Service Design — What it is, what it isn’t, and selling it.


We chat about all things (well, several things) Service Design. Don’t worry, we won’t make you sit through building a blueprint. And if you don’t know what a Service Blueprint is … totally okay! We’ll have a more in-depth Service Design video later this season.


Matthew: Well it's gonna be a fruit basket, but I feel like the fat content of the cookies will slow the sugar absorption better than just direct fruit would.

Matt: The harvest season is over.

Matthew: That's true, that's true. Boy, harvesting cookies, I tell you what.

Matt: Oh, God, you know.

Matthew: Don't even get me started on it. I would have to make too much stuff up and I just don't have the capability right now.

Matt: What are we talking about today?

Matthew: Well, let me tell you. We're gonna talk a little bit about service design.

Matt: I'm not familiar with that phrase.

Matthew: I was hoping you were so you could tell me about it but all right, well, I'll do my best. It's designing services.

Matt: Okay, check. So does that make you a service designer?

Matthew: It does, indeed. You've got it, all right, episode over.

Matt: Wow, check.

Matthew: I think we've done a really good job defining it. I think this is part of the problem with service design right now. And in preparation for our conversation today, I read a couple of articles this morning that I had set aside.

Matt: Nerd alert.

Matthew: I know. No, no, no, I'm gonna be sort of meta about it and say, even after reading them, one of them talking about what service design is not, sort of defining service design by saying what it's not.

Matt: Classic.

Matthew: Yeah, classic. And the other one talking about what service design is and that it is not, it doesn't have anything to do with the X professions. Leave that for a moment, hold on.

Matt: Let that sink in. The X professions.

Matthew: Don't let the ire rise too far on this one. And you know, just reading around for the past couple of years, I think that the challenge right now for service designers or for people selling service design is that it's really difficult to give a meaningful definition in under five seconds, or verbally or maybe 10 seconds, but quickly is what I mean. Writing it out, it's really difficult to come up with a definition that doesn't go on for two paragraphs. Because when you break it down to its simplest form of service design is about designing services, totally true. But that's still for a lot of people who are like, "Well, what does that actually mean?" Well, then we get into this whole there is no X profession in service design, which I understand that perspective, but I don't agree with. I think we've talked about this before, but one of the things I've been saying recently to people about it is, I can say usability testing to you, well, not you, you already know. But I can say usability testing to somebody and they're like, "Oh, yeah, I've heard of that "and that's the thing that can be useful sometimes, cool. "Let's do that thing." If I say service design, most companies are gonna be like, "What is that even? "We're a product company, we don't need service design." Which is incorrect, but again, I understand their perspective. So I think we're just in this time where even people who do service design are struggling to find a way to best communicate what it is and how it can be helpful, and where it can be applied and when. Whereas something as, 'old is usability testing,' it's often pretty obvious what it is, its impact when you do it.

Matt: Right, well, and even though service design has been around for a while, maybe using various names, terminology, it's new to a lot of people whereas usability testing has now been out there for you know, also a long time but more of our type of people that we work with, have experience with it and understand it. So it's not so much the newness, but the understanding, the frequency that they've interacted with that type of service. Not to get meta on service saying it twice.

Matthew: Saying it is part of the job.

Matt: Right, and like you said, like service and then when I try to explain it to people, I usually anchor the conversation around other services that I provide or that they're used to, like user experience design, or journey mapping or usability testing to at least use that as a framework to say, "All right, it's not that," kinda like the article, like, "here's what it's not." But let's take that understanding and kind of broaden it to explain what I mean by service design. And that seems to work.

Matthew: Yes, yeah, because it's sort of that scaffolding of bringing them along with the things they know to the something that they don't know. For me, it becomes a little more muddy, in a way, when you're trying to talk about this especially to other people who are service designers, and this goes to the people who think there's no X in service design.

Matt: Right.

Matthew: I think it's completely valid if you are prototyping a new service, or you're trying to understand the efficacy of an existing service, to use usability testing, as a tool for that, to understand that. I keep seeing a lot of people saying, "Service design has nothing to do with any of that stuff." But a lot of the the tools and methods that the X professions use are very valid and useful for service design.

Matt: Right, there's a tremendous amount of crossover, in my experience, between the methods and the tools. It's the way you're looking at the problem and it's the scale and the scope of the problem you're trying to solve. Yeah, there's definitely techniques of usability testing that I've used in service design, there's a connection there. They're not separate, they're different and this is the conversation you and I have talked about where service design, where does it fit? What's the bigger umbrella? And everyone always wants to be at the top of the food chain, which is bullshit in our, it's just, that's why I don't talk about, I don't debate it anymore because people hold their opinions and that's fine, go with it, I'm not here to argue one's better, worse, bigger, smaller. They're just different, all solve different problems. And sometimes you need to look more broadly at a service, an end to end service and sometimes you're very specific on a specific product or a smaller subset of a problem that you're trying to solve. That's my little bit of soapboxing there and my frustration, because it's really annoying.

Mattew: It is really annoying and the longer I go with this, the more I'm convinced there never will be an umbrella profession, or an umbrella activity, depending on how you look at these things. Service design isn't the top of things, experience design isn't the top of things, UI/UX is decidedly not the top of things. So we've established there's a bottom. Which if your job title, dear viewer, has UI/UX on it, that's not your fault, that's the industry's fault. I think that there is no umbrella and if there is, it's business. Our work, our professions, regardless of what your title is, don't exist unless someone is willing to pay us to do the work. So really, the umbrella is that business level. We do our work in the context and that context is creating, improving and maintaining products and services for businesses and in parentheses, including nonprofit organizations in that who may not look at themselves as a business per se, but--

Matt: And likely have no idea about a lot of UX tools and principles and methods because they're not in the 'software business', per se, like some other businesses are.

Matthew: I wonder to the extent to which you and I, the way we look at this is mirrored throughout the professions. Because most of what I find when I read things is people are very much, "I'm putting a stake in the ground, "and that this is separate from anything else "that you all have going on over there." One of the things that I read this morning, prepping for this conversation, and I'm probably gonna do it a little bit of a disservice with the paraphrasing of it, "As a service designer, "you don't design experience," this is the X part of things, "you design the space," and I'm using that very generically, even to get more generic, "you design the thing, "within which the experience is had." But you don't actually design the experience or you're designing the setting, the space in which it takes place. Then I immediately was like the Futurama, "You are technically correct." But maybe not the best kind of correct in this case, it's like, "All right, I totally understand "how you're slicing it like that." If you said, "All right, well, "I'm gonna design as a service designer. "I'm gonna design the space in which "the experience takes place," right? And that experience that people have with the space that you've designed, people hate it. Is your work done? I mean--

Matt: Some might say, "Yes."

Matthew: Some might say, "Yeah, you're fired."

Matt: Right?

Matthew: I mean, assuming you're not fired and they say, "Hey, take another crack at it." Do you ignore the experiences people are having and don't try and improve it so that you can influence the potential experiences people have?

Matt: Right, there's too much opportunity there to just throw your hands up and say, "Nope, that's not my problem."

Matthew: Right, that's the UX people's problem.

Matt: Oh, yeah that's over the wall. Yeah, I've had similar conversations with people. Some are very, I'll say dogmatic about the separation of UX and service design and other people get the blending of the two. I hate to say it, but some of it is like, where people are trying to sell themselves and the people that are really hitching their wagon.

Matthew: Say more about that.

Matt: So those people that are hitching their wagon, because I love that phrase, to the service design bus or whatever, they're gonna be more, "Service design is awesome, "it's this separate thing, it's not UX design, "because it's different and it's better." Because they're looking to, frankly, get paid on it or just make a name for themselves or just somehow elevate that to another level versus people that have or are doing both. Like they see it as a tool, it's just another method in the toolbox to solve a problem and I tend to be on the latter side. I get the differences, I get what makes service design, service design and we haven't even really talked about what that is. We'll talk about that but from just a terminology standpoint, I see the two different camps and I know people, I'm friends with people in both. And that's the kind of a trend that I've seen as far as who they are, how are they marketing themselves? What are they trying to sell? How much they're pumping up service design as its separate new or better thing.

Matthew: I look at things like, I'm gonna pick on people for a moment.

Matt: Awesome.

Matthew: I look at things like Lean UX, and I think, "Okay, one, kudos for, and I truly mean this. "Kudos for making something "and making a career out of it," right? "Or improving your career on it."

Matt: Yep.

Matthew: On the other hand, I look at it as a lost opportunity for really designing how work gets done, where instead they said, "What's the best way "we can fit into the development cycle "and still do UX work?" As opposed to, "What is the right way "to approach designing great experiences? "Or designing great products or designing great services "or designing for great outcomes." What I find with a lot of these very niche, took something old and renamed it so that and sell it as something new, really dilutes what we're trying to accomplish. I have a lot of frustration with it because I think that it's really good for a small number of people, and it hurts the people who come after or who are trying to do different work. No, I didn't say, "Okay Google."

- [Google Assistant] Here's what I found.

Matthew: No. Oh my God. Voice is the wave of the future.

Matt: Well, let's talk about service design as we've both practiced it. And maybe we can at least uncover our understanding and experience and how it does differ from maybe more traditional research.

Matthew: Go.

Matt: Okay, so service design is so much better--

Matthew: I'm not gonna do it first, you do it.

Matt: So the way I explain it to people, yeah service design does, it's a different lens at a problem. So it's a broader problem, it's looking, people talk about front stage, backstage, which is an analogy for what does a customer see? What does the customer not see? What's happening on the business side of the stage, so to speak. And I get that because I think that is a piece that is missing from a lot of traditional UX design work. So it's that broader vision and then part of service design is going out and using research methods to evaluate concepts, to talk to people, to understand the problems that they're having, their behaviors, their motivations, all the stuff we normally do with our traditional, contextual inquiry and feel visit work, a lot of that crosses over, it's a lot of the same techniques. Again, it's just looking at a problem slightly differently. And it's a problem not so much around a specific product or feature, although it could be and that's the thing, where I don't get the separation because service design does tackle specific problems and features. That's what's so frustrating about this whole it's not UX, it's not research, it's something different and new. It's not, it's neither of those. It's really just the broadness, as I see it, the broadness and the depth of what you're looking at.

Matthew: Yeah, the depth of it, is, to me, the big differentiator. Most people if they're going to be a product designer, for example, they don't and their company doesn't require them to really understand what are all the inputs and outputs before the thing that I'm designing, right? They tend to design, tend, it's not everybody, but they tend to design sort of in a bubble. And they make the inside of that bubble really great not understanding what came before and what happens after.

Matt: Right.

Matthew: Or to really understand like, what is the most critical thing to get right here?

Matt: You're exactly right. That's something I would always preach to my teams when I was more in the interaction design world, it's understanding the before and after, you're not just designing this page or this screen, you have to understand how did the person get here? Why did they get here? And where do they need to go afterwards? And all those questions, that lead to an entire product experience, not just this one little step along the way. Right, and like you said, this step might be awesome. but if it doesn't make sense in context or doesn't carry the message throughout, it's kind of meaningless. And it's the same thing with service design, it's understanding, like you said, the depth like we've been saying.

Matthew: To me, rather than talking about the different kinds of design, whether it's product design or service design or experience design or blah, blah, blah. The way I think about it, it really is about are you being strategic or are you being tactical? Because you can do strategic work in any of the noun design. You can do tactical work in any of the noun designers. The one thing that service design does do, by the way, it, as a practice, is designed, is it does really excel at that strategic level. Because of the way the methods and what it looks at are the way they're designed, I keep saying design so much.

Matt: The word has just lost all meaning.

Matthew: Because of the way it's put together, it sort of requires you to really think at a higher level, before jumping down to a more tactical level. But you can still be very tactical with these methods as well. It just sort of depends on where you're sitting.

Matt: Right, what's your mandate? And how deep, how close to the finished product are you getting with your service design? Are you just being strategic and doing more vision work? Or are you working in the here and now to sell something and build something right away?

Matthew: Right and I also, I think that part of the reason why it lends itself to that strategic or those strategic activities is where some of the others don't is typically as someone who's designing a product might be, even if they're as the designer, they may be the lead product designer, and they're responsible for the entire product, not just a feature set, but the whole product, that product is still, I wanna say just but it's still a channel through which the service is delivered. There are things that happen prior to people using the product, there's things that happen relative to people using the product, thinking about how do people come become aware of the product in the first place? And how do people become customers? Not just what's the most efficient way to establish a signup flow? But like, how do you even get them there in the first place? Things that could be happening outside of the product, that are still part of the service, and they're still part of the experience, but as a product designer you're not paying any attention to and that's where I think, again, where service design, how it is set up right now is a little bit better suited to look more broadly, to look more deeply than what people who are on the product design side are currently doing. And part of it, not digging on a product design at all, is that the business has said, "We just want you doing this "and that's all we need from you."

Matt: I think it's one of the biggest benefits of the the trend of service design, how it's kind of getting more out there and accepted and understood, is that it could influence those product designers to do what we're talking about and thinking more broadly, getting that acceptance of their business to say, "Hey, we're missing parts of this experience, "we're really focused too narrowly, "and we need to broaden our vision as far as "what we're researching and what we're designing "and where we're being intentional." In that regard, I think it has a positive impact, just on the whole X industry all around.

Matthew: A lot of, and we've talked about this on the channel before, but I'll just note it briefly here that a lot of my clients come to me and they're like, "Hey, I need to fix this thing, "because this thing is broken." I can look at it and say, "Oh, well, if we did a broader service design project, "we could ensure things like this "don't happen in the future." They're not gonna buy that because they want the thing fixed. And so we fix the thing and slowly over time, if the client sticks around, then we can start having those broader conversations. But I think really, for the most part, a lot of companies out there just don't want to know. They're like, "Hey, we've got customers, "we're growing, we have a lot of accounts. "We don't want to investigate how we got to this point." Because everything might fall apart if we look at it too hard.

Matt: Yeah, it's almost like the client that comes to you and they wanna test something at the end, right before they launch. And then you find a lot of problems and like, "Oh, no, no, we change our mind, we don't wanna know."

Matthew: Yeah, we'll fix that after lunch, everyone loves technical debt.

Matt: Right, so it's a similar problem, like, "Yeah, just don't wanna know." Head in the sand as they say.

Matthew: Yeah, but there are people out there who do want to know.

Matt: Of course, and those are the businesses that we think will succeed or be more successful in the long term because anyone can get lucky, it does happen.

Matthew: Right.

Matt: Sometimes it's market conditions, you're first to market, whatever, you get there and you're winning and you've got customers, you're making money that's great, but good chance someone else might come along with a better mousetrap.

Matthew: You found the right Instagram influencer to get your message out.

Matt: That's right.

Matthew: Not that there's anything wrong with that just, you know.

Matt: Yeah, it happens, a lot of businesses are built on luck. Do you want to talk about selling service design? Is that where you were--

Matthew: Yeah, I wanted--

Matt: nudging us?

Matthew: A little bit.

Matt: All right, what would you like to say about service design in the sales avenue?

Matthew: Well, let me tell you.

Matt: Okay.

Matthew: I find it difficult. For some of the reasons like that a moment ago, case in point, you and I worked on a project earlier this year.

Matt:I remember that.

Matthew: That was, I will say, service design lite, primarily because scope got cut from the client.

Matt: The intention was service design.

Matthew: Yeah, with that scope cut, we couldn't do as much as we needed to do that would have made it a full-on service design project. But the desire was there, it came from a very large company. And then I had another project this year that was really a research project, but it had a very broad ask, "Investigate this space, "because we want to understand better "how we can serve people who deal with this, "what we think are our problems." And to me that is using research methods to understand a service space. And so again, a sort of a service design lite project, both of those from enterprise level companies, and I think based on some of the other conversations that I've had with potential clients that never really manifested into full-on clients this year for a number of reasons. That's where the desire's coming from. I know that Nike here in Portland have people on staff whose titles are service designers, I'm starting to see it crop up a bit more on the job boards, always at enterprise level companies. So I think the enterprise companies are starting to really get it. My wish, though, is that for someone who's has a company at the scale that I have it, which is me and a few other people, who work on projects together, we tend not to be brought in on those enterprise projects, tend. And really, it's those mid sized companies that are sort of the ones that, for me, are sort of my target area, they're just not in the mindset of this is an important thing. So I find it really difficult to sell it and instead use the foot in the door approach of, "Sure we can design this app, we can do this research or something." And to your point from earlier, use the words that they already know, and start to do a little service design along the way to sort of whet the appetite and say, "We could do more investigation in this area."

Matt: Honestly, I don't even say service design to clients. I'll say that to other professionals in our network, or in my network that I speak with. But when I speak to a client, it's just research. They get that, I can define what it means for that project and this way, they don't have to learn a new term, I don't have to worry about scaring them off with something that sounds expensive, or long or hard, even though it could be a very expensive project, depending what it is. But that comes down to scope and all those other factors, but I really try to limit the language I use to clients for those reasons.

Matthew: Yeah, I do too. Especially around when we talk about deliverables. I really try and keep it kind of generic. I don't wanna say service blueprint.

Matt: Oh, yeah, no.

Matthew: I don't usually even wanna say anything like journey map. I need to say something because a lot of people are pretty obsessed with, "I need a thing for the money I'm giving you," and that's totally understandable. But a lot of times, it's, "All right, well, we did the research, "and the conclusion is, we need to do more research," "or the conclusion is, here's the path forward "for your next six months of development." And it's kind of like basically I just say, a report. That's the language that I use. I may end up making a journey map, I may end up doing a quasi-blueprint, like we did on that project. But you're right, I think for the most part, the path to going about selling this, at least in the U.S. at this current stage, really it's about the activities that we do on these projects, rather than selling a profession or selling a method.

Matt: Well, it's selling the benefit and the knowledge, right? What are they gonna get out of this project, out of this research? They're gonna understand X, Y, Z and I will sometimes talk about journey mapping, the actual deliverable with clients. Because to me, that's, I guess I have a better way of explaining it, or the people I've worked with have some sort of understanding of it. And that's been a little bit easier for me to help them get their heads around that as a deliverable and they like it. But yeah, I just talk more generic terms about what we're gonna find out, what we're gonna look at. And they like that without having to get over that hurdle of, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! "Slow down, what's service design? "I didn't ask for service design. "Are you trying to upsell me or whatever?"

Matthew: We make products not services.

Matt: Right, right, and to your earlier point, not that I've been super successful because we're in the same market, you and I, as far as the type of clients we go after, but I also work with a lot of agencies and that tends to be where the service design stuff comes from. Because like you, it's from the project we did together, it's a lot of the larger corporations that had the budget, that had that vision, that are looking out two, three, five, 10 years. Because the smaller companies just, don't have that luxury unfortunately, in most cases.

Matthew: Well, I think it's a little bit of a luxury. I think they just don't realize that they should be thinking about it. I don't know.

Matt: I feel like there's desire, but they're just trying to keep the lights on, like they're trying to just move forward, in a lot of cases in my experience.

Matthew: Yeah, I think you're right. I think they're trying to keep the lights on, especially if they're a new company or a startup or something like that, trying to get to market and all that stuff. I do think there is something to the go slow to go fast. And so in that, "Hey, we don't have time "to do service design or the activities "that would make up service design. "We don't have interest or whatever." I think, again, it's a missed opportunity, it's looked at as like, "Well, that's gonna slow us down."

Matt: Right, that's always the issue with selling any research, usually that argument.

Matthew: It's gonna slow you down, okay. And then it's also going to tell you what you're delivering is the wrong thing that you should be delivering. Or it's going to show you what the right thing to deliver is. I know, I know, I know but we gotta ship it, we gotta just do Lean UX and everything will be fine.

Matt: Right, wave that Lean UX magic wand.

Matthew: We'll just do design sprints and everything will be fine.

Matt: We'll just be agile.

Matthew: We'll just be agile, like everybody else, we'll SAFe, we'll SAFe things. SAFe is the new agile, right? Or is it SAF-e? I don't know how to pronounce it.

Matt: And we've completely derailed.

Matthew: I know, I know. Part of the reason we're derailing is I personally have a little frustration around this because I look at it and I'm like, "We could make this whole thing better for you "and for your customers if we just slowed down a tiny bit "for the next three weeks and really investigate it." And there's so much assumed pressure, I'm not even saying real pressure, I'm saying assumed pressure because someone thinks there's pressure to deliver anything. Everyone gets that feeling and then it's just like, they can't think about delivering the right thing. There was my soapbox.

Matt: All right, everyone got a soapbox today.

Matthew: That's right.

Matt: Hooray.

Matthew: Well, anyway, I'll say that I like service design.

Matt: I'm friends with service design. Yeah, I enjoy the work too, I just I get frustrated, like we talked about early on, it's just the people that are so emphatic about putting up walls between the different practices in our beloved industry. So yay service design, yay experience design, yay research, yay everything, yay Matthew.

Matthew: Yay Matt. I will say that again, a little frustration with the people who do design work is we and I'm gonna include myself in this because I am in that space. We make a big deal about tearing down walls within organizations so that the organization can work better. But boy, howdy do we love putting up walls between the different areas of focus or professions or activities, whatever you wanna call it.

Matt: Quite ironic.

Matthew: It's quite ironic, not in the Alanis way, the actual ironic way. So, stop it.

Matt: Please, let's just all work together.

Matthew: Why can't we all just get along?

Matt: Yay.

Matthew: Why can't we apply what we do for others to, physician, heal thyself, right? Or something like that.

Matt: Something like that.

Matthew: I don't know, all right, I'm sorry. It's just a small handful of people out there who are making it hard for everybody else

Matt: Would you say they are gatekeeping?

Matthew: They are gatekeeping, they're land grabbing.

Matt: Yes.

Matthew: A lot of land grabbing going on, come on people.

Matt: Yeah.

Matthew: Just help, help make things better.

Matt: We can do better.

Matthew: We can do better. Cue the outro music?

Matt: All right, good show people, good show.