What the (bleep) is Service Design, anyway?


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Service Design is a hot topic in the design and business communities. Service Design is featured in blogs, books, conferences, and undergraduate/graduate school courses. It’s offered as a core service by agencies and consulting firms that consider the intersection of design and business. So, a fair question is what the (bleep) is Service Design?

As the practice is somewhat nascent, it’s not surprising to find numerous definitions. Here are a couple that I find useful:

“Service design helps organizations see their services from a customer perspective. It … balances the needs of the customer with the needs of the business, aiming to create seamless and quality service experiences. [It] is rooted in design thinking, and brings a creative, human-centered process to service improvement and designing new services …”
– Megan Erin Miller

“How Many Service Designers Does It Take to Define Service Design?” from “This is Service Design Doing” by Adam Lawrence, Jakob Schneider, Marc Stickdorn, and Markus Edgar Hormess (O’Reilly)

I like the focus on helping organizations see their own internal services from a customer viewpoint. Wikipedia’s definition takes more of an organizational focus:

“Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers. Service design may function as a way to inform changes to an existing service or create a new service entirely.”
– Wikipedia

Confusion also mounts as Service Design overlaps with inter-related disciplines like Design Thinking, Customer Experience, Journey Mapping, Lean Six Sigma, Change Management, and Systems Thinking. I find the practice easier to understand if we consider the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of the experiences that we encounter daily. To borrow the old adage of “I don’t know what good art is, but I know when I see it,” we know good and bad Service Design when we experience it.

For instance, we know the feeling of waiting at rush hour in a crowded station—where track numbers aren’t announced until the last minute—only to be pushed along by a throng of angry commuters jockeying their way toward remaining seats. It feels like no one took the time to understand how we, as commuters, would like the experience to unfold. This reflects bad Service Design—or the absence of design altogether.

On the other hand, when we seamlessly enter a Disney park and embark on rides with our magic bands; when our expectations of wait times are effectively managed; when standing in line can actually be delightful, e.g., on a ride like the Expedition Express, where you feel you are entering a Himalayan outpost—we experience good Service Design.

The Disney experience was good because every aspect—beyond the ride itself—was effectively designed with the needs of the customer at the center. Even though some of the ‘delight’ of the experience was physical, digital technology had a lot to do with it. The interconnection of systems, technologies, and people made the experience work end-to-end. Some of the people involved were ‘front-stage actors’ – and others worked behind the scenes. The interconnection between each human and digital element, as well as flawless execution, was critical to success.

Components of good service design include:

  • Human-centered planning decisions that consider context around how customers experience things digitally and non-digitally;
  • Coordination between back- and front-stage actors using data and digital tools to improve our digital and physical experiences.

At TandemSeven and Genpact, we help our clients improve customer experiences from the front-end through the back-end systems and processes needed to deliver it. In this way, experiences are more like Disney, and less like bad transit.

For example, for one major financial services client, we used a Service Design approach to resolve transaction discrepancies in accounting. We mapped the customer journey and developed a blueprint for a new future state, incorporating stakeholders from operations, technology, and middle office teams. We also developed key performance indicators to give insights into each stage of the journey, and developed an interactive digital prototype demonstrating a new way of working for operators. Ultimately, we lowered costs and improved service quality.

As Service Design practitioners, we like to say that we are all about the experience. Our multi-disciplinary practice is informed as much by our commitment to human-centered design as it is by a deep understanding of operations, domain expertise, process optimization, and change management. I will be discussing our approach to Service Design in greater detail in an upcoming blog. Let me know how you define Service Design in your organization.

Follow me on Twitter: @davederbydesign

Dave Derby
Dave has spent decadesenvisioning and bringing to life innovative solutions to numerous organizations and companies. He has worked as an Innovation leader, Design Thinker, Service Design Architect and Experience Strategist at a number of Digital consultancies, agencies as well as leading in-house teams at different companies. During his career he has built and led teams of design thinkers, UX strategists, designers and researchers. He holds several patents for interface designs and has taught Interaction Design and Design Research at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.


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