So, What Is Service Design Thinking?

Posted on 2012/07/10 by


On Friday 21st of June, I innocently dived into the world of service design at the Service Design Network (SDN) Conference in Cologne – the first national SDN conference in Germany. As it was my first contact with service designers I was thrilled to learn what service design is, in the academic world as well as on a more hands-on level.

by Ramona Petzold

Coming from a classic user research background and working at a user-centered design agency, I often deal with improving or re-designing the digital interface of services. And quite frequently, changes in the digital world develop a major impact on the whole range of our clients’ services.

So, what is service design? As usual, Wikipedia is a great help. Service design is described as ” the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers” – always aiming at the needs of customers to design user-friendly, competitive and relevant services.

Furthermore, according to Birgit Mager, a sponsor of the conference and leading authority on service desing worldwide, service design also means “being creative” and seeing the whole picture when defining services based on user and business needs. Julia Schaeper described it in her presentation as “not designing a car, but rather designing for mobility.” I heard that “service design is like a duck” (Markus Grohmann) – elegant and pretty from on first sight, without the viewer noticing the hard paddling work that is being done beneath the surface.

And service design never comes alone: In real project life, it is often mixed with approaches from other domains as the following presentations showed brilliantly:

Service design thinking + lean management

Julia Schaeper, “Designing for Better Healthcare”: This presentation showed how service design can help improve healthcare experience. Julia gave an enlightening report about how to downsize healthcare processes and costs and amazingly at the same time improving the patient experience. For me, the thought that it actually is possible to harmonise economic necessities and customer wishes made a lasting impression.

Service design thinking + futurology

Julia Leihener, “A Time Machine for Service Designers”: This talk demonstrated how to deduce promising future trends from user research, stakeholder research and extreme scenarios. Given the space for creativity, a diverse multicultural team of experts and users can come up with surprising insights they never even dreamt of themselves.

Service design thinking + user centered design

Jim Kalbach, “Locating Value with Alignment Diagrams”: Jim outlined a practical approach of how to efficiently combine, visualise and tell the story of business and user needs. The creation of value really springs from the combination of business and user needs: the wilful intent to know both sides and treat them with equal respect during the course of a project.

>> Also see his slides to “Locating Value with Alignment Diagrams” on SlideShare.

Service design thinking + art and entertainment

Fabio Di Liberto, “Surprise Culture”: Fabio urged us to consider the conscious use of discontinuity and randomness as sublime elements when shaping a user experience. Even though this perception of creating a disruptive user experience shook my belief in usability requirements to the very foundations, I probably would download the app to get purposefully lost which plays beautifully into Fabios philosophy.

My key learnings:

  • Look at the whole picture – Service design is not focused on defining one part of a service, but the holistic service experience
  • Be creative and open to let in many influences to guide the service design process when developing great services.
  • Challenge usability maxims and think about potential value of discontinuity, blur and randomness in user experiences.

Thank you all  for a sometimes maybe spontaneously planned looking, but wonderful conference experience.


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