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When Technology is Commoditized, Technology Must Become a Service

Posted January 11, 2016

The notion of great service has been around since the first caveperson offered to pick you up on their own dinosaur and take you somewhere in exchange for a sabertooth tusk, rather than you having to own a dinosaur yourself.

Designing for service is not new, and people who are exceedingly adept at designing for fantastic services aren’t new either. Entire industries are built upon service experience. The question is, why does there seem to be an explosion of interest service design as a field now, when great service is nothing new? New conferences are popping up by major organizers; Adaptive Path is on its 3rd service experience conference, Service Experience Chicago just had it’s 2nd year, and the O’Reilly Design Conference is new this year with only one speaker showcasing service design. If you look for books on service design, there are a few recent publications that are relevant to the landscape today, but these are very recent and just starting to tackle this idea of integrating service design into what we do outside of service industries.

Great Service Has Always Existed

It’s not hard to find examples of great service from long before service design was a discipline or something that had a proper name. Looking at the 20th century, many industries strived to deliver customer experiences that were well planned and filled with deliberate moments of delight; early commercial air travel, ocean cruises, full service resort hotels, fine dining, spas. Or, look at an elaborate and well planned wedding that is a choreographed event – people have long had the mind, knowhow, and ability to create these top rate “end-to-end” experience.

It’s clear that designing for service is nothing new, at least when it comes to these real world experiences that are firmly rooted in human experiences that happen over time. Experiences like these aren’t designed like as a self contained thing, but as temporal events, chains of smaller experiences all delivered as a holistic macro experience.

With the dawn of the digital age, a whole new medium was born that existed in essentially two epochs; pre-Internet and post-Internet. While the digital world started out on self-contained machines and devices, it wasn’t until the birth of the World Wide Web that we truly got a whole new dimension to reality called cyberspace. And from the mid 90’s through the early 2000’s, the digital world went from building technology just because we could, to having to compete with each other not just on technology and features, but on the user experience as well.

Great User Experience Has Always Existed

User experience has taken the front seat in the world of digital design. Every company knows they need it, even if they aren’t sure what it means. Experiences are judged side by side as we swipe left and right on our phones, going from app to app, expecting the same “mid two-thousand-teens” type of interaction across almost everything we use. Period. As software has eaten the world, all day long we interact with that software and users are expecting it to generally behave the same.

But a good “user experience” isn’t something that was invented in the early 2000’s by a handful of Internet designers and agencies in San Francisco. There have been creators of digital experiences that had a mind for the user and experience from the beginning. It just wasn’t a discipline like we think of UX today.

In the early 80’s, the creators of Quicken, Scott Cook and Tom Proulx, had the idea to develop the Quicken software interface to resemble a checkbook and check register, early skeuomorphism in action on black-and-green IBM-compatible PC screens. They leveraged years of learnings in another medium, the paper check and register, to translate that to a similar experience that crossed mediums.

They weren’t designers. It was 1983; one was a comp-sci major and the other a former marketing manager. But they had a mind for the user experience, and baked it into their products without having to say it was “UX”. Quicken was an anomaly though, and as computer usage grew, focus on design and usability would decline.

The Fall and Rise of Experience Centered Design

Time passed and software began it’s unstoppable feast of consuming all parts of life. User experience suffered greatly, often being ignored completely, and we all felt it. Using computers through the 90’s was an effort in dedicated frustration. So much so that the home PC put the words bug and glitch into the world’s vocabulary. A famous philosopher once said, “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

As popularity grew, focus on experience waned. Since the mid 90’s PC software explosion, how long was it until 80%+ of software companies and website services had user experience as a focus and dedicated resources? 10 years? 15 years? And the personal computer has been left behind for the mobile experience. The landscape of digital design today is a much different place than it was a decade ago. You could compete handily without design resources in the early 2000’s. Now, you’ll be lucky to even survive.

Today, differentiating on user experience isn’t enough. As users are experiencing chains of products linked together over time in the context of their lives as service experiences, the gaps between touchpoints can become more and more painful. Users are getting lost between the interfaces that no real design methodology or resource is positioned to watch over. When your company’s design department is primary focused on the “thing”, product usability and user experience, you’re creating huge gaps in the experience that a service-oriented customer has come to expect. Who do you have assigned and resourced to work between the gaps?

Breaking the Service Barrier

This is where traditional service design collides with digital design, swerving into the lane of user experience, but also business strategy. A product-focused paradigm no longer works when a company is trying to build an ongoing relationship with a customer that has to to be won week after week, month after month. We don’t compete by trying to sell the customer what we have – we compete by offering to serve a customer’s needs.

This notion of service is something that the decades of digital design and software development has not prepared us for. Now that digital has started to embrace service as a business paradigm, service design has a whole new industry to try and flourish in. Where UX and product designers took digital design from the dark ages of the 90’s to what we know today, service design is poised to take us from where we understand designing for experiences is today, to how much broader and deeper it can be tomorrow.

Separating from Medium

In essence, companies will no longer look at themselves as an organization that that builds something; software, apps, or technology. Maybe more importantly, their customers will no longer look at them like that either. The medium a company works in will be irrelevant, the only thing attached to their name will be the service they provide.

It’s not about “being like Apple” or Uber or AirBnb, it’s about realizing that projecting and organizing around serving a need decoupled from medium is what will differentiate companies and let them compete and excel. I believe that is the answer to why service design is becoming a small but powerful new focus in the digital world. Smart companies are borrowing the methods and mindsets from the traditional service industries to transform what they offer, and how they work internally. But it’s not enough to borrow ideas; people have to be there to guide them and apply new methods and new ways of working inside of organizations.

The Start of Something New

To those of us who live in the digital, service design feels like a whole new discipline even though outside of our world, designing for service has long existed. We’re spinning up conferences, creating new roles, experimenting with new artifacts, creating great new online communities, all in an attempt to transform the value we offer to customers from something we build and sell, to something we provide in service to their needs. And the medium of what it is we are providing is becoming more irrelevant.

This new focus is making changes inside and outside organizations. Start taking notice of who you see making shifts in how they present themselves. Being able to offer a good user experience is not enough and will not sustain companies in the near future. When technology becomes commoditized, technology has to become a service.

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