My So Called Service Design Life

Similar to many of the interaction designers here at Cooper, I come from a trans-disciplinary background. I went to Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design for my masters, where I did not get a degree in Interaction Design, but rather in Communication Planning and Information Design. While there, I was fortunate enough to be able to study under Shelley Evenson, a major thinker and contributor to the emerging practice of service design. Service design captured my interest immediately. It was so interesting that I spent my thesis project (18+ months) on a service design project with Professor Evenson as an advisor, took all the classes offered on the subject, and ended up spending an extra year in Pittsburgh PA just to be able to co-teach a graduate service design studio course when she took her professional sabbatical. Since my start in design, I’ve worked on a number of projects, and done a fair amount of research and writing on the subject.

What has become very clear is that the emergent practice of service design is smack dab in the middle of adolescence, deeply embroiled in its teen angst. It was not so long ago that interaction designers were at a similar point in our own development, giving us an informed perspective. Child psychology also offers us some wisdom to start from:

“Identity does not begin in adolescence. The child has been formulating and reformulating identities throughout his life…. At adolescence, however, the commitment to an identity becomes critical.”1

There is a fierce debate about the relationship between service design (SD) and interaction design (IxD) here in the United States, particularly among interaction designers. The discussion often devolves into hostile crossfire between two camps: one that believes that the service design is a type of interaction design, and another that believes that the two disciplines are separate and distinct.

When a teenager is a smart, compelling, interesting, independent, charismatic, hardworking, analytical, talented, humorous, knock-kneed being, a parent would rightly feel a great sense of pride. Interaction designers — and those whose careers, and sources of income are indebted to that practice — have very good reasons to hold strongly to the idea that service design is indeed a chip off the old block.2

The Overbearing Parent

The camp that holds service design to be a type of interaction design defines IxD broadly, arguing that its focus is on behavior and experience.3 Interaction designers are trained to consider and design for the experience of people with objects, environments, systems and other people.4 They propose that the nature of the problems being solved by IxD and service design is the same. The methods and tools being applied are the same. The skills necessary to solving these problems are the same. Projects are structured and intended to support a user-centered design approach. Research facilitates an understanding of users’ motivations and provides moments of inspiration. Design projects focused on interaction design must gain an understanding of the context of use in order to design appropriate solutions.

The Petulant Teenager

Service designers tend to see their discipline as separate and distinct, yet they recognize the lasting influence that interaction design has had on their emerging practice.5 But they think of them as just that: influences, parallels, and similarities.6 They argue that the nature of service design problems is different, that service experiences have a context of use, are multi-faceted, co-produced, and unfold over time.7 They are comprised of a series of touch points, or points of contact between a provider and user, taking both party’s participation for the experience to transpire.8 Services are used, not owned. Design projects focused on services must gain a holistic understanding of both the provider and user’s experiences in order to design appropriate solutions.

The Crossfire

There is usually a direct mapping between a person’s definition of interaction design and their working definition of service design. Of course, there remains disagreement among interaction designers about what their practice does. There are those who still view themselves as the designers of digital products.9 They think of IxD’s next-of-kin as the likes of Human Computer Interaction, Graphic User Interface Design, and Software Engineering.10 Others hold that the practice of IxD has evolved past its original focus on pure functionality and usability, and onto issues pertaining to the quality of the experience of use. Yet it’s unmistakable that, quite often, interaction designers’ outputs are manifested in the form of digital products – software and hardware.

Service design projects deliver specifications for a variety of types of touch points, often spanning the entire arc of a service experience. These include visual communication, operation models and blueprints, process and information flows, roles, scripts, physical evidence and artifacts of the service experience, and, frequently, the interaction design of digital products.11 However, an entire service can exist without a single piece of physical property exchanged, and sometimes, without any technology involved.12

There are other worthwhile distinctions to tease apart, such as the methodology, composition of teams, project scoping and process that are valuable differentiators to consider. But I’ll need to discuss these in future blog posts.

Getting On With It

I submit that service design is an autonomous, unique being, who was raised, in part, by interaction design. And that the more established practice is wise enough to know that for IxD to do good work, it too must look at the system of use, think of the providers, co-create, and comprise multidisciplinary teams. It is important to recognize that having undergone its own struggle to develop an independent identity, IxD’s conversation has (for the most part) been able to evolve past definition and onto what it means to do good interaction design.

This doesn’t need to be a tug-of-war. Interaction design as a practice should be self-assured enough in what we do to know that our teenager needs to grow out of its angst in order to become a respected adult. We’re not proposing that we elevate everyone to a service designer who has ever worked on a digital touch point for a service provider; neither should we remain willfully vague and conflate the practice of SD in order to capitalize on the growing interest in it. In fact, trying to identify a “right” answer in this debate is less important than identifying what good service design looks like.

It’s time for interaction design to offer its own developmental experience toward creating a supportive environment that is actively encouraging the emerging practice of service design to compose its own unique (but similar) self-identity. After all, the psychologists will tell you, “Who the child is to be is influenced (and in some cases determined) by what the environment permits and encourages.13

  1. David L. Lehman , Current Thinking In Adolescent Psychology, 1966, p14
  2. Richard Buchanan keynote, COINs & Design Ethos Conference, October 9, 2010 ,

  3. Jodi Forlizzi, All Look Same? A Comparison of Experience Design and service design service design service design, Interactions,
  4. Mager, Birgit, service design service design service design basics, Cologne: Kçln International School of Design, 2006
  5. Mager, Birgit, service design service design service design basics, Cologne: Kçln International School of Design, 2006
  6. Shelley Evenson, Carnegie Mellon University Lectures 2007-2009; Dan Saffer, Designing for Interaction, 2006
  7. Shelley Evenson, Carnegie Mellon University Lectures 2007-2009
  8. Lowgren, Jonas, Encyclopedia entry on interaction design interaction design,, 2008
  9. Mager, Birgit, service design service design service design basics, Cologne: Kçln International School of Design, 2006
  10. Shelley Evenson, Carnegie Mellon University Lectures 2007-2009; Dan Saffer, Designing for Interaction, 2006; Mary Jo Bitner, Service Blueprinting: A Practical Tool for Service Innovation, 2007
  11. Mary Jo Bitner, Service Blueprinting: A Practical Tool for Service Innovation, 2007
  12. David L. Lehman , Current Thinking In Adolescent Psychology, 1966, p14

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Blueprints & Booze: Service Design Drinks at Cooper


Last Thursday, designers at Cooper co-hosted San Francisco Service Design Drinks at our offices. We had a great time drinking and making stuff with local folks interested in the emerging practice of service design. Jamin Hegeman launched this city’s chapter a year ago, and the event was a testament to his efforts to expand the conversation.

Over 30 people joined us for an evening of service blueprinting, and drinking, of course. Cooper’s Susan Dybbs and myself led attendees through an exercise in which we focused on a recent dining experience. Each design team included someone who had worked in the food service industry, providing quick access to domain knowledge. Teams began the exercise by listing all the steps or actions of their experience. They then cataloged the restaurant’s staff and artifacts interacted with and the support systems that were less visible yet enabled the meal. Finally, each team presented their three most interesting reflections on the exercise.


Highlights included discussion of service recovery, and the ways in which experiences succeed or fail because of the staff’s ability to adjust in real-time. We talked about the seen qualities of a service supported by those unseen. We also discussed how services can go to great lengths to curate a certain experience yet come across as disingenuous when inconsistencies in execution emerge.

By deconstructing a single service into rough but simple terms and parsing all the pieces to co-create a visual model, we hope that the attendees left with a greater understanding of Service Design and blueprinting, and an appreciation for local brews. We’re all looking forward to attending next month’s event!
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