For the past three years, I have attended a conference on service design. In 2006, during the first ever conference on service design, everyone felt excited to come together as a community and begin talking about this new design practice. Last year, we pushed a bit at the borders of service design (Many Eyes as service design, for example), but we still had difficulty defining service design. This year in Amsterdam, during the first Service Design Network conference, it became clear that there are people practicing service design and everyone knows what it looks like even if they still have a difficult time talking about it. The question that lingered was, what do we do now, or as one participant put it during the closing Q&A, “what’s next?”

The answer, we continue to grow, go out and fail more often, and have another conference next year, did not completely satisfy me. I imagine others are still scratching their heads.

Overall, I really enjoyed the conference. But as usual, I enjoyed the conversations around the conference more than the presentations (I agree, my panel was a bit boring). In talking to people, I heard both positive and negative views. The presentation by Denis Weil of McDonald’s really piqued interest. But it may have just been the content. Academic research did not hold much sway for the practitioners. And many of the presentations seemed to be showing the same thing—design process—which everyone there likely already practices. It was clear that simply showing your process, unless truly unique, seemed trite.

I had several conversations about what service design is and how it might be different from other forms of design. This is a question I and others have had before. As a trained interaction designer, it was not difficult to transition to service design. In fact, there were only subtle differences that might be identified as different from interaction design. No one I talked to offered a clear definition, or a true distinction.

But I do believe service design is significant, as it has brought design into conversations outside of products, and resinates with organizations because most organizations identify more with providing a service than a product. And while designers have been making products that exist within services, it is a shift to put designers in charge or as co-producers of the actual service.

Does this mean service design requires a different process or skills? Yes and no. As I said, if you practice interaction design in its broadest sense, know the design process well, and take a user-centered approach, service design will not be a huge leap. You may already practice service design. However, as Shelley Evenson said during the conference, additional skills she would look for in service designers are business and systems skills: the latter because services often rely on other services.

I do not think service design is a distinct discipline of design. The term is important for helping to bring design into new territory. But I view service design as a practice of design. I’m sure there are some who will disagree, and I’d love to hear their views.

So what is next for service design? We will continue to refine its definition and its place in the design world. Some people will think this argument is important (like me), others will not. I also think service design will continue to gain momentum as success stories surface, like Engine’s design of Virgin Atlantic’s Terminal 3. Whether we call it service design, experience design, or just plain old boring design, what’s next is that more organizations will recognize the power of design to bring meaning and value to their services, and will increasingly call on experts to do that work. If calling it service design helps us get there, I’m all for it.