Service Design Venn Diagram
November 5th, 2019

Design Thinking in the Service Economy

These days, it’s all about service…or more precisely, services. The services sector of our economy—a category that includes financial services, media, transportation, and technology—now accounts for 2/3 of GDP in the United States. In fact, the current list of Fortune 500 companies contains more service companies and fewer manufacturers than in previous decades.*

American cities once fueled by manufacturing have shifted to the service economy. Pittsburgh and Chicago are examples where medicine, technology, and banking have replaced manufacturing as the primary employer and economic driver.

Countless American companies are following the lead of IBM and shifting from hardware to services (or bundling the two).  Hardware-as-a-service (HaaS) has gained popularity with its leasing model—where a provider retains ownership of the product and offers it along with services. The rapidly growing “sharing economy” has spawned sharing ventures such as Uber, bike / scooter shares like Bird, and hospitality shares like Airbnb. Now similar service businesses exist for tools, fashion, home goods, and other products. (see our previous blog**)

You might think this would seem disheartening for an industrial designer who has spent many years designing manufactured products. But it’s not. In fact, it’s exciting! Here’s why.

First—manufactured products now come bundled with services. Cars come with navigation and security services like OnStar. Desktop printers come with subscriptions for ink and repairs. In fact, most products that include technology need services to function.* The designer’s role now covers both the product and its service.

Second—all services need good design. Cities like Charlotte, where businesses in banking, medicine, and distribution drive the economy, need Service Design to create outstanding customer experiences.

So, what exactly is Service Design and how is it applied?

Service Design is simply the planning of interactions in a service. The service might occur with people face-to-face, like in a bank branch or a hospital. Or it might take place online or over the phone. The interactions to be designed include the human interactions between providers and customers (the “people”), the physical environment (the “place”), and products or technologies that facilitate the service (the “props”). All services must be thoughtfully designed to first ensure that the service meets its objectives, and second, to create positive experiences for customers and providers. This includes improvement of existing services, as well as creation of new services.

The application of “design” to services first took hold in the 1990s when design schools and practitioners like BOLTGROUP started applying design thinking to services for business. The tools of design thinking are a perfect match for the challenges of service design. Consider…

  • Research to understand the needs and expectations of people involved
  • Defining the problems and opportunities…in ways that can be methodically solved
  • Visualization of the service interactions using tools like journey maps, CAD model renderings, and video animations.
  • Creative Ideation of wide ranging concepts to solve problems and maximize opportunities
  • Prototypes tested with actual users (a service prototype might be a storyboard or video of specific interactions, a digital prototype of a user interface, or a physical mockup of the service environment with people playing the roles of providers and customers)
  • Design refinement to get it right
  • Engineering and implementation to make it real.

The design of services, products, and brands all require a similar holistic approach that starts with a focus on the people involved, and includes design thinking to create experiences that people truly love. That is Design, at your service.


*The Atlantic, “The American Economy is Experiencing a Paradigm Shift

**Design for Sharing

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