Dear service design, what are you? | A Festival Story from Michelle Isme


Michelle Isme was this year's Social Media Sweetie on the festival team. She attended the Industry Issues event on Day 2 of the festival. Here she shares her reflections and insights as a result of attending the session.

Her perspective is that of a creative person on a journey to find the difference between service design and product management, in order to inform her career direction.

Article reposted with permission. Originally posted on Medium

The service design industry — just like many growing industries today — is having a bit of an identity crisis. Is it about user research? User centred design? Business design? Workshop facilitation? Even a bit of, dare I say it, good old fashioned project management?

These were some of the questions jotted on the post-its — from here on referred to as ‘squares-of-woe’ — that clung to the wall of the first event at this year’s Service Design Fringe Festival in London, this weekend.

It’s fair to say we got off to a negative start…

But that was the plan (honest!)

Participants were asked to bring their woes with them so, collectively, we could take a service design approach — because, obviously — to tackling them…


Katie Baggs, co-facilitator and service designer, leads the first session with a little inspiration from “Master collaborator” David Bowie.

The woes came in thick and fast. In summary, those little neon squares-of-woe pondered:

  • How can we persuade people of the value of service design?
  • How do we measure and demonstrate what we do?
  • How can we justify the cost, time and resources?
  • How can we increase employment?
  • What makes service designers distinct from other roles, particularly in an agile organisation (ok, that one was mine).
  • How can we distinguish ourselves?

All of which stem, in some way, back to one core issue:

The need for a clear and consistent definition of what service design is and what service designers actually do.

So, what is service design?

If we can’t explain what service design is and what service designers do how can we persuade anyone else of the value of it? And what hope is there of distinguishing ourselves?


Brainstorming ideas about what service design is

So, Sharpies at the ready, we scribbled down our thoughts on what service design is. And this is what we wrote:

  • stakeholder management
  • facilitation and negotiation
  • identifying opportunities
  • problem solving
  • creating value for customers and businesses
  • managing interests
  • understanding user needs
  • producing stories, personas and journey maps

Great! Service designers do everything! That clears it up :-/

But, wait a minute…

How is service design different from other disciplines?

Disclaimer: I’m a product manager.

Before that I was a UX designer and before that I worked in a variety of digital communications roles.

I’ll be honest, one of the reasons I’m attending — and volunteering for — the Service Design Fringe Festival is to get a better understanding of the difference between a product manager and a service designer, so I can figure out where I want to take my career.

The ideas about what service design is, listed above, are all valid points but I couldn’t help but look at them and think, “yeah, me too”.

For instance, in my last interview I was asked to identify a poor user journey and make recommendations for how I’d improve it. To meet the challenge, I mapped out the as-is user journey to identify pain points and problems. I surveyed over 80 users to create personas and stories. Then I used all of this to identify opportunities to improve the experience and add value.

And I got the job… as a product manager.

So, what exactly makes service design different to other roles? To help move things along, and coming from the North where we like a good moan, I suggested the group identify:

What service design is not…

We often have stronger, more concrete ideas about what we don’t do or like. For instance, I‘m not a huge fan of beetroot but when it’s in a smoothie with a bunch of stuff I do like, I’ll happily tolerate it… And when it’s baked into a delicious chocolate and beetroot cake, I pity any poor soul that stands between us. But mushy peas? No. ABSOLUTELY NOT. Never, ever gonna happen.


Mushy peas / peas turned into mush — why?

So, we repeated the exercise — mushy pea style — with the group listing all the things service design is not. And these things aren’t service design:

  • marketing
  • brand strategy
  • change management

This seems to suggest that service design is commonly mistaken for these three industries. With more time, I think it would have been useful for the group to dig a bit deeper into each of these — why do people think service design means marketing or change management? Is there overlap with these industries and what is it? Is the language we use to describe service design too similar to the language used by these other industries? Or is it simply that as humans we have a tendency to link what we don’t know to something we do know about, in order to help us understand it?

What isn’t a service designer?

Interestingly, most of the suggestions from the above exercise were about what a service designer is not — rather than the broader service design industry — and they all happen to be other roles…

  • Graphic/product/UI designer — some service designers may have a background in one of those disciplines and be visual thinkers but when, for example, was the last time you heard of a graphic designer designing a way to make it easier to live with dementia?
  • HR consultant — employee experience is a part of service design but it’s not the job of a service designer to hire or fire people. The result of a service designer’s work may, however, lead to a change that makes it easier for an employee to carry out a set of tasks and therefore improve employee satisfaction.
  • Service analyst — service designers look at all the ways a person comes into contact with a service whereas a service analyst may focus specifically on improving customer service or the operation of services.
  • Domain expert — having some domain knowledge doesn’t hurt but unless you’re working in-house it’s unlikely you’ll be an expert in all the domains you encounter. Service designers look at a service from end-to-end and speak to as many people as possible that are involved along the way — this helps them understand the problems and opportunities facing the service rather than just the domain.
  • Web developer — service designers might identify technology as an opportunity to improve a service but it is not their job to build it, just like a supermarket doesn’t grow, process and package every item it sells.
  • …and my favourite: a powerpoint designer — see below picture.

Did someone just say service designers are powerpoint designers? Co-facilitator and curator Christopher French.

I’m going to take a wild guess that the participants in the room have had to explain, at one point or another, why what they do is different to one of the roles listed above. And I can empathise because I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to explain the difference between a project manager and a product manager (more on that below).

However, it also makes me wonder if the problem of defining what we do is not limited to just those working in new or digital careers. After all, if a robot files our tax returns how do we define the work of an accountant, let alone describe where they add value?


So, what makes a service designer different to a product manager?

Product management is about the product. Good product managers champion their users — they understand their needs and who they are (including when they’re offline)—and they do this to identify and prioritise features that solve problems… Through their product.

Service designers look at the whole organisation, from customer and employee experiences to technology and operational functions, to identify opportunities to solve problems and add value. Product might be a part of that but it’s not the whole story.


As one participant put it:

“Having a holistic view of everything that’s happening is one our greatest strengths!

For example, a digital product that offers a quick and easy experience for booking or changing a hospital appointment won’t help the patient when they’re met by grumpy staff or a dirty ward. In this case, a service designer might look at why the staff are grumpy — is it because they‘re overworked? Are they overworked because they never receive a finalised list of patients in time to allocate the right amount of staff to a ward? Is the lack of staff the reason the ward is dirty? For more (and real) examples of service design check out this Design Week article.

As for project management?

Project management, generally speaking, is about completing a project on time and to budget. There is a start and end date for a defined piece of work. But both service design and product management are iterative. They don’t have a clear finishing line, they keep evolving as the needs of their stakeholders and the industries they operate in changes.

In conclusion?

Service design and the work of service designers is hard to define and this leaves room for assumptions and comparison with other industries and disciplines.

Listing all the tasks service design does or could include doesn’t make things clearer. Neither does explaining how a service designer is different to, for example, a project manager or UI designer — that’s useful for people doing those jobs but offers little insight for people who don’t really know what a project manager or UI designer do.

So, setting some boundaries and being able to offer a definition — even if it changes over time — can only help people better understand the service design industry.

Here’s an example definition you can use, taken from the Service Design Fringe Festival website:

Service design is a set of principles and methods used to create services. Service designers work directly with the users of a service, designing with them in a process which includes user research, idea generation, prototyping & testing.

If you don’t like it, there are plenty more definitions scattered across the internet including these excellent drawings!

But definitions only go so far.

Real examples of service design in practice is the best way to show how the industry adds value. One participant summed this up when they said:

We must break down the silos in the service design industry — blogging, being open about what we’re working on, what we’re learning, running show & tells... All of these things will help people to really ‘get’ what we do.

For inspiration, take a look at how Newham Council are using Medium to blog about what they’re up to.

But as technology continues to change the world of work (← a couple of years old but still worth a read!) and the boundaries of many jobs become ever more fluid, it’s much harder to pin down a definition for the role of a service designer.

This is largely because the role of a service designer changes, depending on the evolving needs of an organisation and all the people who interact with it… This flexibility is part of a service designer’s value.

As one participant put it:

“As service designers we are strategists but we go beyond just strategy. We’re also makers. We’re the umbrella across customer experience, user research, product and operations. ”

The role of a service designer also depends on the service designer that is doing it. As the exercises highlighted in this article show, a service designer needs to have a multitude of skills but — like all good T-shaped people — they will excel in some areas more than others.

So, knowing what you — as a service designer — are not and what you don’t do is perhaps more valuable than trying to define exactly what you do do.

The service design community should also learn from the mistakes of the product management community and avoid grandiose definitions of what they do — product managers are not CEOs and service designers aren’t saving the world (sorry!).

But one thing is clear — service designers are definitely not powerpoint designers.