Service design is becoming widely recognized across the globe as the way to develop and improve lines of services. Yet 35 years after its designation there remain discrepancies over the definition.

To that point, service design is often confused with other disciplines, including graphic design, UX Design, and Design Thinking.

Against this backdrop, Steven J. Slater, business author, master service designer and co-founder of the International Service Design Institute, offers his view based on his career designing, implementing, and launching services.  Steven Slater has developed services across businesses, public services and non-profits/NGOs for more than 30 years.

Services make up nearly 80% of the U.S. economy, while most other industrial countries are not far behind, including India and China.

We don’t know how many consider themselves service designers, but a LinkedIn search reveals more than 2.5 million professionals who include service design in their profiles.  One can see that there is both high demand for those who know how to design services and, there is probably more recognition of the field than many practitioners assume.  Granted, the field still has a long way to go before it becomes a familiar reference at cocktail parties.

To get to that point, however, we need a more accepted definition 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.  And even that’s in dispute as some in the field claim it began much earlier.  But too much earlier seems a bit of stretch since services only became intertwined in our lives in the 1950s, according to economists who track economic sectors, including the service sector.

Shostack’s article, which was more of a clarion call for others to advance the field, caught the attention of academics, mostly in Europe.  Once there, the field came to life in the classroom and in theories.  As it became more mature, service design resembled a collection of methods from other disciplines, including product design, marketing, systems design, anthropology, ethnography, research, human behavior, and other technical and non-technical fields.

Then several governments became interested in service design as an approach to developing better public services by designing them around citizen end-users.  Over subsequent cycles, boutique firms emerged, then consumer companies began to adopt the approach. Now it is a standard offering among global management consulting firms, even though each of them have labels that sound similar to digital transformation and innovation.

 My definition of service design unravels through answers to three straightforward questions.

  1. What are Services?

A service can exist as part of a business, a non-profit, or part of government.  But most of all, a service is not a product.

Services result in end-user experiences. Services are designed to meet user needs.  Services unfold in different forms.

A service will meet any and all of these criteria.

  • They come into reality as they are used.
  • They cannot be seen, felt, or tested prior to purchase, yet they deliver an intrinsic value to the user.
  • No two service experiences are identical.
  • Services are perishable, and some have expiration dates after which time they can no longer be experienced.
  • Users of services can be observed or monitored.
  • Some service experiences can be recovered, in real-time.
  • Services can be used repeatedly, at multiple times in different locations.
  • Services can be shaped
  • Services can last as a memory long after the service concludes

Services Appear in Different Forms

Some types of services are immediately recognizable.  The most known, familiar types of services are captured here.

  • Online services. (e.g., Amazon retail)
  • Services support other services. (e.g., insurance)
  • Services support products (e.g., warranties)
  • Multiple services dedicated to a single product or multiple products (e.g., implement, integrate enterprise IT)

Services Are Important to Our Economy

We take for granted the number of the services we use. We also take for granted that most services seem to work.  However, if services routinely failed, we would be in an economic slump.  An economy needs constant growth and due to our dependence on the service sector, we require a constant flow of new services (and users) and services that are innovative to drive up consumer demand.

Our economies, as stated above, rely on services, the same way industrial countries used to depend on manufacturing.  When there was a labor strike, for instance, everyone suffered.

Say, as a hypothetical, services across the board became unreliable.  And we couldn’t trust them with our credit cards much less having any confidence that a service would deliver on its promised purpose.  If that were to happen, we would all feel the impact.  We would find our earnings unable to keep up with the cost of things we need, such as food, housing and transportation.

Along those lines, there are services we rely on all the time, as with the Internet.  There are also services that we either are not aware of or they don’t require our frequent involvement. These services are nonetheless critical. To jog reader’s minds, think of organizations listed below, which economists categorize as service-based.

  • Utilities
  • Wholesale trade
  • Retail trade
  • Transportation and warehousing
  • Information services
  • Finance, insurance, real estate, rentals, and leasing
  • Professional and business services, including accounting and consulting
  • Educational services, healthcare, and social assistance
  • Consumer-based: Arts, entertainment, recreation, hospitality, and food services
  • Other services, including IT
  • Government
  1. How Do Services Fail – What Does Failure Mean?

Services are considered to fail when it doesn’t achieve its intended purpose; they can also fail if they don’t function properly.

User dissatisfaction: User dissatisfaction occurs when end-users, intended target customers, are dissatisfied with their service experience.  And despite the views of some, poor customer service has little to do with service failure.  Customer service is defined as: any and all interactions involving service staff, for which just some services qualify.

Skilled service designers are capable of figuring out how to meet user needs. They are taught that from the beginning services are designed around users.

Provider dissatisfaction:  A service is considered a failure if it doesn’t achieve the service provider’s objective(s). This can include failure to achieve the user’s intended outcome, or when a service draws too many resources, i.e., the service provider’s costs including cash output and labor.

Failure is also when a service just doesn’t work—it is unable to complete or fulfill a user’s experience journey.  A malfunction could be for any number of reasons, including poor design of a service system, or the service operation, or poor and incomplete design and integration of separate, dependent service components.

In most cases a service designer can get to the root of the problem.

  1. So, How do you Define Service Design?

Service Design is a field of practice used to create lines of service (LOS) and improve existing ones.  It is based on user-centricity, or in other words, based on users’ needs, desires and wants.  Satisfying user needs involves solving a user’s problem, making a task easier, or achieving a desired outcome.

Service design is both a discipline and an approach, and is made up of techniques and tools, many which are barrowed from other disciplines.  There are also two service design tools created for the field that have permeated into other disciplines, including the service blueprint and journeyman; the former is for diagraming a service as it unfolds, and the latter informs service designers of users’ experience.

Finally, from my view of service design, I, as with others, believe services must be designed, otherwise they incur an inordinate risk to service providers.  Business economists estimate that services created through trial and error have a more than 50% chance of failure. I sense that is a conservative number; and put the guestimate failure rate of trial and error closer to 65%, at best.

Failed services are associated with wasted revenues. Organizations eschew investing in failure and most take sensible precautions to avoid it. Besides, no one wants to be associated with failure.

That’s why service design is growing. But now it’s time to clearly explain service design, what it is intended for, how to procure it, and its benefits.  By defining service design, and sticking to it, others around the world can appreciate all the fuss.

About Steven J. Slater


  • Be Relevant: How Brands Rise to the Top. ( Guide to Service Design)
  • The Service Design Handbook Series; The Apprentice; The Journeyman; and The Master
  • Models, Tools & Templates for Service Designers

Steven has spent his career developing and improving Lines of Service (LOS) across almost every economic sector.  This includes the public sector, non-profit and NGO social services sector, and services in most every type of business (transportation, banking and finance, healthcare, IT, communications, oil & gas, consumer package goods, hardware and software, HR, law, and global consulting.)  All combined, his services have earned clients and employers more than $2 billion in actual, traceable revenue.