Service Design: What Is It, What Does It Involve and Should You Care?

Paul Boag

Confused by the term service design? Wondering how it relates to customer experience or user experience design? In this post, I attempt to bring some clarity.

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Perhaps I am just turning into a grumpy old man, but there seem to be far too many buzzwords all describing very similar things these days. Take for example Service Design. Is it any different to user experience design and is that any different to customer experience design? The answer, as far as I can see, is not as much as you might suspect.

Heck, even digital transformation overlaps with these areas to a considerable degree.

Don’t misunderstand me. Service design is a thing. So is user experience, customer experience and digital transformation. It is just the level of overlap and interdependencies between these disciplines is considerable. In fact, I would argue, it is impossible to look at one, without also considering the others.

At their heart, all of these disciplines come down to the same thing, a realisation among organisations that consumer behaviour and expectations have changed and that they have to adapt. These disciplines are an attempt to do precisely that.

Why is Service Design a Thing?

Service design, like customer experience design, user experience design and even digital transformation, is a response to a shift in power.

Once the power sat with the company if a customer was unhappy there was little they could do.

For a start choice was limited. If somebody was unhappy, their other options were limited to brands they knew. Brands that they had heard about via advertising or recommendations from a small group of friends and family.

They were also limited by geography. Consumers could only move to suppliers who were available in their area. Sometimes consumers had very few alternatives as a result.

Where once the power belonged to the company, now it is in the hands of the consumer.

Thanks to Twin Design from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

Compare that today. In today’s world, we have access to every supplier on the planet that offers what we want, all from the device sitting in our pocket.

Not only that, but we also have access to everything anybody has ever written about that supplier.

In the past, if somebody was unhappy with a product or service they could do nothing but moan to a few friends. Today they can express their dissatisfaction to the world.

The average consumer has over 300 friends on Facebook. They can also write reviews, complain on Twitter and easily connect with other disgruntled customers.

Consumers are able to easy express their opinions about products and services instantly online to a global audience.

Take, for example, Hasan Syed. When he was upset with British Airways, he took out a promoted tweet to express his frustration. Whenever somebody mentioned British Airways on Twitter they got the reply:

Don’t fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous.

Within hours this was picked up by Mashable, followed by the Guardian Newspaper and BBC.

One disgruntled customer was enough to create a major PR disaster for British Airways.

We now live in a world where the power lies with the consumer, not the company and the consumer knows it.

With so much choice and such a powerful voice, they have incredibly high expectations. Expectations fuelled by a new generation of companies that are investing heavily in providing an outstanding experience through Service Design.

As Bridget van Kralingen, Senior Vice President of IBM Global Business Services puts it:

There’s no longer any real distinction between business strategy and the design of the user experience. The last best experience that anyone has anywhere becomes the minimum expectation for the experience they want everywhere.

In other words, consumers expect the same level of service from your business that they get from Apple, Amazon or Uber.

It is this new reality that has led to the rise of Service Design. But what exactly is it?

What is Service Design?

To understand service design, you need first to understand the changing definition of a service.

The Changing Nature of Services

In the past, a service and a product were typically two different things. Products were tangible items you kept (like a car), while a service was something intangible you used (like the postal service). Most companies would primarily offer one or the other.

Today, the lines are increasingly blurring. Where once you would buy your music (either as a CD or MP3), today you are just as likely to use a service like Shopify or Apple Music.

Music used to be a tangible product you bought. Today it is a service you subscribe to.

Thanks to Billion Photos from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

Also increasingly companies are adding additional value to products by adding services to them. For example, my TV comes with access to software services that provide TV listings and movie downloads.

Many companies are having to adapt to providing services for the first time, while others are struggling to manage increasingly complex services with unfamiliar digital components.

Many physical products, (such as your smart TV) now come with digital services.

Thanks to Rasulov from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

The pressure of offering these new services is exposing weaknesses in existing organisational structures, and that is where service design comes in.

Service Design Addresses Organisational Weaknesses

We have all experienced bad service. But the problem for that lousy service rarely originates at the point of contact. That is because organisations are willing to invest in customer-facing aspects of their business, but neglect their backend experience. They fail to realise that shortcomings behind the scenes are impacting the experience of customers. It is on these aspects of the experience that service design focuses.

There is a myriad of areas that ultimately can undermine the service a customer receives, many of which I have written about before. There are:

The list goes on. However, at a fundamental level, the influencing factors tend to fall into four areas:

  •  The People. Anybody who contributes to the service either directly or indirectly. For example, although management has little direct contact with customers, they are still hugely influential in shaping their experience.
  • The Assets. The physical and digital touchpoints that the customer interacts with, and the tools employees uses to deliver a service.
  • The Policies. The rules, standard operating procedures and workflows the company uses to provide the service.
  • The Culture. The unwritten rules that dictate employee attitudes and approaches. Thinking born from company history, management style and employee experience.
Service design focuses on four main areas of company operations.

Any of these areas can make or break the experience of users and shape the quality of the service they receive. Service design attempts to improve these components to create a better experience. In other words, it is interested in the process that is used to create what the user experiences.

But is this any different from user experience design or digital transformation?

How Does It Relate to Other Disciplines?

In my post “User Experience Design Is Not What You Think” I wrote:

Great user experiences happen beyond the screen and in the gaps. Gaps between channels, devices and business silos.

Immediately that sounds very much like Service Design. That providing a great experience isn’t just about the user interface, but about the organisational processes that deliver that experience.

In my post “Digital Transformation: A Comprehensive Introduction” I quote the Government Digital Service who describe digital transformation as:

The realignment of, or new investment in, technology and business models to more effectively engage digital customers at every touchpoint in the customer experience lifecycle.

Once again, this could easily be describing much of what service design covers.

However, unlike digital transformation, service design isn’t confined to digital. In fact, when Lynn Shostack coined the term in 1982, we hadn’t begun to see the scale of impact that we see today from technology.

But today, digital and service design go very much hand-in-hand. If you are thinking about digital transformation, you are inevitably talking about service design and vice versa.

The link between user experience and service design is even closer. In fact, the only real difference is a subtle variation in perspective.

User experience design tends to start with the experience and work backwards. It designs the ideal experience at the point of contact with the customer and then looks at what needs to change within the organisation to deliver that.

It could be argued that service design starts by looking to make improvements in people, processes, assets and culture. That then indirectly goes on to influence the customer experience.

While user experience design focuses on the customer facing experience, service design starts with the behind the scenes processes.

Thanks to Anna Jurkovska and aerogondo2 from Shutterstock for allowing me to use these image.

Personally, I find myself more drawn to a user experience design outlook. I prefer to start with the end experience we want to deliver and work backwards.

But what is apparent is that whether you are talking about user experience, digital transformation or service design, you cannot look at one without also considering the others.

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