Thursday, July 21, 2011

Don Norman's Living with Complexity - notes for #uxbcldn

I'm reading Don Norman's Living with Complexity for a UX Book Club London meetup, but I am also trying to prepare for the Service Design short course at Central St Martins that I will be taking next month, so I'm going to focus on his comments on Service Design - especially since this is the first Don Norman book I've read where he discusses this topic.

In many ways the book is something old, something new. The old bit - and none the less true for it - is his job description for designers:
The designer's job is to provide people with appropriate mental models.
[ch 2, p29]
The official new element is the complexity of the title, and his view that many devices and services involve an irreducible complexity which cannot be magicked away, as he expresses in a quote:
Every application has an inherent amount of irreducible complexity. The only question is who will have to deal with it, the user or the developer (programmer or engineer). (Tesler and Saffer 2007)
[ch 2, p46]

Chapter 6, Systems and Services, and chapter 7, Waits, are the most directly relevant to service design. He discusses the relative immaturity of Service Design compare to Product Design in characteristically IxD terms:

The world of services is different from that of products, in part because they have not been studied as much as products. Although one would think that service providers should also adhere to the standard themes of good interaction design, that is, good feedback along with coherent conceptual models, in practice it is not that simple. Services are often complex systems, barely understood even by the service provider, with multiple components spread across many geographical locations and divisions of the company.
[ch 6, p144]
Don Norman has respect for the challenge: services are described in terms of complexity, back-stage and front-stage, recursiveness (a customer's back-stage may be a clerk's front-stage) and the systems thinking required.

Amongst other case studies, he describes IDEO's re-design of Amtrak's Acela Express: how IDEO declined an RFP for redesigning train interiors in favour of redesigning the entire service, starting with "learning about routes, timetables, costs" through 10 stages to "Continuing the journey" (how true - I would use UK long distance train services far more if I could hire a car at my destination as simply as I can at an airport), and Apple's iPod and iTunes, both illustrating roads to commercial success that involve thinking of the offering as a system and its delivery as an extended service.

I found an equally coherent but somewhat contrasting perspective in Journey to the Interface, a pamphlet published back in 2006 by Demos and Engine Service Design.

They take a more humanist approach:
Service designers do not see service as something that can be reduced to a commodity. They focus on how people actually experience services, in order to understand how large service organisations can create better relationships with their users and customers.

Experiences and relationships are the recurring themes of this pamphlet.
This model is not necessarily incompatible with the Don's - early on we get a little BUPA case study, which ends:
A tangible change that has emerged from doing this exercise regularly is that customers calling to discuss their hospital visit are now offered a checklist of things that other people in similar situations have asked. This was introduced after BUPA realised that people often didn’t know what to ask when the call finished with the question ‘is there anything else I can help you with?’ Alison, again: "You have to do as much as possible to manage getting into people’s shoes – psychologically, emotionally, physically"
Although the terminology is different, this example fits right in Don Norman's emphasis on ensuring that the user develops a mental model which includes understanding the most relevant future options.

Two things that distinguish the Demos / Engine Service Design approach from Don Norman's are,
[1] the emphasis on relationships, eg
The picture of service is no less complex from the interface as it is from a systemic perspective. What is different, however, is that the interface focuses on how people and services relate, not simply the shape of existing services.
and [2], the emphasis on co-production, eg:
Service designers focus on a specific kind of engagement:
engagement at the interface. Deliberation has to take place at the point of delivery to create the kind of engagement required for co-production – that where people are mobilised, coached, and
encouraged to participate in the ‘common enterprise’ of generating positive outcomes.
A point shared by both publications is the difficulty of measuring (and thus funding) the value of services which are designed to provide long-term or preventative outcomes - I would like to have seen some discussion of Social Impact Bonds here, as one apparently appropriate mechanism.

All in all, I'd say Don Norman's book is an excellent overview of various design issues from an Interaction Design perspective. There was a common feeling at the UX Book Club London meeting I was at (IG Index - thanks Jane and Chris!) that it would be most appropriate to an interested non-designer, and in fact the Service Design chapter was found by many to be the most interesting, perhaps because we weren't, in the main, Service Designers.

On Service Design specifically, I found it a helpful snapshot, if conservative in vision. The greater ambitions of Journey to the Interface are somewhat focussed on a specific British context, but I find it entirely plausible that changing the relationship between service users and service providers could have more radical effects than changing the relationship between consumers and their products or programs, especially when achieved by techniques like co-production.

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