What is service design?

Koos
Robbert-Jan van Oeveren

Reading time
6 min read

Date
Nov 12, 2019

When we started Koos in 2009, practically every conversation started with this question. Luckily the world has changed a lot since. What hasn't changed is our belief that service design has the potential to transform entire organizations and markets. However, there are a lot of different ways to explain what service design is. Here’s our take. And we should know, right?

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 customer experience and maximize business potential.

As service designers, we have a service-dominant view of the world, where all interactions between an organization and a user are regarded as services. People don’t want a drill, they want a hole in the wall, or even more specific: 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 a service.

*Service design definition loosely based on the definition on the Service Design Network website.

The basis of service design: the double diamond

Innovation is the process of bringing new ideas to market. It is a process that deals with a lot of uncertainty. At the start, you simply don’t know what the result is going to be. Luckily, there’s a process that helps us to deal with this uncertainty.

Bring in the double diamond! These continuous steps of diverging (creating options) and converging (making choices) creates solutions and helps you navigate uncertainty. It’s a process of learning, where you gain more and more knowledge through every iteration.

Using the double diamond in service design makes sure you create solutions that actually solve the most important problem, in the best possible way.

How does the double diamond work?

Every proper service design project starts in the empathize phase, where you deep-dive into the context and behavior of the users. Design research techniques like interviewing, observations or contextmapping provide you with lots of data about the service and its users. The more different techniques you use, the more extensively you empathize, the more you’ll find out and the more you’ll diverge.

The define phase is all about making sense of the data in order to make the right choices. You simply can’t solve every problem you encounter. That’s why you need to focus. What is my target group? What is the most important problem I’m going to solve? What is the biggest need I’m trying to fulfill? Service design offers lots of tools that can help you answer these questions.

For example, need-based personas and value propositions help to define what’s important for which target group. Also, a customer journey is an excellent tool to structure and prioritize findings. You end the define phase with a couple of ‘How Might We’ questions, clearly outlining the new definition of the biggest opportunities for innovation.

During the ideate phase, you try to come up with as many solutions as possible. Focus on your desired target group and biggest problem or need. Especially in the beginning, it’s all about quantity. Bad ideas can inspire good ideas and the only way to have a good idea is to have many ideas. Make sure you involve a multi-disciplinary team, so you get input from all possible perspectives.

In the prototype and test phase, we want to select the best ideas and validate if they actually solve the problem for the envisioned target group. Now is the time to find out if your most important assumptions are actually true. Because – as you might know – assumptions are the mother of all f*ck ups. Some of the tools we use are design sprints, prototyping, and user testing. The best part of this phase is that it forces you to make solutions really concrete. It helps you to find out what works and what doesn’t, without making big investments.

Iteration is key

In reality, service design projects are not as linear as described here. When you’re in the define phase and you’re missing data, go back to the empathize phase! If you find out your solution is not fixing the problem in the right way, go back to ideate! As mentioned, it’s a learning process. And these iterations – going back and forth – help you make different choices the next time because you’ve learned and reduced uncertainty.

The value of service design

Everyone that practices service design is convinced of its value. Service design efforts lead to happier customers, more engaged employees, shorter innovation cycles and higher revenues. However, it’s not always easy to prove this. The right systems to measure are often not in place, the isolated effect of a service innovation is hard to measure, innovations take a long time to reach the market, etc. Luckily there’s research data.

McKinsey and company conducted what they call ‘the most extensive and rigorous research’ into design. They assessed 300 publicly listed companies and measured how well they integrated design in their company. Then they compared that with their financial performance.

The main conclusion? Companies that put design at their core increase their revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts.

For more details, check the report ‘The business value of design’.

Implementing service design

It’s easy to state that companies should implement design in order to be more successful. However, transforming companies is not easy.

Through trial and error, we have created an effective approach. We have developed the Service Design Maturity Model, consisting of 5 levels. Each level has its own characteristics and challenges, but more importantly: we have created a growth strategy for each level. So don’t make the same mistakes we’ve made before Instead, fast-track your transformation and contact us.

Concluding, service design is:

A set of tools

Service design gives you the tools to explore possible problems and opportunities. For every phase in the double diamond, there are service design tools and methods.

A process

Service design is a structured process that provides grip at the uncertainty and fuzziness of the innovation process.

A cross-disciplinary language

With the customer at its center, service design creates a silo-breaking language and stimulates collaboration between departments.

A mindset

Service design is having a passion for the customer and improvement, question everything, and not rush into solutions. Embrace uncertainty.

“Design is more than a feeling: it is a CEO-level priority for growth and long-term performance”

McKinsey & Company, the business value of design

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