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The unstoppable rise of service design

Is service design the same thing as UX? Well, yes and no. 

“Where a lot of other design practices are about your own opinion, service design is really not about personal taste at all,” says Lou Downe, the UK government’s former Director of Design. “Something either works or it doesn’t.” 

We might not think about it much, but ‘service design’ (the latest red-hot design methodology to hit the operational zeitgeist) is all around us. Every time we order food, get a ride-share home, buy something online or listen to music, we’re engaging with a service. And that service has probably been carefully scripted to a) support a frictionless customer experience, and b) optimise the company’s own processes. At least if it’s working properly.

Welcome to the world of service design.  

What is service design?  

Think of service design as the umbrella that overshadows UX design, UI design and CX design. “UX focuses on improving the interactions users have with products and systems. Service design looks at both improving experiences, and how a business can deliver on those in a feasible and viable way,” says Kasia Mierzejewska, Service Design Lead at MAKE Studios. “You can look at UX as interactions, and service design as a system within which those interactions occur.”  


Why service design matters 

When service design is working correctly, customer interactions and company operations should aligned behind the same goals. Everybody should come out ahead. And you only need to look at services that were designed poorly (or not at all) to see why service design is so important. Take identity fraud: in America, victims of fraud have to prove their identity has been stolen or be held liable for any resulting damage, and yet service providers (usually banks) don’t suffer any penalties for failing to identify false users. That’s a service that doesn’t help anybody: customers feel victimised and banks lose money. In the UK, 80 per cent of government costs come from services, and 60 per cent of the cost of those services comes from service failure: call centres and improper paperwork and duplicated resources and bureaucratic red tape. Poor service design can cost millions and millions of dollars.  

“It’s becoming really, really important to ensure you have an optimised and optimum organisational foundation in place. From top to bottom,” says Daniel Scow, Senior Design & Innovation Lead at Industrie&Co. “It’s a massive risk and expense to companies if they don’t.” 


Why service design? Why now?  

Service design is really the frothy tip of a much larger wave. Terms like ‘Design Thinking’, ‘Inclusive Design’ and ‘User-Centred Design’ have been floating around organisations for the last ten years, but service design has united them into something called ‘Human Centred Design’ (when you boil these philosophies down to their component atoms, the gist is kind of the same – Human Centred Design is simply the latest methodological hybrid). “I still think IDEO captures what Human Centred Design best,” says Scow, “They define it as ‘A creative approach to problem-solving that starts with people and ends with innovative solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.’”  


Expectations on the rise 

The key terms in this definition are “creative”, “people” and “solutions”. One reason service design is such a booming field is the growing tension between customer expectations and company growth. All companies, whether they like it or not, are in the service business now. Customers expect outstanding customer service, simple and intuitive products, fast delivery and constant iteration – and those expectations can all crimp company growth if not handled correctly. Companies are starting to realise: it’s much more profitable to design services from the ground up, rather than let them evolve on their own.  

“Customers have always had high expectations – why not, hey?” says Scow. “But increasingly you see and hear them expecting even more from a company. This now goes well beyond just offering them a product or two. Expectations have been reset, and in a major way.” 


The future of service design 

Until some new design philosophy comes along to displace it (which, let’s be frank, could happen any second) service design is here to stay. Universities like RMIT Online are beginning to offer service design courses to keep up with employer demand. As companies scale and evolve their service offering, they’re going to need skilled service designers to lay the blueprint for sustainable growth.  

Mierzejewska says what draws her to service design is the collaborative spirit. It’s not a discipline that exists in a vacuum, quietly working away on arcane digital solutions. Service design requires company-wide engagement to be successful. “I love how this discipline can bring together different experts in an organization to collectively discuss how their business can better meet human needs,” Mierzejewska says. “While this is a difficult process to facilitate, and requires everyone in the room to empathise with their customers, when it happens it can be the most rewarding part of the job.” 

Scow agrees. “You really get to see what happens behind the scenes and you’re constantly amazed how things are setup and function. You basically get an opportunity to ‘X-Ray’, diagnose, experiment and fix companies. More often than not, your impact as a designer is exponentially scaled.” 


Want to learn more about service design? Check out RMIT Online’s new Graduate Certificate in Service Design.

This article was originally published on 8 April 2020