The difference between design thinking and Service Design

Robbert-Jan van Oeveren

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3 min read

Oct 23, 2021

Sometimes our playing field seems to be dominated by jargon. But what do these words actually mean? A common question people ask us, is: What is the difference between design thinking and Service Design? As even the names are pretty similar and they both revolve around the same principles, it’s a valid question. So, to get a better understanding, let’s first have a look at both design thinking and service design, before we compare the two.

Definition of design thinking.

Design thinking is an approach to solve complex problems in a user-centered way. It’s a hands-on approach, following a structured process to come to innovate solutions. Using an elaborate set of design tools, design thinking brings together what is desirable from a user’s point of view, technologically feasible and economically viable.

Design thinking can be applied to a wide variety of fields, most obvious the field of product and service innovation. But, not so obvious areas like politics, human resources and education are more and more working with design thinking and delivering tangible results.

*Design thinking definition based on Tim Brown’s ‘Change by design.’

Solutions should be feasible, viable and desirable

The definition of Service Design.

Service Design is the practical and creative application of design tools and methods with the goal to develop or improve services. It is the activity of orchestrating people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to create value for all stakeholders involved, build a distinctive brand experience and maximise business potential.

As the definition already states, Service Design is applied to develop or improve services. Service Designers have a service-oriented view of the world, where all interactions between a brand and a user are regarded as services. E.g. looking at a drill: people don’t want a drill, they want the service of making a hole in the wall, or even more: they want to keep the memory of their grandmother alive by hanging a frame to the wall. The drill is just a material component to deliver the service.

More information about Service Design? Check out our blog ‘What is service design?‘.

“Service Design is the practical application of design thinking to the development of services”

Design thinking versus Service Design.

So, looking at both methodologies, there are actually more similarities than differences. To name a few important ones:

  • Both methodologies are very well suited to handle the complex, ambiguous phases at the beginning of the innovation process, where uncertainty rules (the fuzzy front end).
  • Both are truly user-centered and rely heavily on empathising with users.
  • The processes are very similar. E.g. at Koos we use the design thinking process as described by the of Stanford – Emphatise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test – as the basis for each project.
  • Both use the left and the right brain, creative and analytical thinking, throughout the process in a thinking and doing approach.
  • Both require to involve multidisciplinary teams and have the ability to make people work together in order to maximise support and draw from different expertises.

So what is the difference between the two then?

As we see it as Koos: Service Design is the practical application of design thinking to the development of services. However, the biggest difference is in the practitioners.

  • Design thinking is mostly practiced by non-designers. It’s more about a mindset, a way of thinking. It is about using a process of diverging and converging to solve a wide range of problems. A lot of ‘soft’ factors are involved, like team dynamics, changing mindsets and user-centricity.
  • Service Design is mostly practiced by designers. It makes use of more elaborate and extensive design methods, focuses on the development of services and can directly impact all facets of an organisation. Applying tools is important and business objectives are service related, like increasing NPS or minimising churn.

I think it’s no big surprise that we chose the term ‘Service Design’ at Koos.

Want to continue the conversation with Robbert-Jan? Contact the Amsterdam office!

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