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Isn't all design a service to someone? Perhaps that can be
debated. But currently the service design genre is receiving
considerable attention and achieving currency. When Phi-Hong D. Ha, an interaction design
and strategy consultant, was asked what is meant by “service” in
today's design world, she responded, “Service design is a
collaborative process of researching, planning and realizing the
experiences that happen over time and over multiple touch points
with a customer's experience.” And according to Liz Danzico, chair
of the School of Visual Arts' new MFA Interaction Design
program, “Service design looks at customer needs and experiences in
a holistic way.” Yet many service designers in the United States do
not call themselves Service Designers. Much of the work done in
this area is still referred to as “customer experience” or “user
experience.” This is where Ha enters the arena. She was a senior
user experience designer for Method, where she led the team in
redesigning TED.com and TheApt.com. At Method she started
championing the emerging field of service design, and she is
currently on the faculty of SVA's MFA in Interaction Design and a
member of the Service Design
Network. Recently we discussed the viability of this new
Heller: I have been hearing the term “service design” a lot
lately. What is it?
Ha: From a design perspective, it's first useful to
define a service and understand how it differs from a product we
are more familiar with designing. Services themselves cannot be
designed in the way you expect to design a product, because you
can't control the delivery of a service that invariably involves
some degree of human-to-human interaction. Beyond that, services
are intangible, delivered over time and non-storable. They are
co-created by provider and consumer with the aim of creating a
benefit for the consumer— by changing their position, their
physical possessions or their intangible assets. Services are made
up of touch points, the points of interaction between the provider
and the consumer.
With all that in mind, I think service design can be summed up
in this way: It is a cross-disciplinary practice that looks at the
touch points of a service within the context of a customer's
journey. In designing those touch points, we seek to create the
conditions for a positive service experience.
We encounter services all the time—from using the ATM to
withdraw funds to receiving medical care at the hospital to riding
the bus to work—that have been consciously created, but not
typically with the use of designers, design research and the needs
of the service consumers. The attempt to consciously design these
services is the foundation of this new practice.
Brand audit of GOOD magazine across platforms by Phi-Hong Ha
Heller: What distinguishes service design from, say,
corporate identity, packaging, branding and the other forms of
multi-platform uniformity that corporations have been using for
Ha: I find that corporate identity tends to focus on the
public face and personality of the company, and in doing so, looks
inward to the values, norms and behavior within a corporation.
Packaging (as well as emblems, uniforms, etc.) is just one of the
physical manifestations of these internal values.
Service design complements this approach with an outward-in
perspective, emphasizing the consumer, studying how they interact
with the brand and improving their experience with the company
through its services. In fact both corporate identity and service
design are important components to a company's success and should
be considered in tandem. In service design, a strong understanding
of your client's brand intent and brand perception is critical.
Company perception helps get at how an existing service has been
received which informs how it could be improved, while a clear read
on the company's brand intent is essential in ensuring that a
service innovation aligns with the vision. The distance between the
two can give a good indication of how open customers are to changes
and innovations on the services.
A more common distinction I've been asked to make is between
service design and management consulting. Service design has some
origins in management consulting and often competes with it for
solving corporate problems or for innovating on services. The
strengths of management consulting lie in its rigorous analysis of
business processes from beginning to end and its ability to produce
efficiencies in cost and speed. Service design holds more relevance
and value for me, for its holistic and humanistic view of improving
a corporation's offering from the consumer's perspective.
Heller: Does service design also impact employees as
Ha: One neglected area I feel service design addresses
better than management consulting and corporate identity is
attention to the frontline employees who face the customer and
deliver the service. At “Emergence 2006,”
Mary Jo Bitner's keynote concluded with the tenet that
corporations should invest in people. She was referring to their
employees, and posited that the frontline employees be considered a
company's “embodied knowledge.” What this means is, the people who
deliver the service should be given all the knowledge
required—brand values, principles, customer needs and desire—to be
enabled to solve problems at the front line, on the fly.
In some way, service design adds a dimension to the success of a
business and, like corporate identity, can work hand-in-hand with
management consulting toward that end. Traditionally success in
service delivery has often meant offering more, faster and cheaper.
Adding service design can mean more, faster, cheaper and
better. The solution does not always lie only in increasing the
efficiency of a business process; studying the customer journey
through a service system helps produce a more holistic solution
that benefits the company and the customer.
Concept visualization for Snapsure, a graduate school project by
Phi-Hong Ha (2004).
Heller: “User experience” is a key element of service design.
How does this differ fundamentally from what designers are used to
providing over the past couple of decades?
Ha: I don't see service design as a fundamental change to
what designers are familiar with providing. Rather it is an
evolution of the field, a natural step. The U.S. economy—and, to a
large extent, the world economy—has moved from the industrial age
with a focus on products and manufacturing to an economy centered
around the provision of services. The idea of consciously designed
services has evolved in the minds of designers just as years ago
designers first recognized the need for consciously designed
products. I find many designers are actively engaged with the
trends and movements of the field and are looking to evolve their
practice along with the changes.
In practice, many of the same methods from user experience
design still apply. For instance, the process of discovery through
information gathering and understanding context will sound familiar
to designers. With service design, however, we will see a few
shifts in the way we work. Our design process will be different: we
may need larger project teams, collaboration with domain experts,
more involved design research, systems thinking and more
organically defined roles. There will be longer engagements with
clients. In product design, there is an end-date, the date when the
product is manufactured and shipped. When services are “launched”
in some senses that is when the real work begins. We will need to
provide different, more relevant deliverables, such as environment
descriptions, service ecologies, stakeholder diagrams, customer
journeys, service blueprints and more.
Heller: I'm sure there are strategies involved with service
design. Some are probably entrenched procedures, others not. Can
you describe the strategies and standards that you deal
Ha: I wouldn't say there is much “entrenched” in service
design at the moment, as it is still fairly new. But you're right,
some strategies have emerged as uniquely appropriate to service
design. Those strategies are tied directly to the characteristics
of services that make them different from products. In traditional
product design, you are designing a tangible object whose ownership
is transferred from seller to buyer at the time of purchase. So the
interactions are contained within the product purchased and can be
more readily defined. Design for interactions is also more easily
A service is intangible, so visualizing the service by breaking
it into components, or touch points, helps give it tangibility and
communicates it more concretely to stakeholders. A service is
delivered over time, so customer journeys are used to analyze where
and how a person engages with a service system. Services are also
produced and consumed at the same time, so people on both sides
must be considered in the design. Service blueprints can come in
handy to map the interactions between the consumer, frontline
employees, backstage technology and the physical evidence of the
Heller: Is all service design so deliberately and
strategically constructed? Is there room for impromptu
Ha: Services also happen on the fly and typically involve
people at some point along the way, so it is difficult to have firm
standards that can be applied broadly. You cannot account for the
human factor in all situations. Instead we must design for
adaptability and flexibility. One way to do this that is seeing
more attention recently is to borrow strategies from theater and
dance. Service enactments, role-playing and choreography help
designers to understand a full range of possible outcomes and how
people will behave in those situations.
Heller: You teach classes on service design in the MFA
Interaction Design program. What are the three most important
take-aways that you impart to your students?
Ha: I was a student in
Shelley Evenson's service design class at Carnegie Mellon in
2004, which I believe pioneered the education of service design in
the United States. Because it's such a new discipline, part of what
is so exciting is that the field has yet to be fully defined. We
are shaping it right now, and students who are motivated by that
prospect have the opportunity to make a big impact on the
discipline. Beyond that, however, there are three lessons I have
found will be useful in learning and practicing service design.
Heller: Could you elaborate on how design is actualized in a
Ha: Design methods such as shadowing, contextual inquiry
and other ethnographic tools are especially valuable for services
where the customer journey can be diverse in its environments and
human interactions. These tools combined with our ability to
extrapolate from what we see are useful for making sense of human
and fluid situations.
Intermorphable alphabet by Phi-Hong Ha (2005).
Then there's visualization. A major challenge is giving form to
that service in order to communicate its value. Designers have the
ability to synthesize concepts and create physical interpretations
from the learnings, useful in communicating value to the client
during the design process, and then later to the customer.
And empathy. Designers are frequently, if not always, seeking to
understand the user's needs, habits and desires in order to create
the most appropriate designs. In service design that desire to
understand the customer is even more critical as almost all
services involve human-human interaction at some point in the
Design also facilitates collaboration. Conducting interviews and
role-playing, among other methods, have helped us learn how to talk
to people and to elicit insights and ideas. I feel that these
skills have prepared us to be uniquely able to bring people
together, whether by leading participatory design sessions, service
prototyping or service enactments.
Finally, there's holistic thinking. I believe interaction
designers in particular have a tendency to think holistically,
often itching to solve problems further up the food chain, at a
more strategic level. That's because we see the big picture of the
customer journey while also excelling at the finer design details,
like specifying the interactions of an interface at one touch point
within a service. And then in the end we can bring all the pieces
together. I believe applying this thinking to services will
undoubtedly result in better services.
Heller: What still needs to be done to make service design a
truly positive force?
Ha: Understanding of business principles. Service
designers could gain a lot from familiarizing themselves with basic
business principles and with current economic and industry news. At
the same time, I like what Jeff Howard said in his
interview on Nick Marsh's blog: “... we're never going to
really speak that language well enough. The solution is that
service designers shouldn't presume to design for business, but to
design with them.” We should learn when to bring management
consultants into the design process and make use of their expertise
in understanding the business context and viability of a service or
Along those lines, we need to strive for meaningful metrics, not
just for the service provider but for the customer. Given the
intangibility of service, if we are to gain work as service
designers, we must be able to communicate what success in service
From another perspective, there are organizational shifts that
need to take place in order for service design to really take hold,
particularly in the United States. We could always use support and
advocacy from the government as well, as many European countries
Heller: We like to label the times we live in—think the
Machine Age, Information Age, Digital Age. Could this be the
Ha: I like what you're getting at. I would certainly like
us to start thinking that way. The numbers are telling us so
already. The service sector made up over three-quarters of the U.S.
gross domestic product in 2008, growing nearly ten percent in two
years. That growth is tremendous and signals how much impact
service designers could have on our daily lives.
And for sure now more than ever people care about the service
they're getting. With so much information available at their
fingertips, consumers can rate and compare just about anything they
use—both products and services—within minutes. They will lambast a
company for seemingly small missteps or laud another for a random
personal touch. In this internet-enabled world more than ever
companies have to take responsibility for their actions and
offerings, and to pay special attention to the service they
In a different vein, this could also arguably be called the
Green Age as well, as many groups from political to industrial seek
to shift to reduce our energy consumption. An area that I am
particularly interested in exploring is how service design can help
businesses create a non-negative impact on the environment.
Services are sold as units of use rather product ownership. Moving
toward a service economy means dematerialization of products,
resulting in lower waste output and more sustainable systems. Can
we have two ages?
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I know, I know, both web teams and people who have hired web teams are out there groaning right now (we get it, and this isn't a soapbox). Everyone has had their fair share of difficult projects and poor communication, but it doesn't have to be that way. In efforts to improve the feedback process for web clients and design teams alike, I'm writing this two-part article about How to Give Good Web Design Feedback, and Turning Client Feedback Into Your Best Work.
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