I went a couple of weeks ago to a fascinating discussion about the nature of service design, organised around a book published last year called This is Service Design Thinking. The two editors of the book were due to lead the session but were at the wrong ends of a skype three way video conference which stuttered into a dalekian half life without really quite making the breakthrough into comprehensibility. After various attempts to rewire, reconfigure and reboot, we gave up and had what turned into a good conversation among the dozen people round the table in London.

I wasn’t taking notes, so I am not even going to attempt to capture the range of the discussion. Instead I want to reflect on one of the topics we touched on and on some subsequent thoughts about the different positions of public and private sector and smaller and larger organisations.

The topic, slightly unexpectedly, was on the question of whether there was really any such thing as service design in the first place. Given the selection bias inherent in a group united round a book on the subject, that felt a little odd, but reflects the novelty and uncertainty of service design as a discipline. As the book brings out, perceptions of service design can strongly depend on the the starting discipline of the person doing the perceiving: anthropologists and marketing people tend to see the world rather differently. Several members of the group questioned whether service design was really user experience design talking itself up. I found that fascinating, because for me one of the attractions of the label is precisely to get away from questions of channel specificity: the service which needs to be designed is the complete set of interactions which take a customer securely, confidently and effectively from arrival to departure, treating that as a form of glorified interface design seems to slightly miss the point. That indeed points to one of my frustrations with my (very fast and superficial) reading of the book, that its case studies start too far in: the focus is very much on how design questions were answered rather than on how and why the questions were formulated – what was it that made the case study clients think that they wanted some service design in the first place? Interestingly, the one exception is the MyPolice case study (even allowing for my bias in its favour), which I suspect has a lot to do with being a self-generated project where service designers and product owners were the same people.

That mirrored the perception by some in the discussion that service design was a fine idea for small scale experiments in the voluntary sector, but wasn’t (or at least wasn’t yet) something which could be offered to a demanding commercial client interested only in immediate increases in sales. The sense seemed to be that it was too nebulous and unproven, and that clients overwhelmingly preferred to buy specific skills in the minimum necessary quantities rather than some more broadly based and perhaps more amorphous service (and worth noting that many of the participants were in the web consultancy business one way or another, with billable hours the only real currency).

There is a common perception in (and of) the public sector that we are constrained by process and caution, insulated from commercial pressures to be innovative and creative, and so compelled to lag behind the cutting edge of the private sector (a pattern perhaps illustrated by no fewer than three recent posts on public sector procurement, all very well worth reading). So it was fascinating for me to see a sort of reciprocal envy, from people in intensely commercial roles and organisations, who saw in the public and voluntary sectors a degree of freedom from very short term financial metrics which could allow more integrated and less hard edged approaches to flourish.

It was an interesting discussion, though not the one I had expected, based on a book which perhaps shares the power and fragility of the concept which is its subject. It is itself, very self-consciously, a piece of service design, using colour, symbols and layout to provide a much richer experience than any more conventional book. That added up to a splendid reminder of how much more powerful and engaging a book can be than any online substitute yet devised – and yet elements of the design self-consciousness were as irritating as others were inspiring. It all felt as though it was trying just a little too hard to be clever, and perhaps that is an indicator of a discipline with huge power and potential, but which has not quite reached the maturity and self-confidence to make best use of them.