A holistic perspective on designing for people: service design

During his short visit two weeks ago, José Abdelnour Nocera from the University of West London held a presentation on service design. I was very curious to learn more about the topic since it was a term I had stumbled upon not only throughout my Master’s studies in relation to user-centered design, but also in countless job advertisements back when I was looking for work in the industry. I had always wondered in what way service design differed from “traditional” user-centered design, and whether my skills as a user-centered interaction designer could be extrapolated to the field of service design.

As I have understood it, the main difference between user-centered design as it is understood within human-computer interaction and service design resides in the concept of “service” as opposed to that of “product”. Service design aims at considering a product’s usage flow from a holistic perspective, from acquisition of the product (and corresponding service) to “liquidation” or end of service subscription. The product is seen as only one mean to access the service, as a mediator between the user and the service – and one that only gets its value from the service it grants access to. One of José’s examples I found very telling is that of Apple’s iPod: when one buys an iPod, one does not buy it because the device in itself is better than other MP3-players on the market, but rather because it enables us to enjoy iTunes’ offers. The iPod’s value thus does not reside in the device itself, but in the service it is associated with – the cheap and almost unlimited access to music through the iTunes store.

An interaction designer would focus on how a product is to be used, answering such questions as: what are the features the user needs, what does the user need to be able to do with the device? How will she interact with and control the device? However, a service designer would take a much broader perspective and seek to answers questions such as: how will the user learn about the product and the corresponding service? How will she set-up the device and activate the service? How will she routinely access the service? And even, how will the user terminate the service / get rid of the device?

Service design is not new and re-use many different concepts from other fields, most notably user-centered design and system design. Nonetheless, I appreciated seeing how a more holistic approach can lead to the creation of a better user experience that is not limited to the use of a product, but which comprises everything that is related to it (informing oneself about the product, getting familiar with it etc.). Service design fundamentally consists in taking a step back and considering the prerequisites and context of use of a product, a mindset that I think may be helpful in many other domains as well, including healthcare.

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