On the Importance of Process

There’s an old joke that when physicists get together they talk about physics, but when sociologists get together they talk about methods. It hits a little close to home.

Designers for instance talk a lot about how they work. In fact when we focus on it at conferences it can get a little tedious. Research, ideation, prototyping, testing — not exactly groundbreaking stuff. I suspect that process is no longer a differentiator for design firms competing at the highest level. But process is still important, as are methods and techniques. They’re an example of hygienic requirements.

I started thinking about this because of the brouhaha last week regarding the Service Design Network competition. It inspired me to consider some alternative formats.

One type of competition I regard as legitimate involves judging existing work (rather than commissioning new work). A best-of-2009 service design annual review for example. But even then there’s a distinction to be made between a juried competition and a thinly veiled advertising opportunity.

So how would you judge service design? Surely it wouldn’t be enough to submit a rendering of the servicescape as you might contemplate for an architectural competition.

It occurred to me that people evaluate service encounters based on both process and outcome, the two primary components of the SERVQUAL scale. For example, it’s not sufficient for a taxi to get you to the airport on time; it’s critical that the car and driver be both clean and presentable as well.

Might it work for a service design competition to judge entries based on both process and outcome? Not only the finished solution but how the design team arrived at that solution? Like a scientific journal. This involves more than just process and methods — though they form a framework. I think it’s about telling a story and reinforcing best practices.

To come back to an example from graphic design: the 1990s magazine Critique did an exemplary job with their short-lived design competition by focusing not only on the work but the context as well. What problem were the designers trying to solve? How did their design address the brief? I loved browsing through the pages because their presentation went beyond the surface treatment found in design annuals of the day.

Process seems even more important to service design. But is it integral, or does every service qualify as service design regardless of process? How much does the journey matter?


  1. Enric

    I think discussing process only matters in the context of helping a practice advance, in this case service design. If a competition sponsored by a network of professionals is trying solidify a certain practice by helping professionals network and promoting best practices, a prize on best process would definitely add value to the practitioners, because it will give them a model to look at and learn from.

    In addition to the ‘best process’ prize, there could be another category called ‘most impactful redesign’ where services that have seen greater improvement would be selected, regardless of the process each project team has followed to revamp them. Professionals still find value in this selected services because they could learn from concrete remarkable examples – not from the process point of view, but from the innovative ideas the final solution might present.

    Maybe a potential way to frame the design of a design competition would be to think about it as film awards, giving an overall prize for best service (best movie) and give sub prizes to the different elements of a service design project such as process, deliverables, methods, etc.. (best script, best special effects, best acting).




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