thinking and doing is out there in the world.
Being design-led is now an approach to management. In the maturest of design-led businesses, design teams are already dissolving into their organisations. The new challenge is how to get more trained designers on management boards, while building-in design capability across organisations.
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