What is Service Design Really? Theory to Reality

There are different definitions of service design — many are aspirational ideas that originate in academia. As a practicing service designer, from my experience, the definitions that are often repeated are inadequate.

Someone’s finger is pointing to a blank box on a flow chart.

Overall, the definitions address how service design ‘operates’ rather than its purpose and benefits, which calls for relooking the definitions that are repeated almost reflexively.

I was re-engaged in this topic when I read Lena Hüttl’s excellent Master’s thesis “Service Design as a tool for Sustainable Development.” Otherwise, she makes a valiant effort to take published definitions of Service Design and regurgitate them as best she can. Here are some of the definitions she included.

RANGE OF COMMON DEFINITIONS

  1. In one definition, she cited from Stickdorn, Hormess, et al., 2018b, that service design focuses on service development with customer engagement to (sic) a more system-oriented approach.
  2. Another was published by Erin Miller, Director of Service Design at Stanford University, who crowdsourced a definition among colleagues in 2015. She came up with: “Service design helps organizations 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-centered process to service improvement and designing new services. Through collaborative methods that engage both customers and service delivery teams, service design helps organizations gain true, end-to-end understanding of their services, enabling holistic and meaningful improvements. (Miller, 2015.)
  3. Then Birgit Mager of the Service Design Network in 2015 says: “Service design choreographs processes, technologies and interactions within complex systems in order to co-create value for relevant stake-holder.” (Service Design Network, 2015).
  4. Plus there’s Wikipedia: “Service design is the activity of planning and arranging people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its users. Service design may function as a way to inform changes to an existing service or create a new service entirely.

EACH POSES CHALLENGES

Each definition poses challenges to a mutual understanding that can apply broadly to different situations.

  1. The first definition in our order implies that the activity of design involves customer engagement. Admittedly, that could be an unintended meaning that occurred from translation. But this notion of sharing the creative aspect with customers appears over again. Yet true co-creation with users would render Service Design an obstacle to progress. It’s hard enough for groups to come up with precise decisions. Introducing new services to users through prototyping and tests shows how difficult it is for users to accept any new ideas.
  2. I also question a definition that includes design thinking as a predecessor, which is simply not true. Design thinking is not a field of practice but a process for developing concepts to solve complex challenges. Those can include services as well as products, infrastructure design, transportation systems integration, and even land-use planning. Anyone can follow a service thinking process to resolve challenges. But Service Design is a matriculated field of practice that requires specific related skills to build successful services. Service Design has more in common with systems engineering, assembling and integrating components to satisfy a goal or goals, than it does creative engineering, the origins of design thinking.
  3. The definition from the Service Design Network is much closer to what occurs in practice, however, it too, pokes at the idea of co-creation and shared value with others. Oftentimes, stakeholders are far removed from any direct or accumulated value of a service. A stakeholder is not necessarily a user, an organization leader, or anyone else in the chain of creating or managing a service. As consultants, we would use the term ‘stakeholder’ as a reference to others, including media, investors, and vendors.
  4. Wikipedia’s definition of Service Design also merits a re-examination. It refers to Service Design by what occurs at the implementation stage, which I like to analogize as the 30,000-foot view looking down. It describes a vague notion of how Service Design is executed as opposed to the cause and effect and its benefits, which would come up to, say, a 50,000-foot view. Even more to the point, it states “. . . a way to inform changes . . ,“ which lowers the perspective to the 5,000-foot level, what we sometimes call “deep into the weeds.”

MY DEFINITION

From experiences building and improving services across the three sectors, companies or private sector, government or public sector, and non-profit or non-government organizations — a service begins at the point of funding and organization support. Each organization is seeking a preferred outcome that is worth an investment.

Against that backdrop, my definition:

Service Design is a non-aesthetic design practice that helps service providers offer a benefit to users. The user-centric tools and techniques of the practice allow providers to achieve more predictable, successful outcomes. The tools and techniques used by service designers are used to design new services and address concerns or challenges with existing services, such as whether to improve the service, alter key parts of the service to adapt to changing circumstances and assess the value of a service to users and providers alike.

Furthermore, a successful service is one that ‘satisfies’ the needs of users by having them achieve a desired outcome through a reliable service experience.

This definition, to me, is satisfying because it applies to every one of my service design projects during many years of practice, with many successes and a few failures, too. I sincerely hope it jibes with others’ experiences, as well.

Service designers need a definition that satisfies the majority of us. (I hear a lot of complaints) When we can come together and form a definition that well suits our practice, then we will be able to gain the awareness Service Design deserves.

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Steven J. Slater

Steven J. Slater

Steven J. Slater, a service designer, is co-founder of International Service Design Institute www.internationalservicedesigninstitute.com