Since I started working as a Service Designer it has been very difficult to explain what my profession is. Just to get an idea, my parents still don’t understand what I do for a living and my mother-in-law thinks I make lamps.

Service Design is beginning to be seen as a profession in Portugal, therefore it’s a very new concept in the industry. Which leads to a lot of misconceptions about what it really means to be a Service Designer.

For example, a lot of people think that a UX Designer also does the work of a Service Designer but, although these two disciplines share some resemblances, they are very very different. And this is a big misconception because if we took take into consideration today’s industry, a UX Designer is not a Service Designer.

The meaning of UX Design

The term of UX, user experience, appears with the aim to describe someone that designs the experience of using a physical product, a digital product, spaces, as many other things. Basically, everything you are in contact with is an experience.

“I invented the term because I thought the human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system. Since then the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose it’s meaning.”

Don Norman, 2017

But, because of the big boom of digital transformation, the companies started to hire UX designers solely with the purpose of designing digital products, like websites and apps. They solve problems that are confined to an individual product.

Generally, the role of UX designers isn’t to step back and design an entire service, it is to focus only on a specific product. In terms of Service Design that is considered a single moment of an entire much bigger experience.

The Airline Company Example

Let’s imagine for example an Airline company. Normally a UX Designer would be hired to develop an app that helps people make and manage their booking. As you can see in the graphic, as Service Designers, we would have to zoom out and look at the entire service because an airline company is a service with a lot of different touchpoints, is an end-to-end experience, and a mobile app is just one of these moments. Another touchpoint could be for example the check-in desk, the seats on the plain, the tickets, the food or even the bathrooms of the airport.

If this airline company would like to improve its customer experience, it is probably going to have to consult a Service Designer, because a Service Designer instead of only focusing on an individual touchpoint will focus on the overall experience, the system level – how these touchpoints are connected, how people move around the service and also the perspective of the business.

The word Design

Ok, now we can say that UX Design is not exactly Service Design.

But there is actually a connection between them, and it is the purpose of their work, designing the best experience for the user.

If we look for what it means to be a designer, we can say that Design is not restricted to physical objects and its form. We can consider design as the ability to conceive, create, construct, or plan. Design is about understanding people’s motivations and needs, and integrate them with possibilities of technology, the requirements for business success, and sustainability.

“No design, no matter how beautiful and ingenious, is any good if it does not fulfil a user need.”

Design council, 2005

Therefore, the most fundamental difference between the two is the nature of the design problem that they are trying to solve. One is focused on products and the other on services.

Products VS Services

So, what is the difference between a product and a service? It can be something so simple as a service is something that I have access but do not own.

Imagine for example that you buy a CD, that is considered a product transaction because is a physical item that the customer buys and then owns. Whereas subscribing to Spotify is a service transaction because the customer is granted access to a streaming service.

A product is a thing that you buy and it’s yours. A service is characterized by an ongoing relationship with a service provider, who offers access to a service that delivers some form of value.

The value of Service Design

Right now, service design is more important than ever, because

70% of the world’s economy is in the service sector and a vast range of different services underlines the fact that services are everywhere.

We are surrounded by services every day. As I previously mentioned, when you take a plane ride you are experiencing a whole service, or when you call an Uber, or book a room in Airbnb, or even when you simply get a cup of coffee in a coffee shop. So, an organisation that provides a service needs to address research, innovation and development in a totally different way than that of products. And this is where Service Design comes in.

The Service Design

The focus of a Service Designer is to design the service interface – all the touchpoints between the organisation and the client and all the connections between those touchpoints.

We can see service design as the same as organising a theatre show, where the service experience happens on a stage.

The backstage is where all the support processes that produce the front stage live, the lights, the sets, the crew, all of which should be invisible to the customer, but often aren’t; for service design, the operational part of an organisation consists of all the things we do to make that front stage happen.

Then there is the behind-the-scenes, where are all the intangible things that the organisation must do to make both the front and backstage possible - rules, regulations, policies, budgets, partners. But just as in the theatre, a service is a uniquely individual experience.

To be able to construct this theatre, a Service designer needs to:

  1. Understand the needs of all the stakeholders and actors in service—both customers and service providers.
  2. Map out the service through Service Design specific tools, such as service ecosystem, service blueprint, and user journeys.
  3. Co-create possible solutions or improvements by collaborating with service stakeholders.
  4. Prototype and pilot new service experiences with real customers and staff.
  5. Zoom in and out constantly between the details of individual touchpoints and the design of the overall service.

As a conclusion, we can say that:

Service Design is the overall experience of services as well as the design of the process and strategy to provide that service, being a mediator to understand how to build the bridge between the desires of the client and the desires of an organisation within the overall context.