A Tiny Service Design History

Updated: Sep 17


Daniele Catalanotto is a service designer and the founder of the Swiss Innovation Academy. He is also an innovation coach at the Salvation Army and aims to make the innovation process seem “less complicated for normal humans”. He also believes that the most beautiful hobby in the world is helping others.


At the Service Design Global Conference which was held in October in Toronto, he delivered a talk on the history of service design and his contribution to writing a digital book on the subject. Catalanotto explained that he wanted to go to the roots of the method because it wouldn’t be possible to talk about the future of service design and concentrate so much energy on developing it without knowing anything about the past. He wanted to figure out where does the notion of service design first appear. “I went on a journey where the idea was to learn from the past”, he said.


On this journey, he learned that service design has incorporated a lot of ideas from a myriad of disciplines. So, in that sense, Service Design is the iPhone of disciplines, Catalanotto said. While researching he came across 100+ moments which he believed are related to service design, although some historians argued that he was wrong about some of the dates. The dispute resulted in co-writing the book with more accurate facts. During his talk, Catalanotto mentioned 6 of those dates that can make you look smarter at dinner parties and 4 dates you can mention when you talk to service design nerds.


6 dates to make you look smarter at dinner parties


The world-renowned service designer believes that in 10 000 BC when agriculture and separation of tasks happened, the first contract and the first customer also appeared. If you are a farmer who is growing carrots and you talk to a hunter who chases bunnies, you would want to collaborate with each other. The farmer will provide carrots for the bunnies while the hunter will provide fresh meat for the farmer. “Basically, the same thing we do with money”, Catalanotto said. He also added that managing expectations, in this case, was a bit complicated because the farmer has no way of knowing how big the bunny that he was promised will be.


With agriculture came religion and service, just like religion, isn’t tangible. “Religion and priests might be the first service designers ever”, Catalanotto claimed and added that they designed the “Sunday service” experience. What service design has stolen from religion is storytelling and rituals.


Later, in 500 BC Ergonomics emerged and this meant adapting services to the customer, rather than expecting the customer to adapt to your product or service. “It means we want to improve the interaction between humans and objects which is not so different from what we do as service designers”, he pointed out. He also believes Ergonomics is the cousin of service design. He thinks that service design might have stolen observation and user feedback from Hippocrates, who had an idea of arranging medical tools for surgeons in a certain way so they can do their work better.



Catalanotto also thinks that 380 BC is when the co-creation process has appeared. That is when the philosopher Plato suggested that people should be included in creating the government. He can be called a service designer as well. Moreover, ancient philosophers can be seen as the fathers of nearly everything, the swish designer said. “What is interesting about co-creation is that it is a pretty old concept, but we still forget about it 2000 years later”, he claimed.


With the invention of the telephone in 1876, the distant customer support started. “It is the first time in history where you can complain from your bedroom”, said the service designer. But when did we start to focus on experience? In 1931 phenomenology – the science of experience emerged. It was a concept created by Edmund Husserl. Catalanotto thinks we might have stolen the customer experience and the idea of the customer’s perspective from it. We might think that our services are wonderful, but it is import to find out how others feel about it as well. Last, but not least, in 1939 the client-centered approach has appeared in psychotherapy. It was related to a movement where they say that the psychologist is not the expert, the users are. It had two core principles, which can be linked to service design as well:


1. The non-directive approach – the therapist isn’t leading the conversation, the client is;

2. Unconditional positive regard – the therapist has a total acceptance of and support for his client. And this happens without casting judgment.

4 dates to not come across as stupid while talking to nerds


According to the Swiss service designer, knowing the following dates will help you give more accurate answers to critics and will make you look good in front of your colleagues. He pointed out that in 1982 Lynn Shostack came up with the term “service design”. She believed that service quality equals the individual perception of the service minus the individual expectation:


1. How do I feel when I experience the service?

2. How do I imagine it will be?


Another important date is 2004 when the Service design network was born, whose president is Birgit Mager. Another cool date to remember is 1st June 2016 when the Service design Day is celebrated. But if all this information is too much to remember, just know that the first customer and service were born in 10 000 BC. “We can build bridges between the past and today, we can learn a lot from what happened before”, Catalanotto concluded.

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