Mention service design to your UX colleagues and you may find yourself unwittingly engaged in a game of Buzzword Bingo. Whether you call it “service design,” “holistic design,” “multi-channel experience design” or “cross-channel design,” chances are you’re all talking about the same thing. And your next challenge is defining exactly what you mean when you say “service design.”

The field of service design is still young and evolving. And its interdisciplinary nature makes it difficult to define. In fact, according to the first-ever textbook on service design, This is Service Design Thinking, no common definition of service design exists. And the authors propose that limiting ourselves to one definition could constrain this new way of thinking.

Isn’t It Just Good Marketing?

As someone with experience in both marketing and experience design, I’m intrigued by the ways in which the fields of marketing and service design overlap and complement one another. Creating great user experiences to promote positive associations with a brand is hardly a new concept to marketers. But service design looks at user satisfaction more broadly—at every point in a given experience—and seeks to enhance it by infusing a brand’s essence across all products, systems, services, and interpersonal interactions.

Here are a few things to consider when we compare marketing and service design:

  • Traditional marketing has focused on the 4 P’s: product, price, promotion and place. Modern marketing adds participants (the people involved in the transactions), processes (the flow of the interaction), and physical evidence (real-life or virtual surroundings and concrete clues).
  • Marketing is about organizations creating and building relationships with customers to co-create value; design aims to put stakeholders at the center of designing services and preferably co-design with them.
  • Marketing researchers study customers to develop insights into their practices and values; designers can use insights as the starting point for design and add a focus to the aesthetics of service experiences.
  • Marketers tend to have backgrounds in social science. Service designers generally come out of art and design schools.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether service design is just one facet of marketing or vice versa. What matters is that an understanding of how people interact with each other, with things, and with organizations is central to designing services.[*]

What a Production!

Think of everything that goes into a really stellar performance, whether it’s a ballet, a Broadway musical, or a film. You need a script or score, a director, light and sound people, and a host of other specialized professionals. It takes months of work to create those magical two hours that transfix an audience. Service design is remarkably similar. The customer/user may never know everything that went on “behind the scenes.” All she knows is whether her experience was great, so-so, or downright abysmal.

At Mad*Pow, we’ve helped many companies create positive customer interactions by helping them with those three new P’s: participants, processes, and physical evidence. When Aetna wanted to create a unified member messaging strategy, we began by conducting interviews with Aetna plan members to gain insight into the pros and cons of their experiences, their expectations, and what types of information they wanted from their health insurance company, and when. Was it easy to understand their benefits and claims? What types of interactions were the most or least frustrating? What questions did members ask most frequently when they called Aetna member services? What channels for communication and interaction did they prefer?

Research told us that we needed to ensure that people know about any special programs that are available to them so they could get the most from their benefits. This information would now be delivered whether they were calling the call center, reviewing their mailed explanation of benefits, viewing the website, or reading an email they had received. Another objective was to help members avoid the frustrations associated with having to pay more than they thought they would need to, which in many cases can be prevented by doing some upfront research. We knew we would need to get in front of the potential for frustration by instead building awareness of tools that Aetna has to “know before you go.” These tools enable a member to check provider quality and cost before their visit, to decrease the surprise factor.

Identifying potential trouble spots and visualizing a better member journey helped us develop a comprehensive communications strategy, approach to governance, and process that provided the framework for Aetna to get the right message to the right person at the right time. We learned that there were certainly optimal ways to craft and deliver different types of messages; that they needed to be highly relevant to them personally, triggered based upon preference or specific events, and tailored to the delivery platform.

The new strategy also provided Aetna’s internal team with a new approach for accomplishing business objectives. Now customer service, marketing, and many other lines of business collaborate around how to optimize each channel to help their members get from point A to point B. There is an understanding that a member may not start and finish in one channel; rather, their awareness is built and interactions weave across channels.

In this case, service design included traditional research, desktop web, mobile web, and text message design, CSR desktop design, and member communications strategy development—nothing that’s necessarily unique or groundbreaking, but all critical factors to think about when creating a seamless, positive customer experience.

Deal with Reality

Now let’s look at an example from the field of obesity prevention in healthcare, where there is a growing interest in programs and products that motivate individuals to swap unhealthy behaviors for healthy ones.

We can approach the challenge of behavior change with the belief that the problem of adoption and engagement can easily be solved with fun interfaces, sleek design, and feature-rich technology. But if that were truly the case, anyone who’s ever downloaded a bestselling diet or fitness app would be rocking skinny jeans and form-fitting t-shirts.

A more comprehensive approach to tackling obesity looks at the problem as more than the simple equation: too many calories in + not enough calories out = supersized nation. It takes into account socioeconomic factors such as family income, job status, and neighborhood safety, as well as interpersonal relationships, family challenges, etc.

One example of this holistic approach is Engine’s Southwark Rise project. Engine, a British service design and innovation consultancy, was charged with the task of “exploring childhood obesity and the challenges of creating better life chances for children from the most deprived backgrounds.” The highly successful project used “accessible methodologies and simple tools” to “provide useful frameworks for understanding the challenge and opportunities to build alliances both internally and externally.” Of the 20 Southwark parents recruited to serve on the design team, all twenty committed to further involvement in the project.

Setting the Stage for Excellent Service

Good service design anticipates trouble spots and sees them as opportunities to positively change a user’s experience to one of first-rate service. These trouble spots are defined by the frustration and anxiety they cause for the customer/user. Service design allows us to proactively address the tough spots and resolve them smoothly and skillfully.

Online retailers have become particularly savvy about overcoming some customers’ aversion to shopping outside of a brick–and-mortar store. “What if I don’t like the color, the fit, the fabric? What if it doesn’t fit? Will I have to pay a fortune in return shipping?”

A UIE article circa 2009 discusses the early days of online retailing and a study of how people bought hiking boots online. While REI and LL Bean offered virtually identical boots at similar price points and with similar marketing copy, users were way more likely to buy their boots from REI. Why?

REI’s site featured images of the hiking boots’ soles, while the L.L.Bean site only had one view. And this, it turns out, mattered to buyers. UIE’s researches assumed that the decision to post multiple views of the shoe was rooted in market research. But when they called REI to confirm this theory, REI’s designers told them that it was actually the photographer’s idea. This particular photographer had worked in an REI retail store and had observed many a prospective buyer turning the hiking boots over to see their treads. So, the web designers translated that in-store experience into a valuable online equivalent. That’s service design!

Beyond Center Stage

Great service design goes beyond a corporate mission statement or flawless information architecture. It means that every one of a company’s employees understands that customer care is an integral part of the job. When problems arise, these employees step up and make things right.

Apple also shows up regularly on Bloomberg/Businessweek’s Customer Service rankings. And here’s one example that shows why. A friend of mine bought his daughter an iPod touch for her birthday. A few days later, they made a trip to the Apple store to buy a protective case. While they were there, she dropped the touch, and, of course, the screen shattered. A store employee who saw the whole thing go down rushed over and, without even checking with a manager, offered to replace the touch at no cost. As my friend posted on his Facebook page, Apple now has a customer for life.

Now, I don’t know whether Apple has a written policy on “dealing with clumsy customers.” But I do know that Apple’s culture is one that fosters teamwork, passion, and loyalty from their employees. And respect is key to the organization’s management style. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that employees feel empowered to make on-the-fly decisions like replacing a kid’s broken iPod Touch.

Of course, you don’t need to be a corporate behemoth to delight your customers. The other day I had a client meeting in Boston. Rather than battle rush hour traffic, I decided to hop on the C&J Trailways daily commuter bus to Boston. What did I get for the cost of my ticket? Free parking at the station, free wifi on the bus, TV’s and headphones, and a silent cell phone policy to ensure a peaceful ride. And to top it off, they even provided a complimentary pre-ride snack to tired commuters (like me) waiting in line to board in the morning.

Are You Ready for Your Close-Up?

Regardless of the channel—social media, web, mobile, in-store, product experience—organizations that want to deliver great user experiences have to take time to educate their employees at all levels and at all touchpoints about what the company stands for, what it means to work there, and what kind of experiences they need to ensure for all users.

Great service design means everyone involved is on board with creating the experience the audience wants. Take it from me, that can’t happen without a common goal, proper communication, and lots of practice.


Kimbell, Lucy. “Marketing: Connecting With People, Creating Value,” from This is Service Design Thinking. 2010, BIS Publishers.  [back ^]


In the paragraph - "Isn't it just good marketing" Megan makes some interesting points about differentiating Marketing and Design - however arguments on both sides severly limit the scope of the fields.

Marketing - the core of it, is to develop products and services that are based on the needs of an identified customer base - incorporating all 7 P's and is end-to-end in nature, looking at touchpoints, looking at design, looking at communications, price, exprience - all of it.

UX, Comms, Design, Pricing, Logistics, "Experience" they're all subsets of what is considered good marketing.

It is good and Interesting. Designing means a way of thinking of from others,It is challenging field. It is a good carrer

Thank you both, Megan and Laura, for your examples.

Much of the difficulty in understanding the term probably stems from the ambiguous meanings already attached to the words "service" and "design" separately in multiple disciplines. Combining them still leaves considerable flexibility of interpretation. My sense, as a newcomer to the term, is that there must be something significantly new here, but that it will take me some time to find an explanation of quite what it is.

Both of your descriptions help considerably in distinguishing the signal from the noise by not only identifying the aspects that relate to "service design", but also by contrasting them with aspects that do not.

My sense is that we are talking about something like: the process of combining existing goods and services to provide an offering which is customized for the customer, and doing so dynamically as the customer's needs are discovered through discussion and through observation of the effects of the deployment of earlier stages of the offering.

As some clarity begins to emerge, however, a broader concern grows. That is the apparent concentration on the perspective of people who have previously concentrated on designing user interfaces, user experiences, and similar things. If the description above is at all similar to the meaning of "service design", then it is likely that this has been done quite satisfactorily for a very long time by people involved in providing a wide range of services from technical support, to air traffic control, to medical services (as Laura described), to emergency response and many, many over services. If so, rather than inventing approaches to this subject, might there not be something to be learnt from people who already do it?

I think an important difference between service design and user experience/experience design (fill in the blank) is that SD is not pre-occupied with being 'user-centered.' UX practices rely on the notion that the user/customer/end audience member is at the 'center' of the experience and all decisions revolve around their experience. SD somewhat turns that notion on its head: the nature of something being a service means that the experience is co-created... If the "front-office" (or customer-facing employees) and customer don't interact, the service simply doesn't happen (similar to that old philosophical question, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a noise). Therefore, only when you orchestrate all of the interactions - back-office, front-office, customers, etc. is the service effective. But this perspective is decidedly de-centralized; no longer is the customer at the center. That is a different perspective than UX professionals are accustomed to.

@Margot and @John - First, thanks for taking the time to read the article and for asking outstanding questions.

Reading your thoughts and questions has encouraged me to explore different ways of explaining service design, without getting into a DTDT debacle. Stay tuned...

I think skepticism is healthy in any discipline - if nothing else it helps keep the conversation going and inspires those leading the way to be more conscientious and deliberate about what they're trying to do.

For me, the closest metaphor for service design is to make the comparison to medicine.  Instead of just focusing on the symptoms of a given illness, consideration for the patient as a whole; mental, spiritual, cultural, social etc... will be crucial in truly healing the patient. And in design, it's not just about designing for one experience or site or app - it's about putting on a wider lens and seeing the bigger picture.

Hopefully we will arrive at a place where most of us are comfortable with the definition(s).

I am personally at peace with the questions, the overlap and the gray areas of the service design, as it continues to emerge and be defined. 

This article provides me with more questions than answers ... and a fair degree of scepticism too.

My comment grew and spilled over into a post:

The breadth and opportunity that service design consulting offers is compelling, but I'm curious if you could elaborate more on the definition. Your opening paragraph made me think of definitions and discussions of "total design" and "experience design" from 15 years ago. When organizations deliberately plan for the experience of the target audience, pulling levers to manifest a consistent brand and experience across every channel, that seems to be the unqualified, unrestricted meaning of "experience design" as practiced by Disney World's imagineers, museum exhibit designers, and national tourism boards. How do you differentiate service design?

...the irony here being that this article, and indeed the UX Magazine isn't formatted for a mobile phone browser.
(Android - stock browser)