UX Design and Service Design are Growing Ever Closer | October 13, 2016

For the longest time I’ve maintained that Service Design was a specific discipline, distinct from UX Design. It’s true that they have a lot in common, like the way both fields approach problems through a user-centred lens. They also use many of the same tools, such as design games and personas. Even some of their distinctive tools, like the service delivery blueprint have similarities with our own user journey maps. But if you spent any time with a credible Service Design agency five or ten years ago, you’d easily spot the differences.

User Experience agencies typically came from a digital background, and were filled with information architects, interaction designers and usability specialists. We primarily focussed on creating products and services with a digital interface, along with the service ecosystem that supported them.

By comparison, European Service Design agencies did a lot of work on the delivery of public services—presumably because the public sector is so strong in the UK—while their US counterparts looked more towards the in-store experience. It wasn’t unusual to find a Service Design consultancy staffed with industrial designers, set-designers and commercial architects.

The two disciplines clearly shared the same ancestry, but somewhere along the evolutionary tree, they took a slightly different branch. Look at a typical UX agency and their portfolio will be full of publishing websites, mobile apps, and startups, while Service Design consultancies are more likely to show phone systems, airline check-in procedures, and better ways to deliver healthcare.

On the surface these outputs may look very different. However, as digital technology increasingly provides the platform on which these services are built, the differences are slowly being stripped away.

Just think about it. What is Uber if not a cleverly crafted service that matches car owners looking for a bit of extra cash to people looking for a ride? The interface may be digital, but make no mistake that this is a carefully choreographed piece of Service Design with lots of stuff happening behind the scenes.

Now look at the airline check-in experience. On the surface it may look like a traditional Service Design project. Dig a bit deeper however, and you’ll see that almost all of the people turning up to the desk bought their tickets online, checked-in via the airline website or mobile app, and either printed out their own boarding passes, or have them stored on their mobile phones. Surely this is a classic User Experience project?

As digital has become one of the primary ways of delivering a service experience, Service Design agencies have needed to become more digital, while digital agencies have needed to become more service oriented, to the point that it’s getting harder to differentiate the two. So much so that, at its highest level, User Experience Design has become indistinguishable from Service Design.

I’ve resisted this sentiment for a while, not least because I think the distinction still provides value to clients. However this value is rapidly diminishing as the industry continues to misunderstand and misrepresent what UX Designers do, incorrectly applying the UX label to interaction designers and digital generalists.

Government Digital Services took the decision to adopt the term Service Designer, because they understand the language of government is one of delivering services rather than products or experiences. I suspect many traditional companies feel the same way.

I expect to see more and more high end consultancies adopt the language of digital service design, as opposed to product design or experience design, to better explain what they do and separate themselves from the herd. What existing Service Design agencies will think of this trend is anybody’s guess. Will they embrace this new influx of digital service designers, or push back? Whatever happens, I have a feeling that this change is inevitable.

Posted at October 13, 2016 1:30 PM