Service emerges as important design element

Imagine a world where being a patient in an emergency room doesn’t mean waiting five hours to be seen by a doctor, and where navigating through Doherty doesn’t mean trudging up and down random flights of steps. Now imagine a world where Starbucks is self-serve, like your favorite neighborhood gas station. What emergency rooms and Doherty lack is the same thing Starbucks thrives on: good service design.

Service design is, as most design fields are, a seemingly vague, overarching concept. “It’s kind of complicated,” said Shelley Evenson, associate professor and director of graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon, of service design; “[Services] are activities or events, performances, processes.” Susan Dybbs, a second-year master’s candidate in the interaction design program, added to the definition: “A lot of [service design] has to do with improving experiences.” Rewind to the Starbucks scenario: “Starbucks has a product, but it has a service [also]. A person has to mediate from product to person; services are about these mediations,” Evenson clarified.

The growing service sector of the economy — the part of the economy that takes into consideration intangible goods — reflects growing interest in service design. “The global economy has shifted from product and communication to service-based [design],” said Evenson. Product design made a huge impact on the economy in the past few years, but now the focus is on design that influences an experience and guides a user to a particular result. Service design aims to allow users to make their own decisions, but make better decisions given specific designs they encounter. This concern, and way of thinking, is the latest trend in design.

With that in mind, Dybbs and fellow design graduate student James Brommer co-chaired the Carnegie Mellon School of Design’s first annual design conference, Emergence, which took place last weekend. Emergence was held in the world’s largest “green” building, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh, and takes its name from what it hopes to cover for many years: emerging themes in design.

“We spent a large amount of time thinking of the conference as a service design experiment,” Dybbs said. The consistency throughout the entire conference shows; everything from the website to the signage guiding visitors through the convention center to the speakers chosen helped to shape an experience that ultimately leaves what is taken away from the experience up to each individual.

The conference drew a number of speakers from a number of backgrounds and experiences. “We wanted a variety, to represent the full spectrum of people involved in service design,” Dybbs said. In an effort to convey that service design encompasses more than graphics and interfaces, people with business, education, and design backgrounds were all chosen as speakers.

Birgit Mager, professor of service design at Köln International School of Design in Cologne, Germany, spoke on Sunday about the new Center for Service Design Research at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. In addition to her 10 years of experience teaching service design, Mager has extensive experience practicing service design. Mager founded Gulliver’s, a coffeehouse that offers homeless people the opportunity to wash their clothes in exchange for work. Gulliver’s is now a fully functional coffeehouse run independently by the homeless. Gulliver’s “serves homeless people, but also designs service through experience,” said Evenson of Mager’s work.

Senior industrial design major Koo Ho Shin reflected on the experience of the conference, “It’s been interesting to see the various approaches in service design,” he said. “It could be all about customers, based on user experience research, but it could also be a system that is designed to give motivation for behavior changes.”

Jennie Winhall, a senior design strategist for RED, a design firm based in the UK that creates services with and for the public, spoke about behavior modification on Saturday. Winhall focused on ways to encourage people to take preventative measures in their health, with hopes of solving problems in health care before they happen.

“Europeans are way ahead of us,” Evenson said of the service design world. Mager had been teaching service design-specific classes for years in Germany, but it’s more rare to find a service design class here. Evenson spoke of service design at Carnegie Mellon, “We know that it’s an emerging field in design. We know there’s a lot of interest in it.”

Carnegie Mellon already offers industrial and communication design majors for undergraduates, and master’s degrees in communication planning & information design and interaction design. The School of Design also utilizes other facets of Carnegie Mellon’s academic offerings; they offer a Master of Product Development degree in conjunction with the mechanical engineering department. As service design is probably most closely related to interaction design, Carnegie Mellon is in a good position to delve more deeply into service design. The School of Design increased its hold on the service design world by hosting Emergence. Evenson said, “I can imagine a future where we focus on service.”