What service design IS, and what it IS NOT

I had the fortune of attending a service design gathering this month, surrounded by senior service design leadership and practitioners. The focus of the discussion was on what service design IS, and what it IS NOT.

While many may balk at the ongoing “definition of service design” debate, it’s clear that it is a useful one in order to make sure we are all talking about the same thing. Below are the conflations and correlations put forth throughout the discussion, each deserving clarification.

Picture from H. Michael Karshis

“Service” from H. Michael Karshis

Service design and design

Assertion:  Service designers think they design everything and own everything, end-to-end.

Let’s clear some things up.

Service design is specifically talking about the process and act of designing services.

Design is broadly talking about the process and act of design, without indicating the focus or “object” (tangible or intangible) of design.

Service design is not the design of everything. Design is the design of everything. Service design is a specialisation, just as graphic design, industrial design, and interaction design are specialisations. Each of these specialisations work with a particular form. If I’m designing a service, I am either designing the end-to-end view of the service, or designing a service moment. Within that service, there are environments, systems, people, and tools. I may not have the expertise to design the specific system, nor the expertise to design the environment in which the service sits, but I need to know the intent, what these things need to achieve in support of the service. My work as a service designer can serve as a brief for other specialists, or better yet, we are working together, the designers with specialisation, to make a cohesive whole together.

If I was a furniture designer, I would need to have some fundamental knowledge around purpose, characteristics of furniture, the potential material of furniture and the different ways in which furniture can be built. I may not manufacture the furniture in the end, but I need to understand the fundamentals of manufacturing to design something that can be manufactured (or I work with manufacturers to see the best way to build it). I can push the envelope with this, I can question the foundational elements of furniture design and try to shift it. It is only in understanding the fundamentals, those foundations, that I can successfully shift away from them.

This is where we are getting to with services. Services have fundamental aspects to them that we can become expert in, even if we are not the ultimate ‘builders’ of the service. I’m exploring service frameworks that can help us better understand the characteristics of services, the ultimate form of our work.

Service design and design thinking and human-centred design

Assertion:  Service design and design thinking and human-centred design are basically the same thing.

No, no, no. They are not.

Service design is specifically talking about the design of services.

Design thinking is about the act of applying design process, tools and methodology to problem solving, without indicating the focus or “object” (tangible or intangible) of design. You could be using design thinking for the design of a service, but you might also be using design thinking to design an organisational strategy. Or come up with ideas for how to launch your marketing campaign. Or how to come up with your customer value proposition. Or how to address student truancy. Or “name that org challenge”. The point is, design thinking is meant to be a toolkit for problem solving. There is nothing about design thinking that suggests it is tied to any one problem space. In fact, it is explicitly non-committal to the problem space. This is what makes it so entirely appealing to the business world looking for better ways of working, no matter what industry they work in.

Human-centred design is putting the people for whom we are designing at the heart of the design process. They need to be engaged through the process, from insight gathering through to exploration and evaluation of designed possibilities, as they are the ultimate recipients of the designed outcome. Human-centred design is equally non-committal to the problem space and the object of design. A furniture designer should be human-centred, understanding the context and needs of the people who will be using the furniture. A graphic designer should be human-centred, in understanding the context and the needs of people who will be engaging the materials designed. A service designer should be human-centred in understanding the context and the needs of people who will be engaging with the service. Design thinking should always be applying a human-centred methodology to problem solving.

Service design and customer experience design

Assertion:  Service design and customer experience design are the same thing.

There’s some overlap, but it’s not a clear overlap.

Every organisation is a service organisation. If you are a business, you are providing a service to someone or to another organisation.

Every organisation therefore has a customer. That customer has an experience that can and should be designed. Often with customer experience design, we talk about the customer’s journey, and how that intersects with the business. Sometimes this is a cradle-to-grave view, of how a customer might engage with a business over time. This might intersect with one service; it may intersect with many services. What would make that particular piece service design is if you are also designing the organisational experience in delivering that service or services. The yin with the yang. The front stage and the back stage.

Service design is specifically talking about the design of services, which inherently is looking at the customer’s experience with a service as well as the organisational experience in delivering it. Customer experience may break free from the specificity of a service and look across time, across services, or within very specific moments.

Service design and successful implementation

Assertion:  Service design agencies come in and make great strategies that go in drawers because they don’t understand how things work within a business.

If it’s going in a drawer, we haven’t succeeded. This is not an agency issue. This is an engagement issue. I could just as well be in-house and asserting service strategies that go no where. The key to this is beginning of the design process. If we aren’t designing something for an organisation’s realities, then we’re not doing our job. If we’ve crafted an amazing customer experience that could never, ever come to life with the organisation as it sits today, nor is there ambition to transform, then we have failed.

That said, we have an amazing opportunity to help an organisation see that it could change, see what it would need to become, and support them through a process of determining how far they are willing to go to be the kind of business that delivers THAT kind of service experience.

Service design as strategy versus service design as tactical

“Service design takes on too much, thinks it can handle too much”
“Service design gets caught up in the clouds, at a scale where things can’t come to life”
“Service design shouldn’t play a strategic role, it should play a tactical, tangible role”

Why can’t service design be both strategic and tactical? Isn’t helping an organisation imagine a future where their service is transformed a critical and worthy task? Why shouldn’t design be at the table for that? Isn’t helping an organisation transform and bring something to life also a worthy task? You can decide to make something tangible and testable early, regardless if you are at a strategic point or a tactical point. If you have a personal preference for working on something where you are part of the team building it and implementing it, excellent! We need great designers doing just that. It doesn’t make the strategic work any less value nor important. The pressure is on us to create something that an organisation can bring to life ultimately. I’ll take on that challenge happily.


I really enjoyed the company and the conversation. I found it helped me in clarifying my own thinking and articulation. What do you think? Where do you see conflations and confusions, and how do you clarify them for yourself? I look forward to exploring and sharing more thinking around service frameworks as one way for us to become more expert about the services we design.