Update: Fellow CMU alum Jeff Howard has compiled an excellent literature review of articles largely from business journals (HBR, etc.) regarding Service Design. Highly recommend!


So I’ve spent the last 7 years entrenched in the field of “user interface design” or “interaction design”, focused on creating good digital UI’s for web/mobile/desktop software solutions at a wide range of companies (from Oracle to Adobe and Cisco to studios like Frogdesign and Involution). Lately I’ve started to wonder what’s next…is there “post-UI” design? If so, what is it? Possible answer: service design.

Coming from Carnegie Mellon, arguably one of the birthplaces and pre-eminent advocates for service design, I’m already fairly familiar with this concept (see Buchanan’s Four Orders model), but I’ve decided lately to look even deeper into it. And given where things are moving in terms of software design (SaaS, like Salesforce), RIA’s (AIR and Flex apps), cloud services (Amazon web services), convergent products blending UI with service (iPhone + App Store, GPS units, In-car telematics, net-enabled home appliances), I’m sensing that designing for services is the Next Big Thing for UI designers. Indeed, Robert Brunner keeps pushing this angle of designing for the “total customer experience supply chain” to achieve a positive emotional connection with users that will enable a designer’s existential relevance and value to the business. Hmmmm! Sounds like a “service design” POV…?


Initial readings
– Dan Saffer’s Designing for Interaction (particularly the chapter on Service Design)
– John Thackara’s In the Bubble (particular the final chapter on Flows)
– Malcolm McCullough’s Digital Ground
– Various web postings by Shelley Evenson, Jeff Howard, Jamin Hegeman, et al (I don’t think it’s a coincidence they’re all from CMU’s School of Design :-)


Overall summary

(In my view…) Service design is principally about the choreography of situated moments of customer & business activity as a structured sequence (or process) across multiple physical and digital “touchpoints” (ex: signage, logo, store rep, phone call experience, customer service, packaging, instruction manual, website, etc.) which constitute a “service string” or “customer journey”. The key term here is “choreography” which implies a dramatic or theatrical quality of enactments of people over time. The people are bi-lateral/2-way participants in the service exchange (experience), involving both the customer (end user) and the business (sales agent, for example) in a co-creative activity. It’s all about the CONTEXT or ecology of moments, which includes: people, objects, processes, and environment (not sure if this means “surroundings” or “active sphere of space/place directed towards the user’s goals” in the Deweyan sense…)

Designing a service, sounds to me, strongly related to the business model of a company and how that is reflected into the brand and the brand’s embodiments (website, ads, logos, giveaways, call center hotline, etc.)…indeed it seems designing a service = designing a business! You’re not just “making a website” or “a piece of software” but trying to solve the problem of a) an unmet/undiscovered customer need, b) unmet business goal or expansion of business plan and thus ultimately deliver “customer value” via this well-defined, choreographed “customer experience supply chain” (per Brunner). Sounds a bit Dilberty I admit, but this relation to business model design and fostering/delivering value is I think the core…and what makes Service Design so compelling, beyond pixels and code. Indeed, service design speaks to how such pixels/code can “serve” the business strategically.

Also, service design is very intangible–you can’t touch a service or point to it (except perhaps the activity being performed in real-time). Yet the service has tangible manifestations like a website, brochure, credit card, ticket, kiosk, etc. Those “traditional” UI skills are still needed, in demand, but wrapped by a broader set of concerns and a far-reaching outlook that gets more directly to the business goals.

It is important to point out that service design inherently has a dimension of systems design to it–far-reaching consideration of the broad levels of impact across industries and channels and stakeholders. The two go hand-in-hand, as Shelley Evansen says, “there’s often design of systems of systems” with nested or sub-levels of systems identified and mapped out.


Who can benefit from service design?

Lots of industries (and their customers) actually: healthcare, financials, retail/merchandising, hospitality (restaurants/hotels/clubs), education, government, transit systems, telecom, entertainment/gaming/media. And in this depressed economic climate, the industry that could hugely benefit is green-tech/energy services…! Hmm.


What are some examples of service design in action?

It’s important to note that this is not simply empty Dilberty corporate-speak and hand-waving… There are specific material examples with ample positive results rolling out. Service design may not have the same immediacy of a website or software patch released overnight, but the impact is certainly felt over time and across environments.

* US Postal Service
* Mayo Clinic
* Acela & IDEO
* MTA Metro and JetBlue kiosk


Who’s doing this stuff?

* 2nd Road
* Live|Work
* IDEO
* Doblin
* Jump
* Engine
* Design Thinkers
* Peer Insight
* 31 Volts
* Inland Revenue New Zealand

More examples coming soon…