Dissolving Service Design

I’m starting a revision of my book Designing for Interaction. It’s about three years old now, and lots of things, including my own perspective on interaction design, have changed in the four years since I started writing it. (Just as one example, touchscreens and interactive gestures weren’t really mentioned in the earlier at all.)

One of the most radical changes to the new edition (and there are several), is the dissolution of the service design chapter. When I wrote the book, “service design” and designing services was something that was fairly new (in the US anyway). I called it “the next frontier of interaction design” or some such hyperbole.

Three years on, and the distinction between products and services in the world of iPhones, Kindles, Google Docs, Facebook, and Twitter seems arbitrary at best, and confusing at worst. And that isn’t to even get into things like ubicomp or robots, where the distinction is even more blurry. So for the second edition, I’ve decided to dissolve the service design chapter and just place the topics and tools that were once ghettoed there throughout the book. I’m not sure that, from this point out, at least for interaction designers, the distinction between products and services is a meaningful one.

I simply cannot think of a service that interaction designers would be involved in that doesn’t have some sort of product, and typically a technology product, at its center. The product might be anything from a physical object to a website to an interactive environment, but there is something there to be designed. Secondly, I can only think of very few products that interaction designers (and really, almost any designer) are designing any more that are not part of some kind of service. Bruce Sterling in Shaping Things uses the example of a bottle of wine: there’s the bottle itself, the vineyard’s website, the printed label, the metadata that goes to online winesellers, etc., etc. And that’s for a bottle of wine, much less a device that has to live in our increasingly complex ecosystem of gadgets, environment, and internet.

One hallmark of “traditional” service design is that it involves people, in real-time, to execute the service. This is still true, to varying degrees. Amazon still needs people to find your books in the warehouses and to write reviews. Netflix still needs people to open the return envelopes. And, of course, more physical services like your neighborhood restaurant and coffee shop still need people to create and serve their goods. Great people can make services great. But my point is that interaction designers aren’t designing people; we’re only designing for people, for interaction, not the interactions themselves, lest we turn people, both service providers and customers, into drone-like beings. Granted, this is a simplistic view, but I don’t see interaction designers getting involved in pure service design (things like workflow) unless there is a product involved. And thus, at least for us, the distinction between product and service is blurry, and where it isn’t (like, say, in hiring staff) is not typically our job. When it becomes our job, then perhaps we’re not doing interaction design any longer, and we’ve moved completely into the area of Service Design or human resources or business.

This state of products combined with services is the reality right now. Websites and software need to be maintained and upgraded, devices serviced and enhanced, customer service engaged. Unless you are designing stand-alone objects not connected to a network or a product that is meant to be used or executed once, it doesn’t behoove you as a designer to think of your product as anything but part of a larger service.

In a sense, this means service design is now the superset around products. But I don’t particularly like that model either, because without products, there would be almost no service design. And round and round we go.

So where then is the boundary between Service Design and Interaction Design? Interaction designers certainly do design services; we can’t help it, it’s the nature of the work. But as we move away from the product itself and get into the design of enabling the product, especially workflows to support the product, then I think we move into the realm of Service Design.

Thus the dissolution of service design in Designing for Interaction. “The next frontier of interaction design” is now (as it probably was even back in 2006) the ground beneath our feet. Stand firm.