A tale of attention and abundance: Why service design matters on the new mobile web

Over the last few days I’ve had a chance to reflect on the relationship between the mobile web and service design. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the two are tied together, in a way that was not the case with either the PC-based web or pre-internet mobile services.

Why? Well it goes like this…

In the beginning, was the Screen, and the Screen was a Television, and we gathered round the Television and gave it our undivided attention. And there were not many channels, so producers devoted their time and money to making good programmes in which we grateful viewers were immersed.

Then came the Web, and unlike the TV, it offered near limitless choice of sites and services. So the producers of Inter-Net Web Sites had to worry about stuff like findability, and usability, and (yuck) “stickiness”. They had competition, and we were easily bored, so they strove to give us novelty in content and agility in development. They invented SEO and pay-per-click and the Million Dollar Homepage.

Yet still all the striving happened within the bounds of the Screen. By and large the world outside the browser window was of little concern to the web designers.

Meanwhile, there were Telephones, and unlike TV and the PC-web, they existed in a world of divided attention. We made short calls in busy places, and sent hurried text messages in the gaps between other important stuff in our lives. The context of use was filled with constant distractions. As I’ve advocated here before, try using your service in broad daylight on a busy street corner, preferably in a slightly dodgy area of town, and you’ll see what I mean.

The life of a mobile service provider was a hard one, focused on finding the right customer needs and meeting them with usable solutions. Technology was fragmented and its vagaries absorbed much time and effort, but at least this meant that the few who conquered the technology could enjoy substantial rewards. The world outside the Screen was complex and confused but, compared to the wild, wild web, services were scarce and contention for “real estate” was limited.

Now, joyfully and at long last, those technical barriers to entry in mobile are melting away. Anyone can make content or services, offer them to consumers anywhere in the world, and monetise them through payments and advertising. We can experience those services on bright, light, sleek, enjoyable devices.

For those who laboured through the hard years this should be both exciting and challenging, but one thing is for certain: just turning up is no longer nearly enough. Unlike the mobile of old, today’s services exists in an era of abundance - not just “an app for that” but dozens - thousands - all vying for our attention.

To put it another way, mobile web services are born into the zone of maximum contention for the user’s attention. To succeed they must be strong enough to attract and retain the user in a state of divided attention and among an abundance of competing services.

This means mobile web design requires a special set of qualities, resting on the bedrock of solid technical infrastructure and user interface expertise, but towering far above basic functionality and product.

Key challenges faced by the mobile designer include…

  • Discovery – the need to stand out from the crowd, to appear for the customer at the right point and time in their journey, both online and offline.
  • Engagement – not minutes racked up in a single session, but deep engagement with the user’s everyday life and habits, spanning multiple contexts and episodes of use.
  • Choreography – of touchpoints to deliver the end-to-end service experience, in which mobile plays an increasingly important, but rarely exclusive or dominant, part.
  • Adaptiveness – to the needs of the customer, her contexts, her devices and the available enablers.

And it’s no coincidence that these are also the transformative characteristics pursued by service design.

Mobile web services are exciting precisely because they can reach so far into the noisy, messy real world, and because they form such a plethora of competing and inter-connecting solutions. Scan a barcode with a cameraphone, then click to call the cheapest retailer. You’ll quickly understand the potental in the palm of your hand.

Realising such potential demands, to paraphrase the Service Design Network’s Manisfesto

  • an holistic approach, which considers in an integrated way strategic, system, process and touchpoint design decisions, and
  • an iterative process that integrates user-oriented, team-based interdisciplinary approaches and methods, in ever-learning cycles.

Welcome to the new world of mobile design. Step forward the service designers.

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