How to talk about Service Design and User Experience Design in the Same Sentence

Service design is the practice and the user experience is its metric.

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Years ago, I defined user experience as a metric:

The user experience is the measure of your end-user’s interaction with your organization: its brand, its product, and its services.

The user experience is something that can be measured. It is plottable, predictable, a chalky dot on a blackboard we correlate with numbers that businesses investing in the user experience design care about.

Tim-21 from the best comic ever is both product and service.
A canvas for plotting customer satisfaction in the Kano model

I threw my hat in the ring because I was super dissatisfied with the lack of practical application from a definition like “UX is about creating delight,” on which it is crazy hard to justify the cost of doing user experience design — let alone compelling the C-Suite to actually care.

So, I puzzled together a definition for practical application that also made it clearer what user experience design is, as well as having other useful implications, like the “holisticness” of the user experience.

When the user experience is a metric, the reality of its holistic value creates room in our discipline not just for designers or researchers, but librarians, health care professionals, educators, civil servants, and in every vertical where it’s true that good user experience is good business. That is to say, all of them.

I think it holds up.

All of this was inspired by an argument made by Jess Leitch that the status and impact of design as a professional field is made less by the absence of a single consistent definition. But here she is defining service design.

I stumbled over Jess’s writeup the same time I had joined the Practical Service Design community created by Megan Erin Miller and Erik Flowers (and where I am super duper proud to be part of an awesome community leadership team), which now — 2018 — is several thousand members strong and has positively pushed the practice of service design forward.

Under almost constant debate is the definition of service design, especially with attempt to disambiguate it from user experience design.

This is often cast as a question of focus — product or service — or of scope:

… the most fundamental difference between UX design and service design is, therefore, the nature of the design problem that they are trying to solve. … Generally, the role of UX designers in a project isn’t to step back and design an entire service. On the occasions that they do apply their skills to service-level problems, they are entering the realms of service design.
Andrew Wilshere in Service Design and UX Design: What’s the difference?
Service Design and UX Design: What’s the difference?

But disambiguation, I think, is a disservice, too. Budding service designers stumble over methods perfected or problems solved already in the work of user experience design, but often fail to look or cannot otherwise learn from the progress in a discipline from which service design is distinguished.

What’s more, a question that Andrew raised in his article — “is service design user-centered?” — is a really natural follow-up when we try to disambiguate service and user experience too hard. Obviously the answer is yeah, but often qualified by something like, “not just end-users.”

Separating service from user experience design totally underserves the value of the user experience to the act of service design. So, I am going to try to explain service design in the context of the user experience metric.


This is a conversation I’ve been having for awhile, first in the Practical Service Design channels, and then at conferences, starting with a talk called Deep Service Design I’d given at Designing For Digital 2017.

Let’s start on the same page

Definitions of service design that cover most of the angles

  • Service design is an emerging field focused on the creation of well thought through experiences using a combination of intangible and tangible mediums. — The Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, 2008
  • Service design is a user centered approach to designing products and services, aiming to give the user a unique and memorable experience as well as optimizing business processes. — Amiz Azipoor
  • Service design is a holistic, co-creative, and user-centered approach to understanding customer behavior for the creation or refining of services. — Joe Marquez and Annie Downey

I also think Erik Flowersbig-picture conceptualization is really useful:

Customers design their experience each and every time. We only set the stage in service of the customer’s journey.

Definitions of user experience as a metric

  • The user experience is the measure of your end-user’s interaction with your brand, your products, and services.
  • User experience design describes the use of tools, techniques, and the creative application of behavioral knowledge about users to improve that user experience.

Now, the money.

How to talk about Service Design and User Experience Design in the same sentence

In a model where the user experience is a success metric, and user experience design describes the use of tools, techniques, and the application of behavioral knowledge to improve that metric, then service design — concerned with the systems that underlie a service as it’s performed — determines the potential impact user experience design can have on that score.

This means that service designers can design services to improve user experience and engage in both service and user experience design simultaneously.

Service design is the practice and the user experience is one of the metrics.

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