Getting from point A to B on Google Maps

Blog Post

What’s A Service, Anyway?

When I first discovered service design in grad school, I didn’t know what I was getting into. To be honest, I didn’t completely understand what “service” was.

At the Fjord office during the SF Design Week studio tours, a friendly and curious UX designer asked me what I meant by “service design.” No Fjordian came to my rescue, but it revealed how niche my work seemed.

I don’t blame this person for not knowing. The design world suffers from jargon overload; there’s so many concentrations and job titles no longer represent specific skillsets. That doesn’t include an increasingly confusing dictionary of multiple terms that represent the same concept or single terms with too many definitions. Case in point: “UX” or “User Experience.” Ultimately, they all work together in a melding of Design, describing what designers could offer a business or users.


But, as soon as you want to distinguish yourself from the crowd, you need to encapsulate what you’re good at. I’m good at designing services, but what are those?

There Are Formal Definitions.

Here’s some formal definitions from designers and academics of “service”. Notice that “interaction” is used in a general way and doesn’t suggest online or offline activity, but does imply a partnership between customers (or users) and organizations. There’s an introduction to intangibility, but I’ll tackle this more a bit later.

“Activities and events that form a product through an interaction between the consumer, any mediating technology and representatives of the service organization.

Services are also choreographed performances manufactured at the point of delivery.”

- Shelley Evenson, Fjord
(as taught by April Starr, SapientNitro (iota) )

“An activity or series of activities of a more or less intangible nature, that normally, but not necessarily, takes place in interaction between the customer and service employees and/or physical resources or goods and/or systems of the service provider, which are provided as solutions to customer problems.”

- Christian Gronroos, Hanken School of Economics
(as taught by Denis Weil, McDonalds)

“Services are intangible economic goods — they lead to outcomes as opposed to physical things customers own. Outcomes are generated by value exchanges that occur through mediums called touchpoints.”

- Lauren Ruiz and Izac Ross, Cooper
(described in a Cooper blog post)

There Are Principles.

Good services are tend to be defined by the principles of a good service.

  • A mix of intangible and tangible products;
    (At a car dealership, one product might be satisfaction, while another might be the car. Uber offers convenience, without the customer owning the car)
  • time-based interactions created over time;
    (Responding to and resolving an insurance claim might take weeks, but requires highly specific interactions with a customer that might only be one set of interactions in a lifetime relationship)
  • the engagement of multiple stakeholders; and,
    (Department stores engage customers shopping in their stores, but also customer families, clothing suppliers, store employees, shipping companies, and many others groups and individuals)
  • a holistic point of view.
    (To deliver a hamburger in 60 seconds, McDonald’s needs synergy between its people, objects and processes in front of and behind the counter)

I’ve noticed that most blog posts, books and thinkers behind the academics call service design an “evolving field” that’s hard to define. But I believe: if our understanding of services stops evolving, then we aren’t studying services anymore. Smartphones changed how we think about services, so who knows what wearables will do to our understanding of them.

And, There’s My Own Perspective.

So, how did I answer my new friend at SF Design Week? I borrowed from the Jobs to Be Done theory and told a story (below is a similar, but different example).

Let’s say you need to travel from point A to B.

To do so, you interact with a variety of complex systems to accomplish your trip –  your trip doesn’t look like anyone else’s. These systems work together to help you; if one system breaks, your trip may not succeed.

If you choose to drive, you take advantage of government-maintained roads and bridges, licensing and education systems for drivers, insurance companies that offer protection, toll systems and many more. Don’t forget the GPS devices or software which directs you there.

You might outsource driving to a taxi driver, who drives your route the moment you request it. You might expect to feel safe and arrive in a reasonable time, just as much as you want to be in a clean vehicle with an knowledgable driver.

In a train or bus, your ability to navigate multiple systems of payment, transfers and routes (especially true in San Francisco), has a big impact on whether you achieve your goal.

Traditionally, we think of the pieces as individual products: a car, GPS, Google Maps, a taxi driver. But, each mode of transportation and element of the systems services a specific function that makes travel possible. With your input as a user, some of these services handle multiple aspects of travel (Uber as taxi), while others focus on specific functions (Google Maps as navigation). When a service works well, you engage it to help you get from point A to B.

My understanding of services is still evolving, but the more I learn about the world around me and the systems that keep it all going, I’ll be able to make lives better for everyone. That’s the service that I provide.

Learn more in my next blog post about the practice of service design.