Skip to content

Service Design & UX Design; Po-tay-to/Po-tar-to or as umami is to salty*

17 June, 2011

I have recently found myself working in the same physical space with some user experience practitioners.  Good people, nice people. As a service designer I have been listening to them talk, hearing familiar descriptions of activities and outcomes sought. Familiar but not the same. ‘Contextual enquiry’ and ‘affinity diagramming’ are expounded in such a way that I wonder “what is this magic that I’m missing?”. I sidle off and look up the terms and concepts I hear and instead of magic I read about things I would call ethnographically-based research and plain ‘ole grouping of things. But when I hear impassioned conversations about the virtues of certain approaches and structures for getting to explicit outcomes, with  concrete ways of seeing users, I think – “Is this what I do and I just haven’t learned the right terms? It doesn’t feel like it, and yet, does it…??!”

And then I saw this tweet via @huddledesign

great presentation by @hereatengine difference between #ux & #servicedesign

And all was right with my world again.

Oliver King, from Engine Design presents his view on the differences and similarities of the two disciplines. I highly recommend viewing the presentation: Service Design and User Experience: Same or Different (it’s about 34 mins – Oliver speaking and slides flashing). Or have a glance below where I have drawn out what were for me the highlights. I think it is the best comparison I’ve seen that I totally agree with wholeheartedly. Phew.

Please consider what follows ‘FROM HERE’ ‘TO HERE’ as Oliver’s words and not my own – [unless it’s in square brackets]. After ‘TO HERE’ I have captured some of my thinking.


Service Design and User Experience: Same or Different

Opening Summary:

“One designs the interface and the other the service and organization behind it”

Service design is:

  • Not new
  • Not ours
  • Just a useful term
  • Misunderstood by designers
  • Really appropriate

The world is changing:

  • From products to services
  • From industrial to digital
  • Being looked after to looking after ourselves
  • Abundance to austerity
  • Sharp to fuzzy edges

The differences expressed and his opinion:

  • It’s subjective
  • Definitions help to a point
  • Broad terms are necessary
  • The focus of the viewpoint is about project work, not practices
  • This is about designer’s Design

What’s common for us both:

The differences:

Service Design UX
Research Qualitative – research is constant Qualitative and quantitative – more data sets, analytics
Medium More physical – more focused from a service perspective on the people part, how people behave, what they do and what they say, interested in physical environments and how they work[Also, the outputs we generate are more tangible and become tools – such as experience maps, service blueprints] More virtual – more digital in nature
Practitioner mode Facilitator – recognising that services are made by [complex] organisations Technician – understands how to make something happen, and are interested in the building and doing
Domain New business models and social innovation; how does the service come together? How does it create value? Where does it go? New technology
Scope Broad – multi touchpoints, multichannel, threading things together – they know a little bit about everything, understand how to orchestrate and bring those things together to deliver an experience, and out of that come up with specifications to respond to HR, developers, interaction designers, etc Deep – understands how to get through and delver a thing someone can interact with and use

Case studies to illustrate the points:

Oliver takes us through a couple of case studies.

First case study: Mercedes Benz who wanted to look at redesigning there after sales services. The approach and outcome from a service design perspective means:

  • At a level SD it is like design management
  • SD addresses much more of a strategic question – a broad question
  • It starts without direction
  • It helps to form how the service can add value at a business model-level
  • Looks at the entire service, not just touchpoints
  • Service Design has to have no favour as to what can be done. It must be discipline neutral and exercise a level of impartiality.

Second case study – BBC2: Helping to understand what happens on air with what happens interactively.

Getting to a solution from an SD point of view there’s a top-down-bottom-up approach. It’s about user needs, understanding and principles to redesign experience, but the top-down enabled a reformatting of the proposition and how the needs, understanding and capacity should meet. So, where these met was not a new interactive service it was the development of a set of tools that were largely internal. The deliverable was a toolkit to help internal people understand the vision, principles for the experience, personas, etc which included a collaborative workshop to quickly bring together the players in the service – for it to work (that is, getting live radio content online for interactive purposes)

From a service designers perspective it was about developing tool, not a final solution – create the toolkit, build capacity and expertise into a capability internally. The outcome was to address a new way of working and shift focus on building a new capability.

So, what’s the difference?

The difference between SD and UX is not so much about what it is now, but what it [service design] is going to be. And the move to the strategic approach. “Where one will focus much more on the interface of the experience, and making that work beautifully… and the other will engage with “now how do we get the organization to think differently, work differently, commit to and want to build great services and [be] great service organizations”

To have a great service that’s got to come out of a great service organization. Service design has to engage with the challenge of making the organization better at developing services

The challenge is that organisations are silos, but the customer journey is horizontal. So how do you connect it up? You might do a customer journey, you might design the user experience but you need to be able to engage with the IT guy who’s got a finite budget to spend and explicit solution deliverable.  The big challenge is how to go from a silo organisation to one that can deal with horizontal journeys and all that that entails.

Great service organisations – context

We understand, for service design, all that you need to engage with to make the above work:

Service experience – the importance of delivering great experience, various things it takes to do that, and that need to be considered

  • Touchpoints
  • Service journey service aesthetic
  • Service variability
  • Service envy
  • Service recovery
  • Service advocacy

Service architecture – the service needs to be well-built, joined up and seamless in how it fits together and works

  • Kit of parts
  • Connectivity
  • Modularity
  • Service integration
  • Design rules

Service proposition – the service needs to be mutually meaningful and valuable to the organisation providing it and to the customers themselves

  • The business model
  • Revenue
  • Partnerships
  • Incentives and disincentives
  • Offers
  • Customer segmentation

Service organization – the service itself needs to be delivered

  • Service vision
  • Service strategy
  • Service culture
  • Service operations
  • Service training tools and materials
  • Service design and innovation process

How Service Design deals with Service Organisations

The ‘hoops’ model:

The model recognises that the journey of building a service organization starts at the level of experience. You go through one cycle of turning experiences into insights, next cycle goes from insights into service design, next cycle is service design into new capacity and capability that need to be built into the organization to support service, next cycle is the system level and new policies, new ways of working.

This means service design [as a change methodology] is a project when:

  • You’re asked a bigger question – a more strategic question
  • The solution is going to require some organisational change
  • You end up having to train people, build skills
  • You need to be utterly unbiased towards the solution
  • You pitch against management consultancies


  • UX and SD not mutually exclusive – but there are differences (right or left)
  • It’s about projects not practices
  • Different but symbiotic outcomes – both need experience, you also need organization to make it happen
  • Organizations need both
  • We are not alone…


I feel, for me, I’ve captured the meaningful points. I guess what resonated most was how SD is interested in change at the organisational level – not just for touchpoints, interactions and experience (or the ‘how’-level) – but at the ‘why’ level. So while the customer and frontline person may well provide rich experiential information, you can’t discount the opinion and experience of the executive-level person because of their ‘heightened position’ – they may not interact with the same touchpoints, but they influence and inform decisions that effect those touchpoints. And all of these in-turn are informed and influenced by the environment and community we live in – even more so for the public sector.

It also reminds me of Richard Buchanan’s Fourth Order of Design:

    1. Symbolic and visual communication (graphic design)
    2. Material objects (industrial design)
    3. Activities and organised services (strategic design)
    4. Complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning (systems/design thinking – what I think is also ‘service design’ in the future sense that Oliver describes).

I know what’s bubbling up for me is “are the above notions and positioning of service design turning it into just another business change methodology? Is it losing something of the creativity? Is the notion of design thinking dead?” But that’s for later mulling. Hell, I’ll probably even mull all of the above, percolate a little and add to this section. I just know that the touch of inferiority I was feeling in the face of such UX resolution has gone.

  • For more on the Hoops Model you might also check out form Engine this article: Make Yourself Useful
  • (Wee disclaimer: I have a soft spot for Engine because 1) I love their stuff/thinking/ethos 2) When I holidayed in the UK a few years ago Joe Heaphy agreed to meet a nobody from lil old NZ on the strength of no more than a grovelling email, and maybe the fact that I worked in a big govt department who said they did service design. And he’s kept in touch.)

* Umami = Richness and Salty = taste – together, mmmmmm, yummy….

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 June, 2011 2:25 pm

    Great service design synopsis – thanks for posting! I’m a service designer coming from a historically UX background, and SD offers the opportunity for impact that – with UX – I always aspired to have but rarely could (e.g., too focused on a single interface/interaction set). Because services inherently are complex, are multi-touchpoint, are systemic, you are afforded those strategic opportunities. A big mindset shift for those who are traditionally UX-driven is from the ‘user’ being the center of the experience to ALL people involved in the service being critical; no single entity is the central focus, but the orchestration of all service elements is key.

    • 23 June, 2011 10:47 pm

      Great comments Laura. I’ve been having this conversation with some colleagues since I saw Oliver’s presentation, and I think some take it as a snobbery-thing, but UX and SD have a different focus. Both are ‘outside-in’ but SD is more deeply ‘outside-IN‘. Maybe I’ll use your “no single entity is the central focus, but the orchestration of all service elements is key”


  1. Обзор свежих материалов, июнь 2011 « Юрий Ветров. Проектирование интерфейсов и управление проектами
  2. A state of service design (view from the top of the world) «

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: