Service Design: Balancing User Needs and Client Requirements

There is an opinion among some in the design world that pure, unadulterated design cannot be done on behalf of clients. The basis of this, generally, is that design must occur through focused interaction between designer and end-user and center around uncovering the end-user’s needs and designing a solution to address them. Introducing a third-party – in particular, a client that the design is being created on behalf of – pollutes this process, according to this argument, by introducing requirements, opinions and priorities that are extraneous to the designer-end-user dialogue. So, unless the client is the end-user of whatever is being designed, the process is impure.

To a limited extent, this makes sense. Say for example that an appliance manufacturer approaches a design firm with the brief to design a vacuum cleaner that will redefine the home vacuuming experience and the cleaning moments that surround it. From the designer’s perspective, little information is needed from the client; everything required to shape the product’s form, function, usability and experience can be uncovered by the designer’s process. This isn’t incorrect; the client can provide context around the overall strategy that the product is a part of, as well as guide the product’s branding and positioning, but these requirements are, from a purely design perspective, beyond the immediate concerns of the design process.

Aside from the fact that most commercial products would not exist without the companies that develop them and bring them to market, there is a major short-falling with this argument: it only applies to products – traditional design objects. In product design, the output of the design process is a finite form with a prescribed functionality and, as a result, a defined relationship with a specific end-user. It exists in space and time and has an articulable, static purpose. While a product may evolve over time as a concept – as newer, updated versions of it are developed and brought to market – as an object it exists only in its current state with its current physical attributes and functionality. So, if the relationship that the designer creates is between the product and the end-user exclusively, one could argue that the client does little more than allow the relationship to exist by delivering the product to market. From this perspective, the client is a necessary catalyst but still external to the core design process.

This argument however, does not hold up in regard to newer, non-traditional design disciplines such a service design. In service design, the design object, in the traditional sense of the word, no longer exists. There is no finite tangible form, there is no singular end-user, and most importantly, no bounded relationship between them. In this case, what is being designed is not an object, but rather a platform for value-delivery: an intangible infrastructural system for establishing new interactions between multiple parties that allows for the formation of new sources of continuous and evolvable value creation for everyone involved. In contrast to products, services don’t exist in space and time per se, and while they may have an initially-defined purpose, they are by no means static; they evolve over time in terms of both their purpose and their manifestation, and they are designed to do this. And while designed services typically have at least one end-user in the traditional sense (the primary consumer of the service) they typically feature multiple, one of which is almost always the provider of the service itself: the company, the brand – the client.

Unlike in product design, in which the client can arguably play a smaller role in the design process, service design not only requires that the client be viewed as the key stakeholder responsible for bringing the service to market, but also as an equally-important end-user. Because service design entails creating systems between companies and their consumers that are, to a large extent, driven by the companies themselves, it is critical to engage the client throughout all stages of the core design process – from research and ideation to prototyping and market testing – to ensure that what is developed is not only going to meet the needs of the target end-user but is something the company can deliver (from a capability perspective) and will want to deliver (from a brand and cultural and political perspective).

We see here that the key to designing services on behalf of clients is viewing them not just as facilitating stakeholders, but also as end-users in the core design process. A service is truly successful when it evolves into a self-sustaining system in which the value that each party receives from the service outweighs whatever was required from them upfront to participate, and even more so when all participants are aware of the mutual value being extracted by everyone involved. Creating services of this caliber is not an easy task, but in almost all cases it is simply a matter of balancing consumer needs with client capability and requirements.


This article appears in MISC Winter 2014, The Balance Issue

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