Service vs. Product Design

All the cool kids, when not talking about design thinking, are talking about service design these days. In case, like me, you’re not one of the cool kids, service design is “the field concerned with the development of services to meet specific needs” (Shedroff) focusing on “customer experiences in industries such as retail, banking, transportation, healthcare, business-to-business enterprises, and education” (IDEO). John Thackara in his book In the Bubble makes the claim that we’re moving away from designing things (products) and towards more services, more joint ownership of things. And certainly even traditional product companies like IDEO seem to be pushing service design hard.

Me, I like the idea of service design and, with some 70% of the US economy being driven by services, it’s definitely needed. But I’m not quite ready to throw out product design yet. I agree that making less things, less useless things, is good for the environment and for our general mental health. But while I can strongly like a service (I heart Tivo), I don’t think it’s the same type of attachment that forms to a physical product. For one thing, services are intangible and apt to change. Services mutate, stagnate, and shift depending on the people supplying them. The experiences at McDonald’s and Starbucks can vary wildly, and those are two very controlled service processes. My grandfather’s lighter, meanwhile, will always (barring catastrophe) be the same. I own it, and there’s a big difference between renting a house and owning one. If a service better than Tivo came along, well, I might change. But I won’t trade in Wally’s zippo for something better. I have an attachment to it. Even if my grandpa had used Tivo, it probably wouldn’t stop me from changing to a new service if something awesome came along.

Another thing that seems to get overlooked in all the talk of service design is that most services are chock-full of products. Signage, physical devices, web sites, phone services, lighting, etc. are all part of a typical service ecology. Granted, there are fewer products made, but they are products nonetheless, and typically specialized products made specifically for that service.

It’s bitchingly hard to split product design from service design, especially on the web. Most non-content websites provide services, delivered over the internet instead of in-person. Ebay, Google, Yahoo, online brokerages and banks, travel sites, etc. are all providing you a service, or are part of a larger service, as in the case of Netflix. Users don’t own the website (obviously), they just use the service. Which, as I explained above with the zippo lighter vs. Tivo, makes most websites pretty vulnerable. If a search came along that was better than Google would you use it? Be honest. Which is one of the reasons why companies like Google and Yahoo give us stuff like toolbars. It’s easier to switch services than to get rid of a thing, even a digital thing.

I also have to wonder if service design isn’t really systems design in new clothes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means there’s more focus on context, on the entire system of use. Nothing is created and maintained in a vacuum. People use products in an environment, as part of other, larger things (the system). All service design is, really, is designing this whole system of use. Most interaction and industrial designers (at least the good ones) do this already. So perhaps service design is defined mostly by the types of contexts its delivered in? If so, I hope we’re not ghettoizing it; all design could be improved by the sorts of systems-thinking that service design is doing.

3 thoughts on “Service vs. Product Design

  1. Someone very smart told me one day that “*”+ “Design” is really just someone’s angle on how to describe the forces of design. I paraphrased them quite a bit obviously, it could be a thesis degree by itself.
    “Semiotics+design” used to be all the rage in the 80’s. Product+design was all the rage in the 90’s. In the new millenium it has yet to be flushed out… will it be the neverending “interaction/experience/interface/infomation/system+design” or for the in-the-know-designer: “service+design” that will be the hallmark of the decade.
    It doesn’t really matter all that much. Design as an activity has been apparent since man used a rock as a tool. Its the same as it ever was.

  2. Yes. Yes. Yes. I keep wondering too, what the difference between service and system design should be? Is the only difference that what you get is “serviced” partly by humans?

  3. Hi Dan,
    An interesting post though I am a late reader. I think many product designers are moving into ‘service design’ (Is the term still alive in the US?) because of money drying up in product investments because of china, the global slump, or simply because it takes much more effort to make a slingbox than it does to make nachos and beer, but is just as easy to sell it. In the end, as you said it, the service ecosystem is enabled by physical (or digital on the internet) products and product designers are required to use their basic design skills, without having to worry about long project lead times and reality issues like BOM costs and mass manufacturing.

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