I’m doing a little intro to a case study at our monthly departmental meeting on Friday. In doing do, I’ve been giving a bit of thought to the differences that exist between products and services, and specifically how that impacts on the design phase. (Spoiler alert to colleagues: this is roughly my Friday morning five minutes. I’m boring enough without you having to hear it twice…)

There are almost certainly a stack of weighty descriptions as to the fundamental differences between products and services; for the purposes of this train of thought, though, I distill it down to one key thing: with a product, you need to convince people to buy it; with a service, you need to convince people to use it (this in turn is predicated on the idea that products are paid for up front and services on consumption).

Let’s take an example from the world of transport: cars are products that are sold on the basis of their features. This into sometimes extreme detail – for example, the audio engineers who are involved in designing the sound of how a door closes so that it makes a reassuring “thunk”, particularly within the confines of a dealership. Car manufacturers rarely try to sell the usage of a car (other than in the mythical, open road idyll of hairpin bends and mountains that is precisely zero percent of my own personal motoring experience). In the world of car sales, it’s all about specifications, features, horsepowers and all that come with it. All for a hugely expensive device that will spend 95% or more of its existence parked and out of use (listen to the recent Freakonomics on Parking for more on that).

Compare that now to a transport service like trains. There, usage is encouraged, and it’s often the end outcomes of the use of the service rather than the service itself that are highlighted. I found a wonderful example of this from the London Transport archives which sold the commute from Watford to London on the basis of a better quality of life living in the Watford hills above the smog of London. This isn’t, I have to admit, the Watford that I know and tolerate…

When it comes to designing a service, I’d therefore argue that the focus needs to be on the consumer of the service more than the service itself, and therefore empathy becomes a crucial skill. When technology comes to play, missing out on empathy with the consumer ends up with mediocrity or worse: once again, the “unexpected item in the bagging area” hell of the self-checkout heads straight to the dock.

We’ve recently been running workshops to help some of our customers with their design of apps to help support the services that they provide (that is, apps that support existing businesses, rather than businesses in of themselves). Central to those workshops were a series of stages that helped participants into an empathetic mindset, helping them to define function and service that would enhance the customer experience rather than just design products. I’ll talk more about those workshops soon.

2 thoughts on “Products vs Services

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