Service design's Nordic roots

2018-01-16, 14:27 Posted by: David Griffith Jones

Is it time to embrace a “post-job title era” where it is no longer about what words are at the bottom of your email signature and more about describing what value you add? “What is a service designer?” - a question met with almost as many variables as times it is asked. Yes, there are the literalists who flippantly say “well, duh, it is someone who designs services of course” but based on the other answers it has led some commentators to quip:

How many definitions of service design are there? It depends how many service designers you ask!

The pursuit of an indisputable truth merits a historical and geographical journey to trace when and where the discipline emerged from the world of academia and into business. You will struggle to find many practitioners whose labelled experience predates the release of the iPhone. Indeed, Marc Stickdorn, author of the seminal book about the subject “This is Service Design Thinking" claims 2007 as the date he first came across the label “service design”. He had been doing this type of work before, of course, but this is when he acknowledged for the first time “service design” as a discipline.


Out of service - redefining what constitutes a service

Beyond the usual struggles of a nascent industry to create a self-confident identity there have been associated developments in nomenclature which have contributed to the blur around the meaning and scope of “service design”. Namely, the vast expansion of what constitutes a “service”. Mention the “service industry” and your mind is likely to jump to companies that sell intangible goods such as healthcare and hospitality. However, with increased digitalization, connectivity and customer-centric business practices the core of what constitutes a service has expanded exponentially. We now have SaaS (software as a service), PaaS (platform as a service), IaaS (infrastructure as a service), MaaS (monitoring as a service), CaaS (communication as a service), DaaS (data as a service) and even XaaS (anything as a service).

Depending upon who you talk to the concept of “a service” includes a range of value exchanges including but not limited to:

  • Being served in the traditional sense such as receiving a coffee at a cafe
  • An add-on service attached to a product such as maintenance of a car
  • A digital service built into a traditional product such as smart fridges
  • A contract which includes the provision of a duty to undertake a task such as cleaning an office
  • User experience as the point of interaction such as an app for booking a taxi
  • An ongoing relationship of trust between a brand and an individual such as a food producer
  • Public services such as taxation or policing
  • Traditional “products” when seen through the lens of the “service it is being hired to do” such as a music speaker playing your favorite song

A unifying element of great service

So, you get diverse types of service designers designing all sorts of different services. One thing, however, unifies them all: empathy. To design great services, you need to understand what it is like for the person using them. Through this common ancestry all species of service design can be traced back to the Participatory Design Movement and the “Scandinavian approach” whereby end-users were integrated into the development process. The Florence Project of the 1980’s is a celebrated early Swedish example of cooperative design where computer scientists and nurses focused on the knowledge of the profession to build applications that served the needs of the end-users' working lives.

Service design in Gothenburg


Service design’s Nordic heritage was part of the inspiration for a new documentary entitled “Nordic Service Design”. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland remain at the cutting edge of this modern guise of the participatory design movement. The Service Design Network Nordic Chapters joined forces to produce a documentary that illustrates the value of service design showcasing the most unique and forward-thinking work by Nordic service design practitioners.

A premiere on the 23rd of January is sponsored by Cybercom and will include a discussion of the service design scene in Gothenburg. Service design in Gothenburg tends to be industrially focused and driven by the opportunities around connectivity, autonomous vehicles, robotics and the industrial IoT making the city an exciting place for a new breed of services to be designed. It is likely that in the future we will be seeing more not less definitions of service design and what it means to be a service designer.

David Griffith-Jones creates valuable services using innovative business models that create industry leading customer experiences (aka service designer).

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