Ben Holliday

When is User Experience (UX) and Service Design the same thing?

I get asked this question a lot. My thoughts:

In my experience, most of the best ‘experience’ practitioners or agencies think about the full end to end experience of a product or service.

Whether they get to design the full user experience or find themselves in a position of any real influence over this when working with different organisations will vary. It simply takes time and commitment to work closely with any organisation to the point of implementing operational changes at the level of a service blueprint that go beyond a more basic ‘digital’ implementation.

User Experience usually has a narrow focus

User Experience (UX) as an industry is all too often associated with a narrow ‘digital’ focus.

People who have worked longer in dedicated service design roles are likely to be more experienced in focussing on the physical objects, interactions and human touch points and/or channels within a service blueprint. They therefore benefit from working alongside more digitally focused UX professionals or from the experience of specialist professions like interaction design.

Always look at outputs before job titles

Where I think this matters is the difference in outputs.

User Experience as an industry still has a reputation for focussing on artefacts as outcomes (personas, user journey maps etc), rather than focussing on delivering working software, products and/or operational live services. Many service design agencies or practitioners aren’t close enough to delivery either.

The question is whether design (with any label) can influence and give direction to change throughout a full service or organisation. This means the ability to design and deliver transformation alongside and inside organisations. Not just consult for them.

In my opinion, the output of what we do as designers becomes valuable when it’s something that shapes or becomes the experience of end-users.

This can’t just be a plan for an experience, or an artefact describing what the experience should be. It has to help deliver the experience. In some circumstances plans and documentation can help the process, but they can also get in the way.

As designers we should know that we won’t (and can’t) get things right first time. Design is a process of learning and has to be part of delivery for this iteration and continuous improvement to happen. This has to happen in order for people to gain any value from it.

Design is intentional

Ignoring job titles, I start with intention.

Look at what people get done, and how they do it.

Do people really care about designing things for people and improving user experience beyond the latest sales strategy. And if they do care, is the output good?

Do they deliver on their intention to do the hard work to make things work better for people? And, are they intentional about designing everything that’s part of an end to end service? If so, then I think this is both experience design and service design.

Most of the creative industry is constantly realigning itself (which is okay)

We spend most of our careers as designers trying to make sense of problems, redefining or reframing things.

I think it’s okay to question and talk about our understanding of how we work and what it is that we do.

The ambiguity of how we define, discuss (and sometimes argue about) our jobs helps us make sure we deliver value to the organisations we sell to or work for, and their customers or our end-users.

I don’t think that there’s any reason that User Experience as an industry won’t, or can’t, realign itself to deliver more value than it’s traditionally given credit for. And it’s easy to generalise when you have such a large pool of agencies, consultants and internal User Experience or Customer Experience teams working with a diverse set of job titles on similar sets of problems.

If the User Experience industry needs to reinvent itself then I look at the realignment of job titles – including the change in focus from agencies towards service design that we’re now seeing – as the semantics allowing this transition to happen.

In this case, maybe User Experience and Service Design are the same thing. It’s a question we should keep asking. If nothing else, it keeps us focussed on what matters.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.