Chances are you loaded this page because you’ve heard of service design but aren’t clear what it is. Don’t worry, you’re in good company—finding your way around the many disciplines and specializations in today’s design world is a job in itself. And to make things more difficult, job descriptions and industry trends are shifting on a monthly basis.
In this piece, we’ll explain the place of service design in relation to other design disciplines, including UX, UI, and product design. We’ll then look in a little more detail at what it means to take a service design approach to a problem, and we’ll identify the kinds of problem that service design is optimally placed to tackle.
Finally, we’ll identify some of the opportunities we see for service designers in a global world facing increasingly complex, interconnected challenges.
1. The difference between service design and UX design
One of the reasons that the term user experience (UX) design can be confusing is that, in essence, all design disciplines should be directed towards the experience of the person they’re designing for. Whether it’s a metal bolt, a printed concert program, or a computer, every designed object has an end user to consider and a user experience to shape.
The term UX design was coined by Don Norman in the context of his interest in the design of everyday things. Discussing his time working for Apple, he explains how his team aimed to shape the user experience of not just the software or interface, but also everything that framed that experience:
“I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”
However, in terms of today’s industry, UX design very often refers to the design of digital products like websites and apps. Given Don Norman’s initial ambitions for the term, we might view this fact with some regret—but it’s nevertheless worth bearing in mind when analyzing the job market.
Putting this to one side, the most fundamental difference between UX design and service design is, therefore, the nature of the design problem that they are trying to solve. UX designers typically solve problems that are confined to an individual product, or to individual “touchpoints” within a service.
Even the Don Norman quote above hints at the way UX designers tend to treat these touchpoints as separate, discrete design problems. This “one-by-one” approach is evidence of what service designers sometimes regard as design “silos”.
Generally, the role of UX designers in a project isn’t to step back and design an entire service. On the occasions that they do apply their skills to service-level problems, they are entering the realms of service design.
The UX design process
To illustrate the distinction between UX design and service design a little more richly, let’s consider the case of an airline.
Here’s one example of the work the airline might hire a UX designer for in today’s market: to develop an app that helps people make and manage their bookings. In this context, a UX designer’s research is likely to begin by investigating questions like these:
- Who is likely to use this app?
- What are those customers’ needs and goals?
- What problems have they experienced?
- What are their fears and worries?
On the basis of that research, a UX designer is likely to move on to identifying the most important tasks a user would want to complete through the app.
For each of those tasks, the designer might map out different options for the steps that will take the user to their goal, and repeat that process for all of the tasks the app will facilitate.
The final product that a UX designer delivers might be a completed set of screens that can be handed off to a developer and turned into a functioning app.
The service design process
If we zoom out, we can see that an airline does more than create and manage bookings. In fact, an airline is a service made up of many different “touchpoints”; its mobile app is just one of them.
Other touchpoints include the company’s ads, its website, the check-in desk, the refreshments trolley—you get the idea. In total, a complex service like an airline might have dozens or even hundreds of different touchpoints.
It’s here that the service designer comes in. An airline is likely to consult a service designer if their focus is at the system level, rather than on individual touchpoints.
While service designers are interested in users’ experience of individual touchpoints, they are also interested in how those touchpoints are connected, how people move around a service, and what the experience of that journey is.
The work that service designers undertake—which we’ll look at in more detail in a moment—is geared towards shaping how touchpoints work together, from both the perspective of the end user, and those responsible for running the service.
Service designers are likely to be consulted in response to a problem that is global in scope, or if the required solution is anticipated to require changes across multiple parts of a service.
For example, if the airline gets consistently poor reviews from customers but can’t clearly identify problems with any particular touchpoint, the company might want to take a look at big picture of how its service is functinoning.
2. What do service designers actually do?
As we noted earlier, one reason that there is a blurred line between UX design and service design is that there is significant overlap in the purpose of their work: designing the best experience for a user.
There is also overlap in the methods they use to conduct their research: interviewing people, observing users, identifying their needs, designing and prototyping touchpoints.
However, there are other tools that are more exclusive to service design. These approaches reflect the fact that service design is interested not only in touchpoint-level UX, but also in the “big picture” of how the system functions holistically to deliver a service.
Here are a few examples of service design methods where that distinctive big-picture approach is clear.
Service ecology map
A service ecology map is a diagram that displays the relationships between all the actors and stakeholders in a service. They may also depict the transactions facilitated by those relationships—for example, the value delivered to a customer or the money paid to a business.
The diagram above was put together on behalf of a car manufacturer to understand how the different aspects of their service connect to the needs and motivations of different service stakeholders.
A service blueprint is typically presented as a table like the one above. Each column represents one step in the customer journey, and each row represents a different aspect of the service’s operation. A fully populated service blueprint includes both the customer-facing touchpoints, and all the service’s “backstage” elements.
The authors of Service Design: From Insight To Inspiration offer this explanation of service design blueprinting:
The entire purpose of service design blueprinting is to ensure that all the different elements across all touchpoints are not designed in isolation. The blueprint leads to the design specifications for each touchpoint and acts as a way to orchestrate them all.
User journey map
In UX design, a user journey map typically illustrates the context in which a single touchpoint will be used. But in service design, a user journey map shows a user’s end-to-end journey through a service. This might cover a very extended period of time—often years or even decades in the case of services like insurance.
While it is possible to trace a user journey through a service blueprint, user journey mapping is a distinct method, as explored in this excellent piece by Megan Erin Miller. Particularly important is the inclusion of extra detail about what a user is thinking, feeling, and experiencing at each stage of their journey.
3. Is service design user-centered?
Service design is a user-centered approach, but it defines users in quite a different way from UX design and other disciplines. In UX design, when we talk about “users”, we are almost always talking about customers, or at least an end-user who is “outside” the service.
Crucially, service designers gather the experiences and needs of not only the customer, but also users “inside” the service. They also work with stakeholders on both the customer side and service side to co-create possible solutions and service improvements.
This is because staff also interact with touchpoints of their own when providing services. And the quality of their experience using those touchpoints—as well as the ease of their own journey around the service’s “backstage”—are likely to have a strong bearing on the eventual quality of the customer experience.
Service design’s interest in shaping the experience of people on the service side is even identified as the primary purpose of service design in Nielsen Norman Group’s definition:
Service design is the activity of planning and organizing a business’s resources (people, props, and processes) in order to (1) directly improve the employee’s experience, and (2) indirectly, the customer’s experience.
In addition to designing for users on both the customer side and the service side, service design examines the organization of the system itself, looking for opportunities to redesign relationships or reroute user journeys where beneficial.
4. Designing the experience of the arrows
Where service design really comes into its own as a discipline is with large and complex systems—services that operate at a national or even supranational level, and have a vast range of stakeholders.
A healthcare system is an example of just such a complex service. Healthcare systems tend to be very complicated, containing many subsidiary services “within” the overall system. Healthcare systems also tend to present us with examples of the kind of design “silos” that a service design approach attempts to bust open.
Individually, particular touchpoints in a patient’s journey around a healthcare service might be very well designed, and they might have a very positive experience at each service touchpoint. But a patient might rate their overall experience negatively: it is not uncommon for people to praise the work of all the individual healthcare staff they come into contact with, while expressing dissatisfaction with their overall healthcare experience.
For example, a patient might have an excellent experience at an outpatient clinic. They have a short wait in comfortable surroundings, and are seen by a friendly and competent doctor, who refers them to another part of the system for tests. But when they leave the clinic, their experience begins to falter.
It is often at this boundary between touchpoints—or between subsidiary services within the larger healthcare system—that the experience goes wrong.
At this point the outpatient clinic’s job is finished, having referred the patient to another part of the system. But the patient’s current feelings tell a very different story, since for them the job is far from finished.
They are likely to be asking themselves questions like these as they leave the clinic:
- I wonder when I will get my tests.
- Come to think of it, do I need to contact them, or will they contact me?
- Maybe I need tests because the doctor thinks there’s something wrong.
- What could be wrong with me?
In this situation, from the system’s perspective, everything is working: the patient has been seen by one part of the system, and they are on their way to the next stage in the process.
But from the user’s perspective, they have been left “between” touchpoints at a moment of worry and insecurity, and it’s both unclear what will happen next, and unclear who they should address their questions to.
In Service Design: From Insight to Inspiration, the authors make this astute observation:
most people forget to think about designing the experience of the arrows, which are transitions from one touchpoint to the next. Yet these connections contain some of the most important elements of positive experiences because they signify movement in time and space.
If you’re in search of a quick way of remembering what service design is about, you could do worse than thinking of service design as the process of designing the experience of the arrows.
We might therefore think of service design as both user-centered and system-centered. Service design connects the service proposition with the needs of customers and service-side users, and it also plans how to ease the customer’s journey between the touchpoints in a system.
5. From product design to service design
What is the difference between a product and a service? Mat Hunter, Chief Design Officer at the UK’s Design Council, states that “a service is something that I use but do not own”.
A product is a thing which the customer purchases as a one-off, and then takes ownership of. A service is characterised by an ongoing relationship with a service provider, who offers access to a service that delivers some form of value.
It is common for service providers—whether public services or commercial ones—to understand themselves as offering products.
This likely means that the people running those services are focused on the more product-like aspects of their operation, and are less likely to be in the habit of taking a step back to assess the big picture of the service they are offering.
Indeed, it’s organizations in this position that might benefit most from the advice of a service designer.
Here’s an example of the difference between the two. Buying a DVD of a film is a product transaction (a physical item that the customer then owns); whereas subscribing to Netflix is a service transaction (the customer is granted access to a streaming service).
Here’s another example from the world of digital design. In recent years, Adobe has shifted from a product model to a service model in offering their software to the market. Users no longer buy a particular version of Creative Suite for a one-off price; instead, they subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud for ongoing access to the latest version of the software.
This kind of shift is often beneficial for all parties. In Adobe’s case, the benefits look something like this:
For the consumer:
They do not have to pay the initial outlay of hundreds or thousands of dollars for professional design software
For as long as they subscribe, they have access to the latest version of the software
They are not exposed to the risk of looking after a highly valuable and highly breakable physical product (i.e. a DVD of the software)
They benefit from greater software security and compatibility with clients and colleagues, since people are more likely to be running the latest version of software
For the company:
A steadier, more predictable income stream based on monthly subscription rather than discrete product releases
Devaluation of pirated software
Opportunities to deliver more value within the service model compared with the product model (e.g. offering cloud storage and other add-on services)
Reduced resource impact through lower rates of manufacture and distribution of physical products (boxed DVDs)
In addition to these immediate gains, service design thinking creates an opportunity for service providers like Adobe to build excellent customer experiences, because they have greater control over how customers experience their software.
Conclusion: Why you should embrace service design
The scope of service design is initially hard to grasp, because it has much in common with other user-centered design disciplines—in particular UX design.
Where service design differs from UX design is in its ability to define design problems at the level of the entire service or system, and to capture the perspectives of everyone with a stake in that service, whether they’re customers or service staff.
Shaping an overall service experience means paying attention to how the service serves the needs of all of the actors within the system.
One of the most exciting things about service design is that the we are clearly moving towards a more service-oriented world. Increased access to high-speed internet has made it feasible for digital services to replace physical products (remember Netflix vs. DVDs).
But beyond the digital realm, in the coming decades, societies worldwide will face huge challenges when it comes to recalibrating public services for an era of unprecedented demand, customer expectations, and environmental finitude.
On the flip-side of these challenges are huge opportunities for service designers not just to shape digital experiences, but to help build a global social and economic infrastructure fit for the future.
6 takeaways about service design
Service designers aim to:
Understand thoroughly the service proposition of the organisation or company in question
Discern the needs of all the stakeholders and actors in a service—both customers and service providers
Map out the service through a service ecology, service blueprint, and user journeys
Co-create possible solutions or improvements by collaborating with service stakeholders
Prototype and pilot new service experiences with real customers and staff
Zoom in and out constantly between the details of individual touchpoints and the design of the overall service
This Wikipedia article on service design covers some of the early history of the term
Nielsen Norman Group have a great “Service Design 101”
Service Design Tools has heaps of resources to support service design activities
Check out the UK Design Council’s video, “What is Service Design?”
Megan Erin Miller explains the difference between a service blueprint and a journey map
Here’s a detailed explanation of service blueprints from Nielsen Norman Group
Service Design: From Insight to Implementation is a brilliant book-length overview