What the actual hell is service design? Part 1

People often ask what I do for a living. I dread this question. Because I answer “service design.” To which they very reasonably ask “What is service design?” To which I find myself unable to give a succinct, clear answer.

My succinct unclear answer is “I am a sort of win-win engineer.”

While this doesn’t come close to answering the question, it does get things rolling in the right direction.

If the person seems sincerely interested I might continue with some un-succinct clarification. “I try to help organizations set conditions where anyone who deals with that organization, whether as a customer, or employee, or leader, or partner, or whatever — anyone who participates in the activities of the organization — benefits from their interactions, while also benefitting others.”

Years ago, a friend and I had big plans to start a “But what is it?” blog in order to showcase companies who explain the benefits of some offering of theirs, but who completely fail to give any sense at all of what the offering actually is. I bring this up because I am painfully aware of the fact that, so far, my explanation of service design is exactly the kind of thing that butwhatisit.com existed to ridicule.

So let’s put some nouns under the lovely benefits. What is service design?

Service design is a design discipline that focuses on improving how organizations create and deliver value, both internally and externally.

Besides committing the sin of circular definition, there are few nouns shakier than “design”. Half the world is confused by the word, and the other unconfused half misunderstand it. The matter of what design actually is will be dealt with later. For now, I will make things even worse by elaborating on the “create and deliver value” part.

The word “value” might be even shakier than “design”. It is certainly very general, and vague. But it is general and vague for the very best of reasons: value exists in myriad forms, and only a word as general and vague as “value” can cover them all.

Obviously, one form of value is money. When value takes the form of money  it becomes easy to quantify, track and manage. Service designers definitely want to help organizations make money, but in this respect, we are no different from any other vendor a company might hire.

The difference comes from the other forms of value that service design helps organizations create and deliver — the more qualitative forms of value — and how many of these forms of value service design seeks to create coordinate and deliver.

Qualitative value can be in the usefulness or desirability of a product, those qualities that motivate someone to buy it.

Qualitative value can be the convenient or timely availability of products.

Qualitative value can be a helpful act of assistance that saves time or effort or stress.

Qualitative value can be useful information, or clarity on some murky or complicated matter, or a mind-blowing epiphany that makes you rethink everything.

Qualitative value can be feeling nourished or refreshed by beauty or elegance, or charmed by humor.

Qualitative value can be reassurance, or a kind word, or a sincere smile.

Qualitative value can be combinations of these various good things all at once, adding up to a good experience.

Qualitative value can be consistently good experiences over durations of time, resulting in a deepened, warmed or strengthened relationship that is valuable in itself. It feels good to have strong loyalty to a brand who has always done you right, and that is valuable.

It also feels good to work for an organization that does its customers right. This kind of organization is often also the kind of place that does its employees and partners right — and encourages employees and partners to do each other right, while doing right for their customers.

Even though these qualitative forms of value can be harder to quantify, track and manage than money is, they are the human reality that is the very root of value. Without these qualitative values, money will not be made.

And without qualitative value money would have no value at all. What good would even the largest quantity of money be, if there were no qualitatively good things to purchase with it? This was the hard lesson King Midas learned when he discovered that his magical touch that turned every qualitative reality into a quantum of gold, was not a blessing, but a curse.

This a paradox: What feels most real, concrete and factual from a management perspective is actually an abstraction of what seems vague, squishy, intuitive and arbitrary — but which are the realest realities of any organization. The hardest facts of business are the least concretely real. The softest, vaguest, touchy-feeliest aspects of business are what drive the behaviors that help a business flourish or make them fail.

So how do you manage these unmanageable factors that make or break your business?

By now it should be clearer what service design exists to do. Service design helps organizations coordinate to produce and deliver all these various kinds of qualitative value as effectively and efficiently as possible.

But how? This brings us to design. But I’ll have to go into that later.

What I’ve written above might end up part of a course I am working on. Please give me feedback if you have any. Thanks!

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