The Lost Robot Manoeuvre

The lovely thing about designing for service is the intangibility. You can prototype it in conversations. You can act it out. No tin required – the virtual is so much more pliable.

Then again, the maddening thing about designing for service is the intangibility. People have trouble getting their heads round it. How will service interact with users? How will it meet their needs? The solid is so much more familiar.

To re-tie the frayed ends of this creative tension, I’ve found myself using a technique that deliberately introduces a physical actor into the process, a service avatar to stand in for the stuff we can’t see.

Useful robots workshop

The Lost Robot Manoeuvre emerged by accident when Marc Fabri asked me to run a service design workshop for students as part of Leeds Met’s Futures Fest. The ever-inspiring Emma Bearman suggested that we link it with her March of the Robots series.

At first the robot felt like a cuckoo in the nest; I still wanted to talk about intangibles. But as I developed the workshop plan I realised it could be a powerful thought experiment.

robot by Ludo

Put simply, the method goes like this…

  1. Quick, draw a robot, a robot to help people. Work out what problems it solves. Maybe write some user stories.
  2. Take your robot out of the building. It’s a great conversation starter for some guerilla research. Re-write the user stories based on what you learned. Re-draw the robot.
  3. Now pivot. Lose the robot. It never existed anyway. But what if you met those needs with service instead?

THERE IS NO ROBOT. (SORRY.)

My guinea pig participants rose admirably to the challenge. One group created a robot to help their fellow students de-stress at exam times, The other focused on exercise and encouraging people to be active. In both cases the robot was the starting point, but not the end.

I put the workshop outline up on Speakerdeck. I’d love to run it again some time if anyone will let me…

It can be these, but…

Our economy will not grow bigger in scale, but we will see it become more specific, more diverse, more adapted to individual needs and desires. The economy that served us well is giving way to what I call the informative economy.

According to my dictionary, “to inform” means to “imbue or inspire with some specific quality or value.” Practically speaking, information is not merely data, telecommunications, or a computer network. It can be these, but it is also the knowledge added to resources to make them valuable. It is design, craft, utility and durability — everything that makes a product more useful, longer lasting, easier to repair, lighter, stronger, and less energy-consuming. Information is nothing more (or less) than how to make or accomplish something the best way.

A Chevrolet requires ten to twelve times more expense on warranty repairs than an American-built Honda does. The difference is information in the form of design, workmanship and quality. Twenty-five years ago Honda was a “small” business. It became a big business not by building bigger cars, or cars with more gadgets, but by building a car with more information…

– Paul Hawken‘Growing a business’ (1987)

Thanks to Andy Bell for the recommendation.

Which part of “the customer is always a co-producer” don’t these people understand?

For the third time in the past few months I’m assailed by a survey so shockingly poor that I wonder why the service provider in question has bothered at all.

First it was East Coast trains with a lengthy paper questionnaire about my journey, conducted entirely in mind-boggling forced-choice price/quality trade-offs.

Then came a letter from an Ofsted inspector slipped into my child’s book bag at primary school. “Your views about the school are important to us,” said the letter. The less-than-24-hours’ notice to go online and complete a survey suggested otherwise.

This time, as I log out of my online account, my bank butts in with an entreaty to help them develop new features. Like this one…

Imagine you could search and sort through transactions...

Let’s leave aside the dubious value of any question in user research starting “imagine if…” We’ll also charitably disregard the fact that all the bright ideas my bank is asking about have been standard features of their competitors since the days when the Internet sounded like a fax machine.

What really winds me up about this – and the examples before it – is the complete absence of a space to explain or qualify my choices in free text.

The East Coast one went on for 14 A4 pages without so much as a simple text box for me to have my say.

And when Ofsted states

By sharing your views, you’ll be helping your child’s school to improve. You will also be able to see what other parents have said about your child’s school.

… they don’t actually mean said the way you or I, or a child in Key Stage 1, would understand the word. What they mean is clicked. Only strengths of agreement/disagreement and yes/no answers are permitted.

I’m not suggesting that large-scale, structured surveys are bad in themselves. But I do believe that asking any question without listening properly to the rich, human voice of the respondent does a disservice to surveyor and surveyed alike.

At the organisational level, asking only closed questions runs risks in two directions – gaining false reassurance or prematurely discounting profitable opportunities. In the bank example above, I do indeed value searching and sorting through my transactions, but much prefer to do so in an Excel spreadsheet or separate online personal finance service rather than on my bank’s own website. How am I meant to convey this subtlety in the survey? And how are the bank’s service managers to know this is what I want?

Maybe you think I’m only seeing half of the picture. Perhaps these three organisations also have sophisticated qualitative programmes wide open to unstructured feedback. Statistically speaking, I’m much more likely to be tapped up for ten minutes doing a quick online survey than for participation in an in-depth interview or ethnographic study.

Actually this make things worse, not better.

Consider the disempowering message sent to the thousands of travellers, parents and bank account holders on the blunt end of closed choice questionnaires. In signing off those questions, managers have assumed the sole right to structure the terms of conversation with the customers who are surveyed. “We want to know what you think,” they say, “but only so long as it fits within the narrow confines of our pre-existing plans and prejudices.” It’s as if they’ve rolled out the welcome mat to invite you into the conversation, only to snatch it away from under your feet.

Service dominant logic demands a dialogue, a collaborative learning effort between customers and service providers. In their essay ‘Co-creating the voice of the customer’, Bernie Jaworski and Ajay K. Kohli list the following features of a co-creating dialogue:

  • Is the conversation end point clear or unclear?
  • Do the comments build on those that came before them?
  • Is there a willingness to explore assumptions that underlie the dialogue?
  • Is the conversation exploratory: no topic is “off-limits?”
  • Is there an eagerness for new ideas?
  • Do the firm and the customer each shape the structure and content of the conversation?

It’s hard to do any of these things in a smash-and-grab raid to snatch a few data points on a five-point scale.

In 2014, organisations have no excuse for behaving so oafishly.

  • If you really need to ask closed choice questions, add an optional space where people can explain or clarify their answers. It shows you might be genuinely listening, not just engaged in a box-ticking exercise.
  • Worried you’ll be overwhelmed with more answers than you can read? What a great problem to have. Throw all the answers into a tool like Wordle so you can at least see common terms that crop up time and again.
  • Instead of a big survey upfront, try to gather user input a little and often. Ask for micro-feedback at relevant points in the user journey. That way you can adapt your questioning to context and find precisely the users who are grappling with the issues you want to know more about.
  • Spread the conversation out through your service design process. Think of every survey as a chance to recruit and screen users for deeper collaboration at the next stage. You may be surprised how many are prepared to give contact details for follow-up discussion on interesting findings.
  • Above all, keep an open mind – which is much easier to do when you ask an open question.

In praise of the good enough

… what the designers and engineers see as “pain points” aren’t necessarily that painful for people. The term satisficing, coined by Herbert Simon in 1956 (combining satisfy and suffice), refers to people’s tolerance — if not overall embracing — of “good enough” solutions…

Frankly, I discover satisficing in every research project: the unfiled MP3s sitting on the desktop, ill-fitting food container lids, and tangled, too-short cables connecting products are all “good enough” examples of satisficing. In other words, people find the pain of the problem to be less annoying than the effort to solve it.

I’m about a third of the way into Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users but this bit rings especially true.

So much of the buzz around “smart cities” seems to focus on subtle optimisations and efficiencies – catching a bus a couple of minutes sooner, or turning the thermostat down a degree or two. Big data focused on small problems.

But wouldn’t the world be boring if everything was uniformly perfect? Maybe the capacity to work around life’s little frustrations is in itself a form of empowerment.

What if – for a while – we left alone all the stuff that’s good enough, and focused on delivering services that support people in making big decisions and enduring differences?

Let’s talk service design in Leeds. And one more thing

We’re fortunate to have three great presenters for the next Service Design Thinks Leeds on Tuesday 25 October. (It’s our seventh event, but we’re calling it SD Thinks Leeds | 04.) In part 1, we’ll have perspectives on service design in health from Jane Wood and Daniela Sangiorgi. In part 2, Rory Hamilton will show how you can prototype experiences easily and effectively.

Once again we’re grateful to NTI Leeds for providing the venue at Old Broadcasting House. You can find out more and book over on Eventbrite.

Oh, and one more thing.

For a while I’ve wanted to do a Leeds version of Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim’s Systems/Layers Walkshop.

In talking about our November 2011  Service Design Drinks event to tie in with the Leeds Digital Festival I realised it could work really well as a winter evening exploration, centred on Millennium Square and the German Christmas Market. Within a small area we have many features that would stimulate interesting discussion about how the network touches the city, and the glow of screens and lights would be accentuated in the darkness.

The proposed date is the late afternoon and evening of Tuesday 29th November 2011. Want to join in the planning? Head on over to the wiki.

Thank you.

At dConstruct, the real world is calling. It wants its designers back

Kelly Goto stands on the stage at Brighton’s Dome, head down, staring at her palm, a perfect mimic of the modern smartphone user, and issues a simple challenge to the dConstruct audience: “Help people to stay upright.”

This is the pivotal moment at which digital design finds itself. After decades training people to gaze into ever more enchanting screens, it’s time for a shake-up, to re-engage with the world around us, once more to look each other in the eye. And it may not be a comfortable experience.

Kevin Slavin dares to ask a roomful of designers why we always look to optics to provide wonder and comfort. Why do we feel the need to mediate the world through a screen, to create (according to a beautiful if only half true story from World War II USA) an upside down backwards town? Why are we not more aware of the dangers that “things that serve the eye trick the eye”? Don’t we remember the beguiling Cottingley Fairies, who showed us long ago that we can’t believe everything we see?

In place of the uncanny valley marketing vision of augmented reality – “We’ll make it magic by putting stickers on everything” – Kevin argues for engagement through behaviour. Pixelated monochrome Tamagotchi inspired more devotion than max polygon count 3d graphics, not by looking real but by exhibiting real traits – being hungry, vulnerable, rewarded and sick. And Kevin should know the power of the invisible: he admits to being spooked by his own code when Crossroads’ Papa Bones swept through the Area/Code studio late one night.

Bryan Rieger and Stephanie Rieger challenge us to engage with the world by releasing stuff that’s not finished, because people prefer it that way. For me their case is marred by over-reliance on the “accelerating pace of change” trope (on which another post follows) but I reckon they have a point about the value of good enough.

As Matt Sheret eloquently puts it: “Hacks scratch the itches that contemporary product design hasn’t caught up with yet.” Time-traveller Matt talks us through the special qualities of things you can put in your pockets – from a Victorian watch to an RFID bike hire key. “RFID is a huge gift for interaction,” he says. I think this is because of its potential as a gap-closing technology that helps link the real world with its digital mirror image.

“Think about the spaces between the experiences you are creating,” says Kelly Goto: to make things that work in the world, we have to understand its people, their rituals and the way they live their lives.

Kars Alfrink makes his own attempt to do this: pointing out the dark side of gentrification. Our cities are divided in plain sight, sharing territory yet blind to each other, like the young Hackney couple enjoying a glass of wine while a tense gang stand-off plays out around them. How do designers get out of their bubble and contribute to a resilient society?

Respect for time and memory surely have a big role to play. Don Norman, in a slide-free talk rich with insight on the state of the user interface art – says we should design memories not experiences: “A memory is a form of augmented reality,” he posits.

And Frank Chimero, who always gives good metaphor, forever replaces my previous best image for our online history. From now of it’s not data exhaust, it’s “walking through snow”. Also Instapaper, Delorean.

Full marks to Frank for the most compelling account I’ve seen of “curation” as applied to web content. Until today I’ve seen “curation” online as a pale, twisted imitation of the real thing, as practiced in museums and art galleries. But Frank put his finger on the thing that makes for good curation – not just hit-and-run picking of stuff but making an educated second pass to transform a collection of objects into a meaningful narrative.

Craig Mod seems to be on similar territory. He talks about data as if it were a living herd, needing to be corraled, then as a field of dead artifacts, in need of “excavation”. What is the shape of the future book? Kilometres high, and chopped up into a million pieces, apparently.

Dan Hon has also dedicated his career to chopping up stories – having followed transmedia storytelling from web 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond. There’s online storytelling the hard way (do it in 2001) and the seemingly easy (do it all on Twitter) though the common thread is good storytelling. Some platforms lend themselves to stories, others do not. Heello is a platform for pretending. Quora is not.

Curiously Dan and Frank both need the same tool for different purposes – something to break out of the blocky file-status-update-album-art tyranny of today’s web services into ways to tell more fluid stories. For Frank it’s about making stories from our real lives, for Dan its creating pretend lives from stories, but in essence both demand the same aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic whose time has come – one that’s authentic without being skeuomorphic. The real world is calling. It wants its designers back.

Mobile experience in use and ornament

Thanks to @MrAlanCooper for highlighting Rahul Sen’s beautifully-written piece on the relevance of the Bauhaus movement to modern-day interaction design. The world would be a better place if more designers could cultivate such a deep appreciation of the history. I tried to  comment on the Johnny Holland blog but was foiled by the pernicious Recaptcha, so this post is by way of a response. Please read Rahul first.

He writes…

The Bauhaus Movement (1918-1933) was based on a German revival of a purer, honest design representation in architecture, art, typography and product design. Its philosophy celebrated an austere functionalism with little or no ornamentation. It advocated a use of industrial materials and inter-disciplinary methods and techniques. The  Bauhaus aesthetic and beliefs were influenced by and derived from techniques and materials employed especially in industrial fabrication and manufacture. Artists included Paul Klee, Wassilli Kandinsky, and Feininger. Architects and designers included Mies Van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Lazlso Moholy-Nagy and several others.

Rahul detects the emergence of a new Bauhaus trend in interaction design, typified by the innovative new Windows Phone 7 user interface. But in concluding he asks exactly the right question by pointing to the failings as well as the early promise of the Bauhaus brand of reductionism.

If the Bauhaus movement in the early part of last century failed to resonate with users… can we as designers prepare ourselves to meet the challenges ahead?

If you can bear the profuse ornamentation, I think it’s worth looking a couple of generations further back, to the roots of the movement against which Bauhaus was reacting.

John Ruskin hated classical strictures and mass production. He loved the changefulness that comes when anonymous workers are set free to express themselves through their craft. I think his Nature of Gothic makes a good model for the amazing variety of mobile, web-enabled media, savageness, redundance and all. You can have your IxD Bauhaus, but I’ll keep my Mobile Gothic.

New year, new thinks

We have three great presenters for the next Service Design Thinks Leeds on Tuesday 1 February 2011.

  • Simon East, of Drivegain, on “Designing a new eco-driving service”
  • Jean Mutton, Student Experience Project Manager, University of Derby, on “Designing the Enrolment experience”
  • Lauren Currie, Snook, Glasgow, (by Skype link) on “How Snook do Service Design in Scotland”

You can find out more at http://servicedesigning.org/cities/leeds/ or book your free ticket at http://sdthinksleeds02.eventbrite.com/

With thanks to NTI Leeds for providing the venue, Old Broadcasting House.

On a faster horse: meanders heading home from dConstruct

OK, so I have to get this stuff down by midnight before my head turns into a pumpkin.

dConstruct
was a day well-spent, listening, tweeting, scribbling and discussing design and creativity – with nine of the most thought-provoking talks we’ll hear in the UK this year. And some of my smartest colleagues and former colleagues were there too, which was nice. There follows my highly partial first draft, to which I may return in the coming weeks.

The past is the new future. I’d seen James Bridle‘s work in print and online but never heard him speak live. Of course I’m biased,  but I found his argument about the importance of preserving our digital history both intuitive and fresh. Like the game of wiki-racing to which he introduced us, James linked effortlessly from his formative years in Geocities to the whole Internet in a shipping container, to the Library of Alexandria and back to the Iraq War.  I now see why Ben Terrett named James as one of his “five things“.  He’s a revelation and if there’s any justice in the world he’ll get his own series on BBC4 or something.

Tom Coates showed the same respect for humanity and history (Darius the Great’s superhighway!) in his talk on the network. I’ve been thinking for a while about the reinvention of everyday life through networked, connected services. Tom is way ahead on this stuff, thinking about TfL’s blue bikes as spimes, connected weighing scales and San Francisco’s smart parking meters. I’m currently conducting my own personal trial of vehicles as a service and will come back to this subject soon.

Just as Tom imagined washing machines as a service, so Samantha Warren hinted at the change we’ll see on the web as the likes of Typekit and Fontdeck bring typography to the networked developer’s toolkit, alongside identity, location and the social graph. She too honoured the history of her subject. I’d like to have heard more about the contrast between her father’s career as a printer and her own as a digital designer. Some may feel they know type already, that Samantha was preaching to the converted. But there’s a whole generation of young designers out there who’ve known only a handful of “web fonts”. As Merlin Mann warned later in the day, the trick is knowing the next things to get geeky about, and typography could be one of those.

Merlin said a lot of other stuff too, some of it very fast. And he was the second speaker of the day to trot out Henry Ford’s dismissive assertion that “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” It struck me that concepts such as user engagement, participatory design, and even customer experience were curiously absent from the whole of the dConstruct programme. From this I assume that either they have become so commonplace that everyone accepts them as a given, or (I fear more likely) we’re seeing a fightback from those  who believe designers have unique powers of creativity, unobtainable and unquestionable by mere mortals.

Marty Neumeier certainly seemed to imply this in his talk on the Designful Company. His opening felt a lot to me like the content of Robert Verganti’s book “Design Driven Innovation” (on which a separate post some time). While I can buy Marty’s idea that enduring products and services need to be both good and different from the competition, he failed to produce any way of judging “good and different” from “bad and different” other than giving the market a few years to decide, or employing the fabled “intuition” of designers, which other disciplines in business are assumed to lack.

Brendan Dawes was fun and engaging when talking about the way designers collect inspiration, on how you can break a pencil into several smaller pencils, and on the delights of designing for the new tactile user interfaces, but his process also contained a black box component in the form of “good taste” and “you shouldn’t be a designer if you haven’t got good taste.”

John Gruber took it further, hailing the auteur director in film as a suitable model for design. That’s all for the good if it makes designers feel better about themselves on a day out by the sea, but I know how most of my non-designer colleagues in business would react to this kind of a pitch, and it wouldn’t be complimentary.

I was much more convinced by the perspectives on process from David McCandless and Hannah Donovan. David had a wonderful take on the way visualisation can be used to tell a story, such as putting huge sums of money into perspective, but also how visualising a dataset can reveal the story to the data-designer-journalist. For example overlaying BNP-membership hotspots with population ethnicity revealed the two to be largely exclusive, with only a few pockets of overlap. This seems like reflective design at its best, playing with the data to see what it can teach us. David also suggested that our continued exposure to design and infographics in our culture is making everyone more design-literate. I like this idea – a suitable counterbalance to the notions of “taste” and the “intuitive” anointed.

But I found Hannah’s talk on improvisation in music the most compelling account of how design happens, as a team enterprise. Like my other favourites, her session, complete with live improv, was steeped in an appreciation of the history from Mozart to Hip Hop. To an outsider improv may seem free and effortless, but it relies on tools, structures, clarity of roles and mutual respect to make it happen. The best designers I have known have always appreciated these things; the most painful to work with behaved like John Gruber’s auteurs.

The Best Thing in the Helsinki Design Museum

A day in Helsinki with my wife and three lively sons included a visit to the Design Museum.

We enjoyed the permanent exhibition on the ground floor. It raised questions about what is designed and how. Also, what belongs in a design museum: Aalvar Aalto, kitchenware, ceramics, chairs, lots more chairs, and – being in Finland – Fiskars scissors and a Nokia Communicator, wooden prototypes and all. But none of these could be described as the best thing in the museum.

The sight of my boys fighting over the mouse of a virtual reality interactive of the Finnish Pavilion from the 1900 Paris World Fair definitely added an extra frisson when we moved upstairs to a whole floor filled with stunning and expensive Oiva Toikka glassware. Sensational, but still not the best.

For my money they saved the best design until last. (I mean this sincerely and not in any way to undermine the contents of this wonderful museum. I’d love to return with a little more time on my hands.)

Like many other museums and galleries the Design Museum gives visitors a sticker to show they’ve paid. Thus, outside other museums we see little clusters of discarded stickers, erupting like a disease on any available surface. Like this…

Or this…

Not so the immaculate doorstep of the Helsinki Design Museum. For just inside the doorway is a box, about the size of my smallest child. The box’s role in life is to attract coloured stickers. I say with some certainty that this was the single most interactive, participatory and engaging part of our family’s visit.

I have no idea who put the box there, whether they understood its true purpose beforehand or simply permitted it to remain once the practice emerged. I’ve seen the solution elsewhere. Maybe museum people swap tips like this at museums conferences.

Whatever the story, the originator of this solution is a true design genius. It’s simple, fun, human-centred, and it solves a social problem. Without a doubt it’s the kind of thing that belongs in a design museum.

Service Design Leeds, from Drinks to Thinks

There are lots of reasons to come along to Leeds Service Design Thinks on Tuesday 14 September. So many that it’s hard to know where to start.

I could begin with the chance to meet and chat with some of the smart and passionate service designers who made it to our first Service Design Drinks event back in June, and some more who’ll be joining us for the first time. It was a bit of a gamble to bring this format to Leeds, modelled on successful events in London, Glasgow and elsewhere, but it paid off handsomely. We discovered there’s lots going on already, and lots of interest in developing a northern community of interest around service design and design thinking.

But starting there would be to neglect the fact that on September 14 we’re giving you the chance to hear from Dr James Munro about his social enterprise, Patient Opinion, and the challenge of building better services in the NHS. James already presented his work at Service Design Thinks in London, and we know it’ll be of interest to many people working in the North. I’d give up my Tuesday evening just to hear from James.

But that might give the impression that service design is only for public services and social enterprise. It’s not. We also have my Orange colleague Kathryn Grace presenting her work on retail customer experience. As a designer for a company called Everything Everwhere, Kathryn has a unique viewpoint over in-store experiences, large-scale e-commerce and e-care, and cutting-edge mobile applications. I know she’s passionate about making all these things work together to deliver a simple and engaging customer experience. Kathryn also deserves the credit for making this whole event happen in the first place. Tero and I have played supporting roles, but hers is the main drive and motivtation behind both “Drinks” and “Thinks”.

And if you’re still wavering, consider this. Not one, not two, but three amazing speakers! For we will also hear from Professor Guy Julier of Leeds Metropolitan University. When we set up SD Leeds we wanted to explore how service design approaches could make a positive difference to the place where we live and work. So Guy’s role in the Leeds Love It Share It community interest company is right up our street. He’ll tell us about “Margins within the city” a recent community development project.

There’s no end to the fascinating questions that arise when we consider these three topics together. When designing a service, where do you start? Who do you start with? And what kind of people and processes make a new service more likely to succeed? That’s why we’ve tag-lined the event “Starting Points”.

“Service Design Thinks Leeds 01 | Starting Points” is on Tuesday 14 September, from 6pm to 9pm, at a central Leeds venue to be confirmed. You can sign up now on Eventbrite, follow us on Twitter, or find out more about this and other similar events on servicedesigning.org.

Maybe it’ll be the start of something new.

Around the city, joining the dots

I think there’s a coherent narrative to be woven between all of the following, but for now, I offer them to you as a puzzle of jumbled bullet points. Fuller posts on some of them may follow.

1. It’s been a few weeks since my colleagues and I at Orange moved offices from Holbeck to Clarence Dock. I’ve been meaning to share some photos and thoughts on the new locality, ever since I saw Mike Chitty’s blog post and Imran Ali’s interesting response, Ideas for Cities. I know that was February and this in June. I will do so soon. Just call it slow blogging.

2. For Fathers’ Day, we took a family trip on the Leeds sightseeing boat from Granary Wharf to Clarence Dock. For 20 minutes the River Aire was our Canale Grande, only without the gondolas and palazzos. Lots of cities have a river, but I reckon we could do more with ours. If you live in Leeds you should take the boat at least once, just to see the familiar from a different perspective.

3. Kathryn, Tero and I hosted Leeds’ first ever Service Design Drinks at the Midnight Bell on Tuesday. It went even better than we’d hoped. We had a broad range of interests, some fascinating conversations and new connections made, including some people who travelled a long way to take part. We can see there’s more than enough interest for us to move to the next stage with Service Design Thinks, an evening of three talks followed by an open discussion. More on that soon.

4. Mike was one of our service design drinkers. He floated the concept of an Innovation Lab for Leeds: “a process – not a place.  It usually culminates in an intense workshop to allow key thinkers, influencers, technologists and service users to come together to work intensely and constructively on developing a vision for how things could be…” Turns out Imran had already been thinking about this too. Imagining a place to imagine solutions for our city: I guess that’s meta-imagineering.

5. Finally, back in Holbeck on Thursday night Temple Works was more alive than I’ve ever seen it before, with the Sh! Awards, a prize for the region’s most promising design students run by my friends at Brahm. Having been a judge as a series of amazingly confident young designers presented their work in the edgy surroundings of the Temple Works loading bay, I’m sure the best one won. You should check out Matthew Young‘s work now, before you see it everywhere. In particular, watch his D&AD nominated winning video, The City…

So join the dots! Can tell what it is yet? if you can, please let me know.

All fingers and thumbs, an observation

User testing is always illuminating. The mirrored glass, the dimmed lights, and the unreal relay of sound from one room to the next. These things become familiar. But the users, no matter how carefully screened and segmented, are all different. They make every session both humbling and surprising.

Last week I dropped in on a test of one of our flagship products, running in prototype on a touch screen phone. The sessions I saw went well: no problems using the phone, some encouraging stuff on our product, a few issues, no showstoppers.

But then this…

  • The thumb deployed to tap links, to hunt and peck at letters in text input
  • The forefinger to slide and drag
  • Even sometimes the middle finger to scroll

And since then I’ve been watching how people treat their touch screens – some lovingly, some harshly. And the more I watch, the more I wonder if “touch” is even the right word. More like…

  • A stroke screen
  • A press screen
  • A smear screen
  • A stab screen

This amazing, visceral dexterity at once reveals the inadequacy of the previous great user interface breakthrough, that fistful of plastic, the mouse, and its faux precise on-screen avatar, the pixel-pointed arrow. The four-year-old child who was looking for the mouse behind the TV is now a six-year-old jabbing impatiently at the screen.

Microsoft Word tells me this post has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 5.1, so to all you 10-year-old mobile designers out there, this pearl of wisdom is for you.

The way we design for these screens needs to change, to consider not just the size of the screen but the hands with which people hold and control it.

  • Are they big hands or small hands?
  • Does it work as well with the left as with the right?
  • Does this component suggest fingers or thumbs?

In such choices lies the difference between user frustration and user delight.

Update 22/08/2010: Nice observations from Dan Saffer of Kicker Studios on Finger Positions for Touchscreens

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.

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Announcing the first Service Design Drinks in Leeds

Businesses and organisations the world over are seizing the chance to re-imagine the way we do everyday things, to make them more accessible, enjoyable and productive for everyone. The tools and techniques they’re using vary widely, but some of the best fall under the umbrella of service design, and its flashier cousin design thinking.

This growing interest in service design is a Good Thing. Services are important. Better ones can and should be consciously designed with the customer and user at their centre, rather than left to emerge by default.

And as interest grows it is important that practitioners, advocates and other interested parties join together in communities of purpose to share their stories, find common ground and challenge each other. It helps if this process includes beer.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, I’m really excited to announce that we’re bringing Service Design Drinks to Leeds.

Why Leeds? Well, in addition to my employer, we reckon the city hosts a critical mass of big businesses in the telecoms, retail and financial services sectors that are, or will soon be, waking up to the potential of service design. Add to this the strong public sector presence in our city, countless smaller agencies and service providers, academics and other interested parties throughout the wider region.

Some people who remember the North’s proud industrial past look down on the service sectors, as if it were morally superior to labour down a mine or on a production line than in a hospital, shop or call centre. I think they’re wrong.  Surely it was in our cities, where people were first pressed together in great numbers, that our ancestors first faced the challenges of delivering good services – both commercial and social – repeatably and at scale.

So if Leeds, Yorkshire and Northern England are to claim a leading role in the future of the service economy we need to be building a strong and confident service design community.

The first Service Design Drinks in Leeds will take place on June 22nd at 6pm, at the Midnight Bell in Water Lane. Credit is due to Nick Marsh for creating the independent service design network and the already-successful London events. Also to Kathryn Grace and Tero Väänänen for working to bring it up the M1.

We’re aiming for an informal and lively get together open to everybody who is interested in Service Design and Design Thinking, in having inspiring conversations and in connecting with like-minded people while having some drinks.

By everybody, we mean everybody. Hope to see you there!

More info here.