What is service design?

I’ve been playing around with the idea of writing this post for a while, well I guess on and off for about a year! What started as a wish to understand more has, if I’m really honest, progressed into a minor irritation at the lack of clarity and then just before Christmas I had a phone conversation with Mike Baldwin where I found myself attempting to both define and defend/promote service design as a discipline. Mike was asking great questions; now I’m a little biased and think that Mike is a) one of the good guys b) intelligent and interesting and c) questioning and not ready to just accept an opinion without some substance to back it up. Mike is interested in health and value, he is also interested in research, evidence and rigour and several of our conversations have focused on health care and improving services, drawing heavily for me on my Dad’s experience of cancer, you can read more about that here!

Anyway, when I talk to Mike I realise I’m not the only person who is sceptical and looking for proof when it comes to service design. In fact maybe Mike is, like me, a service design agnostic! I’m not going to recount all of the conversation or questions that Mike and I were batting around but the starting point was pretty much as follows:

> What is service design?
> How strategic is service design?
> What functions is service design optimising? Is it a focus on efficiency, effectiveness, economic imperatives or something else?

For now I’m just going to focus on my attempts to answer the first question. Luckily for me I’d recently attended ServDes conference (you can read more of my thoughts on that here) and so probably felt as well equipped as I’d done in a long time to attempt to define service design as I’d been exposed to many different views and approaches to it. I’d also debated, discussed and extrapolated in the pub the very essence of what a service designer is, the consensus conclusion being there’s no such thing as a service designer! Those conversations had also exposed me to many of the subtleties behind the belief that defining the discipline limits its development – more of that below.

Perhaps most importantly though I had a secret weapon! I had in my possession a brand new shiny copy of This is Service Design Thinking which is available to buy now from the publishers and which I’ll blog about soon – it’s ace, go buy it. TiSDT was launched at ServDes and consequently a copy was given to each attendee at ServDes as a gift 🙂 I’d already skim read most of it and devoured the opening chapter from Marc Stickdorn (Marc is one of the two editors – along with Jakob Schneider) and so I was confident he’d have the answer.

TiSDT definition chapter opens as follows:

If you would ask ten people what service design is, you would end up with eleven different answers – at least.

Service design is an interdisciplinary approach that combines different methods and tools from various disciplines. It is a new way of thinking as opposed to a new stand-alone academic discipline. Service design is an evolving approach, this is particularly apparent in the fact that, as yet, there is no common definition or clearly articulated language of service design.  [Stickdorn, 2010, 29]

Marc goes on to explain their decision not to just define service design; this is based on an acknowledgement of the need for a common language alongside the concern that by imposing a definition the discipline is in some way being constrained or limited. TiSDT offers a number of different views of what service design is with definitions from a number of institutes, industry bodies, academics and design agencies. What is then provided as a really useful starting point are five principles of service design thinking. Service design thinking is: user centred, co-creative, sequencing, evidencing and holistic.

To set my stall out I think TiSDT is great, I love my copy, I think it has a wealth of information and ideas within it and has already helped me to have confidence to introduce service design to people and defend it when questioned. It introduces a number of fields of activity that implement a range of service design thinking, these include product design, graphic design, interaction design, social design, strategic management, operations management and design ethnography. Each of these fields have a chapter where they are briefly introduced and their relationship to services specified. For me this is really useful stuff. I do however struggle with the notion that defining the discipline would somehow limit it. TiSDT includes a quote from Buchanan (2001) that implies defining design would potentially lead to lethargy or death of the topic in hand and Marc offers the same concern “A single definition of service design might constrain this evolving approach”.

**Disclaimer** At this stage I had a really useful conversation with @fergusbisset – thanks Ferg. He nudged me in the direction of reading Buchanan’s paper for myself and also warned me about opening a can of worms that had seemingly settled down. I understand from him, from some of the people I spoke with at ServDes and from Buchanan’s writing that many hours have been spent on these discussions already, therefore continue this post with a little trepidation. I’m not wanting to rake over old ground but I have yet to find the answer I’m after and have not been involved with the discussions to date, so bear with me

To me Buchanan makes a far more balanced argument than the use of the quote in the book implies. In fact he follows his statement with the following:

However, I believe that definitions are critical for advancing inquiry, and we must face that responsibility regularly in design, even if we discard a definition from time to time and introduce new ones. [Buchanan, 2001, 8]

Buchanan addresses the purpose and use of definitions, classifying them as descriptive or formal. Descriptive definitions, as pointed out by Buchanan, are incredibly useful for acknowledging the influences on a discipline – TiSDT is great at doing this, throughout the book many descriptive definitions are offered and many insights can be gained from that. As I said earlier this is incredibly useful, especially for someone without formal design training or knowledge.

Descriptive definitions also tend to carry emotional weight, they are great for describing what something is or isn’t (stating the obvious I know), but I think for those of us who are more comfortable with an academic or research approach or who are seeking a more formal definition or who simply wish to present a pragmatic, rationed argument as to why they should invest money in something, a formal definition is required. Buchanan offers the following formal definition of design:

Design is the human power of conceiving, planning, and making products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of their individual and collective purposes. [Buchanan, 2001, 9]

Buchanan situates his definition within Aristotelian causes. Human power is the agency of action, conceiving, planning and making the final cause – the end goal that design is focused on, products (in the broadest sense) are the outcomes, the formal cause and accomplishment of individual or collective purpose is the material cause, as human needs, activities and aspirations provide the subject matter. If this definition is adopted the scope of application is pretty much universal and as wide ranging as it gets – I’m absolutely convinced that this could be adapted and used as a formal definition for service design, without limiting it’s potential.

But why do I care? I think by failing to offer a formal definition, rather than limit the development of the discipline by applying unnecessary constraints and restricting creativity, my concern is that there is a risk that the discipline is being limited by its inability to communicate it’s value and worth in a way that different audiences can understand.

Where does all of this leave me, and I imagine Mike? Well we’re not designers but we are interested in the potential of service design. We have an interest in science – physical and social, economics, psychology, health and social care, research and rigour, evaluation and value. We are both also interested in ethics and how these are addressed. It was no coincidence to me that many of the concerns and questions that Mike was raising in our conversation were ones I’ve questioned myself many times before:  how do we know if service design is ethical and/or safe? how can we identify a good service design practitioner? is service design essentially just marketing? is service design essentially just ethnography? is it about aesthetics or something more? what is the relationship between service designer, client and end user? what evidence are policy makers using to decide on the role that service design can/should play? is there clear evidence that it works? how does service design represent uncertainty? what is value and how do we know if service design will bring good value for our organisations?

As I said at the start of this post, I feel that there is a value in looking at the design of services. I feel more confident now to try and articulate that value – in no small part with thanks to ServDes, TiSDT and conversations and questions with and from many people especially @fergusbisset @segelstrom @designthinkers @grahamhill @adamstjohn @rufflemuffin @mrstickdorn @iterations and of course @mikey3982. I would however still like to see a formal definition that I can readily wheel out when someone asks, even if in time it becomes outdated or unhelpful. For now I have the beautiful This is Service Design Thinking that not only contains a wealth of information but also dazzles anyone who looks at it by it’s layout and design….thereby convincing them of the value in and of itself; maybe that’s it, maybe @jakoblies work on TiSDT and the resulting beautiful aesthetically appealing design is actually all that is required, I guess time will tell, they certainly help 🙂

I’m sure that I’ll come back to these thoughts as I continue to try and incorporate elements of design and thinking around designing services into my own professional work, so I’d really welcome your thoughts, reflections and any definitions that you find particularly useful. Thank you for taking the time to read this epic post.

0 comments on “What is service design?”

Ferg says:

The Fred Collopy post referenced by Jaimes in this post http://www.colourquotesanalysis.com/entries/codifying_design_thinking_threatens_its_central_value/ was central to the discussions about the definitions of design thinking first time round as I experienced them in the summer of 2009. It certainly sets in context some of my views and thoughts that you reference in your post. Around that time Nick Marsh (@choosenick) also made an incredibly valuable and well considered post about some of these issues and distinctions in defining Service Design here: http://www.choosenick.com/?action=view&url=from-designing-services-to-design-in-services

Jaimes’ own interpretation that followed Nick’s post I remember finding valuable and contentious at the time… it might still be useful to some people who are looking for a definition:


My own thoughts at around this time can be found here; http://www.fergusbisset.com/blog/2009/06/13/just-do-it-why-in-design-actions-speak-louder-than-thoughts/ and subsequently,

I’m not sure I still agree with everything I said in these posts, but I think there are elements that do still resonate. I think the foremost being that when it comes to attempting to communicate what we do to people like you and Mike setting a boundary on the problem and narrowing the definition to one that is contextually and personally specific and relevant is integral to effective engagement and comprehension. I think that is something that as a discipline and as practitioners Service Designers might be afraid of doing. I also think that’s something that TiSDT managed to do well, it provides a benchmark for Service Design circa 2010, as well aggregating a lot of the discussion and definitions that were otherwise just the disparate collection of links such as that above.

I interpret that what you are proposing in this post, is a sort of dynamic definition. One that works on a number of logical levels. Perhaps, as suggested by Jones and Dubberly here http://www.dubberly.com/articles/language-action-model.html Three levels of engagement or interpretation; the phenomenological, the pragmatic and the rational. The rational being what I perceive that you and Mike might need to convince your organisations to invest, whilst the phenomenological being the justification that most designers would cite as being their personal ‘logic’ for being a service designer (I think you mentioned this in your previous post about ServDes http://georgeblogs.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/servdes-value-trust-transparency-ethics-and-shared-expertise/) That Jones and Dubberly has been massive in shaping my own thoughts on Service Design. I hope it helps the ongoing conversation and anyone else who finds this post in pursuit of a definition of design or anything else for that matter. Much of the thinking in that article, as I now look at it can been seen in my recent post maybe more related to your own discipline 😉 http://www.fergusbisset.com/blog/2010/12/09/3g-knowledge-transfer-dr-annette-boaz-london-school-of-economics-lessons-for-service-design/.

I’ll try and develop these ideas further myself in a forthcoming blog post, but in the meantime I hope that you (and Mike) find these links as useful context and as useful resources as you seek your own definition and understanding of Service Design.

Hi thanks for sharing your thoughts on this George. Why not keep it simple and use the Buchanan definition and replace Services for Products?
Service Design is the human power of conceiving, planning, and making services (around products; non-tangible products) that serve human beings in the accomplishment of their individual and collective purposes.
Then it comes down to defining ‘services’ – which include non-tangible products and the services around the fysical products, that by themselves (stand-alone) can evolve into a product.

Wim Rampen says:

I’m not going to attempt build a definition here, but for any definition of Service Design I think it is important to not take product or services (around products or not) as a framework for thinking, but the entire value proposition, which can and will mostly include both, but more so will also include the promise of value to be created..

Imo Service Design is then about designing the value proposition and the experiences needed to co-create value with it’s users (Customers/Company/Employees/other Stakeholders all included)..


Mike Baldwin says:

Wow thank you for reflecting on our conversations that we had it was a really uplifting experience talking with you.

My sense that we are entering new exciting times with a perfect storm of many trends colliding excite me that new design opportunities will exist. However I am hoping that we can design products and services that promote human meaning rather than a race for cheap and cheerful!

My other question that we discussed is how we move from complicated design to complex design. During our call I talked about the work that @showers is doing re his Cyefin model and the whole area of complex adaptive systems.

I am so grateful that we had a serendipitous meeting over a year ago (thanks @dominiccampbell) and I am continually learning and will be buying the book.

Mike Baldwin says:

Sorry meant @snowded (Dave Snowden http://www.cognitive-edge.com) autocorrect!

I do think we all have to push this service design thinking debate around some more, it still is too shapeless and not ‘forming’ as well as it should. The IDEO’s and Professors that have jumped onto this is one thing but they fail in getting a real connection. You need to keep thrashing this one a little to help us all

I must admit that I’m no where near able to post a better definition than ones given above but the conversation did a raise few questions.

First of all there seems to be in my view a certain paradox involved in this discussion. At least some people feel there needs to be a formal definitions but at the same time it should be all encompassing and broad enough to include all current and future applications of design thinking. As useful and maybe necessary as such definition would be academically I believe it would do little good in convincing your customers of potential service design benefits and why they should pay for it, like George addressed midway through her text. This to me is a matter of defining proper service design “products”.

Other issue is the matter of expertise stated in Fred Collopy’s article. I must say that by my own experience it took about 3 months of active reading and research that I could fairly comfortably follow DT or service design related discussions. There’s already existing vocabulary and terminology that does not open up to novice very quickly, even with designer background, so is it slightly hypocritical at this stage to claim all inclusive agenda?

So should I ever try to formulate a proper definition my starting point would be this excellent list: user centred, co-creative, sequencing, evidencing and holistic. These are more or less readily understable and as such more approchable by general audience (e.g. potential customers). I recon the defenition would be slightly longer than 2-3 sentences, but SDT does inherently include element of complexity, so I ‘d allow little more ellaboration for sake of understandability.

My personal inspiration to SDT was specifically the human aspect, research and practicality, sort of down-to-earth approach that I felt was missing in the design work I did the last decade despite the fancy notions of personal and customer oriented service . Hence I’d find it sad to see SDT turn into either confusing theoretical mess or mere marketing gimmick. Also my views are certainly influenced by the fact that I’m currently working on my own service products to which I try to incorporate SDT elements so maybe the urge for pragmatism strikes through.

George: Sorry for not really answering the question…

P.S. Thanks for everyone for excellet links.

George, thank you very much for this post! I am already looking forward to your book review..

The point you (and Mike) are raising is indeed very important for the future development of service design. I would like to use this opportunity to add my own thoughts on this. The reason why I decided to show a variety of definitions instead of just one in the introductory chapter of TiSDT is simply because I don’t know one that works for all. This is mostly related to one thing I am still struggling with – also when I read this post and comments above: Referring to service design as a discipline.

To me designing services is not a discipline. SDT is an inter-discipline, offering an effective iterative process and language to combine the knowledge, methods and tools from various disciplines (Here, I like to refer to the title of Geke van Dijke closing keynote of the SDN conference 2010 (first day): No interdisciplinarity without disciplines). Following this thought, you can design services from various perspectives, such as product design, interaction design, graphic design, operations management, strategic management, marketing, engineering, psychology, architecture, and so on.. Depending on each of these backgrounds, you will have a certain focus on the process and outcome and thus define service design slightly different. For me this is one of the problems to agree on a single definition – but on the other hand this also illustrates the strength of this approach: the involvement of different disciplines and thus the knowledge beyond these.

I know that this is far away from an answer for your question. However, when I try to explain what service design is, I always ask for the background of people before I start to answer. It depends on their perspective what they perceive as “new” and “valuable” of this approach. For some it might be the idea to view services as a process – a sequence of touchpoints (e.g. product design students), for other this is not new at all – they are working with this since more than 20 years though with a different terminology (e.g. service marketers), but lack the rather open and creative approach design brings into it.

However, I would appreciate to find an all-embracing definition of service design and I am looking forward to a new round of discussion on this! Btw, thanks Fergus for your recap and link collection!

Asking for someone’s background before you answer is a brilliant bit of service design. 🙂

Hi George,

Interesting post and I can understand why you would want a definition.

It may help you to ensure that people you communicate to have a common purpose, which can be facilitated by Service Design instead of having a definition to roll out.

My experience of trying to agree or even define a definition about “something” means that you won’t actually move forward and you tend to restrict developments or innovation within the field. However agreeing a common purpose our outcome that you are trying to achieve gives you and others greater opportunity to come together to achieve change.


Hi George,

My 2cts to pull this discussion out of sheer academics and bring it to business life.

The struggle/journey you describe is something the company I work for went through for the last four years.

It started when the company took a fair number of super UX-people on board from both the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia (UX, interaction and graphic designers). .
They were able to add the customer centric point of view. With their impressive angle and holistic view they energized the feeling of “purpose” within the so far dominating group of business(process) consultants and heavy techies. But after a year the engine stalled.

Reason? Service Design got dominant….. but could not lead. Lack of a solid approach. Lack of making ideas tangible. The SD approach was redesigned over and over. We became puzzled and so became the customers: “I know what you guys did for us the last 13 years, but was the heck is this Service Design Approach? What do you sell? What are your deliverables? Strategy? Consultancy? IT? UX got isolated and frustrated.
To make things worse, the techies started to nickname the UX’rs as PPT-goeroos and went back to their computers to at least make some ideas tangible and logical. Not that it served the end user as it should, but it fitted requirements. They learned how to do that in cooperation with their business proces colleagues.

The turnaround came when the techies embraced agile development. The following example illustrates it well:

A project group had to redesign, and code an end2end process for one of our customers. UX took the Apple angle: one button control, end users rule, optimal Customer Journeys, crowdsourcing. The BP-consultants ridiculed it: not from this earth. They took the typical inside out approach: Requirements, KPI’s, Business Case and process boundaries, stating it was impossible and even illegal to do it the way the UX’rs wanted it. Much of the delight of UX ;). Still intrigued, both parties found a way to manage the obstacles: an amazing GUI + outside in process-flow saw the light. They proudly presented it to the techies.

The techies looked at it, smiled and said: can’t be done…….. with the customers current IT arcitecture. It would require huge amounts of investments in both Front End, Middle Ware, CRM and back ends. Unless…….Unless the customer was willing to see it as a path that could be developed along in an agile approach. That was the key to cooperation.

The conclusion of my personal experience is that Service Design will never materialize without close and equal expertise from Tech and Economics (business process). It will only happen if all of the aereas admit they don’t have the godgiven answers. They are all angles. And it can only be solved step by step….

Martijn Feekes

martinhowitt says:

I think there are two sides to the definition thing. Academics studying a field absolutely must have an accepted definition to work from. Someone who is actually “designing” a “service”, on the other hand, needs to focus on the outcomes.

As someone who works more with the latter groups of people, I’d say that what we are really trying to create is sustainable business models that include a number of the aspects of SD that have been identified, such as co-created value. Service design looks promising to me to help create these alongside tools like the Business Model Canvas.

Martijn’s comment above resonates with me as it sort of also reflects the position of enterprise architecture in many organisations. As soon as it gets seen as a stand-alone process, it fails. It only makes sense as an end-point view that everyone pulls together and works towards in baby steps.

Fred Zimny says:


You asked me to share my thoughts with u (after that i rt your awesome post).

First of all, i’m an operational manager, facing customers and the internal organizations. I’m quite convinced that only an integrative perspective on customer experience, channels and business functions will result in creating a sustainable business advantage now and in the near future. And that is why I embrace concepts like service design, design thinking and so on. Service design enables professionals within organizations to look more integral and synergestic.

Yes, and service design is fuzzy. Having read some books recently about the topic, I am not yet able to define it yet (oh, yes i know i am operational). But, at this moment, I prefer some discussion, convergence and wild growth. As soon as concepts become viable and ready for creating real businss value, some kind of convergence will take place. And from that moment on, things will mature in the well known – something boring – ways. Great for companies and for those who thrive on Service Design.

And we all know that, at that moment some of us – being annoyed because of the consensus of a definition and the loss of the thrill of the buzz – will elaborate and innovate in adjacent or new fields. And that is great, because it stimulates the innovation at the business, professional and personal level.

Paul Clarke says:

Great post, and great discussion in the comments.

I’d like to feed in two observations: one on purpose, and one on method.

On purpose – I’m delighted that you raise the important question of what service design is attempting to optimise. It’s essential to get inside this question. No undertaking will be well-founded (IMO) if it can’t be prefaced with examples of the real-world outcomes it’s intended to achieve. I don’t mean woolly statements of corporate mission and objectives: I mean hard, practical statements such as “when we have done this work, we expect that xxx and yyy will have changed”. Defining a desired outcome is harder than defining platitudinous benefits – we all want crime to go down, but phrasing it as “there will be reduced crime of types X, Y and Z after this work completes” is more testing. It also leads naturally to the monitoring and feedback phase, when targets can be set if desired – but critically, an outcome is NOT a target or degree measurement in itself.

And if we are to be holistic in our approach to service design (with the implication that we consider the “whole picture” in and around a service, and have some freedom to cross traditional boundaries in designing) then we also need to be holistic in appreciating the (often conflicting/competing) outcomes that are being sought from the service.

I wrote a few jolly notes a couple of years ago as an exercise to stretch design thinking: http://paulclarke.com/honestlyreal/2008/04/lift-your-spirits/ The point here was that ones “optimal” solution – even for something as banal as a lift in an office building – could vary significantly depending on the outcomes sought.

So: I endorse the point on understanding optimisation and think of it as being as critical as the holistic thinking one might use in the design process itself. But if you can’t write down some expected outcomes (even if you end up with something else) you should question your design approach from the start.

On method – I’m not too bothered what precise definitions are used: practice is everything. But it seems to me that a fundamental tenet of service design thinking must be the willingness to set aside boundaries, step out of role, take alternate perspectives (notably that of the service user, of course) and so on. I’ve seen a few “service design” experts essentially dismiss the difficulties in doing this. To do so carries with it a sort of arrogance: “stand aside, you boring old silo-thinking dinosaurs – the service designers are here – we just sort out all the crap you couldn’t fix in decades, and we laugh in the face of rules!”

A calmer appreciation of the tangible constraints (role descriptions, terms of service, powers of delegation), of history (why it is that it is so – people generally aren’t stupid…) and of culture (how to people “feel” about change? where is motivation really drawn from?) is a pretty good idea when setting out on this sort of journey.


Coming from theater, I have some trouble with your “write down the outcomes” idea (although you say they might change).

In theater – and now in service design – I use rehearsal as an iterative development tool. It is exploratory. When we start, we don’t know where we will end up.

We say, “We know what we want our end result to be capable of, but we don’t know what it will look like. If we knew, we could stop now.”

When you say “outcomes”, I would (maybe) say “goals”. Are we in disagreement?



To do so carries with it a sort of arrogance: “stand aside, you boring old silo-thinking dinosaurs – the service designers are here – we just sort out all the crap you couldn’t fix in decades, and we laugh in the face of rules!”

That is exactly what blew up in our face. You don’t get SD tangible by just using SD. SD is not the truth. Just a valuable angle.

Matt Currie says:

Hi George. Thanks so much for sharing your definition quest. I found it really interesting given I’ve spent a year now trying to build a service design consultancy.

I’d like to share a little of my journey, in the hope that it might add something useful to the conversation.

When I started out I took a definition based approach to describing what we do (to colleagues, clients, everyone). I used the words service design in most of my business conversations, despite the warnings of many people more experienced than I not to, and even found myself determined to make the world understand those terms in the way I thought I did.

But after one to many glassy-eyed stares, and far too few client bites of the cherry I was offering I re-examined my strategy and eventually my fundamental beliefs.

My conviction that services are critical to human happiness, and that they ought to be really well designed hasn’t wavered but I’m now playing with the idea of not talking about “service design” at all.

I’m maybe even becoming a bit disenchanted with the idea of SD as a discipline. What if design were the discipline, and services simply our chosen context for the practice of that discipline? What if there were no such thing as “service design”?

Sometimes I do still find myself in definition mode, and here’s one model I quite like at the moment: service design is simply the design of services. It’s about solving service problems and seizing service opportunities through design (maybe that’s a definition of sorts? Similar to the one offered by Annemiek van Moorst?).

To turn this into a more complete concept I think you almost have to add a description of what services are, and describe the characteristics of the design methodology being used. I won’t offer my thoughts on those two dimensions right now, but if anyone is interested in hearing them I’d be happy to oblige.

Thanks again for publishing your post, it helped me get clearer in my own thinking on all this.

I’d love to hear more about your experiences and thoughts on incorporating elements of design into your professional work.

Matt Currie

Hi all. Thx Matt for your comment. Yes that is what I mean. It would of course include the whole customer lifecycle. Or alternatively it is the entire vakue proposition as Wim Rampen mentioned.
I normally use Customer Experience Management in dealing with clients although this too is becoming increasingly obscured because it is used also by people who are not familiar with the concepts and methodology. Customer Experience is defined as the perception of all direct and indirect interactiins with a brand. Important is ‘perception’ here – it not the ‘truth’ but his perception and ‘indirect’ so also usage of a product and/or service is covered as are the moments when you do not interact with a company but are enjoying its product or annoyed with the service etc. And I like the fact that it is outcome driven.

George, thx again for your post as it obviously helped a lot of people.

Roy, hope you didn’t mind but I mentioned this topic http://www.omnichannel.nl/?p=1472#

Write a reply or comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *