Seeing over the next hill – a service design pattern

Over the years I’ve worked with digital services in different spaces, from sports performance to house buying to students on campus and training in the workplace. And there’s this one picture that resurfaces in service after service. I need to get it out of my head and into the world, where I hope others will help me develop it further.

image

It’s a picture of a pattern that goes something like this:

Seeing over the next hill

We meet much of the most valuable service when facing a change or challenge for the first time. But unless we know what to expect, it’s hard for us to make decisions in our best interests, or to trust others seeking to support us.

Sometimes the change is related to a life-stage – choosing a school or college, having a baby, retiring from work. Sometimes it’s simply something we may only do a few times in a lifetime – buying a car or home, opening a bank account or reporting a crime.

On one side, the person at the centre of these events has lots to think about, many (possibly conflicting) choices, short and long-term implications to consider.

On the other, the people delivering service are likely to see and do the same things time and time again. Their experience is valuable, but can easily give rise to jargon and preconceptions that obstruct communication and empathy with first-time users. Often the first step to improving service is to recognise and reduce this asymmetry of understanding.

Deliver service so that people can always see over the next hill, so they know what to expect, what good looks like, and who they can trust to help them along the journey. Specifically:

  • Cultivate empathy among people who deliver and design service day in day out. Find ways for them to see the service through the fresh eyes of a first-time user as frequently as possible.
  • Put first-time user personas at the centre of your work. Ask yourself what will shape their expectations and how might those differ from the way insiders perceive the service?
  • Test your service with people who have never seen it before. Over and over again. They can’t unsee what they’ve seen so it has to be new participants every time.
  • Follow up with service users before, during and after their experiences. See how their needs, wants and behaviours change as they go through their journey.
  • Record real-life experiences to share with future users. It’s much more compelling to hear from someone like you who has been there before.

As with all the reckons I post to this blog, I’d love to know what you think. Have you seen this pattern too? Who handles it well? What else could we do with it? Or am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

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.