Companies can turn to a variety of experts — like interactive agencies and customer experience transformation consultants — for help with improving or innovating the customer experience. But despite years of experience and a thriving professional network, one type of expert remains virtually unknown to customer experience professionals: the service design agency. Customer experience professionals should seek out service design agencies because:

  • Service designers tap into the power of human-centered design. Unlike customer experience firms that take an approach akin to management consulting, service design agencies leverage human-centered design practices like ethnographic research, co-creation, and low-fidelity prototyping. The combination of these practices enables service design agencies to more quickly — and cheaply — identify the real customer and corporate problems that they need to address and develop effective solutions. These activities also serve as potent communication vehicles, exposing assumptions and marshaling early buy-in from employees and stakeholders.
  • Service designers approach the customer experience holistically. The first service design agencies emerged roughly 15 years ago as bands of dissatisfied industrial designers who sought to create holistic interactions that spanned beyond a single physical product. Today, service designers define and implement interactions that span time and multiple touchpoints — as well as the behind-the-scenes activities that enable firms to deliver those interactions as planned. In fact, one of the field’s iconic tools is the service blueprint, a diagram that depicts the end-to-end customer journey as well as the cross-silo systems and processes that are required to support that journey in its ideal state. In contrast, many of today's interactive agencies focus solely on one part of the customer journey, like marketing, or just a single channel, like mobile/tablet apps.
  • “Service design” is nearly indistinguishable from “customer experience design.” At the Service Design Global Conference 2013, speakers from companies including Barclays, BBVA, Cisco Systems, Infosys, and SAP covered topics ranging from digital and omnichannel experiences to big data and the “Internet of things.” What distinguishes these talks from those at a typical customer experience conference? Not much. That’s because the fields of service design and customer experience exhibit considerable overlap — and it’s difficult to classify any given design project in just one category.

To help customer experience professionals better understand the field of service design and how service design agencies can support their customer experience improvement and innovation initiatives, Forrester recently surveyed of 102 service design agencies in EMEA, North America, Asia Pacific, and Brazil. My report on the state of service design in 2013 shares the survey results and our analysis. Among our findings:

  • European service design agencies abound. Seventy of the agencies in our survey have offices in EMEA. In addition, we found 35 agencies with offices in the US and Canada, 14 in the Asia Pacific region, and three in Brazil.
  • Small, new agencies are the norm. Nearly half of the agencies we surveyed have five or fewer employees — and 14 are sole proprietors. Sixty of the 102 agencies have been practicing service design for fewer than six years.
  • Agencies focus on financial services and healthcare. Across the globe, agencies listed financial services and healthcare as two of the three industries they’ve worked with most over the past 18 months. In EMEA, government work also proliferates — while the technology and telecom industries round out the top three industries in North America and Asia Pacific, respectively.

If you’re interested in finding a service design agency to work with, check out my other recent report, Service Design Agency Overview, 2013. This report includes self-reported data from service design providers about their industry expertise, capabilities, locations, and target clients — and it’s a great resource for helping you create a shortlist of potential partners.