The meaning of service

Service design is a rapidly growing area that today gets a lot of the attention concerning value creation and cross collaboration. And design. Which is good. In area after area, the potential in developing things and expressions that people actually want, as well as the need of collaboration between competencies in order to create that value. Industrial design has been in this focus at times, as well as interaction design, web design, design management etc.

Service innovation and service management is not new, researchers like Normann, Ramirez and Grönroos wrote several interesting books on the subject in the 90’s. What’s new is that industrial designers, with their multi faceted competence and thereby ability to merge other perspectives in a mixed competence group, have realized that their tools and methods can be applied also to things that are not physical objects. And producing obvious solutions and visualisations, just as they are used to, they make this work concrete as well as easier to participate in for other competencies.

What puzzles me is that all the competencies involved in the discussion actually don’t have the same definition on what a service, and thereby service design, actually is. A few examples:

  • A ”real” service is produced and delivered at the same time. In the 18th century you did not buy a new chair, you bought the service to make a chair. The tailor provided the service of sewing clothes.
  • In English, a ”service” can be a train connection or even a broadcasting enterprise like the BBC news service.
  • When you say service here in Sweden, you think about ”the kind help you get when doing something”, for example on that train connection you might get good or bad service. But the train connection is a train connection. This idea is slightly complicated by the Swedish word for service, ”tjänst” which also means ”favour”. So for many of us the immediate association is something ”extra”.
  • For a software engineer a ”service” is a form of functionality on for example a website, where you can ”do” something, not only watch, read etc. The part of the website where you make the purchase is a service, and ”service design” in this context means planning all the software necessary to build this functionality.
  • For an industrial or graphic designer, ”service design” mainly deals with the colour, shape and expressions of all contact points between a user/customer and a system/company. You actually don’t design the service in itself, but the objects and features that support it.
  • Service design can also mean scripting and directing the behaviour of sales people, waitors, clercs and other service people in a systematic way. Redesigning the actual service. The result could be that every receptionist in your hotel chain talk about the weather when you arrive. Or tell a designed joke. And describe how they do it. All for a better and more consistent user/customer experience.
  • And finally, you could ”design” services with the same approach and tools as you would use designing a physical product, based on a user/customer need which can be fulfilled by either an object or a non physical utility.

But everyone involved seems to be happy, and it appears that the fuzzy definitions make it easier for new groups to see the value of cross competence based, experience oriented development. And that’s good!

The Guardian recently had a supplement about service design, where also the Swedish Meteorological institute is mentioned. Read more here.

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