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Exploring the Product to Service Shift


Article first published in DMI Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall 2011

By Joe Heapy

The new shape of the relationship between products and service is not that one is replacing the other; instead, we are looking at a more symbiotic relationship where one does not exist without the other.

Many products now in daily use work as platforms or enablers for a service or an experience - creating service-product ecologies.

When we begin to look at the relationships between products and services in these terms, we can see a spectrum of product-service ecologies (explored by Laurie Young in From Products to Services) ranging from a product with a warranty, to a service organisation with products associated with it.

How we talk about services and products depends on where we are looking at the spectrum.

A mid-level ecology in this spectrum may be a Smartphone or tablet with the associated apps, access and functions. This is a great example for demonstrating the different factors of a product-service ecology, such as the level of technology required and the support of constant WiFi or 3G.

When this is enabled, the relationship between the two should be seamless. The apps, features and experiences of a Smartphone are indistinguishable from the technology that enables them.

This goes even further, however, in the response of services to the technology provided. The influx and range of accompanying apps has proliferated, opening up all kinds of weird and wonderful experiences to those that want them. And it is that choice that is key - the options now provided to the user are unlimited.

It also comes with personalisation, a big selling point in reaction to the mass-market of identical products. In theory, any person's Smartphone or tablet, despite being the same product, are completely unique based on how it is used and what services are subscribed to.

The approach to designing and marketing services:

The ramifications of product-service ecologies, usability, individuality and sustainability are necessarily reflected in the design process. Again, it is not about service designers replacing product designers: a moot point anyway, based on the problem-solving nature of the design process. Instead, it is about aligning the approach to meet rising needs.

The demands of customers reacting against mass productisation are and will be met by designers who help them realise what they want before they even know it.

In this sense, product design and service design are moving closer together, a point fundamentally reflected in research approaches across products and services.

A product-service ecology opens more doors for long-term relationships with users, with greater focus on loyalty and retention, enabled by a conjoined strategy between product generations and service development and evolution.

For this to be sustained, key insights into users' needs and desires are imperative. Research is moving from quantitative to qualitative, open source and feedback-orientated.

It is no longer about what people need now, but also about how their needs will change and how the same organisation, company, product or service will still be there to meet those needs.

It seems inevitable that such a shift in focus will bring with it a new way of selling, marketing and branding for both products and services. Indeed, it already has. The instant and effortless nature of web access, social networking and similar forums - enabled by our product-service ecologies - means that if someone is not happy with a service or product, you will hear about it. Loudly.

This is just as well, for the cutthroat marketing and sales synonymous with mass-consumerism is also being replaced by people who listen to what you want and act on it.

The ramifications of this serve to reinforce the importance of usability, user experience and customer satisfaction in the design of products, services and the organisations that provide them.

The service organisation:

The only way that service design may be seen to be replacing product design is in the structure and approach of organisations. Our interest in helping organisations to become great service providers is married to helping them become great service organisations.

The distinction here is about approach and culture. It is within these that the key to great service provision lays. Just as commercialism is a thing of the past, so are the company structures that proliferated with it. A shift from top-down, silo-saturated and product-approach mentality is the next step in the union between product and service.

The reason that these approaches are no longer viable reaches back to the earlier point about longevity and relationship development. The focus is no longer about an outcome, an output, the end product, the finished article - it is about a journey, an evolution.

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