Chances are you loaded this page because you’ve heard of service design but aren’t clear what it is. Don’t worry, you’re in good company—finding your way around the many disciplines and specializations in today’s design world is a job in itself. And to make things more difficult, job descriptions and industry trends are shifting on a monthly basis.
In this piece, we’ll explain the place of service design in relation to other design disciplines, including UX, UI, and product design. We’ll then look in a little more detail at what it means to take a service design approach to a problem, and we’ll identify the kinds of problem that service design is optimally placed to tackle.
Finally, we’ll identify some of the opportunities we see for service designers in a global world facing increasingly complex, interconnected challenges.
1. The difference between service design and UX design
One of the reasons that the term user experience (UX) design can be confusing is that, in essence, all design disciplines should be directed towards the experience of the person they’re designing for. Whether it’s a metal bolt, a printed concert program, or a computer, every designed object has an end user to consider and a user experience to shape.
The term UX design was coined by Don Norman in the context of his interest in the design of everyday things. Discussing his time working for Apple, he explains how his team aimed to shape the user experience of not just the software or interface, but also everything that framed that experience:
“I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”
However, in terms of today’s industry, UX design very often refers to the design of digital products like websites and apps. Given Don Norman’s initial ambitions for the term, we might view this fact with some regret—but it’s nevertheless worth bearing in mind when analyzing the job market.
Putting this to one side, the most fundamental difference between UX design and service design is, therefore, the nature of the design problem that they are trying to solve. UX designers typically solve problems that are confined to an individual product, or to individual “touchpoints” within a service.
Even the Don Norman quote above hints at the way UX designers tend to treat these touchpoints as separate, discrete design problems. This “one-by-one” approach is evidence of what service designers sometimes regard as design “silos”.
Generally, the role of UX designers in a project isn’t to step back and design an entire service. On the occasions that they do apply their skills to service-level problems, they are entering the realms of service design.
The UX design process
To illustrate the distinction between UX design and service design a little more richly, let’s consider the case of an airline.
Here’s one example of the work the airline might hire a UX designer for in today’s market: to develop an app that helps people make and manage their bookings. In this context, a UX designer’s research is likely to begin by investigating questions like these:
- Who is likely to use this app?
- What are those customers’ needs and goals?
- What problems have they experienced?
- What are their fears and worries?
On the basis of that research, a UX designer is likely to move on to identifying the most important tasks a user would want to complete through the app.
For each of those tasks, the designer might map out different options for the steps that will take the user to their goal, and repeat that process for all of the tasks the app will facilitate.
The final product that a UX designer delivers might be a completed set of screens that can be handed off to a developer and turned into a functioning app.
The service design process
If we zoom out, we can see that an airline does more than create and manage bookings. In fact, an airline is a service made up of many different “touchpoints”; its mobile app is just one of them.
Other touchpoints include the company’s ads, its website, the check-in desk, the refreshments trolley—you get the idea. In total, a complex service like an airline might have dozens or even hundreds of different touchpoints.
It’s here that the service designer comes in. An airline is likely to consult a service designer if their focus is at the system level, rather than on individual touchpoints.
While service designers are interested in users’ experience of individual touchpoints, they are also interested in how those touchpoints are connected, how people move around a service, and what the experience of that journey is.
The work that service designers undertake—which we’ll look at in more detail in a moment—is geared towards shaping how touchpoints work together, from both the perspective of the end user, and those responsible for running the service.
Service designers are likely to be consulted in response to a problem that is global in scope, or if the required solution is anticipated to require changes across multiple parts of a service.
For example, if the airline gets consistently poor reviews from customers but can’t clearly identify problems with any particular touchpoint, the company might want to take a look at big picture of how its service is functinoning.