Abandoning Service Design

I was going to ignore this when it was just random concern trolling on Twitter, but Peter Merholz from Adaptive Path seems to be casting some doubt about whether the term “service design” is gaining enough ground in the United States. We’re still miles behind the UK, Scandinavia and the Netherlands in developing the practice and the public sector may never embrace it here, but there’s no doubt that the term is getting more attention.

Service design is an established force in academia. There are courses at CMU, ID, RISD, ITP, SVA, ASU, Berkeley, Northwestern and an entire graduate program at SCAD but service design isn’t confined to the academic realm by any means.

The Harvard Business Review adopted the term back in 1984 when Citigroup’s Lynn Shostack wrote her widely influential article Designing Services that Deliver, following up on “How to Design a Service” two years earlier. Since then the Harvard Business Review has become perhaps the strongest source for service design literature. Their most recent example to mention service design as a term was last year’s “Four Things a Service Business Must Get Right” by Frances Frei.

Just off the top of my head, service design has made its way into business publications like Fast Company and Inc. as well as design publications like Interactions.

Since 2003 the most fervent evangelist in the US for service design and innovation has been Peer Insight in Washington D.C. With strong ties to both business and design they’ve done a phenomenal job in spreading the word through presentations, seminars and white papers. Bob Cooper from Frontier Service Design in Pennsylvania has been doing his part more recently in business circles with a seminar on service design last February in New York and a workshop at last month’s Art and Science of Service conference. The Service Innovation Design and Development conference in Chicago just last week drew the likes of McDonalds, Ebay, IBM, and Allstate.

In the US, service design is perhaps strongest in the healthcare industry. Kaiser Permanente, the Mayo Clinic and UPMC in Pittsburgh have all embraced elements of service design and innovation within their practices.

On the traditional design front IDEO and Design Continuum are both behind service design 100%. IDEO’s service design practice in Chicago is well established and Continuum’s more recent foray in Boston has involved evangelization at business conferences and in collaboration with business groups. In May they held a half-day workshop on service design in Rhode Island sponsored by the Business Innovation Factory. They even carried the flag back to Europe last year, presenting a case study at the Service Design Network conference in Amsterdam.

Adaptive Path itself has hosted design panels on service design and workshops at UX Week. Designers from the firm have lectured on the topic at conferences and they frequently blog about the practice of service design.

At some point it’s reasonable to ask whether it matters what we call service design. Merholz makes the argument that he’s actually writing about service design over at Harvard Business — he just isn’t calling it that. As a term, “customer experience” may be a better fit with Adaptive Path’s focus on “user experience” but overall he’s doing a disservice to the community, on all sides. There’s nothing magical about the term “service design,” but at this point it’s a defacto boundary object between academia, design and business. A vibrant worldwide network has identified with the term “service design” and a deep pool of knowledge is developing to support the practice. An emerging generation of service design students will become tomorrow’s service design practitioners with alumni from CMU, ID and the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea leading the charge.

Service design faces an uphill battle here in the states. There’s plenty of interest on the design side but we need more voices speaking to the business side of the equation. For better or worse Merholz is one of the few people with access to a platform for making that argument.


  1. Jeff –
    I’ve seen this awareness/terminology gap before. In 1991, there were lots of terms flying around for the convergence of media and computers: multimedia, Ultimedia (IBM’s product line brand name), interactive multimedia, interactive marketing, interactive agency, etc. Add on top of that the technology platforms: CD, CD-I, DV-I, Level II and Level III videodiscs, and the development (and obsolescence) of going from 16 to 256 to 16 million colors palettes. This required a lot of evangelizing and demonstrations of how we (and others) were benefiting from interactive, whether it was in the area of training or marketing or public access to information. At the time, there was a significant gap between what was happening in academic research (and even the U.S. military), and what was happening in business. There were a few publications (anyone remember “The Videodisc Monitor”?) published by people (like Rockley Miller) who toiled to bring the nascent industry together, because they realized there was far more work to be done than all the players could possibly ever take on. Therefore, it made sense for everyone to focus on raising awareness of “interactive” among the buying community (business) as opposed to arguing among ourselves over which technology platform was better or the merits of bevelled buttons or drop shadows, what we should actually “call” this thing.

    We are in the same situation today. When the water rises in the harbor, all boats lift with it. This is why I am trying to do my small part to raise awareness around service design. I have no doubt that we will have lots of competition in 6-7 years (similar to the web design boom of the late 1990s) but until then, let’s all keep banging the drum on the big idea (the need for service design), sharing success stories and not get caught up among ourselves in debates over semantics.

    Personally, I believe that service design has far more impact on business and the overall economy than interactive ever did (then or now.)

    In the words of Marcus Aurerlius: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

  2. Jeff

    Hi Bob,

    Love the Marcus Aurerlius quote.

    The point of this post wasn’t so much to argue over terminology. It’s to illustrate that in fact more and more attention -is- being paid to service design — in direct rebuttal to Peter’s observation.

    Thanks for the work you do evangelizing the practice.

  3. joelbaileyuk

    Great article. I think the tersm “service deisgn” helps separate it culturally from CRM and customer services. And it is quite different in approach and application.

    Also I echo what you say about doing the community a diservice. It’s okay saying it’s about user centred design, but it’s just as much about employee engagement and co-design for the benefit of the service provider. Clients have to recognise that increasingly both customers and staff operate in a service ecology. This needs integrated, holistic thinking, involving the community of players, not just a single strand.

    All good stuff though. A great debate.

  4. Being a part of three service design conferences, and helping to plan yet another, I believe there is a difference between the people who talk about experience design and those that focus on service design. Simply put, they are not talking about the same thing. Though like all areas of design, the lines can be blurry in places. I will have to give the differences more thought, but if Peter does not see much of a difference between customer experience and service design, I think he’s wrong.




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