The Problem with Service Design

I’m afraid service design is futile. We’re wasting our time. Every innovation we deliver, every process we streamline, every touchpoint we craft will eventually be taken for granted. Reduced to a commodity. We’re simply delaying the inevitable.

Does a restaurant merit attention these days for having clean facilities? Not really. Thirty years ago that might have been noteworthy in some parts of the world but today it’s simply expected. Does Starbucks win any extra points for getting your order right? How about for providing those little cardboard sleeves to keep you from burning your hand? Do they receive special praise for comfortable chairs? How about wireless internet? Courteous staff?

Most of the time we only recognize service by its absence. In the 2005 book The Paradox of Excellence, David Mosby and Michael Weissman introduce this paradox through a short parable about a crisis at a fictitious trucking company called Premiere. That company defines its value through outstanding delivery performance — the best in the industry. But as they deliver better and better service, they become more and more invisible to their clients; at least until something goes wrong.

As designers, every time we improve a service we’re simply ratcheting up expectations. That isn’t sustainable.

So what’s the answer? Obviously I don’t believe that service design is a waste of time or effort. But I can’t shake the knowledge that human beings can be a bit capricious when it comes to judging our efforts in this regard.

A while back I wrote about a waiter who regularly notified his customers of mistakes, after correcting the problem, simply to get people to appreciate his service. In the Premiere parable above, the company decides to start making their excellent performance more visible to clients through regular reports. I’m not sure that’s the answer. I pretty much expect FedEx never to lose my package. In fact, I expect overnight delivery to anywhere in the world. How crazy is that? It’s taken fewer than 30 years for something magical to become a commonplace.

At what point do we hit the wall with services? Are they ever actually good enough, or is it an endless arms race against mediocrity and commoditization?

Maybe the answer itself is counterintuitive. Rather than offering reliably excellent service, what about unpredictability? What if the answer lies in random acts of kindness? The bits of business that add value to a service, but that aren’t part of its core offering. Something we can’t anticipate, something that captures our attention — randomly exceeding our expectations. A foil to the capriciousness of human perception.


  1. VM

    This reminds me of a problem related to User Experience design & thinking at some phone manufacturers for example. User Experience is thought to be one dimensional (bad … good). Same thinking is some times applied to more traditional usability (this needs to have good usability).

    The truth is that none of these factors are one dimensional. I have not been working with service design for too long, but in my experience its more important to find and craft *suitable* service, user experience and usability.

    Service experience, user experience, usability … they all can be on it’s best when it is fitting well to context, even as they could be judged poor in another context.

    Another problem is that consumers are poor judging (or at least judging the source of) usability, user experience and service experience. They need to have these things visible. The handle in OXO peeling knife is not only about having a good grip, but it also makes visible the fact that the blade is the best damn sharp steel there is available.

    On the other hand these visualizations can be sued to lie to the customers and thats when they will have a worst kind of experience (chinese copy of that peeling knife has a nice handle but won’t peel anything, what a let down!).

    And still, it might not be problem in service “interface” design that people get too accommodated and perhaps bore with the starbucks for example. Maybe its the problem with the starbucks concept. They would want something very different for a change, no matter how friendly the cashier is. (Same thing there is with traditional UI design: no matter how fancy graphics or nice task flow you do for a piece of machinery for an example, if it does the wrong tasks).

  2. you might enjoy barry schwartz’s talk at the recent TED conference – he’s not a hypemesiter, so you can enjoy in peace

    http://blog.wired.com/business/2009/02/ted-barry-schwa.html

  3. It seems to me that the same argument could be made about any product (services, artifacts, anything human-made). This may be a fundamental truth of societal evolution – we take for granted what we have become accustomed to.

    I don’t think, however, that this is necessarily a bad thing. I would argue that our lives often improve as we become accustomed to these things (many technologies are a good example of this). Why do people need to be appreciative – is it not enough that their lives are better?

    With many services, I think there is no wall to hit – changing times and preferences dictate changes to the service which will be viewed as improvements in so far as they are keeping the service abreast with the culture it functions within. Were brick and mortar video stores improved when they switched from VHS to DVD’s? Hard to say, though certainly they would not have lasted as long as they have if they hadn’t made the change.

  4. Jeff

    Hi Paul, You’re right that commoditization applies across the board. But where products are anchored at a particular point in time, and can be completely replaced with the next generation, services evolve more incrementally. Spinning off a completely new business is a larger investment than releasing the next model of toaster.

    When it comes to services, it’s a good thing that people’s lives improve, but when people stop valuing that improvement the business loses the basis of its competitive advantage. They’re essentially forced to continue supporting old innovations, which continue to consume operating capital, without reaping any of the benefits. It’s just ratcheting up the cost of delivering the service.

  5. Jeff

    The other problem, as the Paradox of Excellence illustrates, is that if the value of service is invisible then any problems take on an exaggerated prominence.

  6. There’s an old saying that goes something like, “Nobody notices a straight roof.”

    It’s definitely an old problem. How we deal with it I’m not sure.

  7. Great article!

    Actually you state the definition of excellence in service design in your article – when it is perfect, users do not pay any attention to it. Well implemented functional structure of a service is intuitive, unobtrusive and obvious.

    Services are there to enable action: interaction between people, communication between systems, access to data and resources, ordering products, publishing etc. The service is not the end in itself. Service is an utility. It’s like the road. When the road is straight and even you just drive and enjoy and you get where you wanted to go. When it’s bumpy and curvy with many crossings you need to concentrate on the road and use the map to find your way. There may even be interruptions. The purpose of the road is to take you from point A to point B in as pleasant and appropriate way as possible. The purpose of the road is not be admired (except by other road building engineers).

    This does not exclude the importance of great user experience and visually pleasing style – on the contrary! You will surely notice the dullness of a smooth and straight road if there’s nothing else to be seen and the environment and scenery is boring. Well, sometimes I take the bumby road just to admire the sceneries =)

    To generate a great and exciting user experience the service needs to have an emotionally appealing and excellent look and feel. Excellent services are loved by users – having no problems using the service is not enough. You could have engineers build a Ferrari with all required qualities, but you need an artist-designer to make it a luxury coveted by everyone.

    It may be that great service design does not get noticed and awarded. But people surely love to use it, if it passes on real value to it’s users.

    Excellent services excite, empower and engage.

  8. This is, quite possibly, one of the best blog posts i’ve ever read.

  9. When a service is so good and customized it becomes an experience. Joseph Pine talks about it in his TED speech. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/joseph_pine_on_what_consumers_want.html

  10. Great issues you’ve raised in your post, Jeff! Though it’s been a while ago already, but i came across it just now and still wanted to comment.

    I work in the sphere of service design for several years and what we always aim at during the concepting phase of the projects is to come up with something completely natural and obvious for the users, so that during the user testing the most frequent feedback we hear would be “this is brilliant! how come no one thought about this earlier?” So in essence, designing the services we do want them to become an invisible part of everyones life, a habit, something you simply can’t imagine having lived without for so long! Having reached these goals we create constant revenue flow for our customers, plus such services do get recognition in form of various awards, if not all time explicit praise from each and every one customer :) Also, correct me if i’m wrong, but the general appreciation of the service can be measured by the amount of customers coming back for more, even after a long time. As for Starbucks, it seems to always have lines at the counter, no matter how good and fast the service is. What does it tell us?

    Cheers! And once again thanks for the thought-provoking post ;))

  11. Richard

    This reminds me of the Harvard Business Review paper ‘What is strategy’ by Michael Porter. It’s well worth a read – he argues that companies have historically competed on operational effectiveness – reducing manufacturing costs to compete on price. The problem with this is that operational effectiveness techniques can easily be copied. The same is true of service design – much of it can easily be copied. Porter suggests the solution is to put yourself into a uniquely valuable position in the market, deliberately choose to not compete on certain things, and make your activities fit together in a system so that they reinforce each other and are therefore hard to copy. Therefore improving service design isn’t about reaching some absolute best standard but instead is about creating a hard-to-copy position in the market.




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