What is Service Design?

Service Design is a strange one. It’s been around as a concept since the 80’s, yet many people have never heard of it. And among the ones that have, including those practising it, there’s no commonly accepted definition. An opening quote from the the book ‘This is Service Design‘ says it all: ”If you would ask ten people what service design is, you would end up with eleven different answers — at least.”

The two best definitions I’ve seen are:

“Service Design is an emerging field focused on the creation of well thought through experiences using a combination of intangible and tangible mediums. It provides numerous benefits to the end user experience. Service design as a practice generally results in the design of systems and processes aimed at providing a holistic service to the user” - Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design

“Service Design helps to innovate (create new) or improve (existing) services to make them more useful, usable, desirable for clients and efficient as well as effective for organisations. wlt is a new holistic, multi-disciplinary, integrative field.” - Stefan Moritz

Clear as mud? The problem in all the definitions is that service design as a concept is so encompassing and holistic that it tends to become fuzzy and hard to pin down. This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s a lot of debate and blurring around whether it’s best even called service design, as a recent article in UX Magazine notes it is often equally (and possibly more accurately) referred to as “holistic design” or “multi-channel experience design”. Holistic design could work but is almost too broad as to be helpful. Experience design I would prefer, except it’s already been subverted and is often stretched to be used as a substitute for traditional information architecture, which is missing the point. So for at least the moment, Service Design is the term du jour.

So what is important about Service Design? What distinguishes it from traditional information architecture? The key points that the definitions I gravitate towards have in common are:

  • Service Design is about designing services, and the experience of using those services.
  • Service Design is user-centered, and wherever possible involves the potential end-users and stakeholders in a co-creative design process.
  • Service Design is multi-disciplinary. It’s not about a singular skill set, like say graphic design. To design successful service experiences takes a combination of business, research, strategy, design, architecture and delivery to make service design.
  • Service Design is multi-channel, multi-platform, and bridges the real and physical worlds. This is another defining characteristic — it’s not just about designing a website user interface, or a single product. It’s about designing an entire holistic experience across all touchpoints.
  • Service Design designs not just self-contained experiences but services that live within internal, partner, and customer ecosystems.
  • The goal of service design is invention, innovation or improvement of services to provide superior experiences for the customers and competitive advantages for the service providers.

Service Design as a concept was born in the 80’s, started getting popular in the mid-2000’s, and is just about ready for it’s time in the spotlight. Next post we’ll explore why it’s important and why it’s one of the next big things.


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