What is Digital Service Design?

By Adam Tinworth

27/08/2012 | The title of the upcoming new NEXT conference - NEXT Service Design - brings us a rather obvious question: what's service design, and how does it apply to the digital world NEXT caters to? It's time to answer that question.

To do so, let's divide the idea into two parts: What is service design, and what is digital service design?

Service Design

Take two businesses which offer the same thing: two bookshops down the street from one another, or two coffee shops. They offer pretty much the same product, for pretty much the same price. So, what differentiates them? Service. Get the service right, and the customers will choose you, not them.

Good service isn't just a matter or chance or instinct - it's something that can be designed, by concentrating on what the customer needs and experiences, and ensuring that every point where they make contact with the service provider creates a positive outcome in their mind. It doesn't matter how helpful the sales staff on the floor are in assisting you to find the book you want, if the sales staff on the tills are slow, surly and uncooperative. A fantastically hip coffee shop design won't aid you much if the staff are incompetent…

Of course, both these examples are of retail businesses - but the concepts of service design can extend to any sector of business - or even public sector. There's a large body of expertise in public sector service design, for example.

The authors of the book This Is Service Design Thinking identify five major elements of service design:

  1. It's user-centered - decisions are made for the benefit of the customer, not the service provider
  2. It's co-creative - all the different departments or people in the service provider work together to create the perfect experience
  3. It's sequenced - the provider understands the sequence of customer contact points and the customer's journey with the service, and understands how to provide a good experience at each step
  4. It's evidenced - it's brought to tangible life at every point of contact
  5. It's holistic - it involves the whole of the service ecosystem

Think about Apple's music and media ecosystem. The products are the iPads, iPods and MacBooks that the company produces - and few would argue that they're not beautifully designed in their own right. But they're part of an ecosystem that expands to iTunes - and particularly the iTunes Store, which sells you media. There's also the Apple stores with their Genius Bars and other customer service elements. The company has built a whole service system around the physical products that has been designed to create a superb customer service experience and differentiate it from the competition.

The principles behind service design postulate that achieving excellence in service is a process, one that can be managed. It offers a set of tools that creates a structure for developing service offerings that meet customer's needs and create really positive perception of the brand. It's idea of making sure your customer's experience of your business is as carefully designed as any market-leading product.

Digital Service Design

What if the product you're selling isn't a physical object at all, or isn't accessed through a physical meeting? What if it's an online offering, in some way? That's where digital service design comes into play.

There was a time when just being a "digital" something was a differentiator in its own right - a digital bookstore, or a digital dating service. We've long passed the point where that's the case. With multiple companies operating in any space you care to mention, service design has as strong a role to play in the success or failure digital businesses as any other.

Digital service design incorporates many existing disciplines - like web design, information architecture, user experience and content strategy. It is, if you like, an organising umbrella principle, in which all these disciplines can work together to build something that meets - and surpasses - user expectation. Perhaps most fundamentally, it's about letting go of the website as the core idea of digital development, and thinking about service as something that can be delivered through any number of channels - some of them digital. Instead of fretting over your mobile strategy, you figure out how to express your service principles through a mobile device…

However, there are complications here. The line between the product and the service around it is much more difficult to delineate when it comes to digital services. A website or mobile app might be both service delivery channel and product. The lines are significantly more blurred than they are in the physical world. Reconciling product and service design needs in a web or mobile build can be a significant challenge - but the rewards of getting it right can be great.

To push the complications even further, sometimes digital service are deeply tied to physical product, too. They may be delivered through something physical - like a car for an online taxi service, or an ereader for a digital bookstore. The interface between the digital and physical experiences is fraught with dangers and pitfalls that could underline the whole service.

These are the sorts of issues our panel of speakers will be exploring at NEXT Service Design in October. In the end, digital service design is the art of building customer experiences with a strong digital element, rather than building websites. NEXT Service Design is a conference about leaving your customers thinking "great service" rather than "great website".