Mentalism for service delivery?

by Andy Polaine on February 24, 2014

in General

I hope I have left enough time between the broadcast of Series 3 of Sherlock, but just in case you are waiting to binge view, the following contains mild spoilers. (You do know he isn’t dead though, right? Otherwise Series 3 would be called Watson).

Sherlock Series 3 involves Sherlock returning from his overseas sojourn and finding Watson about to marry Mary. Sherlock is chosen to be Best Man. During the preparations, Sherlock uses his skills to vet the guests, confronting an ex-boyfriend who still holds a flame for Mary and using his powers of perception and deduction to discern which guests don’t actually like her based on their RSVP:

MARY

(handing him an RSVP card)

John’s cousin. Top table?

SHERLOCK

(looking at the card)

Hmm. Hates you. Can’t even bear to think about you.

MARY

(looking up at him)

Seriously?

SHERLOCK

Second class post, cheap card ...

(he sniffs it and grimaces)

...bought at a petrol station. Look at the stamp: three attempts at licking. She’s obviously unconsciously retaining saliva.

Later, Mary’s bridesmaid Janine uses Sherlock to check out potential men at the reception:

SHERLOCK

If that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for the man over there in blue is your best bet. Recently divorced doctor with a ginger cat, a barn conversion and a history of erectile dysfunction.

After watching Sherlock, I went on a bit of a mind wander through YouTube clips of the illusionist/mentalist Derren Brown (who has a cameo in Episode 1 of Season 3) playing tricks with people’s minds. Here he is reading car salesmen’s minds:

We talk a lot in human-centred and service design research about walking in the shoes of users/customers and looking for the differences between what people say and what they do; looking for needs rather than wants. But what would happen if we received service from someone who quite literally knew what we wanted or were thinking better than we knew ourselves? Could this kind of predictive ability provide the perfect service experience, much like the wine waiter who knows just the moment to fill the glass and when to retreat?

In some senses it would be wonderful—every need perfectly anticipated and satisfied before we even asked for it. But at what point would we reach the uncanny valley and the whole thing would become creepy? Getting it completely wrong, like Microsoft’s Clippy would be downright annoying, but what would be the sweet spot between just slightly wrong and too right?

I don’t know if training people delivering services in mentalism skills is going to be the way of the future, but technologies like Google Glass may well provide that kind of background information and feed it to service providers. The effects might be just as uncanny, but at least the advantage of mentalism is that you don’t look like a glasshole.

Update: After hearing about the death of writer, actor and director, Harold Ramis, I watched the film Groundhog Day again. It has similar themes and now I know the answer to some of my questions. Being able to predict people’s needs can be either creepy or wonderful—it all depends on your intentions.

Thanks to Ariane Devere’s transcriptions for the above Sherlock dialogue.

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