I think it’s fair to say that service design is still working itself out — as a profession, as an approach, as a mindset.

We have different ways to slice and dice what we do, constantly on the lookout for ways to organise and categorise what we do and how we do it.

Some familiar categories:

  • Stages of the design process: discover, define, develop, deliver (or inspiration, ideation and implementation)
  • Mindsets: divergent and convergent thinking
  • Project phases: discovery, alpha, beta and live

And the caveat on top, of course: that the design process is never linear. That despite these clean categories, we move fluidly between them: building and testing in discovery, and shifting between thinking big and prioritising ideas.

The consequence of this, in my experience, is that none of the categories above feels like they accurately describe the “modes” you are in day-to-day as a service designer.

So this post is a consolidation of some floating thoughts and my own attempt at making sense of the ever-evolving practice of service design.

Two sides of service design

Let’s suggest the role of a service designer is twofold:

  • Figuring out the future vision and where we want to get to
  • Making it real — doing whatever it takes to create (sustainable) change

Let’s look at these in a bit more detail.

The figuring out

The figuring out is what service designers contribute to a discovery project. What is the future vision for this service; what do its users need?

In order to be good at figuring it out, service designers need to:

  • understand people and elicit what they need
  • be able to zoom out from research to identify patterns and themes
  • be bold enough to look past how things are now, in order to design the future service

Another word for the figuring out might be the strategy.

Designing the future service - painting the picture of how things could be

The making it real

The making it real is anything and everything service designers will do in order to prototype, pilot and scale services.

When making it real we can’t fall back on tried-and-tested methods or a cookie-cutter “best practice” approach. I think, as a profession, we’re still learning how to make it real — and how to make that change sustainable.

In order to be good at making it real, service designers need to:

  • learn what parts of the future service do and don’t work
  • build the trust of staff and other stakeholders
  • measure impact and articulate the business case

The way we’d go about this is usually through prototyping (either new services or parts of services).

Another word for making it real might be delivery.

Simulating-as-prototyping: learning what does and doesn’t work

Don’t stop when you’ve figured it out

When service design gets a hard time, it’s because it stops at figuring out. We print gigantic journey maps, tell compelling stories of people using services and create beautiful slide decks telling audiences what we’ve learned and what we recommend. Service design at its worst is self-congratulatory and insular; focusing on ourselves and losing sight of who we’re designing for, and why.

I think when service design stops at figuring it out and doesn’t go on to make it real, it fails.

A caveat

I think I sit so stoically in the “making it real” camp because I’ve come to realise that I’m not a particularly strategic designer.

In particular, I find it difficult to:

  • synthesise large amounts of user research
  • spot themes and patterns
  • zoom out and imagine the ideal future (beyond the service and environment you’ve been absorbing yourself in)

This synthesis, this seeing the wood beyond the trees, I find almost impossible to do alone.

Which brings me on to perhaps last thing that I believe service designers need to be able to do (and perhaps the most important):

collaborate, facilitate and work effectively within multidisciplinary teams

Luckily, in my job at FutureGov, it’s a truly team sport.

Sinking in synthesis? Don’t go it alone

Figuring out (or strategy); making it real (or delivery) — this is just one of many ways we can start to make sense of service design. I’d love to hear how you would begin to breakdown what service design is (and is becoming) and what skills we need as designers to get there.

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