The new service design

First published in Computing, August 2005
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The design critic John Thackara’s new book highlights much of the coming agenda for IT in services.

Most firms provide services. So when I read In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (MIT Press) by the design critic John Thackara, I was intrigued by his extensive treatment of IT and services.

Thackara suggests that services should rely more on intelligent labour than on IT. A railway clerk will organise a four-train journey faster than Interactive Voice Response or SMS to a mainframe. Against the self-service economy, expert human beings, Thackara contends, “will always be smarter”. And what “saves the service supplier a ton of money simply loads work onto – and steals time from – the user”.

The book is right about SMS, but too sweeping about other forms of self-service. Yes, even cashpoints don’t work very well, and Barclays’ and British Airways’ web sites are sometimes out of service. Queues, too, are often just displaced from the real world to the call centre. However, I find banking via a screen much faster than going into a retail branch, despite Barclays’ revived enthusiasm for face-to-face contact with its customers. And British Airways’ voice-recognition systems are impressive – even when I’m talking from a train.

Thackara feels that services, in conjunction with a more sparing use of products and technologies, can and should be made more responsive to user demand. Combine IT connections between people, resources and places with location-awareness and dynamic resource allocation, and society will need fewer gadgets, vehicles and buildings – good for the environment. And in “fluid time”, wireless IT could deliver personalised, real-time and accurate information about public services and private appointments to co-ordinate users’ requirements for transport, or deliveries or healthcare with the availability of such services.

Here In the Bubble throws light on the general direction of public policy in Britain. The government wants IT to be used to lower demand for mobility and freight – particularly demand for what Greens in the UK have recently succeeded in stigmatising as “food miles”. And it echoes the insistence in Gordon Brown’s Budget in March that users, being “co-producers” of public services, must be drawn into their design as much as professionals.

That sounds right. In private services, too, I’ve often found the design of the overall experience often ignores the needs of users. But what I worry about are the authoritarian implications of Thackara’s bottom-up, open-source approach to service design.

IT may help society design out truly egregious journeys, but who, exactly, decides that I should stay at home and eat only local produce?

I also don’t want to be drawn into a design process where, as part of modernising public services, I’m subjected to social inclusion and told to change my behaviour. If I want to stay fat doing online bookings over my PC, that’s my right.

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