What I mean when I talk about service

https://i2.wp.com/www.restaurantmanifesto.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/no-service-ketchup.jpg
Message in ketchup on counter: “We waited 30 min NO SERVICE”

A couple of conversations recently made me realise I should write this down.

Jane tweeted: “Public Sector Digital peeps, what is now the best definition of a ‘Service’ for people not used to working in our world? The end-to-end journey which enables a user to ‘do a thing’ – am sure many have put it far more eloquently than that?”

In a private Slack conversation Trilly asked the reasonable question: “So, if ‘service design is the design of services’ – what’s the definition of a service?”

To both I had two answers, a short one and a long one.

The short answer, credit to Lou Downe and the government design community: “A service is something that helps someone do something.” (I borrowed precisely this formulation for our NHS Digital Standards Framework.)

The slightly longer, and definitely more jargoney version: “Service is the application of competences (knowledge and skills) for the benefit of a party.”

The second version comes from Steve Vargo and Robert Lusch’s marketing concept of Service Dominant Logic. I prefer this one for certain important nuances…

People need service, not services

Discussions about services plural are really about boundaries. What constitutes a “whole” service? How do I know when the service is finished? These are important questions for people designing and delivering service, but less so, I think, for users. To users, service is an uncountable noun. I work for the National Health Service, which has served the nation, from cradle to grave, for 70 years and counting. In reality, the NHS is lots of separate organisations, systems and plans. Our job as service designers is to make them work coherently so that patients never need to care about our structures.

We’re all knowledge workers now

Vargo and Lusch’s use of “competences” gets to the heart of the first “something” in “something that helps someone do something”. It doesn’t prescribe a particular sequence of steps in a customer journey. It doesn’t presuppose a digital or non-digital solution. It could be a human or non-human competence. Knowledge and skills can be encapsulated in human minds, in paper processes, and, increasingly, as software. (See also “Alexa skill”). What if the building blocks of service were not steps at all, but skills? We’re all knowledge workers now, and every service organisation is a learning organisation.

Value only in use

For service value to be created, knowledge and skills must be applied. In the world of goods, if a company makes a widget and stores it in a warehouse, the unsold widget appears at once as an asset on the company’s balance sheet. In the world of service, if we make an appointment and the patient doesn’t turn up, or we write a web page but nobody accesses it, there is no value creation. The beneficiary is always a participant in co-creating value.

The benefit of a party

In public sector discourse, service is often transactional by default, delivered by a paid provider to a passive recipient. It’s true, many services are configured like that, but other more creative configurations of the parties are also possible. Picture, for example, a diabetes education course where a group of newly diagnosed patients support each other. In that case, who is the “provider” and who is the “recipient”? So I like the vagueness of “the benefit of a party” or “beneficiary” as a more inclusive term than “recipient” or “user”.

“Service is the application of competences for the benefit of a party.”

That’s what I mean when I talk about service.

Update, 14 April 2019

Caroline challenged me to say that again using simpler words. My best attempt:

“Service is doing what you can to make stuff better for someone.”

2 thoughts on “What I mean when I talk about service

  1. I always make the point that services *always* *co-create* value with, and for, the customer/citizen. It helps to remember this!

    I’d add to that that with a service, we can
    – process demand (would be better than 99% of government and private services), but is unrewarding and doesn’t get upstream at all
    – help with need (‘upstream’ and more effective than processing demand, but carries the risk of codependency
    – help people to achieve their own purpose in life (enabling them to meet their actual goals)
    This helps us to distinguish between ‘bad help’ (disabling) and ‘good help’ (creating capacity).

    This fits with ‘jobs to be done’ and the design jargon that services are both
    – affordances which make possible certain interactions and
    – context cues which shape how people think about the possibilities

    And I’d also add that it’s critically important to distinguish between:
    – transactional services (focus: one and done, in and out quick, operational excellence mentality, prettiness of design etc irrelevant – would rather not have to do it, but if it must be done, don’t waste my time)
    – customer intimacy services – really understand my life, please
    Mistaking this in either way gets us into trouble!

    Your first definition is admirably clear and simple – the second admits the possibility that it might be better if people could have the competencies themselves – or that they might want to use the competencies in different ways from those envisaged!

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