What is service design?
I’ve been playing around with the idea of writing this post for a while, well I guess on and off for about a year! What started as a wish to understand more has, if I’m really honest, progressed into a minor irritation at the lack of clarity and then just before Christmas I had a phone conversation with Mike Baldwin where I found myself attempting to both define and defend/promote service design as a discipline. Mike was asking great questions; now I’m a little biased and think that Mike is a) one of the good guys b) intelligent and interesting and c) questioning and not ready to just accept an opinion without some substance to back it up. Mike is interested in health and value, he is also interested in research, evidence and rigour and several of our conversations have focused on health care and improving services, drawing heavily for me on my Dad’s experience of cancer, you can read more about that here!
Anyway, when I talk to Mike I realise I’m not the only person who is sceptical and looking for proof when it comes to service design. In fact maybe Mike is, like me, a service design agnostic! I’m not going to recount all of the conversation or questions that Mike and I were batting around but the starting point was pretty much as follows:
> What is service design?
> How strategic is service design?
> What functions is service design optimising? Is it a focus on efficiency, effectiveness, economic imperatives or something else?
For now I’m just going to focus on my attempts to answer the first question. Luckily for me I’d recently attended ServDes conference (you can read more of my thoughts on that here) and so probably felt as well equipped as I’d done in a long time to attempt to define service design as I’d been exposed to many different views and approaches to it. I’d also debated, discussed and extrapolated in the pub the very essence of what a service designer is, the consensus conclusion being there’s no such thing as a service designer! Those conversations had also exposed me to many of the subtleties behind the belief that defining the discipline limits its development – more of that below.
Perhaps most importantly though I had a secret weapon! I had in my possession a brand new shiny copy of This is Service Design Thinking which is available to buy now from the publishers and which I’ll blog about soon – it’s ace, go buy it. TiSDT was launched at ServDes and consequently a copy was given to each attendee at ServDes as a gift :) I’d already skim read most of it and devoured the opening chapter from Marc Stickdorn (Marc is one of the two editors – along with Jakob Schneider) and so I was confident he’d have the answer.
TiSDT definition chapter opens as follows:
If you would ask ten people what service design is, you would end up with eleven different answers – at least.
Service design is an interdisciplinary approach that combines different methods and tools from various disciplines. It is a new way of thinking as opposed to a new stand-alone academic discipline. Service design is an evolving approach, this is particularly apparent in the fact that, as yet, there is no common definition or clearly articulated language of service design. [Stickdorn, 2010, 29]
Marc goes on to explain their decision not to just define service design; this is based on an acknowledgement of the need for a common language alongside the concern that by imposing a definition the discipline is in some way being constrained or limited. TiSDT offers a number of different views of what service design is with definitions from a number of institutes, industry bodies, academics and design agencies. What is then provided as a really useful starting point are five principles of service design thinking. Service design thinking is: user centred, co-creative, sequencing, evidencing and holistic.
To set my stall out I think TiSDT is great, I love my copy, I think it has a wealth of information and ideas within it and has already helped me to have confidence to introduce service design to people and defend it when questioned. It introduces a number of fields of activity that implement a range of service design thinking, these include product design, graphic design, interaction design, social design, strategic management, operations management and design ethnography. Each of these fields have a chapter where they are briefly introduced and their relationship to services specified. For me this is really useful stuff. I do however struggle with the notion that defining the discipline would somehow limit it. TiSDT includes a quote from Buchanan (2001) that implies defining design would potentially lead to lethargy or death of the topic in hand and Marc offers the same concern “A single definition of service design might constrain this evolving approach”.
**Disclaimer** At this stage I had a really useful conversation with @fergusbisset – thanks Ferg. He nudged me in the direction of reading Buchanan’s paper for myself and also warned me about opening a can of worms that had seemingly settled down. I understand from him, from some of the people I spoke with at ServDes and from Buchanan’s writing that many hours have been spent on these discussions already, therefore continue this post with a little trepidation. I’m not wanting to rake over old ground but I have yet to find the answer I’m after and have not been involved with the discussions to date, so bear with me
To me Buchanan makes a far more balanced argument than the use of the quote in the book implies. In fact he follows his statement with the following:
However, I believe that definitions are critical for advancing inquiry, and we must face that responsibility regularly in design, even if we discard a definition from time to time and introduce new ones. [Buchanan, 2001, 8]
Buchanan addresses the purpose and use of definitions, classifying them as descriptive or formal. Descriptive definitions, as pointed out by Buchanan, are incredibly useful for acknowledging the influences on a discipline – TiSDT is great at doing this, throughout the book many descriptive definitions are offered and many insights can be gained from that. As I said earlier this is incredibly useful, especially for someone without formal design training or knowledge.
Descriptive definitions also tend to carry emotional weight, they are great for describing what something is or isn’t (stating the obvious I know), but I think for those of us who are more comfortable with an academic or research approach or who are seeking a more formal definition or who simply wish to present a pragmatic, rationed argument as to why they should invest money in something, a formal definition is required. Buchanan offers the following formal definition of design:
Design is the human power of conceiving, planning, and making products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of their individual and collective purposes. [Buchanan, 2001, 9]
Buchanan situates his definition within Aristotelian causes. Human power is the agency of action, conceiving, planning and making the final cause – the end goal that design is focused on, products (in the broadest sense) are the outcomes, the formal cause and accomplishment of individual or collective purpose is the material cause, as human needs, activities and aspirations provide the subject matter. If this definition is adopted the scope of application is pretty much universal and as wide ranging as it gets – I’m absolutely convinced that this could be adapted and used as a formal definition for service design, without limiting it’s potential.
But why do I care? I think by failing to offer a formal definition, rather than limit the development of the discipline by applying unnecessary constraints and restricting creativity, my concern is that there is a risk that the discipline is being limited by its inability to communicate it’s value and worth in a way that different audiences can understand.
Where does all of this leave me, and I imagine Mike? Well we’re not designers but we are interested in the potential of service design. We have an interest in science – physical and social, economics, psychology, health and social care, research and rigour, evaluation and value. We are both also interested in ethics and how these are addressed. It was no coincidence to me that many of the concerns and questions that Mike was raising in our conversation were ones I’ve questioned myself many times before: how do we know if service design is ethical and/or safe? how can we identify a good service design practitioner? is service design essentially just marketing? is service design essentially just ethnography? is it about aesthetics or something more? what is the relationship between service designer, client and end user? what evidence are policy makers using to decide on the role that service design can/should play? is there clear evidence that it works? how does service design represent uncertainty? what is value and how do we know if service design will bring good value for our organisations?
As I said at the start of this post, I feel that there is a value in looking at the design of services. I feel more confident now to try and articulate that value – in no small part with thanks to ServDes, TiSDT and conversations and questions with and from many people especially @fergusbisset @segelstrom @designthinkers @grahamhill @adamstjohn @rufflemuffin @mrstickdorn @iterations and of course @mikey3982. I would however still like to see a formal definition that I can readily wheel out when someone asks, even if in time it becomes outdated or unhelpful. For now I have the beautiful This is Service Design Thinking that not only contains a wealth of information but also dazzles anyone who looks at it by it’s layout and design….thereby convincing them of the value in and of itself; maybe that’s it, maybe @jakoblies work on TiSDT and the resulting beautiful aesthetically appealing design is actually all that is required, I guess time will tell, they certainly help :)
I’m sure that I’ll come back to these thoughts as I continue to try and incorporate elements of design and thinking around designing services into my own professional work, so I’d really welcome your thoughts, reflections and any definitions that you find particularly useful. Thank you for taking the time to read this epic post.
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