Service Design Neue

Peter Boersma isn’t buying it. Earlier this week he posted a withering critique of service design as part of his Experience Design 101 article at Design for Conversion.

Yes, Service Design is here. And it’s supposed to be new, even though every book or article you read acknowledges that the service industry (main examples: hotels, restaurants) have been designing their services for ages. So what is new: The inclusion and central placement of the digital channel in modern services that do not require face-to-face contact.

Some books will try to make you believe there is something new (like “Service Design – Designing Services with Innovative Methods” by Satu Miettinen and Mikko Koivisto) but a lot of it should sound very, very familiar for anyone who ever realized that redesigning a website and its FAQ section might have an influence on the types of questions a call centre might get.

Boersma invokes the strawman that service design’s value as a practice somehow lies in its novelty. Maybe I’m out of touch but it’s not immediately clear that anyone has been pushing that argument. I’m about 2000 miles away from my copy of Designing Services with Innovative Methods at the moment but that’s certainly not what I got from the book.

It’s true that the service industry has been designing their services for ages. Lucy Kimbell addresses this practice as “silent design” in her contribution [PDF 240k] to Design and Creativity: Policy, Management and Practice and it’s worth noting as a counterpoint to what designers bring to the table.

Live|work opened their first studio in 2001 but they didn’t create the practice out of whole cloth. They’re well aware of the history behind service design and they’ve been quick to credit authors such as Shostack and Bitner for their formative contributions to the field. People have been writing about the design of services since 1953. Before that, it simply wasn’t well-recognized that services were distinctive from products. Many designers are just now coming around to the idea that services can be designed but rather than criticize them for being late to the game we should embrace the idea that they showed up at all.

Part of Boersma’s derision comes from service design encroaching on UX turf. That much is apparent from his call center example. The difference is that rather than suspecting that a website FAQ “might” have an impact on a call center, service designers are absolutely certain. They go to great lengths to demonstrate the connections and then find ways to break down the internal silos between the website team and the call center team — and every other customer-facing aspect of the organization.

I suppose there’s nothing stopping UX designers from doing the same thing, or anyone else for that matter, but for service designers taking the holistic view is our raison d’être.


  1. Before you know a discussion like this ends up in semantics. Designers aren’t new, services aren’t new, what is new is the conscious awareness and common practice that in order to get better services you need to design them. It’s also a sign of times that services require designers.

  2. Jeff,

    Don’t worry: I think we’re in violent agreement🙂

    The Service Design part of my article was exactly a call to UX designers to remember that it takes a holistic view, tried-and-tested methods, and a good look at historic successes (like Peter Merholz’s favorite example Kodak, see: http://blogs.hbr.org/merholz/2009/04/your-customers-lead-a-multicha.html) to do good Service Design.

    What I want to tell the Service Design industry is that their current position of flavor-of-the-month may in fact be based on UX designers opening up to the Service Design world view. And that UX designers have been applying many of their methods and tools while focusing on their area of expertise, the digital channel.

    Together this means that a bright future is possible; one where Service Design is indeed applied across all customer-facing aspects of an organization, with the digital channel given chances to act as touchpoint in more areas than just banners, brochures and booking.

    I’m buying that!

  3. Jeff

    Hi Peter, thanks for your comments. I don’t know about it being the flavor of the month but it’s true that people have been talking about service design being a fad for a while now. It’s the overnight success that’s only taken 56 years.

    But I agree about UX designers coming into the fold. I came from the world of interaction design and from what I understand many other service designers followed a similar path. Industrial designers are also coming around. The influx of methods and techniques is welcome but I tend to downplay the digital component.

    Hey Marc, don’t worry, I’ll try to keep the semantics under wraps. But at least here in the US neither the conscious awareness or the common practice are actually that common yet. We still need to work on it.

  4. Just finished reading Change by Design. Nice read but not much new in there for people who are already into service design. Nevertheless Tim Brown rightly points to the fact that a lot of people have been applying design thinking for many years already. This also applies to service design. What is changing is the fact that we are creating a common vocabulary and a community where likeminded people can connect.




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