Service, Product and UX Oh My!

Product vs. Service

From a traditional perspective, services and products were mostly physical and were differentiated by three considerations:

  • Whether the organization’s employees need to participate to make it work. A product like toaster doesn’t need the toaster company’s participation to work, and as soon as support from staff is needed, it becomes “customer service”.
  • Whether its value only instantiates during the actual use of it. A physical product often carries sociocultural or other values even when not in use (e.g. Starck’s lemon squeezer carries artistic value even if you don’t have it, the necklace your loved one bought you carries emotional value even when you don’t wear it). A service rarely carries any value when not in use (a waiter’s service in a chic restaurant means nothing to you if you’re not going there for diner).
  • Where the ownership lies. As customers, we often own a traditionally defined product as our property, while we never own a service, which is almost always owned by the organization who provides it.

The physicality of a traditionally defined service is often more public, while that of a traditionally defined product is often more private. There’s often a social factor in the service – you interact with real people in order to use a service, even when virtually.

The Blurring Divide

With digital technologies, the line between product and service blurs. When you go to an online virtual counter and are served by a robot posing as the waiter, or when you contact online customer service that is provided by a chatbot, whether it’s a product or service depends, profoundly, on your own worldview on Artificial Intelligence in the context of sociology – if you regard it as more human-like (“artificial agent”), then you’d think it feels more like a service to you (the robot waiter serves you); if you regard it as deterministic mechanical machine, then you’d likely to think that those AIs are part of a product (the chatbot is a product feature).

Generally speaking, a service is different from a product in the way its input, output, and effect have impacts on people from all sides:

  • Input in service is often more complex than that in product.
  • Output in service is often a traditionally defined product.
  • Effect (including the effect of serving and that of outcome) tends to persist in service, but much less so in product.
A service entity accepts an input, produces an output and an accompanying effect of serving, with the output also producing an effect.

A service is also different from a product in the way the organization is related to the designing and delivery of it:

  • Service can be a byproduct of the product in a product-oriented organization, where services are created to be the value-added supplement to a core product.
  • Product can be a byproduct of the service in a service-oriented organization, where products are created to deliver the supplementary or complementary capability and capacity that a core service requires.

In both cases, it can be hard to draw a clear line between the product and the service, especially when they’re designed to be seamlessly integrated in a well-aligned value delivery ecosystem.

Sometimes, the difference between product and service is merely a matter of opinion.

Service Design vs. Product Design

With the above understanding, it’s not hard to see that the difference between service design and product design is also not clear-cut. Sometimes they’re merely the same.

They do, however, have a lot in common:

  • Their area of concerns goes far beyond “end-user” or “customer/client”, because the organizational, strategic, operational and managerial considerations are inherent in their design. A company’s business model, shareholder preference, executive aspiration, operational and managerial capability and capacity can be just as important as, if not more important than, what their customers want or need.
  • They don’t necessarily reside in a siloed environment in the organization. They almost always require highly collaborative effort among various business functions in the organization, from business strategy, enterprise architecture and R&D to marketing and branding.
  • They involve making directive decisions that decisively influence the strategy, operation, management and value delivery model of the organization.

Service Design vs. UX Design

As you may have guessed by now, UX Design simply doesn’t always reach far into the organizational territories.

By definition, user experience design’s primary focus is on user’s experience, which is a critical part of a product or service.

The concern for UX is, by default, meant to provoke people in the organization to think further about the implications of the design regarding its impact on the business side of things like strategy, operation and management.

UX Design rarely involve making directive decisions that decisively influence the strategy, operation, management or value delivery model of the organization, not because UX design people don’t want to, but perhaps more because they are never given the power to.

From that, we can derive an easy criterion to determine whether service design is happening:

Whenever you’re not sure whether you’re doing service design, ask “does what I do involve making directive decisions that decisively influence the strategy, operation, management or value delivery model of the organization?

If your answer skews more to no, then it’s more likely that you’re not really doing service design (or product design) at all, and are perhaps just doing a subset of it that we normally would have categorized as UX design or, worse, UI design.


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