Service and product design are in the ascendancy, becoming increasingly important within marketing and engineering departments.

Ashley Friedlein makes the claim in his trends for 2016, citing the number of consultancies and systems integrators that have made design acquisitions (see this Wired article for how IBM is beefing up its design creds).

Service design follows naturally from a focus on customer experience (as a central tenet of that dreaded term, digital transformation).

As Ashley puts it, brands are looking for 'that special person who not only gets the big idea, the brand, the look and feel, but can also do information architecture, gets UX and UI, [and] appreciates the customer journey'.

Here's another, definitive explanation of service design from Paul Boag:

[Service design] brings together designers and business specialists to look at the whole scope of a customer’s interactions, rather than focusing just on a single component such as the website. It is an area which is gaining popularity as we see customer service grow as a differentiator.

As organisations embrace service design they are creating cross-disciplinary teams of user interface designers, retail experts, marketers, sales professionals and numerous other specialists.

These teams operate outside of the traditional departmental structure, with the single goal of improving customer experience.

So, I thought I'd list a few of the brands that have made this service design leap early.

As an extra intro, I've embedded an excellent explainer video from the Design Council which mentions some of the companies I've picked up on below.

Government Digital Service

The irrepressible GDS is not just implementing service design but helping to define it (here are just 10 of GDS' blog posts on the topic).

Working with such big user numbers, GDS is uniquely placed to test and learn during the design process.

The disparate domains and styles that GDS was tasked with uniting are now home to services that scream clarity.

GDS is religious in its consideration of user needs (see this great GDS post on the topic) and is particularly strong on content design (influenced by a much-heralded style guide).

The following excerpts from a GDS interview with Sarah Richards, head of content design at GDS, give a very clear idea of what content design means for government service users.

We found that if we use a lot of adjectives and describing words, people will think it’s spin, and they’ll think it’s jargon. Or if we use jargon we lose trust, so people don’t come to us, they go somewhere else.

We are the authoritative, trusted source, or we should be, so we find that if we just write very plainly, very clearly, very directly, everybody understands; we make the English very easy to understand.

...Our research shows us that people only read about 20-28% of a page, so we have very little to play with, actually. We need to get that information across quickly.

That’s what we mean by accessible; it’s not just about disabilities, it’s about opening government information to anybody who wants to be able to read it.

gds style guide 

British Gas

We have previously written about Hive's beginnings as a protected 'startup' within British Gas.

Creating a frictionless customer journey for a connected-home product involved industrial design as well as UX, iterating a physical product, an app and the installation and support experience.

Designing in the round like this (the project for Hive 2 was led by Yves Behar) is common with a product launch or iteration but is something that many established brands have yet to incoporate with their digital presence.

As Hive continues to add new connected-home products, the design challenge within the app increases as the team seeks to make each product interaction as slick and seemingly intuitive as possible.

hive app


In an interview with How Design, Christian Willson, design director at Spotify, provides some fantastic soundbites.

On design as differentiator

I think more and more companies are using design as something that differentiates them from competition. Also they are trying to attain the best designers out there.

By creating CDO’s (chief design officers) they are shining a light on the fact that they really care about design.

They are also showing that design has a seat at the table. It’s an important part of modern companies.

On in-house design teams

I think the main thing about building an in-house team is that you own the knowledge of the people. You’re not just paying for their service when you need it for a short project. It also speeds up the work.

You can solve things really quickly that would be a hassle with an outside agency.

You would need to brief, they would need to learn our brand and how we work. This can be a really long process for something that can be a quick fix for our team here.

Spotify is embracing service design as part of its move from a music streaming service to a music brand that's more about lifestyle than a particular product.

Its 2015 redesign featured changes to how users can exercise with Spotify and access further content such as video.

A nice Wordpress blog (Spotify Labs) allows the engineering teams to detail some of its service design processes and successes.

Here's a typical example, detailing the development of the Discover Weekly function.

The Spotify Design team also has its own Twitter account, if you want to keep up-to-date.



Just read the paragraph about the design department on Airbnb's recruitment pages.

Airbnb bleeds design. Two of our cofounders are designers, and an appreciation of the power of design is in everything we do. Even our internal dashboards have great typography.

We believe design is as much about behaviour and emotion as it is about utility and ease. We are a broad team that contributes to product direction and crafts pixel-perfect output.

Situated with the engineering team, we move quickly but also have enough time and space to create broad, innovative ideas.

It sums up some key points about the wider importance of design: 

  • design is pervasive.
  • design smooths/enhances interactions by influencing behaviour and emotion.
  • design is essential for both an iterative workflow and understanding of the bigger idea.

Of course, new digital platforms like Airbnb are always likely to have this greater emphasis on service design.

It's in areas like government and financial services where service design (particularly with multichannel experiences) is really making an impact.

See this post on Barclays from the UK's Creative Industries website.


Let's finish with another quote from Ashley Friedlein:

Great developers are still gold dust but in the last six months or so the question I keep hearing is ‘does anyone know a great (digital) designer’? 

And, like good childcare or a great plumber, if you do know this person you sure as hell are not giving their details to anyone else. 

Ben Davis

Published 25 January, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (1)


Murray Cox, Strategy Director at Pancentric Digital

From our perspective at Pancentric, clients are increasingly seeing the value of taking an approach to digital that is both more holistic and more fundamental to get better results.

The service design and associated design thinking toolkits give us the ability to lead clients through a process where we help them answer questions like: What is the point of this brand in the digital age? How do we account for the changing context of our users or audience? How can we change/expand our offering or our business model?

Thanks to EY buying Seren and so on, service design is really starting to garner some attention - but rather than worrying about definitions (there are many), I think the more important job is being empathetic to help clients be brave enough to move from interest to action. Committing to a service design project typically takes more nerve (and budget) than a regular digital design and build project on the part of clients, so it’s great to see Econsultancy shining a light on it, helping to demystify and normalise it.

Of course, the service design purists will be horrified at the idea of starting with a digital solution in mind, but we find digital is the end point in the majority of cases - hopefully better digital. Regardless, we find the most important step with clients is that initial step - once they’ve experienced the approach they typically become evangelists and look for more opportunities to use service design. The clients who do this are to be applauded because the first taste of a service design project can feel chaotic and co-creating with customers can be as confronting as it is energising.

over 2 years ago

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