Is Service Design Boring?

If service designers look beyond the customer experience to also focus on the back-stage system, does that mean that service design is boring? Nico Morelli encountered this odd objection on his recent trip to Finland. To rephrase, the business professor who offered this criticism regarded a massive and challenging expansion of the scope of inquiry as potentially boring for service designers. That doesn’t make much sense to me.

The underlying point is that service designers need to be cautious about becoming overly focused on the customer experience, to the exclusion of system details. Morelli sees this as the 21st century equivalent of the designer as “decorator.” Instead, service design should be concerned with balancing the needs of both the customer and the business. Finding a symbiotic relationship between front-stage and back-stage.

This points to another aspect of service design education that needs attention. Many projects focus a great deal on the customer experience side of the equation but are a little hand-wavy about system design. Or you find programs that focus on the system but ignore the experience. We need to find a balance.

  1. VM

    Thats kind of a thing that seems to try to take over any form of design. Moving towards decoration that is. I have seen that happen with “interaction design” (that has replaced GUI design as a term but not content wise) and “user experience design” (where there is just one sort of 17 years olds active weekend saturday type of experience that is acceptable).
    Traditional industrial design training, at least here in Finland, focuses a lot to understanding material and manufacturing processes. Still, many people with ID background seem to forget importance of understanding and influencing those and jump in to decoration (and rest wanna be service designers come more from advertisement world and think mostly decoration in first place).
    There is nothing more important than finding a way to document and apply rules on which the people working can produce the service that is desired. Real design is crafting the details that lead to desired service and experience instead of making fancy PowerPoint that loosely imagines the desired service and calling design ready.

  2. Jeff,
    Thanks for picking this up and further clarifying what to me, when I read it on Nico’s blog appeared to be a complex question.

    To me it seems straightforward, as a service designer if you are seen as a decorator, or the product of your labour is evaluated on the basis of what it looks like you have failed. It has to address and fulfil a deeper level of user engagement if it is to be sustainable.

    The purpose of any ‘design feature’ whether front or backstage should only be to greater enable user task or goal fulfilment. i.e. to fulfil a functional purpose.

    I guess we’re talking here about the old invisible design argument again. But I believe that if people are bored, you haven’t done a good enough job engaging them. If people are distracted by the aesthetic then you are also distracting them from goal fulfilment and the intrinsic satisfaction that provides.

    Letting aesthetics or overly detailed system analysis get in the way, is to put designer or engineer’s need fulfilment before that of the user. So called ego-design. If you can’t convince people of the aesthetic or system requirements, I reckon you shouldn’t be implementing them or perhaps more importantly you should be refining your methods of engagement.

    As you say we need to find a balance, between designerly ambition and user requirements and capabilities.

  3. If I was to summarise in one line:

    “Only bad service design is boring service design”

  4. Jeff

    Just to be clear, this post is about whether or not the act of designing the back-stage is intrinsically boring for service designers as a group, not whether the experience of the service itself is boring for the customer.

    Someone has to design the system. If designers abdicate that responsibility, it’ll get done by engineers or managers. But Nico is arguing that we should embrace that challenge. And I’m arguing that this actually makes service design (as a practice) more interesting; not more boring.

  5. Thanks for the clarification Jeff!

    I’m suggesting perhaps like you and Nico, that it’s not service design if you don’t design the backstage and that therefore we can’t abdicate it and should embrace it.

    Furthermore, and as anyone who’s passionate about co-design or participatory design might feel, the more you can involve the ‘customer’ in the process of what’s backstage the more enjoyable and fulfilling the whole process might be for everyone.

    The more ‘customers’ are empowered to be ‘designers’ or active stakeholders the more sustainable the service is in the long run and the less chance designers have to get away with just fiddling with aesthetic details, so avoiding the ‘real’ systems stuff.

    Arguably it’s exactly because so many designers have just ‘fiddled’ in the past that engineers are often better respected and when you say that you are designer, people think ‘felt tip fairy’.

  6. My experience (from operating as a ‘service design’ consultant for 10 years and having a total of 20 years senior management experience in commercial organisations) is that there is no point in designing a service that cannot be delivered by the organisation.

    As my MBA taught me, the basics of strategy is that you must match the resources and capabilities of the organisation to the market (i.e. you have what you have, and it’s very expensive and difficult for organisations to change that.)

    Service designers must be able to engage with the internal business functions and know what each of these functions do and how they operate and influence the business model within the market place.

    Together with this, service designers should know what they do can impact on a P&L account (and know what a P&L account is!).

    In that context, a ‘capable’ service designer is not really that much different from a business consultant, with a slightly different perspective.

    Being able to see the big picture, the constituent parts, how they interact, what levers you can pull and when etc.

    Above all, those designing services should know the dynamics of delivering a service through people and how complex, difficult yet critical it is for a brand (and designers must know how brands operate too).

    For one company, when I was 31, I line managed 2000 people over 4 years to deliver and grow a service-based challenger brand to a turnover of £35m. The experience was invaluable and I challenge anyone to go into a business without some experience like this and see how they fair in a consulting role opposite a client director.

    There is no backstage and front stage, there is however brands to manage and service design plays a part in this.

  7. Hi Jeff,

    Nice kick off of the discussion, it is something really worth looking into behind all that fancy consumer studies published everywhere by SDers or their fans 🙂

    I agree with David’s comment on SDer must be able to engage with the internal biz function – although it is not exactly happening in all SD projects. But I have doubts on whether it is ‘brand’ to be managed, to me it is more of “knowledge” that are managed in SD practice with multiple stakeholders (at least in some of the cases I came across)… well, still need some time to think about this KM arguement a bit further – I don’t have 20 years of senior management experience to back me up – but thanks Jeff for provoke my thinking 🙂


  8. I agree with your Jeff, designing the back end can and should be more interesting than the front end. I know lots of people like to ideate and create, however innovation is about combining insight and ideas to create value, social, business etc.

    So to actually help bring to life an idea by successfully creating the back end, – to paraphrase Mastercard – “Priceless”

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