Airbnb, Spotify, GiffGaff, Uber, Ocado… at first thought, these companies don’t seem to have much in common. Yet regardless of the industry – from hospitality and entertainment to telecom and transportation – one key has been crucial to their success: service.

Founded only within the last decade, these brands are now all household names across the UK if not around the world. This despite the fact that they don’t offer anything tangible; instead, they empower users to do things – rent a room, call their families, visit friends.

“A service is something that I use but do not own,” explains Mat Hunter, Chief Design Officer at the Design Council. “Service design is therefore the shaping of service experiences so that they really work for people. Removing the lumps and bumps that make them frustrating, and then adding some magic to make them compelling.”

Although companies like Virgin Atlantic have been using intelligent service design to stand out from the competition for years – with airport lounges that more resemble members’ clubs and amenity packs (plus candy hearts) for all passengers – the discipline really took shape with the internet. Digital has allowed industries to focus more on what users want. Take, for instance, a company like Ocado: rather than building another grocery store, they recognised that what people really wanted was food – delivered to their door.


Founded in the UK in 2000, Ocado is today the world's largest dedicated online grocer.

Digital is disrupting services provided by businesses as well as public services. Says Hunter: “If we think about education, you no longer have to have bricks and mortar – a building, a school or a university – in order to offer educational services. You can offer online courses.” Similarly in healthcare, smartphone apps can allow users to skip the doctor’s office altogether and receive diagnoses virtually.

Government Digital Service, which launched GOV.UK in 2012, has digitised and simplified services like registering to vote; whereas a citizen previously had to fill out a card delivered to their door every two years, they can now register on a mobile phone within minutes. “GOV.UK gets 12 million visitors a week and almost everyone has to interact with government at some point, so it’s vital that we make that as user focused as possible,” says Ben Terrett, Director of Design at GDS. Such ease of use saved the government £210 million in 2014 alone.


GOV.UK won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year award in 2013, beating out Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron and Renzo Piano's The Shard.

“Service design is increasingly important when we think about economic and environmental concerns,” says Hunter. “We all know that we need to do more with less.” Within education, there seems to be a shift in interest from long-established product design to service design, a growing field of study. The Royal College of Art, for example, created a two-year Master’s dedicated to service design in collaboration with Imperial College London in 2012. 

Besides opening new, more efficient options for services in both business and the public sector, the internet has also made comparison shopping and switching between brands simpler than ever for consumers. According to Terrett, previously Design Director at advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, that means marketing and brand will be less important in the future:

Service is going to be the thing that businesses focus on to make them compete better.

Ben Terrett, Director of Design at GDS

For more information about service design, here are some helpful resources:

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