Is “service design” holding you back?

Aaron Nichol AN
Service design

Digital technology has inserted itself into our lives and reset expectations for what makes a good experience. Digital has also made it easy to quantify the returns to good design. Meanwhile, our physical world has remained much the same, and a large gap has opened between digital and real-world experiences.

If you’ve been paying attention during this shift, you might have heard about service design – an emerging discipline that aims to bridge the digital/physical gap by designing services holistically. The shepherds of this new field are the Service Designers, and their tool of choice is the Service Blueprint.

But it’s not all roses. Service design has yet to reach maturity as a process and is struggling to define itself. I believe this is inhibiting progress. I will explain the benefits of good service experiences and how you can start improving your services quickly, but first lets explore why “service design” is holding us back.

The ‘service designer’

I’m not sure there is such thing as a ‘service designer’, at least not in the same vein as ‘graphic designers’ or ‘interior designers’. Services often involve a complex web of physical, digital, and human elements, and it’s unlikely any individual could even comprehend let alone design a complex service.

What most service designers actually do is research, facilitate workshops, and create artefacts to communicate ideas. This work is important and valuable but I’m not sure it warrants the title of Service Designer. As the field matures, I expect to see the generic ‘Service Designer’ title wane, to be replaced by more specific titles that better describe the actual work performed. Good services are shaped by a multidisciplinary team.

‘Service design’

If you accept there are no service designers, then it follows that you cannot design a predefined service experience. What you can do is design the elements for a service to be experienced through–websites, apps, retail stores, customer service scripts, or brand systems to name a few. Even after designing these elements, every person will experience a slightly different service, involving many factors beyond your control.

To aid understanding of what actually occurs in service design, I’ll propose an alternative description: Service Element Design. What this loses in brevity, it gains in clarity—the design of physical, digital and human elements that collectively lay the foundation for a service experience.

The service blueprint

You can blueprint a building or a train, but a service? I’m not convinced. Blueprints are a relic of the 19th and early 20th centuries, before photocopiers and email, when they were used to reproduce technical drawings. The term blueprint was adopted by the service design community to describe one of their main outputs, a map of both the visible and behind-the-scenes processes and artefacts that support a service.

The term blueprint causes confusion for everyone involved. Consider ‘services’ and ‘blueprints’. Services are fuzzy and hard to conceptualise, whereas blueprints are easy to visualise as precise drawings. Combining as ‘service blueprint’ is puzzling: a fuzzy concept, precisely drawn. You may argue this is overthinking things, but I disagree – the tools we use must be understood by everyone to be useful. I’m sure the service blueprint will evolve as we find new ways to conceptualise services. Until then, we should all concern ourselves less with tools and more with outcomes.

The good news

We know good experiences are good for business, and that services play an increasing role in modern societies. So it stands to reason that good services are good for business. The fundamental value of providing a good service experience is high and this represents a strategic advantage for leaders.

Small improvements make a big difference in services

We’ve established the importance of combining many service elements to create a service experience. The good news is that even small improvements to a single element can reflect positively on the overall service experience. Consider a restaurant that surprises you with free bread. This might seem like a small gesture but it can create a lasting impression. You can start looking for these opportunities immediately at all levels of your service. Some changes are harder than others but that doesn’t mean you should wait.

You can get started in 1 day

Creating better services doesn’t have to be daunting. It can start with an exploratory session where you step back from your day to day role and think deeply about the current service experience you provide and where this can be improved. These sessions can be fun and often bring out latent ideas that haven’t bubbled to the top before. This is just the start of your journey, but it will help you identify initiatives that can have a lasting impact on the services you provide to your customers.

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