In this paper I have conducted primary research and reviewed the relevant literature into answer to the following questions: in what ways is Service Design being shaped as a discipline by current professional practice and how this is contributing to the establishment of Service Design as a respected, professional field of design management?

I will argue that the status of Service Design and its impact as a professional field is impacted by the absence of a single consistent definition of the area, the wide spread of professional practices and the varied backgrounds and training of its practitioners.

Service Design (SD) is a relatively new field, having emerged in Europe in the late 20th century via design practitioners responding to real life challenges put forward by their clients (Kimble 2008, p2). It is a multidisciplinary approach that draws upon a number of different fields to design or improve upon the design of a service.  A typical SD project could bring together product, graphic, interaction and web design and be led by practitioners from any of the aforementioned fields of design.

It is a fact acknowledged by Buchanan, in the leading text in the field ‘This is Service Design Thinking’, that there is no one commonly agreed definition of SD.  From my primary research I came to understand that within the UK market, each Service Designer applies a new definition to each client circumstance to meet their requirements. Further, Buchanan, Stickdorn and others have suggested that there is no need for a common definition to be established, lest this definition stifles the field (Stickdorn 2011, p173).

The two common components of many of the definitions of service design that are put forward to clients and students by academics and practicing SDs are: customers; and services, two extraordinarily broad terms that can apply to anything from a website to a piece of legislation. This is not unusual in the historic development of new fields of, indeed on the way to becoming professions, many new fields of practice that have faced this issue. For example, one of the major criticisms of behavioural economics, despite being a Nobel prize winning field, is that there is no one overarching theory or common set of definitions or practices. (Harford 2014).

Allowing Service Designers to choose their own way to define SD gives them great scope to work on anything that interests them. Of the designers I spoke to many of them may have called themselves Service Designers in the past, but have since re-branded themselves as pure design managers, strategists, brand or product specialists (Drummond et al. 2015).

However if it is true that ‘effective design begins with a clear understanding of the problem to be solved’ (Coughlan & Prokopoff 2004, p188), does the fluidity of these definitions and role titles help or hinder service design as a relatively new field establish itself as a respected field where individuals and organisations are prepared to pay for the skills of an experienced Service Designer?

Editor of ‘This is Service Design Thinking’, Stickdorn (2011) argues that Service Design is a ‘new way of thinking’, rather than a ‘standalone academic discipline’ and while some ‘literature on service design sees it as a new sub-discipline of design’ (Kimble 2011, p3) my research failed to uncover any strong evidence that SD is currently considered to be a standalone, respected profession within the field of design management.

Therefore In this paper I will argue that, rather than just re-branding it may be of more service to the field if there was a commonly accepted, narrower definition for SD.  I will offer a perspective on what this definition may be, while suggesting that those who are practicing service design under another name as a way to get clients on-board are, overtime, doing the field a dis-service and ultimately failing to contribute to the professionalisation of SD required to see it emerge as a respected field of design management

The origins of Service Design

In 1983, Shostack wrote about examples of poor service as being ‘widespread and  frustrating’ suggesting that ‘rational management practices’ including ‘blueprints’ be applied (Shostack 1983 p2).  In part the field of SD emerged in response to these rational practices and processes, however today, these rational practices, blueprints or processes are exactly the opposite of what is required to design services that delight your customers (Moritz 2005, p40).

Over time, design has shifted from turning ideas into products or artefacts (Thrift 2008). Now designers can apply their creative mindsets, methods and tools to areas beyond the traditional, product design to a wider range of systems, services and organisational activities the role of design has changed (Kimble, 2009, p3).

SD as a field emerged in the latter part of the 20th century. By this time traditional design had become well established and the advent of new services related to advances in the internet and technology made way for new fields of design, including interaction, experience and service design to emerge (Kimble, 2009, p4).  Defined in action, practitioners in the design field started to flourish and a definition of SD began to emerge, before being adopted by academic institutions in 1991 when it was defined as a discipline by Professor Dr Michael Erlhoff of the Koln International School of Design.

The first SD practices are thought to have emerged from 2001 – 2003 housed within existing, well established design agencies IDEO and Livework.  Interdisciplinary in nature, SD brings together a variety of different methods and tools from across the design field to create or improve upon existing services making them more effective, useful or desirable for individuals or organisations (Kimble, 2008, p3).

In 2004 the global SD Network was founded as a resource for academics and professionals in the field via a collaboration between the Koln International School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, Linkopings Universitet, Politecnico di Milano and Domus Academy. At the time of founding, the Service Design Network described SD as ‘an emerging discipline and an existing body of knowledge which can dramatically improve the productivity and quality of services’ (Service Design Network 2015).

Today there are a number of tertiary institutions, including Stanford in California, the Royal College of Arts in London and the Consorzio Del Politecnico Di Milano in Milan began to offer a Master of Design or Arts in Service Design, suggesting that SD has established itself as a field worthy of academic pursuit by world class academic institutions such as these. Further interviews with practitioners in the field have indicated that in 2015 a recruitment practice dedicated to sourcing skilled Service Designers was established in London. (1:1 Interview 2015)

Defining Service Design 

Services are central to UK society.  As at August 2015, jobs in the services sector represent more than three-quarters of UK output and according to CBI ‘services have led the economy out of recession’. (CB1 2015)  What can be defined as a service is wide ranging.  For the purposes of this paper I will focus on defining services within the context of SD.  However, it could be argued that the broad definition of what can be considered to be a ‘service’ also contributes to the inconsistent definitions that are common in the SD field.

In the context of SD, services can be defined and differentiated from products as that which can be: ‘performed; is immaterial; is intangible; can’t be stored; requires interaction with a client; and consumption occurs during production’. (Moritz 2005, p30)

In ‘This is Service Design Thinking’, Stickdorn (2011, p189) offers a range of academic definitions for Service Design including:

“Service Design is an emerging field focused on the creation of well thought through experiences using a combination of intangible and tangible mediums.  It provides numerous benefits to the end user experience when applied to sectors such as retail, banking, transportation and healthcare.  As a practice it generally results in the design of systems and processes aimed at providing a holistic service to the user”. (The Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, 2008)

“Service Design is all about making the service you deliver useful, usable, efficient, effective and desirable”. (UK Design Council, 2010)

While Azipoor (2005, p3) defines SD as ‘a user centered approach to designing products and services, aiming to give the user a unique and memorable experience as well as optimising business processes’.

As at October 2015, the website for the Service Design Network, previously cited in this paper as a global reference point for Service Designers, proffers a video to define SD, which explains what a service is and how a good service can be defined. While it is helpful to understand what a good service looks like, this offers little in the way of clear definition that sets a parameters for practitioners of SD or clients of services designers. In fact the use of examples, or the description of SD in terms of the process, is common practice in the field.  I would argue that this is done in the absence of a clear, universally agreed definition.

As part of my research for this paper I interviewed a number of SD practitioners working in the UK and across Europe.  I asked them whether they considered themselves to be Service Designers and if this was the case:

  1. What is their job title
  2. How do they explain the work that they do to clients and those who are interested in SD
  3. How would they define SD
  4. Have they ever delivered SD projects under another label
  5. What examples they have of current SD projects under delivery by their agencies

These interviews yielded a number of definitions for SD, many of which were similar, none of which were quite the same. For example:

‘We develop new ideas for services and then work out the best way for an organisation to deliver them.’ (1:1 interview 2015)

‘A creative, iterative and strategic process that will help you to deliver great service value to your clients/customers/users while optimising your internal resources and operations.’ (1:1 interview 2015)

‘I help orchestrate and improve the experience of people who use different kind of services, from transportation to telecommunication, from hospitality to healthcare. That means thinking of their needs and desires and try to create useful and usable services that respond to those. At the same time I try to help organisations or company that provide services to do that in a more resourceful and easy way.’ (1:1 interview 2015)

While a review of various SD agency websites, including those with Service Designers included in my interviews, offered a number of similar, yet different definitions:

‘Services can be complex. What customers experience and come to value is the result of many elements working elegantly together.  To customers, a valuable service is a clear set of benefits, a great experience and a worthwhile relationship. For the business, the service delivers its commercial objectives and packages its business model into a distinct set of offers that helps them stand out against the competition. We design services with this balance in mind, making sure all components of the service work together effectively for the equal benefit of the provider and customer.’ (Engine 2015)

‘Fjord has been among the pioneers of Service Design in the last few years. It is an approach that seeks to answer the questions: what should our service be and how do we deliver it in the best possible way? We use both emotion and logic to meld data and creativity. Our cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and ultra-curious teams help our clients answer critical questions about what their users need and how to organise service provision around those needs. Then, we use several methods to create a blueprint for a design solution that is relevant for our clients, ground breaking for their industry, and intuitive for users’. (Fjord 2015)

‘Reaching excellence with customers requires more than a good strategy. When it comes to execution, it takes craft, methods and skills to connect customers with the business in concrete ways. Service design offers a powerful toolbox to help organisations deal with internal challenges, enable a new customer experiences and create business value’. (Livework 2015)

So while it does seem that it is true to say that ‘if you asked 10 service designers to define their field you will end up with 11 definitions’ (Stickdorn 2011), it was stated by many of the professionals that I spoke to in the course of my research, that in practical terms the mindset that governs service designers and their design processes are relatively similar. (1:1 interview 2015) (1:1 interview 2015) (1:1 interview 2015) (1:1 interview 2015)

However, some experienced practitioners in the field, such as SD 1 (2015) and SD 2 (2015), used their interviews to express frustration as to why there continues to be confusion around the definition of SD. They theorise that those who seek to define SD by listing examples, or talking about the ‘process’ rather than the outcome – which simply put is a new or a redesigned service – adds to the confusion.  (1:1 interview, 2015).  Further they suggest that this need to create complex definitions may be a symptom of ‘a young discipline, with a lack of confidence seeking to justify itself’ (1:1 interview, 1:1 interview, 2015).  When these same practitioners were asked whether they have ever delivered what they would consider to be Service Design projects under another name all interviewees cited examples of work delivered under different banners, including of: UX; Branding; Communication; Usability study, Research; Futures Consulting; Service Development and Interaction Design. (1:1 interview 2015) (1:1 interview 2015) (1:1 interview 2015) (1:1 interview 2015). All of which are seemingly distinct fields in their own right.

This phenomenon finding is echoed in Kimble’s 2011 paper, where she found that designers define service design with their clients on the fly approaching ‘their work as an enquiry’.  In her findings she reported that the Service Designers she observed from Livework and IDEO would ‘construct an understanding of what the service was and how they might approach design or re-design’. (Kimble, 2011, p8)

When I questioned my interviewees as to why so much SD work is delivered under another label, one interviewee stated that she ‘doesn’t often call herself a designer’ because ‘you won’t get business owners by talking about design.  When we run conferences we never label them ‘design’. You get them (clients) along for lots of other things, then tell them about design. Even brand is more acceptable than SD. We made a mistake once labelling a conference ‘Service Design’ (Anonymous 2015). While another suggested that ‘the market didn’t really know what SD is.  We have to educate them’. (1:1 interview 2015)

Therefore it seems, from a review of academic literature, current professional definitions and current professional practice, it is hard to imagine how a consistency of mindset can be found in a field where there is so little consistency in the way SD is defined or practiced.

Why definitions are important to the establishment of a professional field 

In her 2008 paper, Kimble argued that SD was not yet ‘established enough as a field be put forward as a design discipline or to have a commonly accepted definition’. Today, SD is still a young, ‘small and fragmented’ field without ‘strong professional bodies or developed research literature’. (Kimble 2011, p2)  However, many new fields of professional practice have emerged from similar circumstances. For example, one of the major criticisms of behavioural economics, despite being a Nobel Prize winning field, is that there is no one overarching theory or common set of definitions or practices.

But now, in 2015, surely enough time has passed for SD to have taken greater steps toward being considered to be profession?  So why, is it still languishing? And what if anything are those who work in the field doing to further the case for SD to be considered a true profession?

To some in the field, the idea of developing SD into a profession is actually undesirable.  For example, in ‘This is Service Design Thinking’ Buchanan, defies the need to define SD stating ‘one of the great strengths of design is that we have not settled on a single definition’.  Further he cautions that ‘fields in which a definition is now a settled matter tend to be lethargic, dying or dead fields, where inquiry no longer provides challenges to what is accepted as truth’. (Stickdorn 2011, p173)  However, it could be argued that there are benefits in settling on a common definition of a field particularly when it comes to setting the foundation for that field to be considered a robust profession.

The concept of a profession as we know it today emerged in the 19th Century (Abbott 1988, p3). A profession can be defined as ‘an occupational group with some special skill’ and professions emerge when people ‘start doing full time the thing that needs doing’ (Abbott 1988, p7). Further, when a profession emerges to be recognised as such, it is representative of ‘a trust in the expertise of the professional by both their customers and their colleagues’ and in many cases this trust is guaranteed by supporting academic institutions, licences or codes of ethics (Abbott 1988, p8).

The key precursor to an ‘occupational classification’ such as SD becoming a profession is a commonly understood definition, closely followed by an agreement on ways to control or oversee the knowledge or skill required to join the profession (Abbott 1988, p9).  In many cases this progresses to a place where there are ‘explicit membership rules to exclude the unqualified’. (Abbott 1988, p9).

So while many in the field of SD may agree that the absence of a definition provides individual designers with a great amount of professional freedom, there is little evidence to argue that this stance furthers SD as a profession as a whole that has enough consistency in the control of definitions, mindsets, knowledge or skills to emerge as a respected and robust field of design management.

Establishing Service Design as a respected and robust field of design management 

Similar to the path taken by many other fields as they developed into professions, the expansion of design into new areas to meet emerging customer and market needs has democratised design as a concept and welcomed many new designers into the field. Certainly there has been an influx of designers trained in UX or Interaction either branding themselves as Service Designers or delivering SD projects.  While this can be argued as positive for the overall profile of design and for the ability of Service Designers to sell and deliver different types of work, I would also argue that it has done little for SD as a profession and in fact this democratisation may have contributed to the previously cited reticence to arrive at a single definition.

This theory is reinforced by Banny Banerjee from Stanford University, who has written about his own ‘crisis of design identity’ and the crises of his students at the Standford face via the democratisation of design.  Many people consider themselves to be designers but haven’t been trained and when it comes down to it may not have the knowledge or skills to deliver multichannel SD projects and may feel more confident doing service design work under the banner of their true area of expertise be it interaction design, UX, graphic design or even strategy development.

As noted in the previous section, an essential precursor to the development of any field into a respected profession is a common definition of the field and the associated knowledge and skill requirements. Given this, I would argue that agreement on a more specific, simpler definition of SD that is then applied consistently in the fields of academia would provide a more robust basis for the development of SD as a true robust profession. This definition could even be as simple as: service design uses human centered methods and techniques to design, or re-design services.  Further, those who wish to practice SD should be encouraged or required to train in the design mindset, either under the tutelage of experienced SD professionals or via further education, so they understand how this method truly differs in the way it adds value to the fields of Graphic, UX or Interaction Design or Strategy development.


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