Service design: the universal key and useless discipline

With the blockade finally relaxed around the UK, I was able to meet up with my classmates and teachers offline again after a long time. When I first arrived in the UK at the end of October last year, I had a brief period of ‘freedom’. The vintage shops were still open, restaurants were still open for indoor seating, and even the British Museum was still open for visits. Unfortunately, the dream was short-lived, and a few weeks after the introduction of the regional classification system, the UK went into national lockdown once again.

Fig. 1: Vintage shop in London

This year UAL MA Service Design consisted of 32 students from 8 different countries. The first challenge most of us faced upon arrival in the UK was learning about service design and getting familiar with London. With such a difficult year, all of this was confined to our rooms. Apart from the first few weeks of the school year when I was lucky enough to be involved in a few blended teaching sessions, we have spent the last seven months doing almost all of our projects through distance learning and meetings.

Looking back at this time last year, I was still struggling to memorize my IELTS vocabulary. A year later, I can already talk about ‘deep’ topics such as global warming, carbon emissions, design justice, and biodiversity in less ‘advanced’ terms. For the final proposal, by the end of the last module, I was already worried about where my interests lay. What if I can’t find my way? Would I be able to finish it coherently and looking beautiful?

Before answering these questions, I would like to look back and see how my thinking has changed. At the start of the course last October, Veron asked each of us to fill in a questionnaire, and one of the questions asked each of us: what is service design. My answer at the time was “service design is a way of thinking. without the assistance of other professional abilities, service design alone cannot be implemented”.

And has my answer changed now?

What is service design? Service design is the universal key and useless discipline

Service design has gradually become a hot topic in the past few years. Especially in China, courses, summits, and workshops have sprung up one after another. When people in the design industry talk about why service design has become popular, it is generally believed that two main reasons have led to this: one in the context of the times of industrial upgrading, and the other is that globalization has helped introduce the discipline. I agree with all of these, but I also believe that there are two other reasons.

1. The exploration of the value of the design industry

Many people think that service design grew out of design, but few people know that the discipline that first mentioned service design was actually marketing. Although most institutions place this in design schools, the teachers are from a variety of backgrounds. Service design is more of a fusion of disciplines and less of a breakthrough in one discipline.
Theoretically, all industries could write a book on what service design is and its application in a particular industry, but in fact, the cognitive coverage of service design in China relies heavily on the cries of design colleagues. This may be related to the fact that the domestic design community is relatively more trapped in the performance layer, and service design helps to break through this status quo.

2. The excessive boom of new things

In the past few years, the economic environment has been booming, and the abundant sunshine and rain have always given rise to the wild growth of new things of all kinds. When something new happens, there are always people who are not even related who come out and claim to be experts, each with their own agenda but with the biggest goal of increasing their influence. Before I came to the UK, I had even heard at a sharing session that service design was the cure for all ailments. On the plus side, these people do make service design known to a wider audience, but the over-hype may disappoint those who are new to the profession when they really get to know it. Fortunately, there is a constant stream of kind people circling the boundaries of service design and it has grown much more normally in the past two years.

Fig. 2: China’s first Service Design Conference in Shanghai in 2019
  1. The boundaries of service design

There is no single definition of ‘service design’ in the industry, and it is therefore impossible to define the boundaries of service design. Anything can be described as a service design. So anything is = nothing. Without boundaries, it is nothing. A lot of the ‘so-called’ service design knowledge sharing can sound reasonable if it is called something else, such as ‘emotional design’, ‘experience design’ or ‘innovative design’.

My understanding of service design is that it encourages thinking from the global system to the touchpoint experience, and promotes a cross-disciplinary and co-creative way of thinking. What lands on the ground can be anything or nothing, from large industries to small products, tangible objects to intangible plans.

2. The “reality” of service design

Service design is a way of thinking, not a professional competence, but more of a mental approach and less of a physical approach. Without the support of other professional skills, service design alone will not be able to be implemented.

Haidilao (one of the largest hotpot chains in China, with a branch in Oxford Street) is a very successful example of service design. What service design can do is to draw up a blueprint of the service, to find the problems from a system perspective, and the service designer cannot design each service touchpoint in depth by himself. A complete service cannot be a system without touchpoints. Only when each contact point is done well can the whole process be strung together and can be called a service system.

For example, if a service blueprint is designed with the service principle “waiters should smile when they see customers”, then someone needs to develop a corresponding incentive policy and performance evaluation system, and this cannot be done by the service designer alone.

3. Tools for service design

There are a number of tools for service design, such as user journey maps and service blueprints.
But it would be a mistake to start learning how to use them and then think you know how to design services.

When I was first learning about service design, I also accidentally fell into the trap of the ‘fill-in-the-blank’ game. I would always be concerned with the format and completeness of the content. Now I think that these diagrams are flowcharts that have been given a certain standard and it’s good to see the tool for what it is. As a service designer, I must not only be flexible in the use of tools, but I can even create tools that are better suited to the needs of the project.

Take the user journey map, many people know that this is actually a “sub-user, scenario, phased” model of thinking, but if we think of other ways to achieve the same effect based on this logic, then we have created new tools.

Service design tools are designed with service design thinking and many other skill points. It is more important to master the mental approach, while the physical approach can be created in combination with practice. For example, at work I find that many product managers can draw all kinds of maps in Excel, they also use collaborative versions of PowerPoint instead of sticky notes, and for instance, after the pandemic, a large number of online collaboration tools all have their own strengths.

At the end of the day, tools are an extension of human capabilities, so be sure not to get stuck on the tool itself.

Fig. 3: In the Early Help project with Camden council, we created our own tool for starting conversations with families

Of course, the above thinking does not mean that service design is not useful (as someone who aspires to be a professional service designer, how can I think that service design is not useful), service design thinking can help us in our work.

Service design thinking allows us to see the ‘line’ and even the ‘surface’ from the ‘point’, allowing us to expand our view to the whole process when designing individual touchpoints.

Let’s take the example of the ‘merchant registration function in an e-commerce app’. If you look at the merchant registration process in the app alone, it is very simple, just asking the merchant to fill in some information, submit it and then wait for it to be reviewed.
However, if you don’t think about the whole online and offline registration process, but only limit yourself to the “registration function” in the APP, it will make the whole registration process problematic, which will lead to a bad experience and user loss.

For example, different offline processes require different online registration functions. Imagine if the salesperson in charge of negotiating with the merchant used a face-to-face model to communicate, it would take about half an hour to negotiate a shop. Once the negotiation is complete, the salesperson will quickly move on to the next store. In this limited half an hour, the merchant not only needs to understand how the platform works with them and what value they will get from joining but also needs to sign up under the guidance of the salesperson. At this point in time, some of the merchant’s important information (e.g. business license number, the ID number of the shop’s legal person) may not be immediately available. Therefore, only by understanding the offline barriers can the online registration process be better designed. For example, the registration process can be divided into two stages: “pre-registration” and “successful registration”. In the “pre-registration stage”, the information filling process emphasizes “fast” and non-required information can be set to move to the next stage and be added after the pre-registration is completed.

During my months of study, I had a number of former colleagues and friends who would often approach me for a chat, and many of them expressed interest in my profession, including some who worked in operations, product, and marketing departments.

I think this is a very good phenomenon, service design should not be kept on the shelf and become a professional ability for some people, but should be universal, everyone needs to learn and everyone can use it.

Service Designer UX Designer