How to Rethink Service Design: People, Planet, and Public

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One of the key aspects of service design is its focus on putting the needs of the customer over the needs of the business. Rather than imposing solutions upon people, service design takes a more organic, holistic approach to the user experience, taking both front stage and backstage factors into consideration to build systems and processes that consistently add value throughout the customer journey.

Of course, today’s consumer experience is fundamentally different from that of decades past. Communications technology has massively empowered consumers and amplified their voices, which has forced businesses to rethink how they engage with them and present themselves. Where people were once faced with limited options in the market, constrained by geography, and had no voice to express their opinions, today’s consumers have an overwhelming array of options, utilize services independent of geography, and have a global platform to broadcast how they feel about those services.

3BL 2.0

Consumers have more access to information about the products and services they use than ever before; more importantly, they also want to know more about the companies providing them. When John Elkington coined the term “triple bottom line” (3BL) in 1994 to argue that companies should pursue sustainable practices on the basis of “people, planet, and profit,” consumers didn’t yet have the easy access to information needed to leverage their buying power over companies.

Today, however, more and more people are making an effort to support brands that share their beliefs and values, especially in the realm of sustainability and community responsibility. This is especially true of millennials; as the largest generation in the US, their increasing purchasing power is causing many organizations to rethink how they do business. It’s no accident that so many corporations are going to great lengths in recent years to tout their environmental initiatives, progressive community agendas, and worker-friendly labor practices.

In many respects, then, service design’s ability to craft a consumer experience that incorporates more than just the direct interface between users and services makes it an ideal methodology for today’s companies. To get the most out of this approach, it may be beneficial to slightly rethink the focus of the triple bottom line along more “people-centric” lines. While profit is still an important consideration, profit is something a company receives in exchange for providing value. They can provide that value by conducting their business in ways that are beneficial to people, the planet, and the public.

A service design approach to 3BL might look more like a math equation:

Value to people + value to the planet + value to the public = profit.

Today, however, more and more people are making an effort to support brands that share their beliefs and values, especially in the realm of sustainability and community responsibility


Service design can provide tremendous value to individuals because it can build services and products based on a person’s needs and deliver them simply and efficiently. What makes that design possible, of course, is a methodology that takes a broad view of all the factors that make up the user experience. Service design begins with the acknowledgment that the product or service itself is only one small component of the customer’s journey, and often not even the most important one.

The research and design process questions every assumption and focuses on building a relationship with people based on empathy. People may not always know what they want from a product or service experience, but they know how they feel when they have a good experience. Service design also examines the interaction from multiple perspectives. For example, do solutions that meet a customer’s needs satisfy an employee’s needs? When solutions fail to align these needs, the broader experience suffers as a whole, which will very quickly diminish the value that might otherwise come from a product or service.


While consumers routinely indicate a preference for sustainable environmental practices, companies often fail to consider how to combine these broader concerns with the needs of the individual. Service design can easily incorporate the question of sustainability into its efforts to design better products and services. People don’t make economic decisions purely on the basis of price; they want to feel good about supporting brands that share their values.

Service design helps to build a relationship between those brands and the people who use them. Implementing practices that contribute to preserving and strengthening the environment are far from the “burdensome costs” that businesses opposed in decades past; they are a statement about taking responsibility for both the present and future health of the planet. Earning the trust and loyalty of customers is all about convincing them to enter into a relationship by making them feel good about their user experience. The best products and services in the world are not long enough to build a lasting brand; people want to know that brand stands for something they value on a personal level.


Consumers and businesses don’t operate in a vacuum. They both exist within the context of a community. If that community is healthy and vibrant, there is more potential for sustainable growth and positive-sum interactions. Organizations need to think about how their business practices contribute to the overall health of the community, wherever that may be. Do they enrich the lives of people in their local communities? Do they promote healthy interactions in the public sphere? Are they adding value or extracting it?

This last question is critical, especially in an era of increased globalization and corporate mergers. Most people won’t begrudge a company for seeking profits, but they may not tolerate or continue to support one that flaunts the public interest simply to boost its bottom line. As consumers become increasingly aware about how companies conduct their business, there will be increased pressure on industries that rely upon exploitative practices that depress wages, devastate local communities, and externalize costs.

By taking an expansive approach to service design, organizations can begin to develop exciting new service experiences that contribute value to people, the planet, and the public. The coming generations of consumers are already using their economic power to shape corporate behavior and pressure them to take a more globally conscious set of values seriously. If organizations are to succeed in the future, they will need to turn increasingly to service design principles to bring their user experiences into alignment with the changing needs of these consumers.

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