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The evolution of Service Design: the present & the future

Originally published in New Design Magazine, Issue 90, June 2011

Positioning itself as a meta-discipline, packaging up the strategic functions found elsewhere in design; Service Design is gaining traction as the business friendly face of design. Firms looking to differentiate themselves, public sector bodies looking to innovate and provide services to a more demanding populace, and those in business needing to harness creativity are looking to Service Design for solutions and new ways of working.

Responding to the increasing awareness of their discipline, Engine Service Design recently hosted a Service Design seminar at the Design Council in London, in conjunction with the Design Management Institute (DMI), attracting an audience of design practitioners, and representatives from public and private sector organisations from across Europe, North America and the Middle East.

The range and breadth of experience of attendees raises the question, what answers does Service Design have, both for designers and their clients? What can be learnt from the challenges of its emergence as a discipline, where does its future lie and what relevance does this have for organisations and other design practitioners?

When Joe Heapy and Oliver King set up Engine a decade ago, they relied on the vision of innovators and mavericks to bring work to their fledgeling company. These days, Service Design, the discipline that Engine helped to establish, is gaining increasing traction as a means by which organisations can tackle the problems faced by organisations. However, this confidence has been hard won, explains Heapy:

“When we first started up we bought suits and briefcases. Firms like Orange and Virgin Atlantic believed in and fostered our vision for the value of design, but we thought that if we were to expand, we’d need to look more like business consultants than designers. In the early days, we described ourselves in terms of innovation, not Service Design.

These days we sell ourselves on exactly who we are. Big companies like E.ON, Virgin Media and Mercedes-Benz come to us precisely because we offer something that traditional consultancy doesn’t, we are service designers and proud of it. And at the same time, our practice has developed to accommodate business as well as traditional design challenges – but without the suits.”

Reflected in the diversity of attendees at the London DMI Service Design Seminar, service designers are seeing a broadening of the profile of Service Design clients. Whether driven by an understanding of design, or simply by a desire for results, incorporating design-lead processes as a means to differentiate has meant that service designers no longer simply look to innovate with those who already understand design, but partnerships can also be formed with utility companies, automotive manufacturers, financial services firms, with the leading lights of Cameron’s Big Society and a range of other organisations who have recognised the value that strategic, design-lead thinking can bring to their business. These organisations have something in common. They want to see service as an integral part of what their organisation does.

Though many service designers come from a product design background, Service Design is by definition, a holistic practice. Not tied to a specific discipline, service designers make recommendations for what they see as the best solutions for each client. Being unburdened by having a practice focused in one area, Service Design builds the mechanisms of how services will be delivered. A solution may be technological, require better communication, an envisaging of service principles, research or training, but Service Design sits at the centre, remaining happy to make recommendations for any of these other disciplines.

As designers, this holistic approach does mean giving up the awards and recognition that drive much of the rest of the design industry. As King says:

“Often a great service is one that goes unnoticed, we have gained recognition as a practice, but if you want to be a service designer, you have to accept that our inclusive attitude towards work, designing a service in conjunction with clients and customers, using the specialisms of every member of the team, means that you have to leave your ego at the door.”

Service designers focus on inclusion and co-creation, on building capacity within organisations, and it can still be hard to accept for the designer, that you have to become part of a greater whole, often leaving a client to take the credit for a project.

In this way Service Design doesn’t sit along side other design disciplines, though it does take the user-centeredness of other design practices and apply it to new situations. To the designer, this may not seem like a new or revolutionary thought, but experience shows that there is still a surprising lack of understanding about what customer’s want, need and value. This user-centeredness is one of Service Design’s chief values and helps consultancies like Engine provide compelling reasons to change behaviour, in the same way that any great piece of design can.

As Service Design techniques, processes and its innovation culture become embedded in ever more mainstream organisations, external consultancies must adapt their practices to remain relevant. In the early days of the discipline, service design would often be applied to a particular touch-point, service or interface. Service Design has adapted to become more strategic. As King explains:

“Just as a great product can only come out of a great factory, with great processes behind it, great services come from great organisations.”

In this way Service Design has become focused on building capacity, leaving clients with the organisational legacy required to continue to deliver great, innovative and well-designed services.

Embedding an approach like this raises the question; if service designers are so effective at building this capacity for their clients, can everyone be a service designer? Where does that lead the role of external Service Design consultancies? What value can they continue to bring, now that clients are aware of, and are starting to apply these techniques themselves?

Engine sees this as an opportunity. The need to connect with customers and to make creative leaps is being recognised by more organisations as being key to business performance. Firms that have built their own Service Design capacity spread the message that Service Design practice is the way to build a great service offering. The more that design-led approaches are demonstrated and evangelised inside service organisations, the more they are tried and tested by new teams. Including those that would previously not have got involved in any activity called design.

“Building these internal Service Design capacities, and focusing on organisational change ensures a future for Service Design as an internal, and external function. Service Design has raised the value of design in these organisations.”

“The ability of Service Design practice to facilitate joined up thinking inside disjointed organisations, to make change feel achievable, to build skills and help organisations move to new models of management is more relevant than ever.”

That Service Design has a role in transforming organisations is still a big claim to make. Engine is still shaping its practice in this area. We’ve had some successes but a lot more evidence is needed. It has to be recognised that even when it comes to being customer-centred and service-focused there is still a range of maturity across the organisations we work with. If supporting transformation is the aspiration there is plenty of work to get on with in the meantime delivering effective examples of good, user-centred Service Design.

More Engine work

Service design for London Borough of Southwark

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Using service design to tackle the social challenges to healthy eating

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