Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.

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Why is service design so heterogenous? And does it matter?

The practice of service design is seemingly pretty hard to define. Many different people have spent a long time trying to develop a working definition. (Indeed, as James pointed out to us at work this week the latest edition of Touchpoint spends a lot of time just trying to convince us/itself that service design is a real thing.)

Whilst efforts to define service design are to be applauded it always feels to me that they fall short on some aspect or another - either because they're too big and try to cram everything in, or because they're too small and personal.

At the same time, despite the differences of opinion about what service design is, more and more people are getting on with it and practicing service design. I'm starting to feel like an old hand to be honest. As a consequence of this, the implicit and explicit methods used by designers practicing service design are starting to be pretty well understood and documented.

So, if we're all busy service designing, why is it so hard to settle on a definition of what we're doing? I think, in part it's because we're asking the wrong question. Instead of asking 'what is the definition of service design?' we should be looking at ourselves and saying 'why are there so many different definitions and descriptions of service design that do work?!' In other words, why is service design so heterogenous?

I've put some thoughts below, and I'd love to get your feedback in the comments or on Twitter.

Framing the question

In his (excellent) book, From Products to Services, Laurie Young provides a useful matrix developed by Johnston and Clark that helps us to get a sense of the wide spectrum of what constitutes a service.

The matrix plots the number of buyers of the service processed by a typical unit per day against the amount of contact time, customisation and uniqueness provided per buyer/transaction. I've recreated the illustration below:

The difference between the services offered by service providers at different points on the spectrum is huge. At the top left of the diagram are completely bespoke, very low volume, very high margin professional services such as strategy consultancy and investment banking. At the bottom right are 'mass services' provided at huge scale with very tight margins and often driven by technology such as fast food restaurant services or a web service. The margins, approach to market, types of people employed and relationships with customers vary enormously between these two extremes of 'service'.

There is a natural tendency for firms at both ends of the spectrum to move towards the middle of the matrix.

As professional service firms become more experienced and meet similar problems several times the solutions become more standardised, are given names and provided as 'products' on a bigger scale. Young calls these 'professional service shops'. At this point other suppliers come in to provide the offer and eventually the approach can become commonplace and can be captured in software, trained in academies and eventually undertaken by clients themselves.

At the other end of the scale, mass service firms are always trying to differentiate their commodity offers by providing customers with better experiences, more flexibility and customisation (at scale) which allows them to increase prices without increasing costs, thus boosting margin. This is often done through leveraging data and technology.

So what?

Buried in here, I think, is the reason that service design is so heterogenous, and within that answer to the paradox of service design being hard to define, yet the practice of service design being pretty well understood.

Looking again at the matrix, where do we put the service of providing service design consultancy? It's in the top left - a professional service that is very bespoke and customised to suit the needs of clients down to the very last detail. I know this because I've pitched, won and run many service design projects, and every single one has been different, has involved large amounts of client contact and is always adjusted to suit the changing needs of the client as the project progresses.

On the other hand, looking again at the matrix, where do we put the majority of the services designed by service design consultancies? They're in the bottom right.

Most service design projects I've worked on are for large service providers looking to differentiate and improve a mass service offering. There are of course lots of exceptions to this rule. Many projects undertaken at Engine are about helping our clients improve their own internal service innovation capacity - a top left service to design a top left service!

Anyway, I'm wandering off track. The point is that the service of service design itself is a highly bespoke, high margin, capability and experience focussed offer, that is constantly being tuned to suit the needs of the client. Richard K. Lyons, head of innovation at Goldman Sachs (a very, very top left service provider), talks about service innovation in professional services being 'fluid and continuous' and largely built upon lots of small micro interactions with a client/customer that over time leads to significant and very distinct knowledge about that customer's needs, and a lot of small discreet innovations to support those needs.

I think this explains why its hard to say exactly what service design is - because as far as I'm concerned, when I'm trying to win a piece of new business, service design is simply the solution to a clients problem, and when I'm running a project and managing a client I'll do (design) whatever I think is the right thing to keep them happy! Thus, the heterogeneity we see in service design is actually just a symptom of the heterogeneity we see in people who are clients for service design, and our need to constantly tune our offer to suit their specific requirements.

Perhaps this is a very particular view of service design, one bought about by the fact that the projects we do at Engine are generally 'strategic' in nature, in that they often focus on the big picture and are generally about creating big plans (although we do design touch points and service specifications too).

There are other consultancies out there that have a more focused definition of what service design is, but that's because they have a more focussed definition of who their customers are - for example mobile service design company Fjord.

What next?

Over time, I fully expect some parts of the service design offer to become more commoditised, and move down the spectrum towards the 'professional service shop' point. Some obvious candidates include multi-channel customer experience auditing and journey mapping and the development of on brand customer service behaviours.

Nonetheless, I also expect service designers who are interested in tackling the biggest, wickedest most complex problems will continue to innovate their offerings to clients, and therefore continue to outpace our ability to actually pin down what they're doing in a simple definition. Promising fields here include transformation design (as I see it a kind of internal organisational / change management design discipline) and designing for behaviour change across all design disciplines.

In the end, I don't think we should be surprised to see a lot of heterogeneity in service design. Heterogeneity is a strength, not a weakness - it allows service design agencies (and service designers) to constantly reframe their offer, adapt quickly to the market and tackle the most interesting, most complex challenges. Pinning all of that into a simple definition seems rather silly really.

What do you think? Does this fit with your experiences of designing services? Let me know here or on Twitter!
May 9th, 2009 / Tags: servicedesign, designthinking / Trackback / Comments