Service Design

Two business men are sitting in a bar, waiting for their drinks, between connecting flights at Chicago O’Hare Airport.  One of them turns to the other and asks:  “Have you ever heard the joke about ‘Service Design’?”  The other business man looks up, thinks for a moment and says:  “No.  What the hell is that?” to which the first business man replies:  “That’s the joke.” 


Service Design? You could say it’s a “movement” — because “move” it has — clear out of the United States in the early 1990s.  To where?  Fled to Amsterdam, Cologne, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm — places like that, which have traditionally welcomed and harbored refugees from intellectual and spiritual persecution. 

Where did the Pilgrims go before they sailed to Plymouth Rock?  Yes, of course, Holland.  And what is now special about Holland (The Netherlands)?  That more than 75% of the country is below sea-level?  No, that’s not it.  What is special is that more than 75% of the economy is “services” (and remember, the other 25% includes agricultural exports we all know and love).  Interesting, huh?

Now back to the United States, where we continue to convulsively bemoan the loss of our manufacturing industrial economy.  Apparently, some of the roots of Service Design lie here in the United States, where (in the early 1980s) an academic named L. G. Shostack published articles like “How to Design a Service” and “Design Services that Deliver” in the Harvard Business Review.  Shostack was endeavoring to separate the design and marketing of “services” from that of “products/goods” (around which services were assumed to be tightly wound).  By the early 1990s, services, customer service, and customer-centric organizations were all very much central topics and areas of focus in U.S. businesses as these (non?) things were being recognized as ways of creating tangible value “in and of themselves” and as America seemed to be adjusting to its new identity as a service-based economy.  This was also the time when Customer Relationship Management (CRM),  growing out of a merger of customer-centricity and new technologies, also emerged as a crucial, competitive component of successfully doing business, 

But then,  suddenly, the age of customer-centricity came to an end — quite abruptly.   So what happened?  The Internet happened.   America became obsessed with internet technology and what it could do for businesses and consumers, and customer-centricity and CRM faded into the background.  The next 15 years, from 1996 to 2011 are now history, one which we all know well.  However, during that period, the Service Design movement–somewhat like a displaced, underground organization–continued to develop gradually in Europe. 

But even the obsessed American mass-mind eventually shifts its focus of attention to something else (usually sooner rather later).  As early as the year 2000, something was starting to grow out of Internet technology:  new types of services and service businesses; Application Service Providers, Software as a Service; things like Service-Oriented Archtecture and User Experience Architecture; and again more new types of services and businesses.  Eventually services and service were back on the business “front burner” again.  So it is not a coincidence that an interest in Service Design has started to grow recently in the United States. 

Now traveling back to our two business men in Chicago O’Hare aiport, who have not moved (and have not yet been served their drinks).  And, more specifically,  let’s return to the question:  “What the hell is Service Design?”  I’d like to start to answer this question by sticking with the travel metaphor and offering up an airline comparison:  flying on United Airlines vs. flying on Virgin.  In which case would you say (without knowing anything about it) is a Service Design discipline more evident?  I think most us would have same the answer.  Though the air fares are priced similarly, many of us might be tempted to conclude that  if United Airlines applied Service Design,  it would have been with the design goal of providing abysmally bad service aimed at dissatisfying its customers.  Kind of a broad comparison to answer a specific question, but by comparing Virgin to United in terms of services, we all start to get an idea of what Service Design is about. 

To be a little clearer and more specific, here are few snippets to expand upon what Service Design is about:

Service Design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service, in order to improve its quality, the interaction between service provider and customers and the customer’s experience.

Service Design is the specification and construction of technologically networked social practices that deliver valuable capacities for action to a particular customer. Capacity for action in Information Services has the basic form of assertions.

Service Design tools aim at producing a blueprint of the service, which describes the nature and characteristics of the interaction in the service. Design tools include service scenarios (which describe the interaction) and use cases (which illustrate the detail of time sequences in a service encounter). Both techniques are already used in software and systems engineering to capture the functional requirements of a system. However, when used in service design, they have been adequately adapted, in order to include more information, concerning material and immaterial component of a service, time sequences and physical flows.

Like Business Architecture, Service Design is a fledgling discipline aspiring to become set of systematic methods and tools that will support/enable the design/creation of new satisfying and valuable services (very frequently significantly supported by information technology).

So in our business man example, a “designed service” might run something like this.  When the business man arrives on the plane at the airport, he turns on his Smart Phone and he indicates he’d like have a drink between connecting flights.  The service will place his order at the airport bar (including specifying his favorite Vodka and extra dry style), charge his credit card, provide him with navigation through the airport and to the bar, where he would be greeted by the bartender and served his drink as he was greeted (moreover,  the business man will be prompted on his SmartPhone for a rating of his whole service experience after the fact, providing a feedback loop for service quality improvement and enhancement/innovation).

Sound far fetched?  We all know it’s not.  This is just a silly, trivial example of the kinds of things that can be achieved through “Service Design.”  The emerging “Service Design” discipline is anything but a joke, and I believe its effects will become widespread as it becomes the chosen field of work by large numbers of young professional and new businesses begin to to apply it and set new standards of competition.  It’s impact will not only be in very obvious consumer-oriented services, but will be much broader, impacting the design of front-end and back end services consumed by people and systems across businesses and industry trading partner ecosystems.

As for me,  I just recently became acquainted with Service Design.   I now wish I had been a part of the movement much earlier, but I now intend to dive in, learn a great deal more about it, and apply it where I can.

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