Joan Ball, PhD
Author - Joan Ball, PhD

Communicating the value of service design to those who are unfamiliar with our tools and processes can be a challenge. This creates problems for designers as well as the organisations and communities we hope to serve. Perhaps our use (and misuse) of metaphor to describe our work contributes to the confusion.

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The use of metaphor in service: A brief overview

Metaphor has been used in service literature since its earliest days.1 From service ecosystems and blueprints to customer journey maps and servicescapes, service designers use a variety of metaphors to describe service concepts, tools and spaces. This is not surprising, because conceptual metaphors underlie how people understand and experience the world around them.2 But do the metaphors we use to describe service design activities enhance our ability to clearly communicate the value of service design to our clients and customers? Might the mixing of metaphors in particular provide a clue to the disconnection between service designers, organisational stakeholders and potential partners?


These questions prompted me to examine research in some key service and marketing journals to identify how the use of metaphor has shaped service design and the design of services. It is my hope that this preliminary report of findings from the academic literature will prompt a broader conversation among service design practitioners and academics about how the language we use influences the way we understand and practice service design.

Mixed metaphors --
Mixed metaphors —

No singular metaphor is likely to describe the complexity that exists within and among service offerings. That may be why researchers and practitioners tend to describe service concepts, processes, design elements and roles using multiple or mixed metaphors. The following examples illustrate how this might cause confusion for people who are new to service design.

Conceptualising ‘actors’ within a service ‘ecosystem’, for instance, suggests that those involved in service exchanges must take deliberate or intentional action and that service occurs in a complex network of interacting entities in a physical environment. The study of ecosystems within ecological science demonstrates, however, that non-living, non-intentional entities also play a significant role in the preservation and health of an ecosystem. Therefore, the use of the term actor in the context of the ecosystem metaphor may lead practitioners and researchers to inadvertently ignore the important role of such entities.

This potential for confusion is compounded when emerging technologies that can act (such as AI and robots) are involved, especially if designers intentionally or unintentionally anthropomorphise things that may not have inherently human characteristics. Furthermore, the word ‘actor’ can also be interpreted as a theatrical actor, especially in light of the use of the ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’ theatrical metaphors used to describe service activities in the context of service ‘blueprints’, which introduces an architectural reference.

The overlapping use of ecological (e.g. ecosystem, actor), architectural (e.g. blueprint) and theatrical (e.g. actor, front and back stage) metaphors in these examples might not pose a challenge for service design professionals, who have been trained to describe customer journeys through servicescapes represented with blueprints. It does, however, illustrate the potential for confusion among those unfamiliar with service design tools and tactics.


Toward a typology of service metaphors

To date there has not been a critical review of metaphors and their implications for service design. A search of the word “metaphor” in three leading marketing and three leading service journals (Journal of Services Marketing, Journal of Service Research, Journal of Service Management, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Consumer Research, and Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science) resulted in more than 340 articles that were examined by myself and an additional researcher and organised and analysed to identify areas of coherence, alignment and contradiction.3

While this analysis does not claim to represent an exhaustive list of service metaphors, the results illustrate the different, intersecting and sometimes contradictory metaphors that are often employed to describe abstract service concepts.4 Figure 1 presents three broad service metaphor typologies that emerged from the analysis: Service Concepts, Service Process/Tools, and Service Roles, with representative examples of each.

Fig. 1: Toward a typology of service metaphors
Fig. 1: Toward a typology of service metaphors

Service Concepts

The conceptual metaphors that emerged from this preliminary analysis represent a breadth of choices for describing the complexity of service systems and their component parts. This raises interesting questions about what might be gained or lost when service is described as an ecosystem versus, for instance, a learning system versus a theater or a honeybee colony. Might communicating service using one metaphor make more sense in a given context than in another? Could the use of different metaphors in the same context be a useful creative prompt to help define the boundaries of a service system? Do metaphors rooted in nature provide different mental models for service than those based in structural or organisational frameworks? What are the implications of these choices when it comes to designing and communicating the value of service design to key stakeholders?


Service Processes/Tools

The metaphors associated with service processes and tools describe representations of the entirety of the service experience (e.g. journey, orchestration, flow, narrative), snapshots of service experience (e.g. touchpoints, peaks, blindspots), descriptions of how service is created (e.g. co-created/destructed), and how service experience unfolds (e.g. interaction, transaction, social exchange).

Making intentional choices about how these pieces come together and how they relate to the service concepts we use to frame service communication has the potential to either provide clarity or, if the choices we make are less aligned, could hinder it. This does not mean that mixing these metaphors is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Rather, it merely suggests that understanding how these elements come together and how best to communicate seemingly contradictory concepts is worthy of further exploration in practice and through academic research.


Service Roles

The service role metaphors in the academic literature are varied and surprising, which means they hold the potential for new thinking about our conceptualisations of customers, employees and suppliers in service systems. Of note is the distinction between representations of customers as contributors to service (e.g. co-creator, co-designer, brand champion) and more negative representations (e.g. terrorist, saboteur, Pinocchio).

How might customers react to the responsibility of contributing to service at that level? Might some customers be burdened by those expectations and could their negative behaviour represent a rebellion? In the case of employees, many of the roles described in the literature involve responsibilities that might be beyond the scope of their normal duties (e.g. brand champion, entrepreneur, matchmaker, cheerleader). How might these roles influence employee interactions with customers? Might we better understand the relationship between employee and customer through the use of metaphor? Could we reimagine these roles and interactions between customers and employees by reimagining them through the lens of different service concept and process metaphorical frameworks?


What’s next

This examination of service metaphors is meant to be a conversation starter rather than a comprehensive academic analysis. Instead, it is an attempt to move recent calls to bridge the academia-practitioner divide in service5 off the page and into the world by creating an opportunity to work together to explore the use of metaphor in service design practice. To that end, spreadsheets containing a full list of references and the raw preliminary review of metaphors can be found online (see sidebar).

In sum, it is my hope that this review provides a stepping-off point for further examination of this topic. Practitioners and academic researchers are invited to build upon this preliminary examination of key marketing and service journals to consider how metaphor is currently used to communicate service concepts and to explore how commonlyused service metaphors might help (or hinder) how stakeholders outside the field understand and embrace service design. Moreover, I hope it will inspire us to experiment with our use of metaphor in framing service design and more clearly communicating its value to people in and outside of the field.

1 Goodwin, C., Grove, S. J., & Fisk, R. P. (1996). Collaring the Cheshire Cat’: Studying Customers' Services Experience through Metaphor. Service Industries Journal, 16(4), 421-442.
2 Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980), Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
3 Schmitt, R. (2005), “Systematic metaphor analysis as a method of qualitative research”, The Qualitative Report, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 358-394.
4 Maglio, P.P. (2015), “Editorial column-Metaphors of service and the framing of service science, Service Science, Vol. 7 No. 4, pp. iii-iv.
5 Daly, A., Baron, S., Dorsch, M.J., Fisk, R.P., Grove, S.J., Harris, K., and Harris, R. (2014), “Bridging the academia-practitioner divide: the case of ‘service theater’”, Journal of Services Marketing, Vol. 28 No. 7, pp. 580-594.

Full list of references and the raw preliminary review of metaphors:

Short link:

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