What Is Service Design: The Final Answer

Confused by all the definitions and still struggle to explain what service design is to the people around you? Let's settle this once and for all.

After reading this article, you'll be able to explain service design with more ease, and you'll understand why there are so many different definitions out there, which of these definitions are useful on a day-to-day basis and which ones you can safely ignore.

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The Service Design Elevator Pitch

Let's not waste any time and get right to it: What is service design?

Many people have tried to answer this question, and even more have failed to do so. It's about time to settle this once and for all.

I'll give you the elevator pitch I've been using since 2008, and then we'll address the elephant in the room and see why there are so many "definitions" of service design out there.

So here's my explanation of service design:

“Imagine you have two coffee shops right next to each other selling the exact same coffee at the exact same price. Service design is what makes you walk into the one and not the other, come back often and tell your friends about it.”

Apparently this definition caught on and over the years made it into different books, websites, and someone even created a great video based on it.

One of the reasons this definition became popular is because it describes service design by explaining what it does rather than what it is. It describes the benefits rather than the features.

Read that previous sentence once again. It's a subtle but crucial difference.

But as you probably know, this isn't the one and only definition of service design. At some point, it seemed that defining service design became a second hobby for a lot of practitioners.

The 3 Most Useful Explanations of Service Design

Over the years, I invited some of the most experienced professionals to give their definition of service design. (See all the definitions in this playlist.)

When you hear their definitions, it quickly becomes clear that there are different schools of thought when it comes to explaining what service design is.

But what also becomes clear is that you can quite easily find patterns and break down all these different explanations into just a handful of lenses on service design.

A lens is just a perspective or angle you take when explaining service design.

Here's the annoying thing: None of these lenses are right or wrong. As you'll see, they all have value.

What's important is that you understand which lens you should use in which situation.

I went ahead and did the work for you of going over all the explanations, and below are the 3 most useful lenses that emerged.

1. The Object-of-Design Approach

This explanation focuses on the "thing" you're shaping through the design process. In the case of service design, that's a service.

Here's a typical reply you'd get when you ask someone taking this lens what service design is: "Service design is the design of services."

As you can imagine, this explanation is rarely satisfying, and here's why:

"It's about designing services. That means that you need to have a profound knowledge of design and a profound understanding of services."  -- Søren Bechmann

And here's how Gerry Scullion put it:

"It's a thing of beauty. It's the design of services, and it requires a deep understanding of the system that is at play."

If you choose to unpack the word “service” a bit, you might end up with one of these explanations:

"Service design is the design of interactions between people in the context of complex systems over time." -- Chelsea Mauldin
"Service design is... the design of services. It's about helping someone to do something and do it better." -- Sarah Drummond
"The design of the best possible experience for a person in any given situation."  -- Doug Powell

I'd encourage you to think for a moment about when you would choose to explain service design from this perspective. Who are you talking to? What is it that they want to know?

2. The Value-Drive Approach

This explanation of service design focuses on the value generated through service design. Said even more simply: It focuses on what service design does.

My elevator pitch is an example of this approach:

“Imagine you have two coffee shops right next to each other selling the exact same coffee at the exact same price. Service design is what makes you walk into the one and not the other, come back often and tell your friends about it.” -- Marc Fonteijn

There is an endless number of variations to this explanation. The reason is this: What is seen as valuable is different for everyone. Just take a look at the examples below.

"Service design is a way to fix (public) services that make our lives more difficult than necessary, that stigmatize people and create headaches." -- Sabine Junginger
"It's about going to the core of what people do, need and expect and providing them with solutions that are relevant." -- Selene Castilla
"Service design is about creating meaningful interaction brands, organizations, governments and people." -- Chirryl-Lee Ryan
"Service design is when the customer and the company feel good about the value they received and provided. And the way they have delivered the value." -- Slavo Tuleya

So when would this approach be an effective explanation of service design? Think of the situations and people you'd be talking to who would want to hear this version.

3. The Process-Oriented Approach

I think that this approach is probably the most common one you'll hear, which by the way, doesn't say that it's the best approach. The main focus in this approach is to explain how service design works.

It's actually quite hard to find an elegant example of this one, but Christian Bason did a pretty nice job.

“Service design is the creative process of gathering insights about people's experiences and behaviors, generating new ideas, testing these ideas to come up with those solutions to create new value for people and organizations.” -- Christian Bason

Also, the description by Jacquelyn Brioux covers the fundamentals well in an understandable couple of sentences:

"Service design is a holistic, participatory, and cross-functional approach to improving end-to-end human experiences as delivered through digital, physical, virtual or human touchpoints. It's the art of balancing business viability, tech and operation feasibly, user desirability and employee desirability." -- Jacquelyn Brioux

Words that signal you've come across this type of explanation are process, approach, discipline, craft, etc.

Some of these explanations talk about concrete things like research and prototyping, while others are more poetic, like these, for instance:

"Service Design is a discipline that understands the story a user goes through. Your job is to design the story with your heart and keep the end user in mind all the time." -- Angelica Flechas
"It's a design discipline that looks at the full breadth of interactions between an organization and person. It focuses on the changes that happen over time as that person interacts with the various touchpoints of that organization." -- Jorge Arango

When was the last time someone explained a process to you? Maybe when you needed to prepare that special pasta sauce, or reset your Wi-Fi router?

Knowing this, in which situations would explaining the service design process to someone be the best approach? What are the characteristics of their questions?

Why so many definitions?

Now that you've made it this far, it's time to address the elephant in the room: Why are there so many different definitions? The answer to this question is actually quite simple.

These different definitions, explanations and descriptions of service design exist because of the different needs of the person who's listening.

Let's look at an example outside service design, which will clear everything up. Imagine someone asks you to explain what salt is. Straightforward and simple question, right?

You might answer that it's an essential ingredient in any kitchen. A totally valid explanation.

But what if the person you're talking to turns out to be a chemist? Then, the answer you just gave might have zero value for her. In this situation, you might need to describe salt as a compound of sodium and chloride.

So, the reason that there's no single definition of service design is exactly the same reason there is no single definition of salt.

Different people want to understand different things about the concept. Which definition you give depends entirely on who's listening and the goal that you're trying to achieve.

Some want to understand the business outcomes that service design creates, while others want to understand how it differs from design thinking.

If it's really that simple (and it is), what is causing all this confusion among community members?

I think the problem is that we get insecure when people, especially clients, say they don't get it when we try to explain what we do.

Of course, nobody wants to get those awkward looks and nasty feelings in their stomach while explaining the thing they’re so passionate about.

We start doubting our explanation and fall into the trap of trying to come up with the ultimate definition that everyone gets in an instant rather than accepting the many definitions that can and actually need to coexist.

So what is the best definition of service design?

I hope that by now you see where this is going.

Really, the best way to define service design is...by asking questions. Questions that help you understand what the person you're talking to needs to hear so you can tailor your explanation to that.

Once you do that, explaining service design becomes a breeze, and you can stop your search for the perfect definition. Embrace the ambiguity and complexity. Even celebrate it.

Recognizing the situation and reaching for the appropriate definition is something you learn over time through experience.

If you want to skip a few years of trial and error, consider joining my course on how to explain service design.

In this course I share my personal stories that taught me important lessons on what it takes to get people excited about service design. I've made the mistakes, so you don't have to. 😉

Take a look at the course, and let's continue our conversation there!

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