Designing services for citizens

This is the first of many posts emanating from IA Summit 2012, an amazing conference that I attended in New Orleans. Thanks to the wonderful speakers, organizers, volunteers and presenters, most of the presentations and a lot of participant-generated content is available all over the ‘net. I’ll be bringing together threads that spoke to me in a way I hope will be relevant and timely to my peers and colleagues.

The theme of this year’s conference, now in it’s 13th year, was designing for cross channel user experiences. Considering there were over 600 attendees from more than 20 countries, clearly this topic was attractive to more than those who consider themselves Information Architects (which is what “IA” stands for), myself included. I’ll get into that in this VERY LONG blog post. 

As you can see from their website, the IA Summit is described as

“the primary event for those redefining strategy and structure in support of cross-channel systems and user experiences.”

Which is exactly where I’m going to start.

What does “cross channel” mean?

A common discussion throughout the conference was around “defining the damn thing”. Which was usually said in reference to Information Architecture, but also of such phrases as User Experience, Cross Channel and Service Design. Many of the same terms were being used differently and/or interchangeably depending on who you were talking to, what field they had come up through to arrive at this point in time, and in what context.

Adam Ungstad, fellow Canadian, professional Information Architect and all round awesomesauce dude, described “cross channel” in his presentation on Better Cross Channel Experience through Metadata as requiring the user to go to different channels to have their needs met (slide 84).

Chris Risdon, a designer at Adaptive Path, clarified between cross-channel and “multi-channel” which he said is the “ability to have the same need met on different channels” in his presentation on Mapping the Experience (slide 83).

For example, I can pay my cell phone bill online, or I can go in the store, but I don’t need to do both to pay my bill; that’s a multi-channel service offering according to Risdon. Single channel means there’s only one way to complete your task. If the only way I could pay my phone bill was in the store, that would be a single channel service offering.

Peter Morville and Samantha Starmer did a day-long workshop exploring the topic in depth, which I followed online from the comfort of my hotel room 23 floors above them. Their presentation is below and my summary of it is just below that. You’ll have to keep reading to know what comes thereafter.

IA Summit Cross Channel Workshop

The definition they used of cross channel seems closer to that of Risdon’s use of the term “multi-channel”.  They spoke of services delivered “across time, touchpoints, devices and channels” (slide 84).  In their workshop, they presented 5 principles of a well designed cross-channel user experience: consistent, convenient, connected, contextual, a cross time (slide 118).

They recommended the book This is Service Design Thinking to learn more (slide 176) and spent the afternoon talking about how to use the tools that User Experience designers (slide 177) have been using to design online services for years. I’ve blogged about that recently and probably will again, at the risk of seeming obsessed with Peter Morville (it’s his work I love; I’m not a crazy stalker.)

To me, the theme, conversations, presentations and popularity of the conference re-iterated that it is no longer possible to consider a website on it’s own as an experience, service, product or touchpoint. A website is part of a larger eco-system in which people are inter-acting with your organization or brand.

In yahnyinlondon’s Flickr photostream I found a sketchnote from a talk by Oliver King. In it, User Experience is a term used to describe how we design (web) interfaces and Service Design looks at the delivery and organization behind those interactions. This certainly reflects my own history with the terms.

That said, what we’re seeing now is an expansion of the term User Experience to include all service touchpoints, not just online/the website. This may be due to the following facts:

  • Everything is information.
  • Users don’t distinguish product lines based on the channel or device they are delivered through.
  • Many of our clients have ubiquitous access to the Internet through a proliferation of devices and are using them in contexts other than an ergonomic desk chair and 20 inch screen.

This may partly explain why IA Summit is not just for Information Architects. Information Architecture is converging with other disciplines who’s practitioners are interested in designing intentional experiences for their clients.

To wrap up, Peter and Samantha presented other considerations (slide 215) when designing services.

So, what’s the problem?

As you can see from their presentation, they started with a story of their own experience dealing with their insurance providers after getting into a car accident. The insurance company had clearly never considered their clients’ journey and designed for it; despite it being their core service offering. After months of phone calls, emails, letters, site visits and website visits, they still didn’t have their money back (service fail). Not only that, but I would be very surprised if they were still with that insurance company after this experience (death of the company).

Dealing with the company was worse than the accident.

Then, what’s the opportunity?

Since I wasn’t actually in the room I snuck off to the Ruby Slipper Cafe to soothe a slight hangover with (a not that) greasy bacon and egger. (As my colleague told me before I left “A day in New Orleans is 24 hours. You can sleep when you’re dead.” More on that in another post.)

As I sat there pondering how organizations could re-orient themselves to focus on their clients to avoid this horrible situation Samantha had to live through, a story appeared on CNN about the US Postal Service. According to the report, this government-owned agency was making it easier for companies to send junk mail. The context of the story was around how much everyone hates junk mail, and the reporters bantered about how they had already noticed an increase in the amount of it sitting on their kitchen tables.

Why would the US Postal Service increase the amount of unsolicited mail delivered to citizens when citizens clearly aren’t interested in receiving it? Doesn’t that seem like a lose-lose proposition?

Why? To stay in business.

Yes, that’s right, (big surprise!) people are not sending as much mail as they used to, so the US Postal Service is losing money. So much so that they risk going out of business. Rather than responding with changes to their service offerings; they are investing in technology that favours businesses over their citizens to make up for lost revenue. After all, that’s what they need to continue operating, right?

(In all fairness to my neighbours to the South; one of Canada Post’s core service offerings is “Direct Mail” which I assume means junk mail.)

It’s both strange and normal for me to see the US Postal Service clinging to the status quo.  When I think about my own human nature, and that of people around me, I  understand how hard it is to let go of something, especially when it’s what you’ve always done or when you’ve put your heart & soul into it.

However, from an organizational perspective, designing services that work for clinets regardless of time, place, device or channel is not just good business; it may be the difference between staying in business or not.

I would like to argue that changing demographics and expectations is an opportunity. It will force us to think differently about how we interact with people. And that, I believe, can be a catalyst for innovation. A buzz word I’m almost loathe to use without explaining what I mean, so here it is in a nutshell:

Now is the time to totally re-think the services we’re offering — what we’re offering; how we’re offering them; and how our organizations are structured to support them.

How are we going to do that?

Will it be intentionally orchestrated like Chris Risdon explained or will it be a haphazard series of mess-ups like Samantha’s experience dealing with her insurance company? Will we make decisions to force clients to deal with us only on certain channels that are convenient to us or will we leverage technology to ensure services are available when and where clients need them? Will we cling to the past or embrace change as an opportunity to stop (or reduce) services that are no longer useful?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions for my own organization, but at least I feel more equipped with something I got at IA Summit: more tools in my toolkit.

Stay tuned for more about these tools (I promise to add more pictures!). Feel free to post specific requests in the comments.

About Laura

As a Business Analyst working for the Canadian federal government in Web usability, I have the opportunity to be a part of a growing movement of professionals implementing user-centered design principles.
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