An academic perspective on service design by Professor at Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology, Aalborg University Nicola Morelli
About fifteen years ago the idea that a designer could work on something that could not “drop on your feet” was considered absolute nonsense. Design was automatically associated with the quality of something physical, there was no consideration of the fact that something nonmaterial, like a service, could ever enter into the domain of a designer. For this reason, even today, many people still find it hard to associate services with the discipline of design.
Yet, the service sector in Denmark is one of the most advanced in the world and some services have been (occasionally, very well) designed for decades; for instance, Denmark had the first public school system in Europe and has one of the most comprehensive taxation systems in the world. Those services were actually designed, albeit by non-designers. For far too long, designers had been left out of the domain of designing services. This was considered to be an activity for managers or marketing experts. Indeed at the academic level, the same discipline of service design emerged out of the realm of marketing studies.
Things, however, started to change in the last two decades as both the private and public service sectors were overwhelmed by a wave of technical and social changes, which brought about an exponential complexity in the organization of services.
Such complexity has blurred the boundary between organizations’ internal issues and its interaction with external actors, including users and other relevant stakeholders.
The management perspective, which has traditionally focused on a service’s production processes, aimed at increasing efficiency, economic returns and/or improving personnel involvement, is now augmented with a design perspective, which completes the management approach by focusing on users, and more generally on the whole system of value production, from the organization of the service components to the aggregation of such components within a meaningful service experience.
The design perspective is not just changing the view point for the design of new services, it is also changing the scale of observation.
While services were previously designed as a production system, measurable with numbers, statistics and economic balances, new services are designed starting from the interaction between the service providers and the customers.
The management approach then had a higher observation point, in which the whole system was in focus, but sometimes single transactions were less visible.
Service design brings this observation point down to the level of the individuals involved in the service process, focusing on the routines of the employees in an organization, or to the everyday life of the service beneficiaries. Another relevant characteristic of the new approach is to make little distinction between “the servers” and “the served”: the service is a value co-production process, in which all the actors involved, from the service providers to the beneficiaries, contribute to the creation of value.
While a product is produced once and for ever, where it typically remains (relatively) immutable for the rest of its useful life, a service does not exist before the moment comprising the encounter between the customers and service providers. A service is shaped by the people who interact at a specific moment; before that moment, according to Lyn Shostack, the service does not exist, only a potential for a service exists, i.e. the resources that could be put together to create value. A bus is not a service before its passengers use it, before that moment it is just a vehicle, perhaps with a driver, occupying some space in the urban environment.
The service encounter is therefore extremely relevant in the design of a service. Its design cannot just depend on the criterion of efficiency or economic returns. Time sequences, or the knowledge and capabilities of users, who are giving form to the service while interacting with it, are some examples of other factors that need to be taken into consideration and that typically fall within the domain of service design.
At this level, service designers play a critical role in facilitating the interaction between different competences and in orchestrating the technical, organizational business and user-related aspects of the new services.
An increasing number of private companies are already using service designers to improve their customer experience, but also public institutions are now increasingly using the competences of service designers to improve the quality of their services beyond the traditional criterion of efficiency.
In Denmark, many regional administrations include service designers in their innovation units, and local administrations are using service design to support citizens’ participation and urban governance; finally, several government organizations are using service design to support reorganizing schools, taxation offices and employment agencies.
The emergence of service design as an autonomous discipline is creating the demand for design education programmes. For several years, service design has been part of other design programmes in Denmark, which typically considered services as a complementary aspect of industrial production. In the last few years, however, new education programmes are emerging, like the Service Systems Design Master’s at Aalborg University, which specifically focuses on the technical, organizational, human and strategic aspects of designing the services of the future. This is an exciting new area of learning, which not only includes existing technical scientific knowledge, but is also promoting experimentation with tools to involve people in the design process, using prototypes, role-playing, video-sketching and design games, to name a few tools.
Service design is casting a new light on the way we redesign our future, better balancing technological innovation with the needs of our everyday life.