How Service Design Extends Other Disciplines

SD Meetup DC

SD Meetup DC


In early December I had the opportunity to speak to The Service Design Network’s community in D.C. about how service design is not different from other disciplines, but rather a cross-disciplinary extension. Well-known in Europe, service design has begun to take hold in the U.S. and Asia. Rightfully so, because it’s a powerful concept. Many people tend to be unsure of the differences between service design, user experience, employee experience, marketing, Six Sigma, change management — the list goes on. My talk started by clarifying this common misconception.

What is Service Design?

At its core, service design is about planning and organizing all aspects of your organization — people, infrastructure, communication, and operations — to improve the quality and interaction between you and your customers. Service design offers the ability to explore new opportunities across the broad range of how employees and customers interact with your organization. Most competitive organizations include service layers that reach across organizational divisions of labor, often exposing the fault lines between the digital and physical parts of an ecosystem. Service design requires the careful orchestration of screens, processes, hiring practices, and organizational procedures to enable employees to perform a service over time reliably and in a manner that the customer views as seamless.

My “SD Core Competencies” has evolved from a set created by Robert Bau in 2012.

For example, in-store pickup is a fairly common service. Leading up to the moment of delivery, employees and consumers use voice and screen-based systems requiring an intuitive interface with a content strategy that delivers a consistent brand personality. Store employees need to be hired, trained, and measured in a way that empowers them to make decisions in the critical moments of truth when a customer is there to pick up their purchase. In this common retail scenario, we can see how services touch many parts of a business that you have probably worked with in the past. However, there are probably parts of this scenario your work may not have touched.

Approaching complex problems with service design creates a better, more sustainable ecosystem and competitive advantage. It’s an exciting, holistic approach to problem-solving for all digital and physical components of how an organization lives, offering the flexibility to adapt to competitive shifts. Employees and customers are equally essential contributors to how services create value.

Start Thinking Differently

While this may seem intimidating, most people are doing more service design in their work than they realize. During my talk, I touched on some of the core flexibilities required to practice service design and ways attendees could start making the transition into service design from the skills and abilities they currently possess.

We also engaged in an exercise to put the discipline into practice, working through a real-world example involving CVS’ acquisition of Aetna. The activity prompted the group to consider how to design their processes to enable critical conversations with key decision makers. In my experience, weighing costs and competitive impact when creating a service helps overcome the cognitive biases that prevent innovations from reaching implementation. Service design addresses complexities by creating a holistic understanding of feasibility and potential competitive impact. Our exercise was designed to illustrate how service design can enable better decisions, leading to better experiences that yield better outcomes.

The room was filled with a diverse group of attendees — in age, industry, and race/ethnicity– which indicates the broad applicability of service design. My goal was to help them feel empowered to start thinking and working in different ways. The attendees were all very engaged throughout our time together, and the session even went beyond the allocated time so that we could continue the discussion.

Attendees continue to reach out to me with questions and to talk about the content of the session, and I invite you to do the same! I am always interested in helping people take the next steps towards growing the SD discipline by understanding how they can build from where they are right now. Reach out to me at or leave a comment below.

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Richard EkelmanComment