Why is Service Design so Heterogeneous?

Nick Marsh posted another nice exploration into service design over the weekend: Why is Service Design so Heterogeneous? And Does It Matter? He delves into the underlying reasons behind why it’s so hard for people to agree on a definition.

In Richard Buchanan’s 2007 keynote at Emergence he warned designers to resist attempts to define service design:

I want to ask you, throughout the conference, did you find a definition of service design? […] I didn’t find much, and I’ll tell you, I wasn’t bothered by that.

I think we’re making a big mistake if we’re anxious to define service design. I’m been troubled by efforts to define graphic design, to define industrial design, to define systems design even. I’m troubled by those efforts. I’m interested in design. A definition of design itself, that I like. But the definition of the sub-branches, to me is of less value. Precisely because of the cross-overs and the boundary ambiguities.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

The lack of agreement has been going on for quite some time. In their 2002 paper on the “service concept,” Goldstein, Johnston, Duffy and Rao addressed years of academic contention over various definitions of service design, new service development and service innovation. They reference several narrow definitions of service design from the early nineties that refer to the work of specifying an idea about a new service in drawings, flowcharts and specifications, “the concretization of service concepts…” Service innovation reflected the “idea generation” component and new service development (NSD) was conceived as the broader idea-to-launch process.

But beyond the definitions, Nick addresses the inherent variation in services that lies at the core of what service designers do. As he puts it, “the service of service design itself is a highly bespoke, high margin, capability- and experience-focused offer, that is constantly being tuned to suit the needs of the client.”

That is, the heterogeneity of service design is a symptom of the heterogeneity of services.

  1. Hi Jeff,
    Thanks for the link. I promise no more introspective stuff for a while!

  2. I find Richard Buchanan’s proscriptive manner rather arrogant (as always).

    It’s fine not to have a definition until you have to explain it to someone, especially a client. People want to know why they should pay you to do something for them and what difference it is going to make and if they haven’t got much of a background in design then you need to couch it in terms that are relevant to them.

  3. Kip

    I’m curious about Andy Polaine’s comment about Richard Buchanan’s idea about definitions and why he thinks it arrogant.

    I think Buchanan’s suspension of definitions is in the context of a discipline that is yet developing with much demand for exploration. Hence the call for a variation in a common theme rather than a categorical definition of design. Is this arrogant? Bold, perhaps.

    Defining something like service design in the context of a client is altogether different. Of course you don’t want to say something like, “design is the human power to make the artificial” when you’re making the pitch to a client or even explaining things to the ‘rents. It’s an altogether different purpose for definitions.

    But a call to “relevance” is definitely important. But you really have to consider your audience. The keynote speech at Emergence 2007 was for an audience who found Buchanan’s definition very relevant.

  4. Kip – I certainly take on board your point about the relevance of who he’s talking to. That’s true.

    I find Buchanan’s manner of delivery almost always condescending (and, thus by extension, arrogant – but maybe that’s a bit too harsh). I’ve seen him speak several times and always have the same impression.

    The reason, I think, why I have this impression is because he almost always couches his analysis in terms of what is important to him and then extends it out to be definitive in terms of what is important for the discipline(s). There’s a lot of “me” in that speech and it comes across as what he says, goes, and the rest of us are idiots.

    I believe he studied rhetoric, by the way, which comes through loud and clear to me. Maybe it’s just me, but I always find his delivery overshadows his message.

  5. Jeff

    Andy, you might be interested in the “One Line of Service Design” project that 31Volts started last year.


    They were trying to come up with a clear, concise way to describe what service designers do. Not necessarily a definition; more of an elevator pitch. But focused on exactly the problem you describe.

  6. Jeff – thanks for that. It looks like it’s an interesting approach too. I have a similar thing planned, but can’t talk about it right now!

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