Designing a service no one wants to use

Lets face it some kinds of services or products are not sexy and never will be. Completing your tax return, applying for a student loan, applying for benefits online. Sure they are important services that need to exist, but they will never be enjoyable for the people using them. No body ever woke up and said:

Today I am going to go online and fill out my tax return. Bring. It. On.

So as designers, what do we do when we find ourselves asked to improve the experience of such services? Our target audience does not want to engage with us, they find us annoying and bureaucratic. Our customers perceive us as a necessary evil to be completed as quickly as possible. For a while now I have been forming a way of thinking about how to approach the design of these, what I call, necessary evil services.

Value vs. Pain

Scott Jenson proposed a very succinct approach for thinking about experience that he calls the value vs. pain model. The simple model states that a user will use a product or service if the value obtained outweighs the pain of doing so. When designing necessary evil services it is easy to see how we minimise pain. The user experience design community has developed hundreds of tools and techniques for reducing pain in services and products.

But on the other side of Scott Jenson’s model is the elusive creature “value”. It could be argued that many necessary evil services have a high value to customers that will always out way the pain. How else could we explain the poor design that many Government and public sector experiences get away with ? Whilst this may be true wouldn’t it be nice if we could identify a method for adding experiential value beyond simply the successful completion of the service? What if customers completed their tax return and walked away with something extra?

Experience Realms

In their excellent book The Experience Economy (Seriously. Read it.), Pine and Gilmore (2011) proposed that an experience could engage a customer across a number of dimensions. Two particularly important dimensions proposed were:

  • Guest Participation: What is the level of participation that the customer has in the experience? Are they passive observers or active participants?
  • Connection: What connection unites customers to the experience? Is the customer’s attention engaged with the experience from a distance (absorption) or are they physically or virtually engaged as part of the experience itself (immersion).

By combining the dimensions of guest participation and connection then fundamentally four types of experiences can be defined.Four types of experience shown in a quadrant: entertainment, educational, esthetic, escapist

Pine and Gilmore’s Experience Realms from The Experience Economy (2011)

  • Entertainment: These are the kinds of experiences we are most familiar with as we passively absorb a stage performance, watch TV or listen to music;
  • Education: The customer is actively engaged in the experience in an effort to increase their knowledge. They are a form of interactive learner.
  • Escapist: These types of experience are much more immersive than traditional forms of entertainment, for example computer games or engaging in sports or gambling;
  • Esthetic: In an esthetic experience a customer is fully immersed in the experience but cannot have an effect upon it. For example, staring at a famous work of art or landscape, sitting in your favourite coffee shop reading. Essentially getting lost in the experience.

For a while now I have been interested by the combination of these experiential realms with the Value vs. Pain model. It seems to me that these experiential realms can be used to identify opportunities for designing on the “value” side of the fence.

Education as an experiential value add

Lets take the conversation back to designing necessary evil services. Typically audiences for these types of services are reluctant to engage and are desperate to finish quickly. Do they want to be entertained? Unlikely. If we try to design in such an element then we risk anger as much as engagement (believe me i’ve tried). Do they want to have an immersive experience whereby they simply “got lost in the moment with their tax return”? Weirdos! In my opinion there is only one viable option for adding experiential value in these types of scenarios: education.

How often have we seen services make, what appears to the end customer, crazy requests or non-sensical demands? How often does the flow of a website appear strange or repetitious? How often do services dictate obscure timescales with no rhyme nor reason for them (“Your application will be returned to you in 28 days”).

Often behind the scenes of these services there are genuine reasons for the design of the service being the way it is. For example, strict policy mandates, infrastructure limitations or inflexible legal requirements. Organisations expect customers of that service to understand all of these factors implicitly.

Customers of these types of services may not enjoy or want to use them, but in my experience they can obtain value by being educated in why things are the way they are. Where are the opportunities in your service or product that a customer can be educated about the situation with which they find themselves? Can you explain in more detail why it will take 28 days for their application to be returned? Can you explain why they are ineligible? Can you explain why they need to fill in more information as a result of their previous answers? Can you simply help them understand more about what it is in which they are engaged?

Incorporating sexy interactions or entertaining videos into your services may have an effect but when it comes to necessary evil services I have consistently seen the introduction of educational elements as having the greatest impact on the experience of the customer. Adopting an educational design perspective can:

  • orientate the customer and make them feel more in control
  • manage the customers expectations (after all you are the one setting them!)
  • empower the customer by making them feel more knowledgeable
  • aid the customers engagement with other touchpoints in the service

In my experience, designing educational opportunities into your service can be as big or small as you like. From deliberate structural changes to the flow of the system through to the simple addition of microcopy on website forms. I very much see the “educational value” as cumulative as a customer moves through the service.

The extent of this blog post has been framed around designing services that people don’t enjoy using. But looking beyond the design of nasty services for a moment, I am left intrigued by the simplicity of the experience realms and their potential to frame the positive, value adding, aspects of experiential design in general. Whilst as an industry we have numerous methods for identifying and reducing pain, many practitioners often struggle to frame the positive design directions that a product or service can be grounded in. So one final question from me would be this: What value can we as experience designers derive from this experiential framework?

Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “Designing a service no one wants to use

  1. I wouldn’t over-complicate it if I were you. 99% of systems that people don’t want to use also have execrable user experiences. These are so easy to improve that if you can get a gig re-designing one then it’s a great ego-boost. In most cases, you can raise any measure of satisfaction by possibly an order of magnitude with no more than a handful of things that would come out of a cursory reading of Don’t Make Me Think and a bit of About Face. And that’s before you even try to make, say, filling out a time sheet an experience that people look forward to having. Perfectly possible to do I would think.

    As an aside, I’m not entirely sure why things like time sheets, expense claim or business intelligence systems always have have agonisingly bad UI. I guess it’s because they’re designed (or just bought) by people who have no incentive to make them usable. It is a bit of a mystery though.

    • Thanks again for your comment. By reading and applying good usability principles (you mention Steve Krug), in my opinion you are designing on the “Pain” side of the fence. My question is how can we also introduce positive, “Value” elements to the experience?

      My colleague phrased the intention of my post nicely when he mentioned the “humanisation of a poorly perceived service through education”. I kind of like that!

  2. Pingback: Understanding our customers Minimal Expected Product | Five Minutes with Ergonjon

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