Can good service design ever be by default?

Last week I moved to Milan, a dream come true. In ways it is exactly as I imagined it; a society that demonstrates a high degree of  sensitivity and awareness towards fellow human beings. So naturally I expected to find the same human factor in the service encounter, but so far this has not been my experience. Instead I find the opposite, that services aren’t geared hugely towards the end user. In fact, service provision in the UK is more accessible in comparison, despite a societal focus on the self and shortfall in the human factor.

Why is it then that excellent service encounters aren’t a natural next step in places already so human centred? From my experience in many parts of Europe, the power rests heavily in the domain of the provider instead of the user. Waiters in Paris focus upon their craft, not the consumer. The consumer instead takes the waiters, suggesting the support of different philosophical approach. All the while in the USA, service design appears to be an integral part of services – not because of an inbuilt human inflection, but because of a wider commercial and competitive culture. Service design is a natural vehicle to differentiate businesses and ultimately to generate profit, so connection itself becomes a commodity to be consumed. Not ideal, at least to me, given the artificial nature that belies the offer. Give me the authentic Italian response any day. That said, I notice a receptivity towards the USA here, which in the future may well optimise the best of both worlds; commercial awareness and the human factor, creating a baseline for good services by default. Well we can dream.
Service design, as I’ve learned in the first week, is embedded in a wider environment that can naturally thwart or promote service excellence. There are many reasons for embracing service design and many outcomes, but also many cultures and systems operating on the ground that warrant attention. As a consequence the service designer faces the even bigger task of developing intuitive manoeuvres that can make a real difference when many hands are tied.