Service design, interaction design & design thinking

I was recently in the position of needing to articulate for a group of people what it is I mean when I use certain phrases/terms – interaction design, service design, and design thinking in particular. For reference, here they are. They’re not particularly long, or exhaustive, but may tend towards the conversational. Comments welcome.

Service Design
Service design is the intentional and thoughtful design of internal and customer-facing activities needed to deliver a service. Where experience design concerns itself only with the customer-facing aspects, service design looks also at the experience of staff – both customer-facing – “front-line” – and back office.

Service design cares equally about the experience of all people involved in the delivery of the service.

Interaction Design
The history of interaction design is firmly rooted in the design of digital control interfaces for products with increasingly complex functions. At their most complex these ‘products’ might be computers, and the control interfaces are the software and operating systems that reside therein.

However, interaction design also plays an important role in ‘simple’ controls like those used on washing machines, TVs, microwave ovens and clock radios.

As the practice of interaction design has matured, our understanding of interaction design has broadened to encompass non-digital products, where our notion of the ‘interaction’ being designed has shifted to be more akin to a dialogue or conversation, rather than the more machine-like request-response paradigm originally in use.

This definition of interaction also caused a reassessment of the purpose of interaction design activities. It became clear – it is less about getting the device or machine to do something, and more about enabling or facilitating our own behaviour. That recognition also showed us that interaction design can be used as a way of shaping behaviour, opening up areas of exploration in social networks, social entrepreneurship and community-driven innovation, sustainability and much, much more.

A modern interaction design practice may be designing digital control interfaces, Web sites, software; they may also be designing services, product-service ecosystems, or products aimed at shifting people’s behaviour, or enabling a completely new behaviour.

What is common, here, is the practice of interaction design as the means by which we humanize technology both functionally and ethically. By that I mean: interaction design can look at designing for behaviours in a way that functionally addresses the needs of people. Humanizing technology, however, can also mean answering the question: should we support this behaviour at all?

Design Thinking
If design be seen as the integration of art and science, or applied arts, it can be broken into several distinct, but closely-integrated components. One of these is craft, and the tangibility of design – as a means of both exploring and communicating a concept.

These concepts have their origins in the intellectual components of design, to do with understanding the problem space, synthesising design ideas, and evaluating those ideas.

Clearly these ideas must be brought to life in a tangible form in order to share and evaluate. Craft is necessary for this to occur. And the quality of the execution of the concept – either as a prototype or the finished object.

The label of “Design Thinking” was coined as a way of describing the intellectual components of design; separate and distinct from the craft aspects.

A “Design Thinking” project will typically focus on the early segments of the design process:

  • developing empathy for the customer;
  • develop design ideas through the process of synthesis
  • exploration and evaluation of these ideas through sketches and prototypes
  • […] and turn ideas into tangible realities that deliver business value and delight customers. Link – Trackbacks Posted in User experience (UX) | Permalink. ← Huge list of links to UX […]

  • Peter

    January 14, 2012 at 3:51 am Reply

    Thank you. This is going out to my product, executive and engineering teams. We’ve been slowly coming around to this point of view collectively, but this article helps clarify and prioritize the concepts.

    • Jhumkee

      March 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm Reply

      I really liked your Service Design definition and the definition of IXD as has evolved today. Design Thinking however did not make a similar mark. Here is my take (taking from Harvard Business Review’s definition from 2008):
      Design Thinking couples designers’ approach to problem solving using out of box thinking and deriving multiple solutions to one problem, with an empathy based human centered approach as a basis for synthesizing to the final design solution.

      • AndrewUX

        May 31, 2012 at 12:43 pm Reply

        I prefer Steve’s definition. Design thinking gets diluted into a glorified brainstorming technique when meaningless terms like “creative”, and “outside the box” start getting thrown around. Your definition also says nothing of the exploration and evaluation of ideas which is fundamental to design thinking.

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  • Erica Martin

    November 24, 2016 at 1:28 am Reply

    The article is really well detailed and researched. I would like to appreciate the writer’s efforts for bringing this to us. I like the concept of service design, interaction design, and design thinking.

    It is also unavoidable fact that while performing service design, one need to keep in mind customer experience and client experience. As it is one of the crucial processes in any business management. I have gone through some similar articles on

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