Image source: B2Bstories

About two months ago while I was in Namibia for one of the PACO projects, Júlia, our blog editor, wrote me an email saying: “Hey Nicola why don’t you write a post about Service Design for mid September” and I replied “Sure …” thinking that in two months I would have certainly found the time to write the post but such are our schedules that here I am, just four days before the deadline, starting to write my post. Sometimes I think that we should apply the principle of Service Design to our own lives. But what is Service Design? I could cite the definition of Wikipedia which is quite good or one of the many others available but, you know, these definitions fit when you are in the field, if you come from another area they tend to sound hazy, you see the smoke but not the chicken, so I prefer to take a more inductive approach.

Let’s say it’s time for dinner and you are with your girlfriend in a new city looking for a good, cozy restaurant where you don’t spend all your money for the week. You open Tripadvisor on your phone, set the filters et voilá you have a list of restaurants with stars, pictures and distance from your current location. After reading some comments by previous customers, you call and book a table on what looks like the best choice. You call a taxi to get there and during the ride you and your girlfriend check the menu on the restaurant website. At the entrance, a waiter checks your reservation and guides you to your table. In the kitchen, the chef and his assistants are busy cutting and cooking using the ingredients they collected from the suppliers that morning. Inside the office, the manager is checking the bills and thinking on how to attract more customers at lunch from the offices in the neighborhood. The community manager hired from a web agency is out with his friends but tomorrow morning he will present the manager the newsletter for the new autumn campaign. Stop!


Let’s stop this short plot and see who’s on the scene. ‘Till now we have: you and your girlfriend, the waiter, the chef and his assistants, the suppliers, the manager, the community manager, the web agency and … the taxi driver and his company, I didn’t explicitly mention them but they also play a role, so as good service designers we should consider them too. In service design these are called stakeholders or actors, these are the people and the organizations involved. We also have: Tripadvisor, the taxi, the restaurant website, the restaurant, the newsletter and … the market where the food is bought. These are called touchpoints, the different places, physical or digital, where you or one of the other actors interact directly with the service or other points that are part of the larger experience of going to, eating at and managing a restaurant.

The role of service design is to orchestrate the actors and the touchpoints to optimize the experience of both, customers and the people providing the service, while pursuing the goals of the business. So, if the manager of the restaurant works with a good service designer, you and your girlfriend will write an excellent review on TripAdvisor, the waiters will finish their shift tired but satisfied, and the manager will succeed in getting more customers at lunch.

The role of service design is to orchestrate the actors and the touchpoints to optimize the experience of both, customers and the people providing the service, while pursuing the goals of the business.

Service Design and other disciplines

If you’re reading this article chances are that you’re working in the field of marketing, user experience or information architecture, or maybe you’re the CEO of your company. Hence some of the concepts are already familiar to you and you wonder what differentiates service design from the other disciplines. In extreme synthesis we can say the difference is in the “and” and “while” in italic a few lines above. But let’s take a closer look.

Marketing is very focused on selling more, it is also interested in making the customers happy but a lot of times it goes through dark paths to create that fleeting smile. Marketing is almost never interested in improving the experience of people working at the backend while these people are so important to improve the quality of the service and find new insight for innovation. That’s why service design involves them from the beginning and during the whole process. Another difference with marketing is the kind of research. Marketing relies mainly on quantitative research, like average income, education title, gender and so on, or making interviews with closed questions where people can only choose between a predefined set of answers. Service design instead uses more qualitative research tools; the number of people interviewed is very limited, in the order of tenths rather than hundreds or thousands, but the questions are open to let people express themselves, to understand the root reasons of their choices and behavior. To better understand them, customers, employees and the other actors are interviewed in their own context or while interacting with the service. This approach proved to be not only less expensive but, more importantly, the source of insights for real disruptive innovation, the kind of innovation that creates a big, long lasting advantage. Despite these differences marketing and service design have a lot of points in common and should certainly work together.

As well as marketing, user experience tends to be more focused on some aspects, lacking a view of the whole picture. While some user experience designers are widening their views, UX is essentially about the digital experience, so it takes into consideration the touchpoints where people interact with the service through an electronic device but doesn’t design the other non digital interactions and doesn’t consider the role of people delivering the service behind the scenes. Anyways, such as marketing, there’s a lot in common between ux and service design, especially in a sincere attention to users and preferring a qualitative approach to research.

Information architecture has a lot in common with user experience, therefore the reasoning is the same, but as the word “architecture” implies, it has a more systemic approach that brings it a bit closer to service design. In Italy, where I live, the two communities of information architects and service designers are very close, with many, me included, moving from one field to the other.

I would like now to write about the tools and how service design could help your organization but Júlia is knocking on my mailbox so these would be the topics for the next post. But if you can’t wait, you could read how Philips helped a hospital to cut care costs by 27% and increase patients’ satisfaction by applying service design.  In the meantime, I leave you with this short and explicative video about the service design process.

Have a great day!


Author: Nicola De Franceschi

Proofreading: Isabella Sierra