The Blurred Lines Of Service Design

3 min read
Ben Logan
Design Research

Over the last few years, a number of design buzzwords have been popularised by various media with varying definitions, making it increasingly difficult to communicate what we do as service designers.

We are all ‘design thinkers’ or ‘human-centred designers’ concerned with ‘strategic design’ or ‘user experience’. I’ve spoken about service design with many designers and quickly realised we’re using the same words to describe very different things. It’s confusing, to say the least. So what differentiates service design from other disciplines? And how much do the definitions matter?

One of the reasons these definitions are so challenging for service designers is that our discipline is evolving rapidly as it learns from and incorporates various other approaches. We continually adapt new processes, tools, methodologies and terminologies, blurring the line between service design and other design disciplines. While this makes service design a stronger and more powerful discipline, it also adds a layer of complexity.

What are the similarities between the various design disciplines?

Let’s start with the obvious: they all start or end with the word ‘design’. And design starts with empathy for the user. It’s about understanding what the user needs in order to improve on or build useful products or services. We build useful stuff by using various creative tools and by keeping people at the heart of the process. Every designer’s process is slightly different, but many designers use some version of the classic ‘double diamond’, the flexible model of iterative divergent and convergent thinking defined by the Design Council. At Spotless, we shuffle our Method Cards often, mixing and matching our methods based on the design challenge we’re facing. We shift our focus: one moment talking with stakeholders and employees, the next listening to what the customers think, and then exploring the competitors. We can immerse ourselves in one area, or we can explore them all and embrace the different perspectives.

What differentiates service design?

Graphic designers are concerned with designing graphics, UI designers with user interfaces, UX designers with customer journey. Service designers take a broader, more holistic approach. We look at how all these touchpoints do and could fit together, and we decide if we need to dive deeper into a few of them. We may use the tools of an interaction designer in one service design project and the tools of an industrial designer in another. We look at what happens frontstage and backstage in an organisation, and then we make strategic and tactical decisions. We ask: Do you know where to add value to your organisation? Do you have unhappy customers or unhappy employees? Does your operational model work as seamless as you’d like it to? What problem do you really need to solve?

One way of thinking-01

Design research and service design, for example, look as though they operate over similar spaces, what differentiates these two disciplines is the output. Designer researchers articulate problems in order to set up service designers to solve them. Service designers build stuff based on the insights uncovered during design research.

We probably have different views on what design is, and that is great! The lines will continue to be blurred for a while longer, and different views on the approach and process produce different outputs. Rather than getting caught up in what adjective to place before or after design, or how to abbreviate, we might focus on first asking people what their needs and frustrations are. Is the operational model no longer fit for purpose? Is the organisation siloed? We should first articulate the users’ needs and understand the business challenge. And then we can solve these problems with whatever kind of design is needed. That’s what really matters, anyway. Solving the right problem then solving that problem right.

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