An excerpt from ISDI’s The Apprentice Part I, from the three-part Service Designer’s series of books and courses.
Service designers are thrust into any number of interesting and rewarding challenges as they create services and improve existing ones.
The field of service design is widely recognized as a discipline for creating and improving lines of service (LOS) for businesses.  Sometimes referred to as a line of business (LOB), a service can help organizations reach new users with an existing need or expand an organization’s reach by satisfying the unmet needs of end-users.
My design experience over the years, simply for examples to share, has involved each of these. Many projects involved opening new markets overseas with existing service offerings along with launching new services that competitors were already offering.  Yet the most challenging I have found are new services that solve users’ unmet needs.
As an example, one of my experiences was helping launch America’s Learning Exchange (ALX), an online listing of training opportunities through a site hosted by the U.S. federal government, a brainchild of Vice President Al Gore.  The Veep envisioned the government making visible to users, training programs to help unemployed Americans add new work skills in order to re-enter the workforce.
Yet like most services that there were quite a number of challenges to make the free government service work. This is not surprising given the task of solving a problem that users don’t recognize. In our case, users included trainers who we needed to list their courses and users who would be those who want to register for the training.
Trainers were required to list courses, keep them updated and then register interested users.  Consider in those days, while most libraries were probably connected to the Internet, many households across the country didn’t even have a computer.
We ultimately launched the services; while solving a lot of the challenges, we certainly didn’t resolve them all. Still, the larger point is new services designed to meet user needs are often difficult and resource-intensive.
I have also spent plenty of hours improving LOS. Some were services that failed to meet their intended objectives, say, unable to attract sufficient users to make the service pay for itself, and other services that were poorly designed.  ALX, for example, hobbled along but despite the incentives of free publicity for trainers, they simply failed to keep their course listings current.
Another project, meanwhile, was helping improve the performance of a certification program for a non-profit membership association.  The service itself was well-designed, but year over year it was failing to grow by attracting new users.  The certification program was built and survived on large association subsidies.  But future projections showed costs climbing while revenues failing to keep pace as the rate of new users leveled off.  Our team divided up the six components that made up the service and tested them separately, discovering the need for minor redesign.  Almost a decade later, the program continues, even with the administrator we trained.
This sums up the most likely range of purposes for when service design is applied.
The Origins of Service Design

The founding of service design is often associated with G. Lynn Shostack, a Citibank marketing executive, who in 1983 coined the term “Service Design” in a Harvard Business Review article, Designing Services that Deliver.

Image of service blueprint originator, G. Lynn Shostack.

G. Lynn Shostack, 1977

She wrote that like products, services need designing, too.  Over several years following its publication, others began building on her ideas, mostly among academics in Europe.  There, the seeds of the field began to bloom, primarily in the classroom and through academic declarations.  Shostack’s stated her intention in writing was for others to design services along with a framework. She proposed a service blueprint, an architectural rendering, to be used for depicting a user’s interaction with a service and the internal connections within an organization that must come into play to fulfill the user’s service experience.


Sample service blueprint for a theater experience.

Sample service blueprint for a theater experience. Source: ISDI Publishing

Service design became more mature as others added different approaches, tools, and methods from other disciplines, including product design, marketing, systems design, anthropology, ethnography, research, and human behavior.  The techniques from other technical and non-technical fields are added as needed to solve relevant challenges.
But perhaps the biggest growth inflection occurred after several governments that eyeing the benefits, tested the approach for improving end-user experiences.  In the United Kingdom, service design was incorporated into public works projects to improve experiences for non-UK residents on the heels of entering into the European Union free trade exchange.  Sweden also began experimenting with service design, applying its approach to government family services programs.  The government of Sweden established a service design lab to explore wider applications as well.

For servicing government needs, boutique service design firms emerged and then grew as demand spread.  Nowadays, almost every global management consulting firm offers a form of service design, even though those offerings may be labeled under different name offerings, such as digital transformation.

Want to learn more?  

ISDI is a professional development organization for service designers, offering training and other resources for service designers.