5 x 5 - The New Language of Service Design, Erik Flowers

Interview with Erik Flowers, Co-Founder of Practical Service Design

by Thomas Brandenburg

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

 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?

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. 

 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?

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.

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

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. 

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

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.

 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?

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. 

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