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The Difference Between a Product and a Service – As Told With Hammers.

Posted December 3, 2015

At the Service Experience Conference 2015, there was an open QnA session with Patrick Quattlebaum and Jamin Hegeman, design directors at Adaptive Path. During the session, a question came up about the difference between a product as a service. They had an answer that was short and profound, and it went something like this:

“A product is a hammer, and a service is someone holding the hammer and hammering for you.”


The crowd had a good laugh, and the quote stuck with me. I’ve been a hammer designer for most of my career, and over the last few years have evolved into being a hammering experience designer in an industry, digital products, that has excelled at the design and development of those products, but is just starting to migrate and evolve into wanting to offer those products and technologies as a service.
I want to tell a story based on the hammer analogy (and bear in mind that the original statement was all Patrick’s and Jamin’s. I’m just running with it).

The Hammer

At our hammer company, we’ve got some very talented Hammerer Experience designers (HX), as well as hammer developers as engineers. We’ve been making hammers for many years, but competitors have been innovating on new ideas, new approaches, and giving us a bit of a scare. It was time to re-invent and innovate on our product; It was time to disrupt the hammer market.


Through a series of market studies and customer research, we came up with a hypothesis around the state of modern hammering. People needed boards and materials fastened together, while at the same time having something tough enough for general purpose smashing and banging. It was the fundamental purpose of why our company existed, to facilitate these tasks by way of our core product, the hammer.

With any tool, usability is a huge factor. We made prototypes early on for rapid experimentation and validation with users. They were brought in to our testing labs and observed as they tried our prototypes. Interviews were conducted. Back in the studio, our HX designers and engineers were hard at work integrating this information. Sketches of the hammer were turned into quick 3D wireframes, low-fidelity renderings, and rapid physical prototypes.


We put a great deal of effort into not only the function of the hammer, but also into the form and appearance. We had HX designers working on the exterior shape, surfaces, textures, colors, and a unique but recognizable appearance. It has to stand out on a hardware store aisle.

With our MVH (minimum viable hammer), it was time to get real world results. We recruited a array of customer segments and did a pilot beta with a series of follow-me-home studies. The hammer tested well in the real world scenarios; our users were striking harder, faster, and with less arm strain. Our efforts to produce a better hammer were paying off.


We rolled out the hammer in a few test markets, and the results were fantastic. Hammer sales were up and we were attracting new customers. At the same time, our warranty repair volume went down. The HX of our new product really differentiated us in the hammer market.

Our company developed a real focus on the hammer experience — we were “design led” and helping our users nail their core problem better than ever. When it came to providing the best hammer product out there, we were ahead of the game.

The Hammering Service

Time passed, and even as hammer sales were good, we needed to innovate. Resting on the success of our hammer wouldn’t do. We know we can make a superior hammer, but the world seems to be reacting strongly to service based offerings. We looked at the big examples, the Uber, Instacart, Taskrabbit type businesses. All these things taking the world by storm offered you a service where something was done for you. That’s when the idea struck us:

“What if instead of just selling hammers directly to people, we offered a service where someone else would hold the hammer and hammer things for you? We could be the Uber of hammering!”


The idea was brash and intriguing. Would people go for it? And, what would a hammering service look like? An interesting thought; designing a service, not a product. We looked high and low, and eventually found some people who worked in this area, service design, and wanted to help us create the first dedicated HAAS (hammering as a service) offering in the world.

We had to take a different approach to our hypothesis. Can we validate the idea that instead of having to hammer themselves, would people want someone to come and do it for them?
We quickly launched a few micro-pilots and service prototypes to make sure this idea was realistic. We used very simple mockups of how the service could work, sometimes just using paper and text messages to simulate the flow of information through a real service. This new service experience was intangible and psychological and required an in-depth story.


Customer journeys and blueprints were created around the idea of how a person would use the service, how would it actually work, what would it look like? When someone buys a hammer, they have it in their garage. But when someone wants a hammering service, it has to be initiated on their end. A service is a complex journey for both the customer and service provider, a relationship that occurs over a period of time.

At the same time, a backstage “hammering professional” experience had to be created. We don’t just serve the people in need of hammering, we connect people who need hammering with people who have hammers. There would need to be technology built to facilitate the service, and a set of policies and protocols designed around how this transaction between our customer and hammering professionals took place. The service needed to be a cohesive a chain of intangible events and tangible touchpoints, all strung together to create what we hope was a seamless service offering.


It turns out that taking a hammer product company, and adding on a hammering service offering, was essentially a whole new business model with a different set of challenges. And that meant we couldn’t just apply hammer design thinking to hammering services, we needed a new set of tools and methods and a dedicated focus on using them. That’s where the service design methodologies came into play.
We made the leap, and today we happily consider ourselves a service company, offering to do something in servitude to our customers and not just providing them with a tool.

When all you have is a hammer…

The point to the story here is that services are different than products. When offering a service, the rules change. Giving thought to how the intangible nature of services work is a different type of design expertise and commitment. Digital designers are focused on making the most effective and useful touchpoints they can. Service designers are focused on making the most effective and useful service experience they can. Similar intentions, different scope, toolsets and methods.


This is going to be the biggest shift for product, technology, and digital organizations to adopt. There are the skills of building the tangible — the products, apps, interfaces, and touchpoints. Then there are the emerging practices of taking those products and evolving the company to offer a service relationship that is ongoing, with the idea that a service happens over time, is intangible, and involves many different touchpoints all strung together.

We are no longer bound to just producing more and better features. You can have offerings that act in service of your customer’s goal that evolve over time. Instead of a transaction, you have a relationship. Good service providers have been doing this for as long as they have existed. Technology companies have lagged behind in their transition to being more service oriented.

Try asking yourself, is your company a product or service organization? Can you see where products end and services begin, and does it matter? Or better, can you see how you’re working to create a service based approach for what you offer your customer?
If not, can you see how acting in service to your customer through that ongoing relationship adds value beyond just giving them a tool to do a job?

It’s a big set of questions and a new way of thinking for companies that haven’t thought of themselves as acting in service to customers in the past, but see how doing so can make their customers more successful, and establish longer lasting relationships between them and those they serve.

(Cross-posted from the Practical Service Design blog )

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I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.