A lot of people reach out to me to ask questions about getting started in service design. Maybe you’re in an adjacent field like UX or design research. Maybe you’re studying and wondering what’s next for you. Or maybe you’ve come across the discipline and think it could be a good fit for your skills and interests.
Many times, we long for quick and easy pathways, and one of the challenges is that right now, there really is no one defined, clear path to becoming a ‘service designer’.
Service design is such a relatively new and emerging discipline, particularly in the North American context, that it’s challenging to see the forest for the trees and carve a path through the jungle. The good news, though, is that this leaves lots of opportunity for people who are willing to roll up their sleeves, and figure out their own unique path to service design.
For some people, this means figuring out how to transition from their current design focus in UX or graphic design. For others, it’s about augmenting their skills and experience in non-design fields. For others still, it may be a case of investing time (and money) in more formalized education.
Regardless of what your starting point is, here are some steps to getting started right now, from exactly where you are sitting.
Step 1: Explore foundational learning and reading
This foundational step will set up you for the other steps, and help you to further understand whether service design truly is the place you want to explore further and contribute to, or whether you are getting caught up in all the hype of the next shiny design discipline.
There are so many excellent resources available online, for free, as well as great books to invest in or borrow from the library. It can of course be overwhelming to figure out exactly where to begin and to separate the wheat from the chaff when trying to identify quality resources.
At a minimum, I recommend the following reading list as your starting point:
Service Design — From Insight to Implementation; this remains my personal favourite primer on the subject.
Orchestrating Experiences; a more recent, excellent publication on what it takes to design complex experiences.
Service Design for Business; looks at customer experience and service design from a more business focused lens.
The Practical Service Design Blog has a great Service Design 101 page with many more links and resources to get lost in.
If you want to go deeper, here are some extra credit materials I highly recommend:
Adaptive Path’s Service Experience Conference video archive of conference talks online. Hours of amazing knowledge!
An archive of Touchpoint (The Service Design Network’s journal) is available online. You will need a membership for some content, but some older content is available with the free community membership.
The Service Design Podcast, Why Service Design Thinking, or The Service Design Show are all available to listen to on your commute, while you do dishes or simply chill out, for maximum service design saturation!
This is Service Design Thinking and This is Service Design Doing are great reference books that offer comprehensive content that has been contributed to by the service design community across the globe.
Part of how I developed my service design practice was by becoming a sponge for everything and anything service design related I could get my hands on. Soaking up all of that information helps to lay a foundation that will get you comfortable with core mindsets, methods, vocabulary and enable you to engage with other people in the community confidently.
Step 2: Engage with the community and grow your network
Like so many other fields, who you know is often at least as important as what you know. Service design is built on communities of practitioners coming together, sharing knowledge and experiences, and building the field from the ground up. Service design is like a house that’s being built — you’re invited, and you’ll need to pick up a hammer.
Building this network can take place virtually and in person, and ideally a mix of both.
In person community
Depending on your geographical location, specific service design in-person communities may be small or non-existent. You may need to travel to larger hubs or events to meet people, but this can of course be challenging for cost reasons.
Find out whether there is a national or local SDN chapter in your area.
Some cities also have independent meet-ups which you can try to find by googling, or searching on Eventbrite.
If there isn’t something in your location, start it! (This was one of the keys to my own transition into service design. Setting up Service Design Toronto enabled me to convene people interested in service design, grow my networks, and learn from others.)
Caption: The Toronto Global Service Jam in 2014 — organized by Marie-Eve Bélanger and Angela Barber. (Spot me mentoring!) Image credits: Angela Barber on Flickr
Global Service Jam is a hackathon style event that happens in March each year, and again, if there isn’t one in your location, consider running it!
If it’s viable for you, consider attending larger scale events like SDN Global Conference, SDN National Conferences like SDN Midwest, UX Week or Leading Experience Conference (Adaptive Path has merged service design back into these conferences), Service Design Fringe Festival, or Service Design in Government.
Many online communities of course overlap with the in-person ones, and can be a good way to chat service design, stay up to date on upcoming events, and check out job posting.
Practical Service Design has a huge global Slack community which is a great resource. Sign up!
Your local design scene may have additional online communities connected to adjacent disciplines like interaction design, digital product design and so on. Google, ask around, connect with people on Twitter.
If you are a Twitter user, seek out service designers to follow. The authors of books and blogs mentioned here are a good start.
Connecting with people in person and online is a crucial step on your service design path. It’s also wise to remember that this is a long game of building up a network and community where support and learning goes both ways. Doing this while being open to the outcomes and patient with the time it takes is an important mindset.
Note: if there is no service design specific community in your location, and you don’t want to take on building one, look to adjacent and more mature design disciplines for a starting point. Try to go where other design interested people are, whether that’s UX, graphic design or customer experience or others. The IxDA is well established global network that could be a good starting point.
Step 3: Build your skills and experience (from where you are!)
This step is about figuring out what else you need to learn in order to be successful doing service design work. Assess your current skillsets and experience, then figure out how to get the knowledge and practical experience you need.
Fill in skills and knowledge gaps
You will want to spend some time understanding the skills needed to be an effective service designer, and then figuring out ways to fill in any gaps you may personally have or want to work on.
The Moment’s Innovation Designer Capability Map is a cool tool to understand relevant skills sets and perhaps self assess. (Yes, this is framed as ‘innovation designer’ with service design as one of the twelve competencies, and I would argue that this is as good a skills list for service designers as any out there!)
Online courses can be a good way to learn more and develop skills without the full investment of going back to school. Some options include Jon Kolko’s Udemy course Service Design: Designing for Experience Over Time, Practical Service Design’s Intro to Practical Service Blueprinting, Ideo.org Introduction to Human Centred Design (this one is more about high-level design process, make sure you orient your project around a service!)
Going back to school for design is also a consideration. My advice would be to start with the steps in this post before making the investment in a formalized degree. That way you can offset the risk that you get there and discover it’s not really for you. Service design education deserves another post in itself, but the SDN service design programs page links to institutions offering this.
Get hands on experience
Design is a combination of theory and practice, and there is no substitute for actual hands on experience doing the work. It’s really important to remember that most design jobs will require a portfolio of work, you have to be able to demonstrate your experience and skills. Without being able to show (not tell) someone about your work, you likely won’t get very far.
Right now, explicitly ‘service design’ titled jobs are very few and far between (as Megan excellently articulates in the section called ‘The Mythical Service Designer Role’ in her post). This seems to especially be the case in North America which seems to be a bit earlier on the service design maturity curve than Europe.
Here’s the secret: you don’t have to wait for someone to give you permission to start doing service design! If you wait until you find a job with that title, or wait until someone explicitly asks you to do service design, you’ll likely be waiting for a very long time.
Get started where you are! Don’t wait for permission! I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough. There are no clear paths yet, and for most of us in this field, we rolled up our sleeves, started practicing, and proactively invest time in clearing a path for ourselves. For me, it certainly wasn’t quick or easy, and I’m still on my own journey.
What this could look like for you:
This step very much depends on where you are at. (I also want to acknowledge that having time and bandwidth to do the following things can require a certain amount of privilege.) Here are some starting points to consider:
Incorporate service design tools/methods in to your next project at work. Maybe you could use a journey map framework to synthesize your design research findings and share back? Perhaps a service blueprinting workshop would help your team figure out where there are breakdowns between channels?
Start small and simple. Maybe you just practice creating journey maps on every project you’re on, just for you, in your notebook, with the data you have. Maybe you take time to list a service’s channels and touchpoints every once in a while.
Is there a side project you could take on? Maybe you are volunteering with an organization that could use some service design help? (This is how my good friends Markus and Chenny built The Prosper Lab.) Maybe you know someone with a small business who you could offer to work with?
Use opportunities like Global Service Jam or other design jams/hackathons to practice service design skills and build portfolio examples.
Attend relevant day or weekend long workshops in your location on topics like design research, customer journey mapping, service blueprinting, and prototyping.
Note: this step is not necessarily about evangelizing or selling service design. In fact, in most cases I would recommend staying away from trying to get buy in to use service design or even using those words. Instead, focus on finding ways to learn by doing and applying what you’ve discovered so far. Focus on building examples of service design projects and work.
“I say don’t go and do the course. Go and work in an organization and learn the material of how that organization works. If you want to go work in a service design context, go and learn the material of organizations. So the fabric of it. Yeah, like politics, relationships, data and go and make something better there…
If I’m interviewing someone, if you can just show me something you’ve made happen in an organization, you’re gold dust because you’ve learned how to do that and design it.”
Focus on the type of work you want to do
At the end of the day, all of these steps are in service of finding a path to the type of work you want to be engaged in, day in and out.
Service design is messy, amorphous, still being developed, and there are no easy answers or paths. For many of us, the desire to be a service designer or to have that ‘service design’ title is one borne out of hopes that it will legitimize us, that it will mean that we’ve reached the place where we are passionate and engaged and our values are in line with the work we are doing. The truth is, that even when (or if) you get to the ‘service designer’ finish line, you may still have imposter syndrome, wonder if what you are doing is really service design, grapple with the outcomes and impact of your contributions.
The best advice I can give is to focus on iterating your career closer and closer to the type of work you want to be doing, and to enjoy the ride!