Guest article by Josina Vink, Winner of the 2020 SERVSIG Best Dissertation Award.

How we understand service design is changing and it needs to. 

The traditional, reductionist focus in service design on developing new service offerings to improve the customer experience is outdated. Without thinking more systemically, influencing long-term change through service design is exceedingly difficult and there is a major risk of creating undesirable unintended consequences.Luckily, I am not the only one to think so. In fact, there has been a major evolution in the academic literature on service design over the last three and a half decades. To help make sense of the evolving service design literature, I tend to think about the changes in the understanding of service design in three horizons. Each horizon builds on the last but slowly falls out of fit over time with the changing environment.

The first horizon, which is often referred to as the “design of services”, was initiated by the work of Lynn Shostack on the service blueprint in the early 80s and has remained highly influential, even today (see foundational work by Edvardsson, Bitner, Ostrom, Patrício, Fisk and Grenha Teixeira). Within this horizon, the focus is on the development of new service offerings by expert managers and designers. In this view, service design is understood to be an early phase in the new service development process, which works with the physical touchpoints and service interface that a customer interacts with.

Following a major shift in the understanding of service in the early 2000s, a number of forward-thinking service design scholars (Sangiorgi, Kimbell, Prendiville, Wetter-Edman, Akama, and Holmlid, just to name a few) started to rethink how service design was being framed. Together their work contributed to the rise of the second horizon, referred to as “design for service”. In horizon two, scholars see service design as a process of co-design with staff and service users to create the conditions for value-in-use. In this view, the material of service design was increasingly broadened to sociomaterial configurations.

Based the more systemic understanding of service that has developed over the last decade, I have been working with a number of colleagues to contribute to horizon three, which we call “service ecosystem design”. The aim of service design in this view is to facilitate the emergence of desired forms of value cocreation. Here service design involves an embedded feedback loop where actors first make invisible institutionalized social structures, such as entrenched rules, norms, roles and beliefs, more visible (reflexivity) and then intentionally shape these social structures by carefully crafting their physical enactments, such as symbols and activities. 

Service ecosystem design counters the idea that service is one-off activity done by a few people in a workshop or project. Rather, it views service design more broadly as an ongoing process that takes place within and among actor collectives. Instead of seeing cultural aspects as externalities, this perspective brings culture into the very core of service design. It explains how the outcomes of a focal service design process emerge through interaction between various positive and negative feedback loops of design and non-design activities that align and conflict with the desired value cocreation forms of the focal process.

I believe that adopting this new view of service design can help people better appreciate the complexity of designing within service systems and more intentionally work toward long-term change. In my practice and research doing service design in healthcare, the conceptualization of service ecosystem design has helped me to adapt and develop service design methods to more explicitly build awareness and shape the invisible social structures guiding service systems. Appreciating the collective, ongoing nature of the service design process has also helped me to reposition my work as a service designer from someone who brings service design into a space, to supporting the design literacy of others to help them work more intentionally within the plurality of ongoing service design processes people are already engaged in.

If you are interested in finding out more on these different views of service design and/or reading a comprehensive overview of service ecosystem design, stay tuned for our paper in Journal of Service Research entitled “Service Ecosystem Design: Propositions, Process Model, and Future Research Agenda” (Vink, Koskela-Huotari, Tronvoll, Edvardsson & Wetter-Edman). In the meantime, you can also check out my PhD thesis “In/visible – Conceptualizing Service Ecosystem Design”.

Josina Vink
Associate Professor of Service Design,
Oslo School of Architecture & Design

The images above were extracted from Josina’s PhD thesis and illustrated by Erin McPhee.

Curry, A. and Hodgson, A. (2008). “Seeing in multiple horizons: connecting futures to strategy”. Journal of Futures Studies, 13(1), 1-20.
Shostack, G.L. (1982). “How to design a service”. European Journal of Marketing, 16(1), 49-63.

Photo credit: Jason Abdilla.