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Designing for Humans – A Digital Perspective

The history, differences and relationships between Design Thinking, Human Centred Design and Service Design and how these play out at Media Suite.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague came to me and asked “So, what’s the difference between Service Design, Design Thinking and Human Centred Design (HCD)?

That’s a really good question. There are many interchangeable concepts and terms used across these three approaches. A quick online search will provide you with an abundance of definitions, each subtly different from one another and often blurring the lines between them.

I think this has a lot to do with they way these approaches have evolved over the past several decades as they have been applied to different industries.

They do, however, boil down to two core concepts:

  1. They are used to solve problems and gain efficiencies.
  2. They are human centric

At Media Suite, we very much have a focus on digital transformation – using clever technology to solve complex human problems. So my definition of these three approaches is framed by this perspective.

A Brief Timeline

It always helps to know a little history to gain the ‘big picture’ perspective and to understand how things evolve over time.

Let me bring you back to the post war boom of the 1950s. An American professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, John E. Arnold, envisioned a better way of solving engineering problems. Arnold shared the idea of a “creative engineer” combining the technical skills of engineering with a more comprehensive human-centered approach than traditional industrial design. In his 1959 book “Creative Engineering” he reframes the design process as problem solving, which requires creativity; tools for thinking differently.

creative engineering book cover
Creative Engineering by John E. Arnold

This set the broad framework for what we now know as the process of Design Thinking. Between the 60s and 80s, we saw the first real instances of people designing intangible things like software and interactions. These tools for solving problems creatively started permeating computer science, and with it, the beginning of HCD – where the humans took centre stage.

the dream machine book cover
The Dream Machine by J.C. Licklidder

American psychologist J.C. Licklidder was at the forefront of this movement, detailing his vision in his 1958 book The Dream Machine.

“The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”

Steve Jobs later evangelised this idea by putting the users of Apple products at the heart of their design process, making technology personal.

G. Lynn Shostack
G. Lynn Shostack

“Service Design” was first coined back in 1982 by G. Lynn Shostack (a senior vice president in charge of the Private Clients Group at Bankers Trust Company) in a book she co-authored “Emerging Perspectives on Services Marketing”. She was the first to describe a technique known as the “service blueprint”; an applied process chart which shows the service delivery process from the customer’s perspective.

Fast forward to the early 2000s. The beginning of Media Suite, the advent of web 2.0, social media, and the explosion of technology-based products and services all vying for our attention. It was no longer good enough to simply produce software or websites that only did what was required. To be competitive, efficient and successful, we needed to create great experiences for the user.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know how crucial a good understanding of your users is. Even if you haven’t been calling it Design Thinking, you’ve probably already been using the process of discovery, ideation, prototyping, testing and seeing the benefits.

Design Thinking is simply defined as a process used to solve complex problems in a creative way. It can be seen as both an ideology and a process, and it’s primary purpose is to provide great outcomes and experiences for the user. However, unlike HCD where the user is always at the centre of attention, Design Thinking can also be used to solve problems that don’t relate to users at all.

The contemporary view of Design Thinking takes the form of 6 distinct phases.

design thinking 101
Author/Copyright holder: Nielsen Norman Group
  1. Empathise – conduct research to develop an understanding of your users
  2. Define – your users’ needs, their problem, and your insights
  3. Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions
  4. Prototype – Build real, tactile representations for a range of your ideas
  5. Test – Return to your users for feedback
  6. Implement – Put the vision into effect

Like the diagram suggests, this process is an iterative one allowing for constant revisions and improvements. When solving user-centric problems, the empathy phase is critical. For any solution to be truly successful, we need to put ourselves in the user’s position and understand their perspective. If the tasks they are performing are situationally specific, perform some ethnographic research. Be a fly on the wall to absorb not just the task they are performing, but the environmental factors that are affecting the way they are feeling, thinking and acting.

Example of a user scenario with post it notes on a white poster. Top half of the image shows information about the persona and the bottom shows information about the scenario.
Author/Copyright holder: The Interaction Design Foundation

Scenarios are an excellent way linking personas (validated representations of specific groups of users) with the tasks they need to perform. It takes into consideration all the contextual information around the task they are performing to create a rich picture in your mind.

This picture is what allows you to define their needs and their problems in a way that can be easily tested and validated later, allowing you to iterate on your solutions, improving them, and improving the experience of the user.

Putting these scenarios together into a user journey map provides the big picture of a user’s interaction with your product or service.

user journey
Author/Copyright holder: UX Mastery

But what about all the unseen parts of a service that users don’t see or interact with? They also contribute to the experience of a user. This is where Service Design comes in.

Service Design is all about taking a new or existing service like booking flights online, visiting a doctor, or taking out a bank loan, and making it better meet the users or customers needs for that service. It looks at every facet of the service e.g. communication, people, activities, infrastructure, architecture, physical components etc, and investigates how to improve the quality of that service and the interaction with its customers or users.

The benefits don’t just stop with improving the user’s experience. This holistic view of a service allows businesses and organisations to improve the efficiency of their services as well.

Example of service blueprint
Author/Copyright holder: Brandon Schauer.

The “service blueprint”, which G. Lynn Shostack, described back in 1982 has since become one of the most widely used tools within Service Design. Its purpose is to create a visual representation of all the processes within a company, and map the interactions between them. These processes can be broken down into:

Inputs (raw materials) → Process (transformation) → Outputs (finished goods)

According to authors Marc Stickdorn and Jakob Schneider of the best seller “This is Service Design Thinking”, Service Design can be broken down into five basic underlying principles.

  1. User-centred, through understanding the user by doing qualitative research
  2. Co-creative, by involving all relevant stakeholders in the design process
  3. Sequencing, by partitioning a complex service into separate processes
  4. Evidencing, by visualising service experiences and making them tangible
  5. Holistic, by considering touchpoints in a network of interactions and users

The terminologies within Service Design are subtly different. Users are often referred to as “actors”, and their interaction with the service, “touchpoints”.

Nicola Morelli back in 2006 proposed that the Service Design methodology follow three main directions:

  1. Identification of the actors involved in the definition of the service by means of appropriate analytical tools
  2. Definition of possible service scenarios, verifying use cases, and sequences of actions and actors’ roles in order to define the requirements for the service and its logical and organizational structure
  3. Representation of the service by means of techniques that illustrate all the components of the service, including physical elements, interactions, logical links and temporal sequences

This approach fits in harmony with the process of Design Thinking and the focus on the user with HCD.

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen how these three approaches have become increasingly critical to the digital transformation of both the public and private sectors. Applying them to some of our country’s most complex problems within environmental management, road infrastructure and quality assurance has allowed us to see and understand the big picture and craft creative solutions that benefit both business and user.

And how exciting it is to be part of that.

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