Service Design, a Game Changer

February 20, 2015 in Human-Centered Design
Traci Thomas
Senior Strategic Designer

Consumers are drowning in a sea of information and are constantly being bombarded with choices, resulting in decision paralysis. Businesses can no longer differentiate themselves by simply offering really cool things. It’s now about emotionally connecting with consumers through engaging and memorable experiences around their offerings. Without creating these engaging experiences, businesses are left with an undifferentiated brand, weak customer loyalty and sluggish revenues.

Service design strategically shapes meaningful and compelling experiences that align the needs of the consumer with the needs of the business.

Services are a big deal

Let’s take a step back and talk generally about services. The service sector plays an important role in our economy. In fact, approximately 80% of US GDP comes from services1. The reach of services is also vast and varied. There are plenty of players: big, medium and small-sized companies that cover a variety of industries like hospitality, restaurants, financial services, accounting, healthcare, retail, transportation, consulting, etc.

But what is a service? In economics, services are defined as an intangible commodity. Ok, that definition is still a bit nebulous. What does that really mean? In its most basic form, a service is a way of providing value to someone else based on his or her specific needs. This may still be hard to grasp, so let’s use a simple example:

AirBnB is one of my favorite online services. I love to travel and stay in off the beaten path places. So when I’m planning a vacation and need to find a cool place to stay, AirBnB allows me to easily search, book and pay for my accommodations online.

My need is a place to stay, and AirBnB provides value by connecting me with people renting out their place; making it easy for me to close the transaction with them. There’s an exchange of value - I get a place to stay and the host gets paid.

The building blocks of services

Let’s take the AirBnB example and break it down further. In deconstructing a service, we find four core elements:

  • Touch points
    Touch points are the multiple points of contact you can have with a service. They may include people, environments and digital interfaces. Some of the touch points for AirBnB include the AirBnB host, customer service, my online account, etc.

  • Interactions
    Interactions are the types of engagements that can happen at various touch points. When using AirBnB, I’m usually interacting with the host via email and text. When I arrive at my destination, I connect with them by phone.

  • Transactions
    With a service, there’s often some kind of transaction during these interactions, whether it’s with money or information. Like money, information is also a currency. On AirBnB, I pay my host for the time I’ll spend at their place and we’ll exchange information to set expectations and ensure that I have a positive experience.

  • Experience - The “Emotional Currency”
    Experience is the output of the above elements combined. I call it “emotional currency” because it’s what enables us to connect with and experience the service on a very personal level in a memorable way.

The AirBnB experience appeals to me because of its peer-to-peer model, economical cost, non-standard accommodations and personal connections with my hosts. Oftentimes when I leave, I feel like I’ve made a new friend and have interesting stories to tell others. Not only was my experience positive, but it instilled confidence in me to use the service again. In other words, I’ve come to trust AirBnB.

Experiences are personal

A word of caution. Because experiences are so personal, they’re also highly subjective. My experience with AirBnB might be very similar to someone else’s, but it’s never exactly the same.

Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, does a great job illustrating how experiences are subjective by explaining the crucial role that gutters play in comics. Gutters, the space between the panels, hold a lot of mystery and magic to the story. They are where your imagination makes connections and you begin to fill in the gaps.

Image credit: McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, 67.

Gutters are essentially where personal experiences happen. In service design, designers build the panels (touch points and interactions) with enough transition points for people to construct their own journey.

Shaping holistic experiences

We typically define “users” as the end consumer. Service design is unique in that it extends the definition of user to include both the “consumer” and the “provider.” This holistic approach considers everyone involved, with consumer interactions making up the “front stage” and the provider (internal staff) interactions making up the “back stage” of the service.

The complexity of service design

The diagram above shows the holistic nature of service design and how it interfaces with business design. Delivering an experience across multiple touch points is at the heart of service design. This complex discipline uses multiple variables to create a unified system architecture that addresses the goals of the consumer and provider, intuitively connects the touch points, and creates the appropriate feedback loops that motivate and inspire consumers to repeatedly use the service.

Services that are impactful and profitable are hard to build and even harder to maintain. With service design, you must consider the business goals, operations and organizational culture to achieve sustainable growth, while continuing to create new and innovative service solutions.

Service design in action

MAYA is hosting the Pittsburgh Service Jam (part of the 2016 Global Service Jam) at its office in Pittsburgh the weekend of February 26 - 28, 2016. The Jam is a 48-hour design challenge that takes place around the world over one weekend. Each location designs a new service solution around the same theme. At the end of the weekend, everyone uploads and shares their ideas for the world to see. Follow us @MAYA_Design to see what happens at this year’s #servicejamPGH!

1 Haksever, C. and Render, B. (2013, July 25). The Important Role Services Play in an Economy. Retrieved from

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