By Lucy Kimbell

Published in Polaine, A, Lovlie, L, and Reason, B. (2013) Service Design. Rosenfeld, pp 156-157.


When I describe service design to MBAs, they tell me it’s what managers already do. Trying to understand customers’ lives and needs and then designing offerings that work for them? Check. Using these insights to guide what offerings are created? Check. Aligning organizational resources to deliver particular offerings to particular market segments? Check. Using learning from service interactions to keep an organization focused on continuous improvement? Check.

This response goes to the heart of the issue facing the professionals who specialize in designing services. What service design is about is surely the bread and butter of all organizations. It’s what they should be doing, or think they already are doing. Designing services sounds like a mix of marketing, operations management, IT, facilities management, organization design, and human resources, with a bit of change management thrown in.

On closer inspection it looks more like design stuff than management stuff, true. But it is more closely related to the basics of organizations than any other design field. Service design is about people, technology and stuff, processes, and the intersection of all these in the day-to-day operations of any organization in the service of value creation, as defined by its employees, stakeholders, customers, users, regulators, partners, and competitors.

The “what” of service design may seem like the job of managers, not designers. But the “how” is different. And further, the approaches, methods, and skills required to do it (the “how”) in fact turn the “what” into something different. The work that managers see as analytical and abstracted becomes generative and materialized. The disconnected stuff of organizational life becomes connected and a shared matter of concern. Organizations are revealed as dynamically constituted in the multiple interactions between people and things and other people, in many places, over time.

The practice of service design (in the version I teach and research) has three key characteristics that make it important to any organizations that have people and purposes to serve, whether they think of themselves as offering services or not. First, service design is centered on an attentiveness to experiences and interactions with digital and material stuff across time and locations. Customers and users experience organizations through these engagements with what are sometimes called “touchpoints.” Users are seen as actively involved in creating these experiences, rather than being passive recipients of organizational designs. For users, these interactions constitute the organization, rather than being ancillary to it. So the designing, orchestrating, organizing, or curating of particular pathways and modes of engagement is central to the work of management, accompanied by an understanding that no encounter can be fully scripted or designed.

Second, it proceeds by creating and using artifacts such as user journeys and blueprints. These are important “boundary objects” that help cross-functional and cross-organizational teams conceptualize and explore from within their specialisms, their shared matter of concern: an organization’s services as constituted in the interactions between all sorts of people and stuff. A document such as a blueprint allows different teams to do the work they need to do to create and run a service, and helps them understand how this work relates to that of others, including that of end users. Creating and using such organizational artifacts should be a central concern for managers and project leads, requiring customization of these methods to suit particular organizational contexts and purposes.

Third, the practice of service design involves repeatedly zooming in and out between material and digital detail, and the big picture. Grand narratives or visions describing a service experience or value proposition are necessary. But so, too, are repeated attempts to describe the granular details—the layout of a consulting room, the navigation of a website, or the information design of a ticket. A service design approach requires moving to and fro between each of these, rather than leaving mundane detail until later in a development process, as if it’s not so important.

Once exposed to these concepts, the MBA students taking my class find themselves talking and thinking differently about their work. They have a new way of doing what they think is core to their work. And it changes what they think their work is. It sets them on a journey of nurturing and sustaining a designerly culture with their teams in which the practices of experience-based design are embedded.

The approach to designing services described in this book also has implications for design professionals. As discussed here, designing for service reveals itself as more than just a new variant of design. It puts designerly practices at the center of the organizational activity of designing for service. Designers’ knowledge and skills make them the right participants to create many of the boundary objects that help teams work together to design services. It gives design professionals opportunities to generate novel methods to articulate and explore service experiences over time and place, and the operational activities that resource these.

It also pushes designers in directions some may not feel comfortable with. It asks them to consider more actively the relationships between the different kinds of digital and material artifacts they design, and their relationships to the backstage operations of organizations or to communities of contributors involved in a networked organizational model. Designers must engage more deeply with understanding and describing different kinds of resources and how these are configured for value creation.

So service design is at once familiar and yet novel. It is what managers and entrepreneurs do already, and yet it makes their work different. It resembles what some designers already do, but asks many others to change. In another decade it might no longer be called service design, but for now it represents a valuable addition to the resources available to anyone designing services.