Back in 1993, Don Norman founded a new team at Apple to create a unified experience for their software and hardware; from buying it at the store, unboxing it, plugging it in, and using it for the first time. The team was made up of multidisciplinary designers who focussed on the entire user journey, rather than a single touchpoint, through the lens of user-centered design. He called this team User Experience Architects.
What Don Norman and his team did was take a step back from the products Apple was designing to consider their context of use. Or as Architect Eliel Saarinen famously said...
Jump forward to the turn of the millennium and agencies like Adaptive Path in the US and (a few years later) Clearleft in the UK, started to emerge as the first of a new wave of UX agencies, intent on pursuing this holistic view of design.
Back in the noughties, in-store experiences were still largely driven by advertising agencies and marketing departments. Digital technology was on the rise, but there wasn’t the proliferation of devices we have today. The devices we did have were largely designed in-house. The bulk of the work gravitated towards the Web, which was only just starting to hit the mainstream.
At the time, websites were primarily information sources, accessed through a home or work desktop computer. The resulting user journeys were fairly short, starting at a search engine and ending once the user's information needs were hopefully met. In the early days this limited scope was fortunate. We were still inventing the interaction models and dealing with an immature technology stack.
New entrants to the field could have been excused for thinking UX designers simply designed screens, because that’s what the bulk of the work looked like. Things were about to get a lot more interesting.
As the technology matured, the context broadened, as did the resulting user journeys. The Web evolved from a simple information source to a platform supporting all manner of digital services. Early ecommerce sites expanded their user journeys to include payment, shipping, returns, and customer service. New smartphones allowed the sharing of photos, making mobile payments, and the use of location data. The rise of native apps and web apps only complicated user journeys further.
Take something as simple as travel. It was now possible to buy a flight, check-in en route to the airport, and download your boarding pass, all from the comfort of your phone. It was no longer good enough for UX designers to focus solely on the app they were designing. Instead they needed to understand—and manage—the entire journey, including what happened at the airport.
Take another example like car sharing services. The old model required making a booking, printing out your receipt, taking it to a physical depot with your driving licence and credit card, filling in a bunch of paperwork, having your details checked, getting the keys and checking the car for damage, all before you could go on your way. The rise of smartphones and NFC chips completely changed that. Now you could make the booking on your smartphone app, find the car parked on the street, unlock it with your NFC card or device, punch in a code and be driving in under 30 seconds.
As digitally-driven products and services began to grow in complexity, UX teams were naturally drawn into thinking about this broader context. For those who associated UX with screen design, this may have felt like a slightly unnatural fit. For those who understood the roots of UX, the market and ecosystem had finally caught up with the original promise—to design the entire user journey centered around a digital product or service.
I use the term “centered around” very deliberately here. After all, there are other design professions where the context of use is equally important. As the Saarinen quote indicates, architects need to understand how their buildings fit into the broader context of the city. Industrial designers—whether they are designing a chair or a laptop—need to understand how their products fit into the users’ lives.
The laptop example is an interesting one, as it brings us back to Apple. When designing a new laptop, it would be natural to have an industrial designer lead the process—after all, their skills are in the physical forming of objects. But it also makes sense for the UX team to be involved in the conversation, as they will almost certainly be designing many of the services delivered through the product. They will also be thinking about the first-use experience, and how the purchase, unboxing process, and boot-up sequence influences that. There will always be natural overlaps between one design practice and another.
This brings us onto the subject of Service Design. As you’re no doubt aware, the field of Service Design has its roots in the delivery of public services like transportation, healthcare and education. As services have become increasingly digital, it’s common to see Service Designers involved in the design of things like car sharing services, or the airport check-in experience; the very examples I used to illustrate the growing influence of User Experience Design. What’s going on here?
The answer is actually relatively simple. Service Designers generally approach digital as one of a number of interconnected touch points. They will usually figure out how all these touch-points work together as a cohesive ecosystem, before handing the design of the specific touch points over to experts.
UX Designers usually approach the problem from the other direction. They start with the core digital experience before exploring the connective tissue that joins their touch-points together. Service Designers tend to have a broader but shallower focus, while UX designers go narrower but deeper.
For service ecosystems that are primarily digital in nature—essentially where the bulk of interactions take place on or around the digital product or service—you’ll find that a good UX team will be able to bring everything together. Companies like AirBnB, ZipCar and Monzo fit nicely into this category.
For services where the digital experience is just one of a number of touchpoints, having a Service Designer orchestrate those touchpoints makes a lot of sense. An example of this could be a physical store offering click-and-collect facilities, phone support, mail-order repairs, and an in-store returns policy. In this situation the digital service is a much smaller part of the jigsaw. It’s still important for the UX team to understand and feed into the wider context, but writing phone scripts or bodystorming the returns experience is probably a step too far.
It’s worth noting that the gap between these two states is fairly fuzzy. It’s also worth noting that as services grow and mature, they have the tendency to accrete touchpoints. So while services like Monzo are currently driven by UX Designers and Digital Product Designers, you could imagine a time when they have a range of analog and digital touch-points that need greater coordination. Similarly, companies like AirBnB and ZipCar are getting to the size and scale where having a small Service Design team has become valuable.
Rather unsurprisingly, many of the people joining those Service Design teams are coming from the world of User Experience Design, demonstrating that the link between the two disciplines is much closer than people think. In fact, as Service Designers get more Digital and UX Designers get more service oriented, we’ve started to see organisations adopt the title Digital Service Design, to denote the overlap between the two.
For related reading, take a look at Seb Chung's two-parter on UX and Service Design:
What is internal service design?