Act, Interact, and React: Service-Based Design
Dare we attempt to define interactive, user experience, and service design? Or is it an organic being that demands a flexible, holistic approach?
People act and react and interact with their environment every day. We are proactive and reactive. We deactivate our cellphones. We desire to have active lifestyles. My point is to put emphasis on the word act, from the Latin actus—an event, or thing done. It’s a wide-ranging, all-encompassing word, and essential to interactive, user experience, and service design (IxD/UX).
Good designers take into account many things: cost, environment, efficiency, user operability, profit, safety, innovation, client satisfaction, and even intrinsic cultural values and faux pas. But when it comes to interactivity with a design, it’s best to look closely and intimately at the actions being performed.
I read an interesting article regarding the ever-evolving subway experience, by Robert Fabricant. In it, he took a constant design presence in his life (the subway), and examined it from his experiences with it as a child until the present day—how it transformed to try new ways of interacting with subway passengers. In it he examines the credit card “handshake”:
At the heart of IxD is the concept of “feedback” in its many forms, from digital or analog. Let’s start with a simple example: the NYC metrocard. It is hard to think of a more signature NY interaction than the infamous “swipe.” It is like a secret handshake that grants you permission to explore the engine room of this great city. I am old enough to remember the era of tokens. The sound of the token clicking into place provided an essential piece of feedback … you never got that rude surprise—the “thunk!”—to tell you … that you hadn’t yet mastered the swipe.
Feedback is paramount. How we interact with our environment is part of that feedback, and it should be measured and observed and experienced and repeated in the process of design.
In this regard, I was given some information from the blog Pleasure and Pain, by Whitney Hess, helpful from the perspective of a user experience designer. Hess offers several points about what a user experience designer is NOT (why is that so popular these days?). What stood out to me is that they are NOT user interface designers, and they are NOT about technology. I appreciate the holistic approach of looking at a user experience, and how it can be interpreted into different departments of a design firm. From Hess:
User experience isn’t even about technology, says Mario Bourque, manager of information architecture and content management at Trapeze Group. “It’s about how we live. It’s about everything we do; it surrounds us.”
Although that phrase seems trite and vague, it seems that by the very definition of a user experience designer, at least according to Hess (“a UX designer is NOT the role of one person or department”; “it is NOT a single discipline”), is similar to calling someone a doctor, when in fact that doctor could be a neurosurgeon, a pediatrician, or a sports doctor. As medicine technology and knowledge progresses, so do the disciplines, and thus is the theory that user experience designers will further modulate their skill sets. My question is this: Will hyper specialization lead to a demise of open thought? Why are there such lofty titles as “user experience architect?” Cannot anyone with the proper mindset and analytical skills operate as a user experience designer? After all, anyone with a little background and training can become a citizen journalist.
Hess also notes that user experience designers are “liaisons, not subject matter experts, doctors or any type of magical beings.” In this regard I further compare the job to that of a journalist. Journalists know of an end goal and their limitations, and their jobs are not to be the experts on a particular subject, but rather how to discover the appropriate information from a subject matter and inform the public so they can continue to make informed, unbiased decisions. It is how they find the information and disseminates it that makes them experts.
We, as people, are so interactive that we are always competing for interests and attention, and we try to find new ways to interact with our environment that either pleases us, helps us with our efficiency, or allows us to become more successful and satisfied. When we cannot communicate fluidly, albeit with friends, family, subway turnstiles, or even with nature, we grow irritable and frustrated. Healthy interactivity is dependent upon successful communication with our environment. This is where service-based design comes in handy. When a design is able to negotiate interactivity better than another design, we are likely to adopt the new “technology.” How we make that service better is paramount.
The Design Council writes: “Service design is all about making the service you deliver useful, usable, efficient, effective and desirable.” Engine service design says: “Service design projects improve factors like ease of use, satisfaction, loyalty and efficiency right across areas such as environments, communications and products—and not forgetting the people who deliver the service.” As I read it, service design incorporates graphic, product, web, and interior design to improve services for the community and customers.
This commands a great responsibility on behalf of the service designer to take into account how to best deliver a service without putting sole emphasis on a company or product’s fiscal future; there is a need to incorporate design with health, the environment, ethics, and positive side effects, for starters.
And as I write this, I’m continually aware of another reading, that of Richard Buchanan’s keynote speech at Emergence 2007. He mentions how only one person attempted to define service design. But he wasn’t bothered by the lack of a definition.
I think we’re making a big mistake if we’re anxious to define service design, to define industrial design, to define systems design even. I’m troubled by those efforts. I’m interested in design. A definition of design itself, that I like. But the definition of the sub-branches, to me, is of less value. Precisely because of the cross-overs and the boundary ambiguities. Instead of trying to define service design, I would say: What is the product of service design? Whoa …
I love this idea. I grow tired of watching people attempt to define leaving, breathing, organic ideas. And it certainly appears that design is organic. I can perpetually be altered and shifted, corrected and improved; there is a continual feedback loop, sometimes so slow it’s difficult to measure. We always attempt to name and determine the nature of things. We give our children names before their personalities ever develop. Why should we do the same thing to a growing field of interactivity and response?
Liz Sanders writes that
Design Research is in a state of flux. The design research landscape has been the focus of a tremendous amount of exploration and growth over the past five to 10 years. It is currently a jumble of approaches that, while competing as well as complementary, nonetheless share a common goal: to drive, inspire, and inform the design development process.
Sanders found that she needed to craft a map about the state of design research before she was able to effectively write about it. Among her observations, she noted that the largest and most developed of the areas on her map was the “user-centered design zone.”
Thousands of people in this zone work to help make new products and services better meet the needs of “users.” They use research-led approaches with an expert mind-set to collect, analyze, and interpret data in order to develop specifications or principles to guide or inform the design development of product and services.
The center on user-based design shows that there is a brave new world open to interactive and creative design from all “expert-minded” career paths, such as from engineers, scientists, and architects.
As our world becomes more “flat” (as in the words of Thomas Friedman), we are interacting with each other more and in more ways. We are able to reach across the globe instantaneously. We can provide crowdsourced funding and feedback in a matter of minutes. We can find power with groups of people we have never met before. All of this is interactivity at unprecedented levels, and within that interactivity, designers are going to have to find ways of utilizing these concepts and powers to operate with users. We have to enter a realm of holistic approaches to blend different disciplines.
It appears that the days of having a one-profession title, like “engineer,” are over. We must be many different types of people, flexible and creative; attentive and innovative.