This Is Service Design Thinking: Deconstructing a Textbook

By Laura Keller

Published: September 19, 2011

This Is Service Design Thinking… is likely to become the quintessential service design textbook for students, educators, and professionals alike.”

If you’re like me, you have a mini-library of those user experience books that are most meaningful to you. No, not the ones hidden away on your eReader, reminding you of their presence only when you see their titles on the screen. Rather, I’m referring to those tangible books, sitting on your office bookshelf or on a side table at home. Perhaps some remind you of the time when you first entered the field of user experience, wanting to absorb everything about the topic. Or maybe everyone raves about a book as being seminal to the user experience discipline, but you keep the fact that you’ve never read it a secret. Regardless of why you have them, where they live, or how much you recall of their content, these books are important to who you are as a UX professional.

I’ve recently finished reading what is now the latest addition to my own professional mini-library: This Is Service Design Thinking, by Marc Stickdorn, Jakob Schneider, and numerous collaborators and co-authors. This book is likely to become the quintessential service design textbook for students, educators, and professionals alike. In this column, I’ll share highlights from the book, along with some of my own interpretations, and tell you why you should add this book to your own personal collection.

Defining Service Design: Establishing a 5-Principle Framework

“Service design truly is an amalgamation of disciplines, including product design, graphic design, operations management, and, of course, interaction design.”

The authors of This Is Service Design Thinking refreshingly call attention to the fact that no concrete definition of service design exists. Instead of attempting to summarize service design in a neat, mission-statement-like paragraph, Stickdorn and Schneider show how service design truly is an amalgamation of disciplines, including product design, graphic design, operations management, and, of course, interaction design. Service design does not pretend to be the new kid on the block—different from everything that’s come before. On the contrary, service design relies on various existing methods, tools, deliverables, and processes, as well as the expertise of many in these interdisciplinary fields to do it right.

What the authors do provide is a list of the basic principles of service design—as a framework for working in service design. This is where synergies and opportunities for the user experience and interaction design disciplines become apparent.

Services should be user centered. They should be “experienced through the customer’s eyes.” Unquestionably, this first principle is where UX professionals can influence the field of service design the most. Considering the customer is fundamental to any work we do. However, I see placing the emphasis on being simply user centered rather than people centered as a missed opportunity. As the authors’ second principle explains, service design is co-creative—that is, “all stakeholders should be included in the service design process.” It’s critical to consider all constituents who are part of a service—including managers, back-office employees, front-office employees, designers, and programmers—and design interactions through their interactive and participatory engagement in the process. Therefore, implying that the customer is at the center of the experience may put unequal weight on their needs during design, when we should consider everyone’s needs equally.

“Services should be user centered. … This first principle is where UX professionals can influence the field of service design the most. Considering the customer is fundamental to any work we do.”

Sequencing is the visualization of a service “as a sequence of interrelated actions” and documenting the individual process steps and touchpoints that comprise a service experience. Evidencing is the visualization of “intangible services … in terms of physical artifacts.” Evidencing makes visible to customers the elements of a service that help them to proceed optimally through the service experience, appreciate the intricacies of the service and exhibit loyalty. The authors use the example of the folded toilet paper in hotel rooms as an example of subtle, but effective evidencing of a hotel’s housekeeping service.

Experience design professionals often integrate sequencing and evidencing into their work. For example, creating user scenarios and flow diagrams for the experience of interacting with a mobile application is a form of sequencing. Making behind-the-scenes processes visible—like the wait time for loading a video—is an example of evidencing. However, as much as experience design aspires to be all inclusive, it often focuses solely on the digital world, so its opportunity for impact becomes stifled.

This is where the fifth principle of service design becomes most relevant: service design is holistic and “the entire environment of a service should be considered.” As the authors advise: “Genuinely working in a holistic way is an illusion, it is simply impossible to consider every single aspect of a service. However, the intention should always be to see the wider context in which a service process takes place.” They continue by explaining that “the system design of an organization, its inherent culture, values and norms as well as its organizational structure and processes are important issues for the design of services … [and] can help promote a service mindset within the organization and to articulate the importance of employee and customer motivation.”

As an advocate for simplicity, I’d like to further coalesce the five principles of service design that the book presents. Service design places importance on

  • people—both customers and service providers
  • participatory, ethnographic processes and approaches
  • tangible, visualized design artifacts

The remainder of This Is Service Design Thinking covers the following topics in discreet sections:

  • Who are service designers?
  • What is the process that service designers follow?
  • What are examples of tangible deliverables, tools, and case studies that result from the service design process?

Who Are Service Designers?

“Professionals leverage their own unique discipline to provide the necessary perspective to address a service-related problem….”

In their book, the authors leverage articles that subject-matter experts from seven different disciplines have written: product, graphic, interaction, and social design; strategic and operations management; and design ethnography. And they admit that their list of disciplines is not exhaustive. Each article details a point of view (POV) or case study that illustrates how a discipline contributes to service design. The phrase contributing to is critical; people in these diverse disciplines do not claim that they should necessarily own the full set of processes, activities, and deliverables of service design. Rather, these professionals leverage their own unique discipline to provide the necessary perspective to address a service-related problem at hand. For example, graphic designers may develop an intuitive wayfinding and signage system to support visitor navigation at a trade fair, or product designers may work with an elevator company on concepts to help improve the efficiency and flow of people in a shopping mall.

Future Service Designers

“Service design is in its infancy as a discreet discipline, and applications of it beyond academia are only beginning to surface.”

While service designers can impact services from a bottom-up, contributory perspective, the unfortunate truth is that impacting services from the perspective of top-down accountability in an organization—whether strategically or operationally—won’t be easy.

As the authors write, “So why is it that … bad service is still around us? Let’s face it, managers and not necessarily service designers usually make decisions about the level of investment in service concepts….�The ‘production line approach to services’ identified in 1972 still represents the ‘ideal’ service design, whether fast food, customer service in a call centre, or surgical operations. In the abstract view, a service is a machine, which can be reduced to systems, machines and employees and customers that can be treated ‘as if’ they were machines too.”

After reading This Is Service Design Thinking, I believe an important question to explore is: Who will own service design in the future? Service design is in its infancy as a discreet discipline, and applications of it beyond academia are only beginning to surface. As service design becomes a more formal, applied discipline, the necessary skills service designers must have to own—and not just contribute to—service design include

  • being a generalist, with sufficient appreciation of the diverse disciplines that are necessary for service-design success to know how and when solving a problem requires their expertise
  • enough business acumen to understand and influence strategic and operations managers regarding the importance of designing the service experience—and achieving the aforementioned holistic goals
  • exemplary interpersonal, communication, facilitation, and management skills

The Service Design Process and Tools

“The service design process … is …meant to provide an overall framework within which service designers can work, but allow significant flexibility for iterative problem solving and the creation of multiple design concepts.”

Using the words process and tools may imply some rigidity in the approach service designers use in their work. On the contrary, the service design process that the authors outline is high level and fluid by design—and meant to provide an overall framework within which service designers can work, but allow significant flexibility for iterative problem solving and the creation of multiple design concepts. Using tools to define a service design solution quickly and obtain an answer is less important than choosing a process that allows rigorous and validated exploration. The questions are what is key.

Stage 1: Exploration

The first phase in a service design project involves understanding the culture and organization from the perspective of the customer, identifying the real design problem at hand through various tools and ethnographic approaches, then visualizing your findings and making service issues and opportunities real and tangible, so you can tackle them.

Stage 2: Creation

After problem definition and insight gathering, the creation phase begins with service ideation and concept generation. As the authors humorously describe, service designers love their Post-it notes, primarily because of how they allow iterative, quick thought processes to flow. The creation phase is when you want to be exploring as many potential mistakes as possible rather than trying to avoid them. And you want to involve all groups of people who are part of the service experience in the creation process, including customers, stakeholders, and employees.

Stage 3: Reflection

“What’s challenging about service design—as opposed to digital or product design, for example—is prototyping a service experience and all of its nuances effectively.”

During the reflection stage, you evolve your visualized concepts from the creation phase, in the form of prototypes, and test them. What’s challenging about service design—as opposed to digital or product design, for example—is prototyping a service experience and all of its nuances effectively. For example, imagine trying to prototype the service interactions of a pharmacy experience, ensuring that you include all of the elements that are critical to effective service design. Merely providing customers and employees with a brief concept description or storyboard simply won’t do the whole service justice. Instead, service designers use practices and artifacts from the theater—scripts, role-playing, props, scenery—to create as realistic a service design prototype as possible.

Stage 4: Implementation

Implementation in service design is less about building an application and more about the change management that is necessary for people to effectively introduce and operationalize a redesigned service. The keys to effective service change management are

  1. having included the same people throughout all of the earlier stages
  2. socializing the various service design deliverables and artifacts that help communicate the elements of the new service

Tool Highlights

“While many [service design] tools are very similar to those UX professionals use to garner insights about a target audience and enable them to begin requirements definition, … they are broader in perspective and scope.”

If you were to purchase This Is Service Design Thinking for no other reason, the crowdsourced and exhaustive set of service design tools it offers may be value enough.�While many of these tools are very similar to those UX professionals use to garner insights about a target audience and enable them to begin requirements definition—such as personas, customer journey maps, contextual interviews, shadowing, and scenarios—they are broader in perspective and scope.

For example, during service safaris, a researcher essentially does an expert review of the service experience from the perspective of the customer, not unlike using heuristics to walk through a digital experience. The difference is that the digital experience would be just one component of an overall service experience that includes broader interactions with other service elements such as front-office staff and other customers. Similarly, customer journey maps assume cross-channel touchpoints rather a single channel experience—for example, a digital experience.

Service staging and service role-playing employ theatrical techniques to physically act out the service experience and find opportunities to improve it. Encouraging employees to play the role of the customer and vice versa can elicit the softer, emotional insights to which it’s important that you be sensitive as you’re designing services—for example, customers’ impatience during wait times or indecision over their menu selections. Applying these methods to an experience design project could help your stakeholders to be more empathetic to the target audience, leading to more complete adoption of your design recommendations.

How Is Service Design Really Different From Experience Design?

“How service designers execute these principles and methods and the breadth of their potential scope and impact differentiates service design from experience design.”

One could argue that experience designers follow the principles of service design—and use its processes and tools as well. If, as a designer, you do, and you’re achieving organizational and customer impact across all touchpoints, it doesn’t matter whether you call yourself an experience designer or a service designer—as long as that impact occurs. After all, service design has its roots in user experience and interaction design, among other disciplines.

But how service designers execute these principles and methods and the breadth of their potential scope and impact differentiates service design from experience design. Simply giving the business and technology teams an opportunity to provide feedback on your designs is not co-creation, and doing just digital design is not experience design. Moreover, the service design approach is likely to be more successful in achieving holistic impact within organizations because of its emphasis on co-creation and focusing on employees, stakeholders, and service providers as much as on the user or customer.

Parting Thoughts

“The meaning of This Is Service Design Thinking extends beyond its covers and the ideas of its co-authors.”

Through the lens of This Is Service Design Thinking, I’ve taken the opportunity to dive deeper into service design as a field. This book will likely become the go-to resource for educators, students, and professionals. Although I hope I’ve done its content justice, I’ve not yet spoken about the book itself as a manifestation of a service. The authors followed a co-creation process involving contributors, teachers, students, designers, and readers in its design. From evaluating good and bad textbook designs to crowdsourcing content to soliciting in-progress feedback on the book’s design, the meaning of This Is Service Design Thinking extends beyond its covers and the ideas of its co-authors. Much post-publication discussion, critique, and ongoing feedback continue. Similarly, I welcome future discussion about this column, to continue co-creating what service design means and exploring its synergies with experience design.

3 Comments

Laura, thanks for drawing my attention to this book, which now sits in my ever-growing Amazon wish list! ;) Seriously, I may have to pick this up. I was not aware of this new term service design. Your summary is very clear and helpful. I think I understand the subtle distinction that differentiates it from experience design.

The need for holistic service design is clear. Just last week I had a poor customer experience with a health insurance provider. (Imagine that!) I won’t tell that long story here, but it was a case study of broken service design. My online and offline interactions with the company were out of synch on their end. I hope someone in that company steps out of their cubicle, places a greater focus on service design, and fixes the problems I encountered.

I’m going to resist the urge to start branding myself a service design consultant until I’ve immersed myself in the emerging field, and I’m sure I truly understand its dimensions. Unfortunately, I can easily imagine thousands of UX professionals suddenly becoming SD experts overnight.

My plea to the readers of this book and this article is that we not jump on the latest buzzword like buzzards on fresh roadkill. Let those among us who will earn our stripes in this field. Let the rest of us humbly learn from it and respect it. :)

Hi Laura,

My agency specializes in the theatrical approach to service design, so I cowrote the sections on theatrical tools for the book. I’m glad to hear they were useful. :)

If you or any other UX folks want to get more hands on with service design, we’d love to see you at the Global Service Jam, taking place all over Planet Earth on the weekend of February 24-26. Jammers will get a secret theme on Friday evening and have less than 48 hours to design and prototype a new service for upload on Sunday. It’s stimulating, educational, social, and hugely fun. Join us!

Cheers, Adam

I want to study more about service design and other types of design.

Join the Discussion

Asterisks (*) indicate required information.