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What is Service Design and why is it important?

In our latest Techtalks episode, Zoe Cunningham is joined by Elin Sjursen, Design Director, and Michael Trueman-Hall, Senior Service Designer at Softwire, to talk about Service Design. It’s a term that is interpreted in so many ways by so many different people, and is closely linked to Design Thinking. Let’s explore the full definition and understand why it’s so important for companies to consider this as part of their planning.

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Hello, and welcome to Softwire Techtalks. I’m Zoe Cunningham. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Elin and Michael onto the show. Can I ask you both to introduce yourself? So, tell us a bit about what you do at Softwire and also an interesting fact about yourself.


I’m Elin Sjursen. I’ve been living in London now for about 15 years, I’m Norwegian by origin and I wandered across the ocean to work here in the big city, with all things design. So, my career has actually seen now about 15 years through all kinds of titles, like Service Designer, Interaction Designer, Researcher, this and that. I’m finally now here at Softwire, leading the Design team. That’s quite exciting. So, I only joined two or three months ago now. And the team is really, really lovely. And we have great plans for the next year. So, really quite excited to be here talking about service design, with Michael, who is in our team.


Amazing. And do you have an interesting fact, although being Norwegian is quite interesting in itself?


Yes, it definitely is now that it’s getting cold, everyone thinks that I’m supposed to be really hardcore in endurance to coldness quite well, but actually, I don’t. So, maybe that is the interesting fact is that I don’t tolerate the cold very well.


Oh, yeah, we’re quite good at central heating in this country, I think you know, it gets cold. But then we, we build walls around ourselves.


For sure.


Hi, I’m Michael Truman-Hall and I’ve been with Softwire for about four years, and like Elin, I’m a bit of a generalist in the things that I do. So, my official title is Senior Service Designer, but I’ve been involved in research projects, a little bit of product management, I’ve done some technical consulting, some business analysis.

All of these things that revolve around problem solving and helping clients to get the most out of their time, and to build the right thing and make sure that they’re building it in a way that is good for the people that they want to build it for. And that’s achieving their goals.

I do that in high collaboration with a lot of other people. So, in the wonderful design team at Softwire that we have lots of researchers, lots of experience designers and managers and product managers. So, working together with all these people, I help to bring us all together into kind of a coherent unit, by helping us to share our objectives, facilitating workshops, and also, helping the process of ideation and problem solving by introducing some interesting techniques and interesting activities that really help keep things moving.

An interesting fact about me… I think the most interesting thing I can probably come up with on the fly would be my history in yoga. So, I’ve been practising yoga for coming up on 10 years now and a lot of the practices revolve around creating sparks of joy. I try to bring that through to other parts of my life and it really inspired me to take on a practice like service design.

Because ultimately for me, that is what service design is all about. It’s about creating experiences that leave positivity and enjoyment, in a real sense that people care about you from a service provider’s perspective.


Oh that’s wonderful. That makes me happy just to think that there are people out there, trying to make my interaction with technology joyful. I think that’s fantastic. And, on that note, let’s get started.

So, Elin gave it away earlier: we are today going to be talking about service design and let’s just jump right in. So, could I ask you both to explain to me what is service design? And why is it important?


So, I think service design is something that is being interpreted in so many ways by so many different people. And, as always, with design, there is a lot of lingo and a lot of buzzwords out there. But to me, service design is really just about using human-centred design methods to design systems that have more than one touchpoint, to really help people change difficult experiences and solve problems that they have in their lives.

So, it’s a way of looking more holistically on the design challenges than what product design would be, which is much more around a single touch point and a single experience in isolation.


Yeah, I’d absolutely agree with that. And you could come at it from a perspective of what service design does, like what are the activities you do or what it is that you’re trying to achieve?

I think for me, I tend to resort to explaining it using an example, because it helps people to picture what a service actually is that they’ve come across before. So, thinking about when you go to a restaurant: you walk into a restaurant, you might be greeted by a member of staff or you might go and sit yourself at a table, you have a look at a menu (which has been pre-printed), you order your food, your food magically arrives, some one brings it to you, and you enjoy your meal. The meal could be good and it could be bad. You might talk to someone about your experiences and then, eventually, you’ll get up and you’ll pay and then you’ll leave.

But, all of these experiences are just the things that you personally see. If you think about it, there’s a lot that happens that you don’t see to actually make that an achievable experience for you. And even more that happens to make that a positive experience for you.

So, all of the systems that the waitstaff have to use to take your order and calculate how much you pay, even in the kitchens to make sure that your food is prepared well, and it arrives and has a really nice presentation. Even to the point on how you pay. There may be different methods that you need to sort of consider of how you pay.

Going even further, you might think about well, what if you have any sort of requirements that you need catered for. So, if you’re in a wheelchair, for example, you might need a bit more space to get into the restaurant. All of these considerations all need to add up into something harmonious and connected, to create that positive experience. And that harmonious experience is what we mean by service design: that whole thing all together is what we mean by the service.

So, if we want to create the best experience there, we need the skills to be able to design all of that together. And what we see in traditional product design is it often focuses on mainly what the person sees, and what they do, or what they interact with. But the things that are sort of leading up to that, and all those extra considerations, are often taken as a given. So service design tries to correct that by saying let’s apply our design thinking to the whole problem.


Fantastic. So are you able to give me some examples of services that you’ve come across that have been designed?


Well, for me, a really good one that I use a lot myself is Airbnb. It’s almost an exemplar in the industry, because it has just been designed so well. If you think about other booking services, like, or even a lot of the airline services to book flights, I don’t know about you but I often find these very frustrating, because I come up against corners, I come up against blockers, and it asks me to do things over and over again.

But Airbnb is an experience that steps you through what you need to get to and it supports you at every step of the way. And it makes you think what are your needs? What are my needs? Do I know where I’m going? If I don’t know where I’m going, it can make suggestions to me. But there’s actually a part of the website that says don’t know where you’re going. That’s cool, let us suggest things for you. And it’s almost like it’s anticipating all these different needs.

Even to the point where when I’ve finished my booking, my journey isn’t complete. I still have to check in, I might have problems, or I need to contacts the host. All of these things have all been anticipated and is right there and super easy for me to do myself. I don’t need to call anyone, I don’t need to fill in any forms; I can just do these things because the service lets me.


I think travel is such a great example of where service design really, really matters. Because it is enabling you to have experiences wherever you are.

And it starts in your home with you discovering where you want to go, finding this and you using online technologies to get inspired, to get in touch with your hosts and really plan your journey to the experiences that you can have during your journey and your destination, and also on your return trip. So, you can see there are lots of different touch points that needs to be thought through in that chain.

For me, maybe a simpler example of service design is something like there is this product called Tails that deliver dog food. You go online and you tell them a little bit about your dog: how old he or she is and what kind of ails do they have. They then customise the dog food for you and they send it to your door.

So every month, there is dog food in time and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to go to the store to buy food for your pets. So, that’s also a really nice simple way of bringing a service to people that that really removes some of the friction of your everyday. You don’t have to worry about planning the shopping anymore, because you know, it’s coming to your door. It’s taking away all that kind of friction for you.


Amazing. Are you a dog person Elin?


Oh, I’m such a dog. I love dogs. Actually right now, I’m really glad we’re not on video because on my way to work, I met one of my favourite dogs on the way to the tube. He jumped all over me so I’m quite dirty.


Totally worth it, though.


I also just wanted to mention bad service design. I think the financial industry is really lacking here.

When you think about your experiences with banks, we often really complain about the relationships we have with our banks. We don’t quite trust them to give us great experiences and you can see this because they really think about their offering in terms of products, rather than as a service.

So, my relationship with my bank is defined based on ‘Do I have a current account? Do I have a mortgage? Do I have an insurance with them?’, rather than ‘I am your customer for life’ and ‘I am interacting with you at certain key stages of my life’.

So, I think the banks really have so much work to do to redefine how they interact with their customers in a more holistic way, than through their products.


And there’s a big opportunity for the one that can get it right.

So, we’ve talked there about how service design is different to product design. How does service design fit with product design, or all of the design disciplines? Because there’s quite a lot of design going on already. Where does it fit in?


I think products are still super important to services, because they’re the front-facing thing that people interact with the most.

I’ve seen many service designers say they’re the visible bit and the service is more the invisible part. So I think, as a service designer, I see products as more of a prop.

I think that I can use a tool, that I can use, to help people to serve themselves, to get access to the service to and perform the actions that they need. And it’s my responsibility to design that product in a way that facilitates that, and make sure that the service is providing what it needs to each person.


I think that’s a really, really good explanation.

And I think that, within that, you can also see that there are certain patterns that emerge within the products. So for instance, the need to authenticate to prove your identity, the need to make a payment, or the need to request some type of information.

And you can see those patterns happen across a product. When you think about service design, on a holistic level, these type of patterns can happen across different products.

If a brand can get those, right, so that they can give a very consistent experience across their products, that is a real ease-of-use for the end user.


And then you’d have individual user experience designers. So, it’s almost like you think of product designers being at the high level, and then having user experience designers or graphic designers sitting within product. Whereas you’re actually saying service design is almost like a level above that you want everything sitting with this idea of what is the service?


Yeah, that’s quite a good way of explaining it. It’s almost a bit like a puzzle, isn’t it? There are so many pieces and you have to put them together to see the whole picture. Sometimes you will have teams that just work on one piece of the puzzle to make that complete. Then, the service designer looks across the whole thing and makes sure that everything is coming together perfectly.


Yeah, absolutely.

And there are things the service designer can do at the low level, as well.

I often find myself flitting between the levels depending on what it is that we’re trying to achieve. So if we’re at the problem stage – if we’re trying to define the problem in a way that everyone can understand and get on board with and that we can justify spending time on – then I will probably operate on a higher level. But if we’ve reached a point where we’re ideating, and thinking about what solutions can actually help us to solve this problem, and how can we solve it in the best way, then I’ll work very, very closely with experienced designers to maybe work on a product, to maybe work on a particular artefact that product needs, like making the form as good as it can be.

What you said Zoe was very true. Experienced designers and graphic designers will tend to work on the more visual elements or the more experiential elements, on a smaller scope, and then the service designer will move where they’re needed. So they’ll move to the MD to talk about strategy, or they’ll move to the product team to talk about implementation. So, it’s a very mobile role.


Yeah, well, it’s really interesting, because for me, with my senior leader hat on and making sure everyone’s happy, I get this instant ‘Well, it’s great to think about everything and to work at a high level and a low level and making sure everything’s okay’. But, does it ever happen that you end up kind of doing someone else’s job on the team, as a service designer? Or conflicting with them, where you’re saying, ‘we need to get this whole service right’, and they’re saying, ‘I’m designing this, this widget here and that’s my job’. Does that kind of crop up and how do you deal with that?


I think that sometimes it’s difficult for service designers to justify their full worth at times, because very often, the product is decaying and the estimation of what effort needs to be put into this product happens at that layer.

Then we’re not that good at looking across and saying we need a team in place to work across all the teams, to understand what the innovation needs to be to go into these different silos, to keep things together or to keep the teams talking. So, that is not quite understood.

At the moment, I feel, in a lot of organisations, there is still quite siloed ways of thinking. Therefore, when a service designers is onboarded, it is very often at product level, rather than at the higher level. Because I think there is a lack of knowledge of how to put together cross-functional teams that can work across a host of suite of products.


Yeah, absolutely.

Even when you’re in that product environment, you’ll often find that the skill sets overlap so much. I think that’s true of any team really. Like a few people might be familiar with business analysis or capable of doing sort of the business analysis activities. But that one person on the team, or maybe multiple people that you’ve hired, specifically as a business analyst, will have years or decades of experience. Lots of things to call on that make them amazing at business analysis. And the same is true of service design.

As a service designer, I have experience in research, but if there was a user researcher on the team, then I can work really closely with them to talk about our research strategy, or who were the people that we feel would be the best to talk to, in order to get the information that we feel is really pertinent. I can help them to tease out what that information might be by looking at other areas like analytics.

But a user researcher will have so much more experience conducting sessions with people that I could facilitate and enhance their work. And I feel like that’s such an important thing about service design, as a member of any implementation team, is they are an enhancer.  They will make everyone else’s work achieve it’s best possible quality, if everyone’s working really closely in tandem.


I think that is such a key point in the service designer is really like you say an enhancer, a facilitator. And that person really is responsible for getting the best out of all the various teams and all the various personalities that are coming together to create these great experiences. That is a soft skill that is rare to have.

I feel like when you are getting down into the nitty gritty of design, and you have your focus on creating something really tangible, it sometimes can get hard to lift your mind and look around and really think about how you bring people together. How to align people to make people buy into the journeys that need to be created or understand why something that you are doing well actually have impact down the lane.

A service designer needs to have all of these things in mind and help people understand that the little things that they are working on can actually make a big impact on a different teams solutions.


So thinking about it from a slightly different way, as you said, it can be hard to justify employing service designers to your team. Is there a sense in which sometimes you can get some benefit by everyone thinking like a service designer, even if they’re actually a product designer or a UX designer or some other form of designer?


That’s a really hard one actually.

I think there is always a benefit in people thinking more holistically. And I also think there is a massive benefit in people understanding how to facilitate conversations and creating alignment and being able to collaborate, so these soft skills are really key to any designer. So there is definitely lots to learn from service design for this.

But that said, sometimes you need people who are really focused, really deep into the bushes of things and really like solving a particular problem. So I think these two things really need to coexist really.


Yeah, I’d absolutely agree.

And going back to what I was saying about services potentially being seen as the invisible part, if you’re going to design something that isn’t inherently very visible, or isn’t very obvious, it needs that buy in from everyone to say, ‘Okay, we recognise that this exists, and we are committing to design it together’.

So when we say we’re working in a service team, it’s a team that has together acknowledged that they have that mindset that we want to treat this as a holistic problem as a service to create the best possible experience.

That doesn’t mean that every one person within the team will be focusing at a service level. Like Elin said, some people will be focusing on developing the experience for a given product or for an artefact.

But as its collective, we definitely have that shared objective in mind. And I find that that’s often the difficult thing to communicate, especially at the start of a new project, that one of the things that we do want to do is identify where the service boundaries are, what we want to define as the service and what our collective objective is.

I often find clients asking questions like, ‘Well, why are we asking these questions? We know that we have a, we have an app, we have a website and we just want to make the website really good’. And you often have to take a step back and say, ‘Okay, well, what does that mean? How are we making this better? How are we supporting that improvement through all of the things that we do that form that experience? Like through your organization’s through suppliers, through all these different things that we might not have recognised, if we just looked at the website.


So I’m learning a lot from this conversation.

Because my background is engineering, I have an engineering mind, or perhaps an engineering way of looking at the world.

And actually, I can see that with this idea of service design, you can almost apply it back to itself, when you’re thinking about how you structure your design team. And there’s a few words you used and phrases that really leapt out at me, such as shared experience and shared understanding. It’s actually about everyone in the team, understanding what they’re delivering.

If that’s not designed at a holistic level, you’re going to end up – I saw a great picture that illustrated this once of someone talking to someone else with a little thought bubble coming out of their head with a square in it. And the other person was nodding with a little thought bubble saying triangle. And I think it’s impossible to underestimate how often that happens, not just in the workplace, but in our lives everywhere.

So, I am for one totally sold on on more service design everywhere, all the time.


I think you’re in good company.


Thinking about your workplaces is a really important key thing, because we do often think about design in terms of digital experiences and what we do for our clients.

But actually, when you look back inward to the relationships that we have around yourself, service design in how we are relating to each other can really dramatically change the impact that we have with our clients. Because if you can create flow between team members and making people feel that they work on meaningful projects and help them to grow and develop as people, we can have much more impact through the work that we’re doing.


Just finally, to finish the podcast, could I ask you both to maybe let us know where you go to get more information about service design. So if people are listening and thinking, ‘Gosh, I need to know more about this?’


Well, so one place to start could be Service Design Tools. It’s a really rich website with lots of various tools and explanations for how you can bring service design into your own experiences.


Yeah, I’d absolutely agree with that. I’ve been on it myself recently and been experimenting with ‘cupcake service design’ as a new tool. So, I’d definitely recommend people check that out. It’s very cool.

For me, a couple of really useful sources have been Service Design Show. And their accompanying YouTube channel has videos all the time, interviews with great thought leaders, and really focusing on how to sell service designer and how to communicate the value of service design, which has been huge benefit. Marc Fonteijn runs the service and it is fantastic. So definitely have a look at that one.

And I think if you’re into reading, one of my all time favourite people around this area is Lou Downe. And he wrote a book called Good Services, which is my one stop for everything that you need to know about how to build amazing services. I can’t recommend it enough.


And the other thing maybe to have a look at is the government’s website. I find that they are really good at explaining it in a human-centred language.

A lot of the websites you’ll come across is using a lot of lingo a lot of buzzwords, and it can be quite complicated to try to understand what service design really means when you read through those bulky paragraphs of all kinds of explanations.

But I find that the government website, when they talk about service design, they make it really clear at a very simple language.

The other places to go would be places that aren’t that obvious. So if you do search for service design hashtags on Instagram, you will find people who talk about service designs. And that’s a really nice way of coming across content that could be really useful for you.

Same thing at LinkedIn, and also even Pinterest. There are so many diagrams that you can take inspiration from.

If you search for ‘service design’ on places like Pinterest, Instagram or LinkedIn, you will find so many different kinds of content that could be useful for yourself to draw inspiration from


That is incredible. Thank you both so much Elin and Michael. I really feel we’ve packed a lot into the podcast this week. Thanks everyone for listening.

And please do check out our other Techtalks on SoundCloud, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts from.

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