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What is Service Design?


The term “Service Design” was coined by Lynn Shostack in her paper How to Design A Service in the European Journal of Marketing in 1982. Almost 40 years later, Service Design has become a distinct design discipline with its own processes, tools and definitions. However, many people (Service Designers included) have difficulty defining what it is that Service Designers do and how it differs from other business and design fields. In this article, let’s go through the basic principles and clarify some of the confusions surrounding the field of Service Design.

Table of Contents

What is Service Design

Every agency and organization has their own definition of service design, but they all share commonalities.

Let’s start with how some industry leaders define Service Design:

Service Design is the application of established design process and skills to the development of services. It is a creative and practical way to improve existing services and innovate new ones.

Livework Studio

Service Design aims to ensure service interfaces are useful, usable and desirable from the client’s point of view and effective, efficient and distinctive from the supplier’s point of view.

Birgit Mager, President of the Service Design Network

The power to anticipate things, I think, is at the center of the unique selling proposition for Service Design. So that is what I emphasize.

Tenny Pinheiro, Author of “The Service Startup”

Service design is a method for improving the quality of your service through holistic, co-creative, and user-centered approaches. There is a distinct awareness in Service Design of the experience of both service providers, users and other stakeholders within the Service Ecosystem.

Let’s dive a bit deeper. In general there is a tendency to develop services in isolation, focusing only on a single part of service delivery, with little to no user input prior to implementation. Take a coffee shop as an example: most of the time we focus on how staff provides beverages to customers (this would be one Service Touchpoint1). However, if we take a more holistic point of view we must also look at how cups, coffee beans, and syrups are delivered to the store, the most efficient way to organize them, and how the staff are trained to create standardized beverages.

The whole Service Ecosystem will includes people from logistics, marketing, store operation departments and more. The typical way of bringing services together is to communicate with one another what each department has decided and then get user feedback by assessing services after they are in place. Service Design emphasizes that we look at our seemingly disparate services as a whole entity while considering users’ perspectives.

An example of a Service Ecosystem in the travel industry

The entire service ecosystem can then be evaluated and assessed from the user’s perspective and we can make make service improvements. These improvements are targeted at both the users and employees.

Service innovation itself is not new— every organization that provides services thinks seriously about improving the quality of their services at some point. What makes innovation through Service Design different is that this innovation is done with human-centered Design Thinking approach. In this method, we start from users’ needs and create solutions together with them and other stakeholders. Many different kinds of organizations are using Service Design to accomplish this.

Service Design vs. Designing a Service

Here in Japan, service design is not mainstream. Our clients often discover the keyword Service Design (サービスデザイン, pronounced “sah-bisu de-za-in”) while looking to develop new products or services.

There are many ways to design a service. The standard is to start with an assumption about what kind of problems your target user might have, do market research to find out whether your assumptions are correct, build a prototype and run user tests to see if the product/service is a market fit.

Designing a service generally implies focusing on a single touchpoint in a user’s journey, focusing on the experience of the user only.

Service Design addresses how an organization executes a service from start to finish, including the experiences of employees and the systems they interact with.

Service Design is a bit different. Service Design addresses how an organization executes a service from start to finish, including the experiences of employees and the systems they interact with.

You might be thinking, why do we need to care about Service Design and the “experience of the employee” when creating products? The answer is that an organization’s backstage processes (how we do things internally) actually has as much impact on the overall user experience as direct interactions with users.

If the barista at a coffee shop who is responsible for the checkout counter does not successfully communicate a customers order, the barista in charge of making beverages might make the wrong beverage, leaving the customer either unsatisfied or running late. However, if the coffee shop is busy but has a systematic process for taking the orders and communicating internally, both customers and employees will have higher satisfaction throughout the whole service process. Of course, this is a simple example– but that’s why it’s all the more important to have proper Service Design in today’s extremely complex services.

Service Design vs. UX Design vs. CX

Design authorities have varying opinions on the differences and similarities between Customer Experience (CX), User Experience (UX), and Service Design (SD). Here at Neuromagic, we believe the these terminologies and their definitions will change over time. Because of this, we try and actively keep up with the design field and discuss what these words mean to us.

Before discussing the difference and similarities between CX, UX and SD, let’s get a basic grasp on their meanings:

  • Customer Experience: Customer experience, also known as CX, is your customers’ holistic perception of their experience with your business or brand. It includes all the touch points the customers have with your business. Take a restaurant as an example, the customer experience starts from the moment that your customer browses your website or reviews of your store, and it ends when the customer is totally out of your radar. It might be measured in: overall experience, likelihood to continue use or return, and likelihood to recommend to others.
  • User Experience: Services are made up of a series of interactions between users and the service system through many different touchpoints during the customer journey. UX deals with people interacting with your product and the experience they receive from that interaction. UX is measured with metrics like: success rate, rate, time to complete task, and (since it is largely digital) clicks to completion.

Service Designers and Customer Experience (CX) designers both work to improve the experiences people have when they interact with an organization. So why do we use different names for what seems to be the same work?

The Global Service Design Network’s magazine, Touchpoint, puts it well in their article “Service Design and CX: Friends or foes?“:

The differences are between more data-driven approaches to CX and more qualitative approaches to service design. These arise from differences in goals and determine how success is measured.

Service Design and CX: Friends or foes?, Service Design Network

Customer Experience is centered on how users perceive your services or products. Service Design, on the other hand, is centered not only on users’ perception, but also the behind-the-scenes activities that enable those experiences to be delivered as planned— a point that is not often discussed in CX.

Another difference is that companies tend to measure CX with quantitative data, such as customer satisfaction rate, customer churn rate, or customer support tickets, while Service Design’s human-centered approaches to problem definition, target state blueprinting, contextual data analysis and rapid prototyping, lean more qualitative. Let’s look at some job descriptions for each role to gain a deeper understanding:

SD, UX, and CX Job Descriptions
  • Service Designer at the UK Government Digital Service: Service designers design the end-to-end journey of a service. This helps a user complete their goal and government deliver a policy intent. In this role, your work may involve the creation of, or change to, transactions, products and content across both digital and offline channels provided by different parts of government.
  • UX Designer at Mercari: UX/Product Designers help us improve the UX and UI of mercari’s apps, and define how we communicate with our users using methods such as notifications and promotions. Additionally, they are responsible for a wide variety of design-related tasks that go beyond the traditional concept of UX/product design: they plan and develop strategic initiatives across the entire company, revamp listing and buying experiences for different item categories, and act as creative directors for large-scale promotions.
  • Customer Experience Lead at Spotify: This role will pioneer how we use data from our customer service channels to uncover experience gaps, and advocate relentlessly across Spotify to fill them.

In short, Service Design, UX design and Customer Experience are all interconnected. Collaborating across disciplines help accomplish goals for all three.

Adopting a Service Design mindset as a Customer Experience specialist will add more design flavor, design process and qualitative metrics into the data-driven and quantitive oriented customer experience field.

On the other hand, adopting a Service Design mindset in UX design will add a holistic and systems perspective, making the user journey experience better and more consistent.

Service Design Tools

Service Design is a mindset, but it also provides a framework and process for non-designers to incorporate into their work. There are several books and articles out there for people to take as a reference.

Here, we’ve listed up some websites that offer toolkits for everyone to start doing service design right away.

Here are a few of the most commonly discussed Service Design Tools:

Service Blueprint: Service Blueprints are used to map out the frontend and backend of your entire service journey. By visualizing the whole system of your services, it can help you identify problems and opportunities for improvement.

User/Customer Journey Map: User Journey Maps help you to visualize how users experience your services, including how they think and feel during while using the service. It helps us better understand the user and what paint points they might be encountering.

Persona: When creating/improving a service, we as service providers need to put ourselves into our users’ shoes. Personas are a tool that helps us empathize by adding a face and name to our user. They can be built based on a combination of qualitative and quantitative research.

The Future of Service Design

So, what’s next for Service Design? Birgit Mager, president of the Service Design Network, mentioned a few future trends in her recent publication “The Future of Service Design“.

  • Service design will gain more and more influence in organizations on the strategic level. Human-centered, explorative and creative approaches will play a more and more important role in projects, and also affect the cultures and structures in companies. Service Design as a thinking and working method will become a natural part of the organization. Large management consultancies will continue buying up service design agencies, while companies and public organizations will integrate service departments in their structures as a matter of course.
  • Sustainability issues will come to the forefront. Sustainability is no longer a slogan or bonus point to a company, especially after the pandemic. Cross disciplinary collaboration will be necessary in order to solve the complicated issues surrounding sustainability. Service Design allows people from different expertise to come together and speak the same language while holistically examining issues, and will be invaluable.
  • Like many other disciplines, the use of technology will become increasingly important. Service Design will establish itself firmly in virtual and remote spaces. This trend was not born out of the COVID pandemic, but it was certainly accelerated by it.
  • Not only through the recent pandemic, but certainly accelerated by it, the work of the service designer will also establish itself in virtual and remote spaces. We’ve also conducted numerous virtual workshops for the past year. Service Design as a practice will be enriched by new technology, while services and products will continue transitioning to new digital platforms.

Don’t just take it from us, check out our interview with Tenny Pinheiro, founder of Latin American branch of Livework, to see how he thinks about the future of Service Design as well.

If you’re interested in learning more about Service Design, feel free to subscribe to our newsletter and follow our Instagram!

1. Service Touchpoint: A touchpoint is any interaction between a customer and a product, brand, business or service. A touchpoint can be either physical or digital (e.g. a call to customer support or your company’s website).

Ching Ying Lin

Service Designer

Originally from Taiwan, currently based in Tokyo.
Chingying comes from a marketing background and is currently responsible for workshop design, sustainability and design seminar management, and supporting companies with sustainable transformation.
In addition to sustainable development and circular economy, she is also very interested in local creativity and public service design!