5by5: Five Perspectives on the New Language of Service Design

Interviews with Megan Erin Miller, Co-Founder, Practical Service Design; Bernadette Geuy, User Experience Design Lead at University of California, Berkeley; Erik Flowers, Co-Founder of Practical Service Design; Mauricio Manhaes, Ph.D., Professor of Service Design at SCAD; and Mark Jones, Vice President of Design at UnitedHealthcare
Article by Thomas Brandenburg

“Yes, I think service design, user experience, and design thinking are different and should be defined more distinctly. In particular, I think it is important for younger designers to really understand in practice the difference between these labels.”             —Megan Erin Miller

1. Why do you think there had not been a shared definition of service design? Do you think it is important to have one, especially for an in-house discipline?

Megan Erin Miller: I think there are a couple key reasons why we do not see a shared definition of service design today. One is that the field is still emerging in the U.S., as any new emerging field, we are not far enough along in maturity to have codification of the field. But perhaps more practically, service design as an organizational capability has to be integrated into organizational culture, and the way that one person would explain service design by necessity must be different than another in a different organization. This is unique to service design in many ways, as it is like a chameleon and blends into different organizational cultures in order to work more holistically. I think until we see industry standardization of service design practices, we are not going to see.

Bernadette Geuy: There is not a shared definition of service design in part because it is a relatively new discipline in the U.S. To increase awareness, it is important to talk about service design with in-house and external clients, to use terms like touchpoints and journeys, and to find ways to showcase its transformative value. I find it helpful to explain how service design builds on user experience design, which people are more familiar with, and with a more expansive end-to-end service perspective.

Erik Flowers: The lack of a shared definition may be a result of service design being a diverse toolkit of existing methods, but not exactly a hat that you wear with a specific purview like other disciplines. You can practice service design from almost any function, which isn’t true for a lot of disciplines. What ends up happening is that service design ends up being used as a toolkit by people interested in the methods and results, but not necessarily a job. If you look at the practitioners of service design, they almost all have diverse jobs—other design disciplines typically have predictable and well defined role expectations, but not service design.

Mauricio Manhaes: No discipline, that I know of, have a one widely agreed upon definition. If you take ‘Management’ for instance. Everybody knows what it means, right? But, its definition can range from “the act of directing people towards accomplishing a goal,” to “the administration of an organization,” to “the performance of business operations,” to “the directing of a group of people or entities toward a goal,” and countless others. The same happens to Architecture, Medicine, Fashion, Arts, Accounting, and so forth. The definitions of these disciplines, as most of the things that heavily involve social aspects, are always polysemic or down right imprecise. People know what Accountants do not because they have a precise definition of what it is, but because they were exposed enough to that discipline to the extent that they feel comfortable with that word. And this lengthy exposition didn’t happen yet with service design.

Mark Jones: Many designers like myself had been designing services before the field of service design was established as a formal practice in the US. I happened to come from an HCD background. But other designers of services came from an interaction design, space, lean or brand perspective. I think a key reason why a shared definition has been so hard to agree upon is that people come from so many different perspectives. Some large organizations also have designers of services who come from equally diverse backgrounds and experiences, and their methodology often varies. So while it would be helpful to have a single definition of designing services design (well, mine!), the better approach would be to codify what a Service Designer brings to the table.


 “Essentially, the business strategy is the movie’s director, and the person trying to employ the service design methods is assistant to that director.” —Erik Flowers


2. What language (key words or phrases) do you like to use to explain service design to an audience who is not familiar with it?

Megan Erin Miller: When I explain service design, I start by talking about something that everyone these days can relate to: my mobile phone carrier. I explain that I have had the same cell phone carrier for 16+ years, and if you think about all the different interactions I have had with that company over the lifespan of my relationship with them—my billing statements, text messages, in-store experiences, customer service support calls, their website—and how do we design across that relationship? How do we provide consistent, quality experiences over such a long period of time and many different interactions? This usually gets people to understand right away the distinction between service design and the more prominent UX/UI design we see dominating the design field today.

Officially, here is how I define service design:

Service design helps organizations see their services from a customer perspective. It is an approach to designing services that balances the needs of the customer with the needs of the business, aiming to create seamless and quality service experiences. Service design is rooted in design thinking, and brings a creative, human-centered process to service improvement and designing new services. Through collaborative methods that engage both customers and service delivery teams, service design helps organizations gain true, end-to-end understanding of their services, enabling holistic and meaningful improvements.

Bernadette Geuy: Given the opportunity to explain Service Design, I use visual images like journey and experience maps to talk about how services are experienced by end users, and how they encounter touchpoints along the way to reach their goals. Service owners are oriented around business processes and don’t generally think holistically about customer journeys, especially if there are handoffs to other parts of the organization. Seeing an experience map enhances empathy within the organization and helps to create a shared mental model of the complete end-to-end customer experience.

Erik Flowers: I liken it to choreography of a play or a movie. You’re arranging parts of a system together to form a larger production, without necessarily being one of those parts or owning what those parts do. You’re making sure people and things are in the right places at the right times, but you’re not necessarily one of those people or things. But, it’s not a matter of seniority where the service designer is higher up the corporate ladder, they just operate in a different space— often the space between the people and things. Essentially, the business strategy is the movie’s director, and the person trying to employ the service design methods is assistant to that director.

Mauricio Manhaes: The simplest, the better. After all, it is the amount of exposure to a concept that will lead people to understand it, not the precision of its definition. People have to be presented over-and-over again to evidences to what service design is and what it can do. Usually, what I do when I have to explain service design for an audience who is not familiar with it, I present a parallel with Industrial Design. I ask the person if she or he knows what ‘design’ does to objects like cars, chairs, watches, phones. More often than not, the person responds: “Of course! Design makes them awesome, desirable, easy-to-use.” To what I add: “That’s exactly what service design does to services.” The reaction I get is of a reasonable understanding of what service design is, followed by: “Organization ‘X’ needs service design desperately! Its service is not easy-to-use at all!” At the end, the goal of all service design enthusiasts should be to expose as much audience as possible to service design and let them get acquainted with it. The social dynamics will do the rest.

Mark Jones: I usually use the stages of the process to explain how it works. We conduct research with users and other stakeholders to understand the real needs; we create prototypes to visualize parts of the service so that we can get feedback from stakeholders; we often use prototypes to co-design services with users; and we create artifacts such as service blueprints to communicate how the parts of a service hang together.  I find that walking people through the process helps make it more understandable.


“Yes, I think service design, user experience, and design thinking are different and should be defined more distinctly. In particular, I think it is important for younger designers to really understand in practice the difference between these labels.”‍            —Megan Erin Miller: 


3. Service design is often interchanged with systems design, user experience or design thinking. Do you think that is an issue?

Megan Erin Miller: Yes, I think service design, user experience, and design thinking are different and should be defined more distinctly. In particular, I think it is important for younger designers to really understand in practice the difference between these labels. I see a very clear difference:

• User experience design is the design of specific touchpoints (websites, apps, products, etc.)—this is just how the industry has evolved to define this terminology.

• Design thinking is a conceptual framework that promotes human-centered process and iteration in design practice. Design Thinking is at the core of any good design practice, whether or not it is service design or UX design.

• Service design is the holistic practice of applying design thinking and human-centered design to services as a whole, designing the experiences over time and across touchpoints, and designing how the organization delivers those experiences.

Bernadette Geuy: None of these design methodologies exist in isolation and I employ all of them. Design, at its core, is about problem solving, and you have to take into consideration that services exist in the context of systems—ecosystems of people, technology, policies, market places, and across organizational silos. You can’t ignore the interplays within and across systems when designing solutions. A skilled service designer will think in terms of systems, and in researching and mapping experiences across a service journey they will account for the underlying systems relationships. Success, in the form of an adopted solution, is predicated on a designer’s ability to engage stakeholders and sponsors in Design Thinking, and their ability to appropriately and convincingly communicate value to decision makers.

Erik Flowers: I see service design as a toolkit, same as design thinking. You wouldn’t have a job role title as “design thinker,” you’d have something specific to what you do. Systems design and user experience fall more in between where you actually are describing more of what you do—you design the system (whatever that is) or you work on designing for a user of a specific product’s experience. In this sense, if you truly designed a service, you could look at yourself as a “designer of XYZ service,” but it’s still more of a toolkit than a role. The naming of design theory and disciplines is in a state of chaos as I write this, though, and the interchangeability and confusion isn’t something that is going away sooner than later.

Mauricio Manhaes: When people are presented to comprehensive definitions of what ‘service’ is, and to what ‘design’ is, it becomes clear that an evolutionary cognitive process (i.e., design) focused on augmenting the potential to act of entities (i.e., service) will be holistic and will profit by crossing disciplines boundaries, by being systemic (but, not systematic). Actually, service design can use UX and CX approaches to better understand and improve human experience. And the same goes to the others, each one can use the other approaches to improve their works. From a service design perspective, UX and CX have a narrower focus, and that is good… and bad. Service design (SD) has a broader focus, and that is good… and bad. This is what I tried to capture by the formula: SD ⊃ UX + CX (i.e., SD contains all the elements of UX, CX and more). More on that discussion can be found here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/user-x-customer-service-design-interesting-debate-manhaes-dr-

Mark Jones: I like to talk about Service Design as a practice that incorporates lots of tools and techniques to develop a solution. That means being human-centered, thinking about the overall user experience, and developing a holistic design of the overall system. I have even used lean methodology as a part of a toolset for designing a service. So no, I don’t think that having language that has roots in other design traditions is a problem. The problem arises when people have difficulty in reconciling the differences within a single service design project.


“The concept that I try to avoid at all costs is “great experience.” To my understanding, service design focus on augmenting the potential to act of entities, not to provide a great experience.” —Mauricio Manhaes

“Service designers need to be able to translate and show how a Return on Experience (ROE) connects to a business case with a Return on Investment (ROI), and is technically feasible.”  —Bernadette Geuy


4. Are there any overused or misused terms that may be robbing service design of credibility?

Megan Erin Miller: I think there is a danger in people not understanding the full extent to which you must be integrating with the organization to implement service design. You literally cannot implement service design without full engagement with the business side of the house. I worry sometimes about “Service Experience Design” becoming the label of the industry, because it takes the same model of thinking only about the end-user experience as primary perspective, when “designing for service” is much more than just that. In many ways, service design is about designing the delivery of services in order to support the experiences of our users. So I hope we don’t lose the critical “backstage” components of service design that I fear gets deprioritized under the label “Service Experience.”

Bernadette Geuy:  A way that designers lose credibility is not by overusing or misusing service design terms, but by failing to communicate value in ways that business and technical audiences can understand. A great design that promises significant service improvements is rarely immediately actionable. A designer’s language use, and advocacy on behalf of end users, may not be that compelling to sponsors, service owners, or technologists. Service designers need to be able to translate and show how a Return on Experience (ROE) connects to a business case with a Return on Investment (ROI), and is technically feasible.

Erik Flowers: I am not sure I can say that service design is being robbed of credibility. If anything, I think service design is coopting terms from other disciplines and schools of thought and spreading out the understanding of what design and service design means. Service design is essentially “common sense design thinking between interfaces, people, and things.” It’s not a revolution, it’s an evolution that is growing its own feet when maybe it just had gills before, and starting to walk on land with the other design disciplines that have been there longer.

Mauricio Manhaes: The concept that I try to avoid at all costs is “great experience.” To my understanding, service design focus on augmenting the potential to act of entities, not to provide a great experience. The experience aspect, if the work on augmenting the potential to act was well done, will happen for each individual that experienced the proposed service. The concept of ‘great experience’ has a strong “rear mirror” aspect. After all, to define if an experience is bad, good or great it is necessary to have a traditional benchmarking for comparison. In my opinion, service design has to focus on designing new forms of augmenting the potential to act of entities. Therefore, it has to be forward looking. And it is not uncommon to have some service that, at first seemed awkward and unpleasant, but because it decisively augmented the potential to act of a person, be perceived after a while as a “great experience.” And, of course, there is all this philosophical discussion about the fact that an ‘experience’ cannot be designed. It can only be lived in a very personal and individual manner.

Mark Jones: Journeys. I have observed people seeing Journey Maps as an end unto itself, not just a framework that helps organize stakeholder issues and opportunities into a way to bring people together. I also have seen them becoming a rigid artifact that does not evolve over time. I would love to see some other artifacts that have as much traction as customer journeys.


“Connecting with our business partners is always essential. But I don’t generally try to make sure that they understand the theory of service design the way that we do. Rather, I like to tell stories…” —Mark Jones


5. How might you see the language of service design being changed or evolving for people in business, especially since they traditionally don’t have a design background?

Megan Erin Miller: I think anyone who has had to implement service design in an organization learns very quickly that you have to speak the language of the business in order to successfully co-create the service. I have found that a few key terms are important to get shared understanding of first, including: service, experience, touchpoint, scenario, and life cycle. These concepts are often new to the business and not part of existing vocabulary, but critical to service design implementation. I spend time educating and building this shared language so that we can utilize service design tools to achieve business outcomes. But other than that, it’s more important to learn the language of the business. So, for example, we would never say “service design heuristics” but we may talk about “service principles.” It really depends on the language and terminology that your organization uses already, and building off of that, filling the gaps where needed. This building of shared vocabulary is a challenging, time-consuming, but critical step towards building organizational capabilities in service design.

Bernadette Geuy: Being able to translate the value of design across the disciplines of business and technology is a big opportunity area for service designers. Design, business and technical people have trained for and are responsible for different aspects of an organization’s success. They each have different drivers and success metrics. Connecting designs to the elements of a business, case and providing evidence in support of improved brand value, and the impact on revenue growth or loss, as well as the technical feasibility, can make or break if a service design change is actualized.

Erik Flowers: It’s even easier since service design is really applied business strategy. Designing the home screen of your mobile app is several steps removed from the business strategy, it’s the application and implementation of things that serve a smaller product strategy, which itself serves a larger business strategy. In service design, the mission behind it could actually be the business strategy that needs applied. This is why it is so confusing between other disciplines. You don’t need a design background to understand the tenets and methods of service design. You just need to know the business strategy and the types of results you want. Then the smart companies employ all sorts of toolkits to execute, service design being one of the more popular ones moving its way westward towards the tech hubs of the west coast. But it’s not fully there yet. There’s a wall of tech design that it obstructing its path that is has to find a way over or under, or negotiate a way through the gates.

Mauricio Manhaes: At SCAD’s Service Design Program, after countless interactions with companies looking for hiring service design students, my colleagues and I started to work on a common language to enable organizations to acquire a service design mindset. The result is a set of three overarching perspectives that offers a springboard to enable conversations with and between service design professionals. The three suggested perspectives are based on the concept of ‘understanding,’ defined as “the ability to think and act with what one knows.” These overarching perspectives (OP) are: Understanding Stakeholders Contexts (nicknamed ‘Point A’ or ‘Now’), Understanding Innovative Dynamics (nicknamed ‘Point B’ or ‘Future’), and Understanding Institutional Transitions (nicknamed ‘Bridge’). The 3OPs do not define human characteristics, practices or abilities. Rather, they provide a mindset to enable organizations to ‘think and act with what they know’, with the team they have, given the context where they have to perform in. The ultimate goal of the 3OPs is to provide a broad structure to guide the thoughts and actions of a service design effort. It also highlights the need to go beyond focusing only on designing innovative services (what we call ‘Point B’), and to devote as much resources to profoundly understand stakeholders contexts (i.e., ‘Point A’) and create a sensible and sensitive implementation process (i.e., the ‘Bridge’) to nudge stakeholders from A to B. These overarching perspectives should be reflected on all service design activities, from the initial proposal, to the project’s activities and teams, to different sets of preliminary and final deliverables.

Mark Jones: Connecting with our business partners is always essential. But I don’t generally try to make sure that they understand the theory of service design the way that we do. Rather, I like to tell stories. Stories about how we evolved a great service concept through understanding our users, prototyping concepts and getting their feedback, and then iterating to a great service concept. It’s about communicating value.