Our Thinking
What IS the difference between a product and a service?
Not sure? Perhaps this might help.
26 April 2018 | Posted by Jane Fletcher

Like many reading this post, I see a LOT of debate about what makes a good digital product and how to deliver them. In many discussions, and in many conference talks, the product is always the focus.

A successful outcome is seen as a tangible output, whether it be a website, software or a hardware device like a phone.

I’m a service designer, and I spend much of my time combatting this mindset.

Often it feels as though we sit on one side of a service v. product fence and never the twain shall meet.

I did a straw poll of folks around me on this topic and to be honest nearly fainted under the complexity of the answers (.. there is a LOT of knowledge out there..), but also the misunderstandings of what ‘service’ and ‘product’ mean and how they (or how they should) interact. Based on this feedback I thought it well worth drafting a simple explanation.

Firstly, we now live in a service-driven world.

In the UK, new car sales are at a record high since the motor industry came up with a brilliant idea:

“Don’t own your car! Rent it. Give us a fixed monthly fee and we’ll do the rest for you -service it, insure it and so on. You simply drive it.”

The mobile phone you have in your pocket? For the vast majority of people having a phone is at the cost of a single, fixed monthly fee, and support is available in stores or online if any problems or changes are required.

But a car and a phone are both products! Things!

Wait up. Yes, they are products, but products are designed to fulfil a need first and foremost.

A car lets you travel from point A to point B — thats the point.. most folks won’t want it simply sitting on their drive. And that lovely shiny iPhone? Well you do need to contact someone at some point, or tweet or email.. or .. or..

Ok let’s get back to the crux of the matter..

What is a service?

A service meets a need you might have (or want) e.g. ‘I need to keep in contact with my kids’ or ‘I want to listen to music on the go’.

OK then, so what is a product?

A product enables the delivery of the service e.g a phone or a car.

Still with me?

Let’s break it down with an example

Let’s say I have a distinct need of wanting to listen to music on the go. There are plenty of services out in the ether offering exactly that and I am willing to pay for it.

There’s our service.

How you access that service is where the product bit comes in.

Let’s say in the fabulous (free lunches I hear..) headquarters of the music service, the legalities and licensing have all been sorted but there’s no way to access the music yet. All the market research, user research, analysis has happened and it has been discerned that folks want to listen to music mostly on their iPhones, Android phones and for some inexplicable reason, there’s also a huge desire to have the music available on vinyl (you know it’s possible).

Are you going to build one thing to deliver all this? Nope.

You’d likely have three teams to build three different products to ensure every customer who accesses your service gets the best experience.

If I stopped paying for the service, I would still have the products but no music.

How does this work in government?

Oh that’s even easier.

You are still delivering a service, but if servicing the public then that service will likely be delivered through a web-based application (a product).

In the UK thanks to the Government Digital Service (GDS) we have wonderful things called Service Managers, and Service Standards which allow the focus in our projects to switch away from products, and towards the services which they support.

To Conclude

Shifting the focus away from product development and onto the wider services which they help to deliver enables a better, more cohesive journey for users.

Service design encompasses multiple products, multiple touch points, sometimes long time periods, repeated access and multiple points of offline and human involvement (think layers of support services or visiting the passport office).

The world demands more than just shiny products these days, and service design is critical to delivering what is now needed.

Do you agree or disagree?

I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter.

(I’d also like to thank Martha Aldridge a fellow service designer here at Kainos for editing and making me post this finally — and everyone else who added comments!)

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