Is service design boring?

I’m just back from an interesting trip to Finland, where I met a lot of people that have done the history of service design (e.g. Prof Birgitte Mager) and who will make the next history of this new discipline, such as my friend Redjotter and Satu Miettinen. The occasion was a workshop organised by Satu Miettinen and Kuopio Academy of Design.

The first day was mainly a seminar with Prof Mager and many other very interesting speakers; the second and third day was organised in 3 parallel workshops on different service design themes. I was particularly impressed by the organisation of the workshop on the hotel experience (for the use of personas and touch points, very well planned) and the use of the concept of journey (but I call it routine), to describe the average day of some of the actors, in the workshop on healthcare.

I also visited some colleagues at the Joensuu University of Applied Arts. In both cases I had a chance to expose my idea about service design as something that should not be just the design of the “front office”, as implicitely suggested by the idea of Experience design. I believe that if designers run the risk to get stuck, once again, in the position of “decorators”. The idea that product designers are just good at decorating the surface of products that have been technically defined by someone else is far from being antiquate. I believe that the idea that designer should just look at services as experience is more or less the parallel of this position in service design. I thing engineers and managers, who now claim their “ownership” on service design, would be very happy if we, designers accepted the idea that service desgin be just related to a series of human intervention to make the fron office more acceptable for users. But I cannot accept this role. I think we should work on the “mechanism” of a service, that means working on the organiational structure, on the technological infrastructure, and even on the business aspects of the service.

Well the reaction to this position have been positive in general, but a couple of comments struck me more: one of my colleague called me “engineer”, that implicitely means that he associated me with a sort of “machinistic” or even tayloristic idea about desgning services, nothing farther from my intention. Another comment, this time from a business professor, was that, seen from the perspective I propose, service design is boring. I may agree with this last comment, in the sense that the technical aspects of service desgin may imply less emotional involvement. However, given my whort past as an Architect and designer, I must say that I found the technical part sometimes challenging and even interesting!

However those comments, and especially the second, left me with the doubt: can service design be boring? If so, do we risk to make this discipline less “sexy” and therefore to loose students in the coming courses of service design? And above all, should we bother about this (And this is not just a rethorical question, I’m really asking this to myself)?


23 Responses to “Is service design boring?”

  1. I totally agree with you. We, as Service Designer should work on on the organisational structures (define the interaction between all the system components and players), on the technological infrastructure (define the technology used and specify the requirements and processes), and for sure on the business aspects of the service (define the value proposition, the business model, and how it is rendered).

    Why should we do it, and not just stick to the front stage/office design? I say we have to do it:

    • because Service Design is not in the touchpoints, its in between.
    • because we have to deliver services that are sustainable (TBL)
    • because designing the service of a service provider, is designing their business
    • because Services Design is not delivered as a finished product, it is implemented

    Are the activities, methods and tools necessary to define the “mechanisms” of services boring or less sexy than the design of the front stage/office?

    No, they are not, they are different. They ask for a different kind of thinking (system thinking), for analytical skills and a different passion and mindset. I have studied Service Design at three different universities and I have met many design students who are not interested in this kind of work. This is the same for Strategic Design, Design Management and other related disciplines.

    The word design has for many people the connotation of styling and many design students want to do just graphic or industrial design etc. (which does not imply that these disciplines just do styling!). Design Management e.g. is often offered as a course for graduate students, as a master degree. I think it should be the same for Service Design, which is also a meta discipline in design and incorporates and relies on the lower level design professions and skills.

    Myself, and many of the students who join Design Management or Service Design courses, are bored with the other disciplines, such as Graphic Design. Which does not imply that these disciplines are borring, but if you have a different passion and mindset, they are.

    So should we (I will teach a SD course myself) bother if we loose students? I don’t think so. I think we should offer students a different perspective to design, one that discloses and caters for the specific characteristics of service systems and provide them with the methods and tools to design original, outstanding and sustainable service offerings and to manage interdisciplinary teams of designer and other professionals to implement them successfully.

  2. Thats kind of a thing that seems to try to take over any form of design. Moving towards decoration that is. I have seen that happen with “interaction design” (that has replaced GUI design as a term but not content wise) and “user experience design” (where there is just one sort of 17 years olds active weekend saturday type of experience that is acceptable).

    Traditional industrial design training, at least here in Finland, focuses a lot to understanding material and manufacturing processes. Still, many people with ID background seem to forget importance of understanding and influencing those and jump in to decoration (and rest wanna be service designers come more from advertisement world and think mostly decoration in first place).

    There is nothing more important than finding a way to document and apply rules on which the people working can produce the service that is desired. Real design is crafting the details that lead to desired service and experience instead of making fancy PowerPoint that loosely imagines the desired service and calling design ready.

  3. Hi Nico,
    Great to have you back in blog land and it was so nice to see you in Finland 🙂
    Thanks for the write up – made me think!

  4. Hey Nico,
    Lauren’s right, this has made me think a lot as well, apologies for the the cross-posting on this (I’ve also put these up on Jeff Howard’s response to your excellent post) but here’s my initial response to the question of whether Service Design is boring or not:

    As a service designer if you are seen as a decorator, or the product of your labour is evaluated on the basis of what it looks like you surely have failed. It has to address and fulfil a deeper level of user engagement if it is to be sustainable.

    The purpose of any ‘design feature’ whether front or backstage should only be to greater enable user task or goal fulfilment. i.e. to fulfil a functional purpose. The benefits of that to the user should prevent the process involved becoming boring.

    I guess we’re talking here about the old invisible design argument again. But I believe that if people are bored, we as designers probably haven’t done a good enough job in engaging them. If people are distracted by the aesthetic then you are also distracting them from goal fulfilment and the intrinsic satisfaction that provides. No satisfaction means no empowerment and no user autonomy. Which is great for the design business but not so good for the development of sustainable services.

    Letting aesthetics or overly detailed system analysis get in the way, is to put designer or engineer’s need fulfilment before that of the user. So called ego-design. If you can’t convince people of the aesthetic or system requirements, I reckon you shouldn’t be implementing them or perhaps more importantly you should be refining your methods of engagement so that people can see, feel and understand the benefits.

    As Jeff says and as your excellent post asks of us, I think we need to find a balance between our designerly ambition and user requirements and capabilities.

    Thanks for posing this excellent and challenging question 🙂

  5. If I was to summarise in one line:

    “Only bad service design is boring service design”

  6. if the “mechanism” of a service is “less sexy”… why can’t we make it “sexy”? maybe it is the mechanism of service that should be challenged as a baseline for SDer to be actively involved and for the other stakeholders to be motivated 🙂

    Also re. the last bit about ” loose students”… do students choose to do engineering and business because they consider themselves as not sexy ppl? I don’t think so… as a teacher myself (well… until last week…) I never think we loose students, we choose student, the ones who are not interested in what u want to teach are not the right students for you – they just have a different definition of “sexy” I guess 😉


  7. At the risk of being shunned at work I’m going to disagree with Qin!

    Only on the notion of students not being interested in what we teach.

    I’ve been researching this for a while and have noticed that many, many people who choose not to study design don’t make that choice because they’ve looked in to it and found out our little secret – that it is an interesting, intellectually challenging subject – but because they’ve listened to people (often designers) talk about design and understand it to be superficial. And many (though of course not all) who choose design choose it because they think it is “easy”, doesn’t require reading, writing or thinking…

    We (the all inclusive “we”) have an image problem and, if we solve that, we’ll attract people who are currently turned off and, in turn, turn off people who we currently attract… (controversial!)

    For me one of the ironies of the design industry is that only 40% of the people who work in it are “designers” (by which I think we mean “artworkers” or “people who produce nice things”) The rest are the facilitators, the account managers, the copy writers and the “creatives”, most of whom don’t come from design degrees. To me, they are designers too. And most of them, I guess, stumbled in to design. But they wouldn’t call themselves designers. Why not?

    Here’s where I think Qin’s on to something. Because design is seen as “sexy” and being a customer-facing person in a design agency is not the “sexy” job. Being the Photoshop whizz is.
    The fact is, we do turn off many students. But most graduates in the design industry are not design graduates. So imagine if we turned those people on, and taught them about “real” design? Get them at the start, rather than wait for them to fall in to the design industry.
    These people aren’t turned on by Photoshop, or by crafting things out of foam, but by thinking, by talking, by negotiating. That’s design too. And if you’re turned on by that, and you realise design (whether “service” or whatever) is that, then no, service design is not boring. It’s bloody sexy.

    Excuse me while I take a cold shower…

    • Eh… Jonathan… dare you come back to the office tmrw… he-he~

      I know what Jonathan is up to, but I am not sure what he is disgreeing with… eh… I don’t remember teaching Photoshop, or crafting things out of foam… what I meant was that if people don’t find negotiating dynamic relationships, creating values with different people, or provoking creative ways of thinking ‘sexy’ then maybe they are not really the right type of kids you want to enroll…

      just to clarify that I was not really trained as a designer, so maybe my definition of design is a bit not so traditional…


      • Definitely taking a few days off work 😉

        “if people don’t find negotiating dynamic relationships, creating values with different people, or provoking creative ways of thinking ’sexy’ then maybe they are not really the right type of kids you want to enroll…”

        You see I agree with this, but what I was trying to say was that I think a lot of people would find those things interesting – if only they knew that’s what it entailed… We’re not very good at getting the point across that design is those things. So we do tend to attract the people who think it’s fluffy.

        Like Qin I wasn’t “trained” as a designer and I think that’s to our advantage. No paradigms to shift or break out of.

  8. Consider also, there may be a perception that design isn’t “serious”, and that it is too subjective to be “studied”.
    Designerly people bring great and glorious revelations to the world every day, but let the driving concepts slip to those disciplines may be more “reasonable” and can be “trusted”. The failing here is that those connections designers have with the people they serve isn’t understood as by others. The model driven, heuristic focused approaches quickly loose sight of larger systems and the people for whom they have a vested responsibility.
    Here in the US, the best and brightest in finance ran the train off the rails, a once mighty auto industry missed the fork in the road, and the opportunity to ensure public health has been squandered for an argument over health insurance. What’s left?
    To Jonathan’s point, it’s got to be real. It’s got to build meaning from that connection with people not what’s in between. ( i.e. processes, artifacts, or experiences alone)

  9. Uhao!!! I wasn’t expecting such a reaction to my post, this is bloody interesting!!! I almost forgot the blog for a few days and now I have enough food for thought for the next week.
    Some notes about my post: when I asked the question whether SD is boring I was referring to the activity of designing services, not to the service itself. I agree that a bad service is boring (or perhaps not, because it forces customers to be more active in finding their own solution), but I was mainly referring to the fact that some schools are starting design courses to get more students, because, as it has been pointed out, there is a view that design studies (and the activity itself) is quite superficial, and somehow painless, with respect to other studies, such as engineering or management.
    I found Jonathan’s note about attracting “non designers” to the activity of design is VERY interesting, as well as I find interesting the challenge of changing the mainstream view of design as a superficial and decorative activity.
    SO, I will think about it and post my thoughts as soon as they take a better shape.

  10. If designers want to make a real impact, beyond ‘decoration’, I believe they have no other choice than to also get in touch with organizational aspects as structure, processes and even IT tools.

    Looking from another perspective (I’m a management consultant specialized in services business) I fiercly believe designers are needed to avoid mechanical, company centric (as opposed to human/client centric) services.

    But this can only work if the services are designed for effective delivery; just as a product needs to be designed for economical production
    By definition you then need both aesthetics and mechanics, emotion and rationality.

    This calls for designing services in multi-disciplinary teams.

  11. The reason we are now approaching service design is a desire to ensure that the service meets a number of objectives, e.g. customer experience, effective and efficient et al. In the past services were not designed but “grew and evolved” more as a secondary need (I need to sell the product) rather than as a primary focus of the business. As in most countries, manufacturing is shrinking and services become more mainstream, there is a need for organisations to differentiate them through service quality and customer experience.

    However, service designs that produce service blueprints that cannot be implemented or deployed efficiently or effectively, to me, is missing the target. To make service deployable the service designer(s) must have a broader understanding of not just design philosophy but also real understanding of how organisations work (HR, IT, Processes etc).

    From my point of view, proper service design isn’t “decorative” at all.

  12. Hi Nico

    A very interesting post. And equally interesting responses.

    I think Jürgen hit the nail on the head. If designers in general, and service designers in particular want to increase their influence, they will have to move away from just designing services and start to get involved in designing service ecologies, complex service systems and even business operating models. And they will have to master the intricacies of finance for innovation too. But there is an inherent challenge in doing this. To put it bluntly, servce designers typically don’t have the knowledge, the skills, or the experience to contribute significantly to the design of the larger business systems. This is not a reflection on the designers themselves, but on the lack of training they receive in the many other disciplines required to do this kind of work. The business community has the opposite challenge in that they dont have training in useful design skills either. As Jurgen points out, the only way service designers can get involved is as team members in others’ multi-disciplinary teams.

    I noticed one other thing in your post and in the responses too. Nobody mentioned profits. It’s all well and good to design superior services for customers; but they are doomed if the services don’t create increased profits (that more than cover the costs of developing them). A sobering thought to end my response to your interesting post.

    Graham Hill

  13. great questions Nico.

    My view: if less sexy means less superficial, less random, less naive, less utopian, than let that be so. This will attract maybe fewer students and professionals to the discipline but quality of the population will go up. A necessary step in the evolution of service design.
    Another thing that might happen is what happened to to the discipline of product design where two streams have coexisted for a long time: one is the more conceptual, aesthetic styling of ‘luxury’ goods and the other is the systematic development of products that solve problems for people and that are easy to use, manufacture and make money with.
    The second is less sexy but attracts great students and professionals.
    So yes 90% of the kind of service design that Fergus, Jürgen and Graham are talking about maybe very serious. But that doesn’t make it boring. to the contrary I would say: the steeper path is always the one with the best view!

  14. Hi Erik

    It is interesting to note that the engineering and service management communities have already recognised the importance of multidisciplinary education including design for tomorrow’s students. For example, the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge is promoting future education in Service Science, Management, Engineering and Design (SSMED) in an influential report on ‘Suceeding Through Service Innovation’ ( This movement is backed up by companies such as IBM and faculties such as the Centre for Services Leadership at ASU’s WP Carey Business School.

    The future of busness involves more design. But the future of design involves more business too.

    Graham Hill

  15. The idea that service design is only focused on the front office seems, ironically, a non-user-centered approach. Customers don’t care whether services are pretty. They care whether they’re effective. If United has a great web site, and great signage, but their flights are expensive and always late because of back-office inefficiencies, then the user has a negative service experience.

    As an IT person involved with creating and running digital services, I work to dissolve boundaries between marketing, design, development, QA, and support. I believe that how a service organization responds to infrastructure outages is as much a part of service delivery as the design of the website shopping cart experience. I previously posted a tweet wondering about the intersection of systems thinking and service design. I guess I would just say that, if you focus on the front office without addressing its relationship with the back office, you risk improving one aspect of service while degrading the overall experience. Too me, considering this kind of holistic thinking boring says more about limited imagination than about the true nature of service design.

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