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


This is why I haven't been to an IxD conference or been on the boards in years... seriously??? Who has time for this nonsense?
Bob MacNeal
I don't know anything about service design. It would have been helpful to define service design early on in your post. As it stands, I lost interest after 5 paragraphs without a definition.
Tim Fife
Renna, nice article. I am preparing to speak at a Service Design conference in Sydney, Australia, and I found your article helpful in articulating the philosophies of the different camps in the SD / IxD debate. It seems to me the whole point is that SD doesn't really have an agreed-upon definition as yet (although I think you took a nobel swing at it in both the Teenager and Crossfire sections); which, if I'm entirely honest, puts it in the same position as most sub-types of design that have emerged over the past 10 or 15 years. I think you gave a very balanced examination of the argument (and I appreciate the thorough referencing, I think I may take advantage of that!), and I agree with where you landed. I think it is counterproductive for IxD to try and place ownership or credit for the emerging practice of SD. It is precisely that, emergent, and must be given the respect and dignity to reach maturity as a practice, rather than be subsumed by a competing discipline. Incidentally, I am also a CMU design grad (CPID), although I graduated just as Shelly arrived ('02). It's good to hear from a fellow alum how Service Design played a part in your time at CMU. If you see Emma, tell her I said 'Hi'.
John Welch
Nice post teasing out these distinctions. Because service design hasn't been tied closely to digital design, I get the feeling that a broader range of solutions might be considered (more of a blank slate) at the start of the process. Maybe it's a matter of scale, with IxD being more detailed and SD more high-level? In that case both SD and IxD are necessary. My thought is that there are enough problems to go around: coordination between touchpoints and the touchpoints themselves must be well done. I especially like your emphasis on identifying what a good service looks like. Along those lines, I was able to attend a presentation that focused on that question at the Service Design Network Conference last year. In determining "WHAT’S GOOD DESIGN FOR SERVICES?", these Italian design educators also identified many thought-provoking, open questions about designing services. (links to a PDF, can take a while to load) Thanks for posting, looking forward to the next one! @jbasil_design

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