What is service design and why it matters

Service design is such a vague concept that I often struggle to explain it. Even though service design is taught in some of the most prominent universities there are many misconceptions about the discipline.

I started my studies in strategic design a couple of years ago but I had no idea what I was getting into. Service design, one of the disciplines taught in these studies, has always been a vague concept for me.

I have been working with both service designers and UX designers and have taken on both roles myself. I have always found it more difficult to work with service designers.

I found the stereotypical service designer always something of a misplaced consultant. Someone who had chosen design as their destiny but then decided to move into more strategic roles.

It felt as if they are speaking another language, but they wanted to reach the same goal. They also wanted to bring a better service to the foreground.

But there is a big difference. Only now that I have moved towards UX design I can see the added value of both disciplines. There is a difference, if slightly, but also a lot of overlap.

I want to explore the topic a bit more. What is the difference between service design and UX design? And what are its similarities? UX design and service design seem similar, but there is a slight difference.

As the Service Design Network puts it:

“It [service design] uses a holistic and highly collaborative approach to generate value for both the service user and the service provider throughout the service’s lifecycle.”

I feel that the balancing of both the service user and the service provider is essential in understanding what service design is. Service designers do not only prioritize the user and their experience, but also the value creation for anyone involved.

This includes a broad context of managing relationships with stakeholders, and understanding trends on a political, market and social level, and many, many other things.

There are many factors to be balanced out here. A service designer will not prioritize the service for the user, but also include the broader aspects which may make some user experiences impossible to implement.

UX design versus service design. Photo from Nielsen Norman Group.

Nielsen Norman Group explains it somewhat similarly:

Service design refers to planning and organizing business resources (people, props, and processes) to deliver the customer experience. Think of service design as the ‘how’ — how the user experience gets created and how the internal parts of the organization align to deliver that experience.

I myself align more with this explanation. The service designer is balancing the possibilities more than a UX designer does. They are achieving the ‘how’ of design, rather than the ‘what’.

The difference in practice

I always felt that Airbnb was a great example to describe the difference between service design and UX design. Airbnb works in an ever-increasingly complex field of regulations, user experiences and competition. They also want to offer the best possible experience for anyone using their service.

Airbnb is setting up physical touchpoints to make visitors stay at home.
Airbnb is setting up physical touchpoints to make visitors stay at home. Photo from New Atlas.

The UX designer will look at all the service touchpoints. They will make sure that Airbnb offers the best possible experience, from the idea of booking a stay to leaving the apartment.

They will make sure that the user can smoothly book their stay. They will design a great application and offer a smooth ride to the apartment. Once they are there, they will find an amazing luxurious apartment in the middle of the city centre. All those things add up to an amazing user experience.

But Airbnb has to focus on the bigger picture as well. What if regulations make it impossible to book a room? Or what if the neighbours have complaints? What if the service they have designed is impossible to realize?

That is when the service designers come in. They will try to understand the context and try to assess the feasibility, desirability and viability. They will then look at the experience and try to rework it so that the essence of the customer journey remains.

In the example of Airbnb, this comes down to redesigning some of the amazing experiences UX designers put in front of the service designer. They will make sure they offer the same luxurious apartment stay, but for a fraction of the price. Or they can make sure that Airbnb will be more resilient towards local regulations in the future.

So that is maybe why I have always been able to identify myself more as a UX designer. A service designer may feel as if they are working against you, but in fact, they are bringing a certain realism to a project. Something that UX designers can sometimes use.

So now that we know the difference in how service designers collaborate with UX designers, what is service design? And why does it matter?

As this article puts it:

“Putting it simply, it’s about working across fields, managing relationships with the user, other stakeholders, and other entities such as budgets, rules and policies. I always like to imagine it as a theatre stage, where everything is put together to make the play happen: the audience, the actors, the backstage work and ultimately the organisation that supports everything else.”

I think the same article explains it the best. Service design divides any service into three layers. The front stage, the backstage and behind the scenes.

Service design is split up into three parts
Service design is split up into three parts. Photo from Nielsen Norman Group.

The front stage is what the user sees. They see the website, a letter, and maybe receive a phone call. All those things are the absolute front end of a service.

The backstage makes sure all those things come in at the right time, with the right quality. It will make sure that the service is orchestrated correctly and executed according to the designers’ wishes.

Behind the scenes goes one step further. It will make sure that all that is even possible, now and in the future. It will make a service durable and possible within a complex network of stakeholders.

To even be able to work in such a complex network of stakeholders it is impossible to understand everything. And even if it would be possible, the people involved in that network are most likely more familiar with their environment than the service designer is.

So to work with this network and to balance out the different needs the service designer will have to work as a mediator. It will have to facilitate the stakeholders to make their own decisions and design their own networks and collaborations.

In this context, the service designer can be seen as a facilitator. They will use the design thinking process and talk with stakeholders, both internally and externally. They will use those creative sessions to translate into insights which can be used to improve the service.

But this role comes with negatives. For service designers to be able to work they should be allowed to. But it is often difficult for companies to allow someone in their offices and tell them how they should behave. That is why building long-term relationships and trust with clients is essential for a good collaborative effort from service designers.

So maybe now I can finally see why I should allow service designers to be a part of my work, even though I have taken on the role myself. I have always felt a certain aversion to service design but seeing the intention behind the collaboration makes it easier to let service designers into my process.

Categorized as UX

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