“So, like, what is service design?”

I get asked this question often. Over years of answering it to various degrees of confusion, I’ve arrived at the following personal definition. May you find it helpful.

Note: If you are a Design Thinker please start at the Appendix, then come back to the beginning of this article. If you are in UX, interaction, visual, or product design, jump in. Good luck!

Key concepts

Front stage & back stage: Services unfold over time. Some parts of services are visible to the service user; these parts are called front stage. Some part of services are not visible to the service user; these parts are called back stage. As a general rule of thumb, it’s safe to assume that most services are shaped like icebergs, with an enormous amount of complexity back stage.

Actors: Humans and digital systems enact the service. They are the actors who are on the figurative stage.

Touchpoints & Channels: Moments of interaction with a service happen via touchpoints. Mediums for the delivery of a service are called channels. I use these terms infrequently in design, but find them tremendously helpful when working with a marketing team.

Cycles & Life Cycles: A user’s service needs don’t disappear when the service is completed, they often reappear after a certain trigger; this cyclical nature of service needs is called a cycle. Users experience most services more than once over the course of their lives, and their experience with the service tends to change and develop; this is called a life cycle. As a general rule of thumb, the completion of a good service includes user-centered triggers to continue back into the beginning of the service.

Journeys: Services unfold over time, which means that service users experience a service over time; this is called a journey. Journeys can span any length of time, from a single cycle to a life cycle. When mapping a journey, pick a scope and altitude that will be in service of your work.

Customer? Consumer? User? What do we call the actors who pay for and/or experience the service?

  • Customer implies that this actor has paid for the service with some form of central currency, which may or may not be accurate.
  • Consumer implies that a service is being consumed, which is nonsense. Services are co-created by the actors in the system at the moment of service, and can’t be created or destroyed by one party.
  • User implies that a service is being used by someone, which is fairly confusing but may be the best option. In conjunction with this, I use service provider to refer to the actors who are counterparts of the service user.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Wait, what is a service?

Those of us who come from the world of digital “products” tend to define service by its absence: it’s not tangible, it’s not consistent, it’s not transportable…

A service is not not a product. Services encompass products. In other words, a service can include a product in its cycle, but the product is not the centerpiece.

I made some diagrams to illustrate this point. I also put them in a 2x2. Please excuse my US-centric use of $ as a symbol for central currency.

On the left side: the design of goods and the business of goods. Ever wonder why it’s so hard to communicate product design to business stakeholders? This is why. The business view and the product view are hugely different.

On the right side: the design of services and the business of services. Surprise! Most product companies are service companies. Thinking about the product in the context of the service makes everyone’s life substantially more complex. It’s also more realistic, and creates opportunities for true collaboration between the separate parts of the service-providing organization.

So what is a service? A service is a system of people, processes, and goods that meets needs through the exchange of value.

Like everything in this write-up, I made this up** because it’s been helpful for me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We’re designing what?

Great question. What does it mean to design systems of people, processes, and goods?

If you look across service design literature you’ll see talk about the design of all sorts of things, from digital touchpoints all the way to business models. It can seem like service design is the design of everything, which I find vague and unhelpful.

I made the chart below (based on this excellent keynote by Lucy Kimbell) to dissect what service design designs. Service design acts on a variety of objects, and can influence or create change at a variety of levels.

Some examples of how to read this chart:

  • If you’re designing a touchpoint (reading left to right): you’re primarily shaping a service encounter, creating change in a system of value exchange, and influencing societal practices. (Really, you are.)
  • If you’re designing a service encounter (reading top to bottom): you’re primarily designing touchpoints and behaviors, while changing experiences and influencing at least one business.
  • If you’ve set out to explicitly design a system that exchanges value (reading top to bottom): you are designing behaviors, businesses, experiences, and likely at least one touchpoint.
  • If you are designing behaviors (reading left to right), scripts, and expectations — the call center is the classic example — then you are designing a value exchange system as well as socio-political practice.

How?

Even with the simplified slicing I showed in the chart above… how, exactly, do we design systems of people, processes, and goods that meet needs through the exchange of value?

While the specifics depend on the scope and object of design for your particular project at hand, this process tends to generally hold true. There are three distinguishing differences between this and other design processes.

  1. Research (in the true sense of systematic investigation, not in the sense of “talk to people” or “design ethnography”) is integrated throughout the process under names like generative, co-creative, validation, and testing.
  2. In addition to SMEs and stakeholders, actors in the service are included throughout the process.
  3. The scope of “holistic” in the value proposition tends to be bigger here than in value propositions that are the outcome of, for example, a UX design process.

Service design tools

Lastly, what do we use to design services? Good news: all the tools of the trade in design are fair game. From modeling to workshops, service design does not reinvent the wheel. There are, however, two tools and one method that are quite specific to the practice of service design.

Service blueprint: This is a kind of journey map that blows out, in detail, both the front stage and back stage of a service. It is a deep dive into a tightly scoped area. Do not, for the love of all that is clear and actionable, think you can blueprint the entirety of a service. Services are shaped like icebergs, remember?

Ecosystem map (sometimes referred to as a territory map): This is a diagrammatic, time-agnostic model of the world of a service. If you’ve used a stakeholder map, those capture a subset of what might go into an ecosystem map. I tend to use ecosystem maps as a general concept that can flex to model what is most valuable for the project at hand. YMMV.

Service prototyping: Because services happen across touchpoints, over time, and are co-created, prototyping services is complicated. This is a big topic for another time.

Why bother with service design?

We’ve covered a great deal of ground. We’ve defined service and service design terminology, discussed key concepts and tools, and even articulated what it is that service design designs. Does this all really matter?

I think so, for two reasons.

  1. Because service design encompasses product-centric thinking, it can consider and deliver on all types of value exchange; it can meet a breadth of human needs — not just user and/or business needs.
  2. Most importantly, service design provides a conceptual framework for tackling baffling open-ended problems that have implications across encounters, systems, and societal practices.

Lots of interaction and UX designers have been practicing service design for years (if not decades). It’s a practice, and any designer can fold it into their existing work. I hope this write-up helped.


** I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the following incredible teachers, speakers, and writers:


APPENDIX

How does Design Thinking / Human-Centered Design relate to service design?

I think of Design Thinking (DT) as the Kleenex of tissues — a useful general concept that has been branded and marketed. DT is the application of design methods specifically to business problems.

HCD comes from user-centered design (ISO 9241–210:2010(E)), which focuses on the design of interactive systems. HCD is fundamentally a renaming of UX, i.e., design methods applied specifically to digital technology problems.

Service design originated from the combination of marketing, service operations, and user-centered design. It is the application of systems-thinking and design methods to address the needs that emerge from human systems (those that include users, employees, etc).

Here’s how these terms all relate to each other.

Basically, service design uses some of the same tools and methods as HCD and DT, adds more tools and methods, and applies them to a large set of problems that encompasses those addressed by HCD and DT.