Of experiences, service, and holistic design

It was about 12 years ago that the Web design community – in particular those people interested in aspects of Websites such as their structure (information architects), usefulness (strategists), utility (usability practitioners), and interactions (interaction designers and HCI folks) – coalesced the need to take a more holistic approach to the design of these increasingly-complex environments.

By 2000, large ecommerce and content properties on the Web numbered in the 10,000’s of pages, processed $m’s in transactions, and handled 100,000’s – even millions – of visitors. They had progressed a long way from the static, fairly contained entities of the mid-90’s, and the design challenge had similarly changed.

Jesse James Garrett’s “The elements of user experience” broke the conceptual ground of this holistic approach, introducing a new phrase – user experience – and a coherent (if difficult to nail down) target for a design team made up of a diverse group of practitioners, all looking to raise the level of their involvement from the detailed and tactical to the strategic and conceptual. The experience of the user, we were told, is the holistic perspective we’d been lacking.

JJG’s work was refreshing and injected new conceptual vigor into the burgeoning field of Web design at a time when businesses and public opinion were souring during the Dot Com bust. Since that time, the number of User Experience professionals has soared in response to the meteoric rise of the Web as a platform for commerce, customer service, and social interactions. The bust years of 2001-2003 have faded into history, albeit a painful memory for those who struggled through it.

We’re still faced with a challenge, however, in achieving that holistic design, even as UX has migrated off the screen and into the physical world. Interaction designers take on issues of power consumption, safe sex, recycling, and personal transport; Information architects tackle public wayfinding; usability practitioners are as likely to be addressing ergonomic and human factors as they are interface and task-related issues – almost a throw-back to the 80’s, but pervasive in today’s tech-centric society. And let us not forget the technical communicators, the information designers and visualisation folks; the story-tellers and others engaged in these design projects.

Looking back, however, I think it is important to recognise that a focus on the user’s experience – defined using JJG’s elements, or Peter Morville’s “honeycomb” – is one holistic perspective, but not the only one. In orientating ourselves around the user’s experience as the umbrella, we are ignoring others.

We could, for example, focus on the behaviour of individuals, and the system as a whole, as the holistic view. In such a world view, the experience of the individual (and here I’m being deliberately ambiguous in terms of ‘user’, or ‘customer’, so as to include all human participants) is one point of leverage we may employ to achieve our desired outcome – some specific behaviour. We design for an experience not as an end in itself, but as a means to some behavioural end.

Service design adopts such a stance in many respects. The focus of a service design project is the overall elegance of the service (eco)system as a whole. Individual behaviour is less important than the overall, somewhat emergent, behaviour of the system as a whole.┬áIndividual experiences are less important than the collective experience of all participants. (And there is a clear danger here of dehumanising the individual participants, but I believe that is where the ‘design’ component is critical.) A poor experience for an individual is a source of ‘friction’ that impacts the system over time. It is a sign of systemic dysfunction only because of that friction and the lack of elegance that demonstrates.

A service design team (which will tend towards the multi-disciplinary) must cover off many different facets of the service concept and its delivery. Flow, logistics, culture, staffing and training, visual design, brand, interior design and architecture, interaction design, information architecture might all be brought to bear on a service design problem. And this is not an exhaustive list. Nor is it a particularly unique aggregation of disciplines – a good cross-channel retail strategy (whether approached from a service design perspective or not) will bring together a potentially very similar mix.

And the folks out there who work for companies such as Amazon, or ebay are probably thinking their major projects have a similar makeup too. And I wouldn’t be surprised or disagree. Multi-disciplinary teams are not the domain of one specific practice; nor is the mix going to be a signature of one approach.

But there will be a dominant philosophy at play and, as I mentioned, the ‘target’ of the design – the quality to which all other considerations are subservient – will also be different.

We need to adopt an holistic view when tackling conceptual and strategic challenges. The nature of that view should be a considered one rather than a default view adopted unconsciously and uncritically. Whilst a framework or philosophy is a useful thing, they should be chosen with thoughtfulness and care, to suit the challenge at hand.

At Meld Studios we approach projects using one of several philosophical stances. The characteristics and objectives of the project dictate the approach – both philosophical and methodological. That flexibility allows us to be more responsive to the nature of the challenge, avoiding the tinted view of the man with a hammer.

(And for those who respond with: “It’s just design!” Let me counter with two thoughts: i) there is no such thing as ‘just’ design; and to apply a single label to a multitude of different philosophical approaches is to do a disservice to each, and to the richness of design and design practice.)

  • Daniel Szuc

    June 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm Reply

    Great read ­čÖé

    “We need to adopt an holistic view when tackling conceptual and strategic challenges.” – Yes please!

    “Whilst a framework or philosophy is a useful thing, they should be chosen with thoughtfulness and care, to suit the challenge at hand.” – Yes please x 1000!

    Inherent in both of these is the importance of understanding the human element deeply, being given the time to do it with respect and reflecting this back to business, not as customers, not as stakeholders, not as shareholders, not as numbers, not as widgets, but as people with a real empathy all around.

    Isn’t this a large part of why we do what we do in the first place?

    Perhaps our practice could also do with less of “what do we call this” and more of “dip into the bag of tools we all share” to get the best answers possible.

  • Daniel Szuc

    July 2, 2012 at 1:15 pm Reply

    Also enjoyed this recent read – http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669988/5-keys-to-building-a-business-that-doesnt-bury-the-humans-at-its-core and ties in nicely with some of your thoughts above @docbaty


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