“Service design is an evolving discipline, which will improve the productivity and quality of services in the modern economy,” says Dr Ileana Stigliani. 

A paper by Associate Professor Anne-Laure Fayard (NYU), Dr Ileana Stigliani (Imperial) and Professor Beth Bechky (NYU) tells the story of how service design emerged as an occupation and made a prominent position for itself.

Dr Ileana Stigliani

The article in Administrative Science Quarterly looks at the ethos, method and tools service designers use to establish themselves and command authority over certain tasks. The conclusions of the study were based on extensive interviews with practitioners, clients and founders of the occupation over a five year period.

Service design is a practice that aims to outline how firms and public organisations connect with their customers or clientele. Traditionally these interactions were either ignored or undertaken by management consultants and product designers as part of consulting contracts, the authors explain.

Examples of service design projects include travellers’ experience with an airline, patients’ experiences in an emergency room, and a brand and its associated strategy. Practitioners work to improve users’ experiences of such services by executing a set of material practices including shadowing customers or front line staff, conducting interviews in the service context, or creating ‘journey maps’.

According to the research, the first self-appointed service designers were rejected by their peers as designers, as it was not obvious how something intangible could be designed. This confusion created a need to clearly define the proper conduct and modes of thinking and beliefs in order to distinguish service designers from others in the market.

The study finds that during these early stages the values of the ‘ethos’ enacted by service design practitioners through their work practices were critical in creating a mandate and occupational legitimacy.

Service designers’ ethos – a term practitioners use to define their way of working – inspires their way of engaging with customers and delivering value to them. For service designers, this means adopting a holistic system view rather than focusing on developing an interface or product, showing empathy for all people they design for, and working as a co-creator in the design process.

Dr Ileana Stigliani highlights that these values are more important than the tools they employ. “The tools are just a means of putting the ethos in to practice. Consultants cannot simply become service designers by copying their tools”, she says. “It’s the ethos that makes the difference. Therefore, it would be hard to deliver a service design legitimately without a strong service designer background and signs of this ethos in how they operate.”

Find out more about Dr Ileana Stigliani’s research on the cognitive dynamics underpinning the emergence of service design here.