Is Design Research Useless for Innovation?

Don Norman has just posted a very provocative and thoughtful piece about the value of design research, or not.

“I’ve come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs.”

You should read the full article, but he goes on to essentially argue that innovation is driven by technology not needs. This leads him to this: “Myth: Use ethnographic observational studies to discover hidden, unmet needs” and continues:

“But the real question is how much all this helps products? Very little. In fact, let me try to be even more provocative: although the deep and rich study of people’s lives is useful for incremental innovation, history shows that this is not how the brilliant, earth-shattering, revolutionary innovations come about.

“Major innovation comes from technologists who have little understanding of all this research stuff: they invent because they are inventors. They create for the same reason that people climb mountains: to demonstrate that they can do so. Most of these inventions fail, but the ones that succeed change our lives.

He then lists several examples, such as the airplane, the automobile, SMS messaging, etc. that arose from technology, not research. Obviously this touches a nerve for me, because it’s a large part of what I do and teach. I think it’s an important conversation to have, especially in academia, which can often be terribly navel-gazing and/or over-zealous about the importance of a certain avenue of research because it’s what is required to get grant funding. But I think Norman is both right and wrong and also viewing needs and technology from an engineering perspective (which has always been my criticism of him, despite his human centred design views). Here’s the clincher:

“Edison launched his first phonograph company within months of his invention: he never questioned the need. He had invented the paperless office, he announced, and launched his product.”

The thing is, Edison did question the need, he just got it wrong. He thought the need for his invention was the paperless office. It turned out it was to record and sell music. To me, this example just goes to show how important it is to have an insight into people’s lives and examine not what they say they want or need, but what they actually need by watching what they do.

It’s also particularly pertinent in service design because it isn’t necessarily product or technology led. Of course Twitter is a service and one that is both potent and that people never knew they had a need for, but Twitter’s technology isn’t complex. Twitter didn’t arise from an innovative idea to build a chat space, Twitter arose from the idea of modifying an existing paradigm for a certain need.

In some ways I’m arguing my way back into Norman’s final point, which is that real usefulness comes from slow, incremental changes – ‘innovation’ that, in his words, is “least interesting innovations to the university and company research community”. He sums this up as, “technology first, invention second, needs last”. Whilst I agree that iterative processes often create innovation, and I also think that the way society uses a technology for things completely left-field to what it was originally designed for (e.g. SMS) is where some great innovation happens, I still don’t see this as technology coming first. Technology is just a medium through which culture expresses itself and with which people communicate, ultimately.

Technology without any application is either an innovation waiting to happen or something useless sitting in the corner like an old Betamax video recorder. If the need isn’t there, no level of technology helps anyone. I would add that this is a particularly American approach to the role and value of technology in a determinist fashion. It also reminds me of Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook’s essay, The Californian Ideology.

Steve Portigal and Frog Design’s Adam Richardson have also written thoughtful responses to Norman’s piece, which is how I came across it. Todd Zaki Warfel has also written a rebuttal. [UPDATE: Good post from Nicolas on this over at Pasta & Vinegar. The comments are valuable too.]

Time-shifting payments with Sprize and Swiss Rail


Gap’s new pilot service, Sprize, deals with an age-old irritation. You buy something at full-price only to find it reduced in a sale a few days later.

It is irritating for customers, who tend to feel ripped-off or cheated by the store or staff. But it is also a problem for stores, because it means customers defer buying things until they are discounted in a sale and thus potentially lose a sale because the customer forgets to come back or shops elsewhere.

Sprize works by customers opening a Sprize account where they accrue “SprizeMoney” (currently one-to-one in terms of Canadian dollars). If you buy something in Gap and the price on the item drops within 45 days, the difference is credited to your Sprize account.

It’s an interesting piece of service design because it deals with a customer annoyance, but also benefits the store. Actually, it’s still quite weighted towards the store’s benefit because the SprizeMoney can only be spent in Gap stores. So it is more like receiving a credit note for the difference. Gap still get to keep your money (and you must spend it within a year).

This kind of shifting of the perception of value is something I find fascinating. People will regularly make an effort to gain small savings in one area (the few cents difference between the cost of washing powders, for example), whilst ignoring spending in another (the over-priced coffee they drank whilst out shopping).

Oddly, time-shifting payments can sometimes feel like free, even when it is shifted into a lump sum. In Switzerland you can buy a season ticket called a General Abonnement. It seems that almost everyone who lives in Switzerland has one. The 2nd class adult one is CHF 3,100 per year (about £1,850 or US$3,050). So it’s not cheap, but it’s a one-off outlay. When you talk to people about their train usage, one if the things they say is that love taking the train because because it’s free (that and the trains in Switzerland are punctual and pleasant). This sense of it being ‘free’ means people are much more spontaneous with their train travel because they no longer think about the cost or hassle of buying tickets. Even if you don’t think of it as free, the effect is like an all-you-can-eat buffet – people have spent the money, so they try and get the most out of it, which encourages the use of public transport.

Like Sprize, a great deal of the benefit is really for the Swiss rail network (the SBB, CFF or FFS, depending on the language you choose). They get to have a large sum of everyone’s cash up-front, which they can then invest and make even more money from.

The benefit goes both ways – there’s a financial one for SBB and a lesser financial one for the customer, but in return SBB get more value from their customers’ money and the customer feels like they travel for free. Free as in the ‘free’ minutes you get monthly on your mobile phone contract, which you also pay for. The reason why people hate their mobile phone companies, though, is because they don’t hold to their side of the bargain thanks to the terrible service they tend to offer.

Sometimes service design is about getting the service right, sometimes it’s about presenting the evidence of the existing, positive service in the right way.

Your Failure of Service Is Another’s Opportunity

arrivals dublin airport.jpg

Some of you have no doubt read Dustin Curtis’s post about the incompetence of American Airlines & The Fate of Mr. X. American Airlines fired Mr. X for publicly responding to Curtis. John Gruber picked up on this saying,

“The point is that American Airlines is clearly a failing company. They’re losing hundreds of millions of dollars every quarter. The experience of traveling on one of their flights is terrible. Their website is terrible. These facts are not unrelated.”

Later in response to a tweet he points out that, “[a]ny airline should have two goals: make it easy and pleasant to book travel, and make it pleasant to be on their flights. AA sucks at both.”

Ryanair and Easyjet suffer similar problems, but from the budget end of the market and the trade-off between price versus service is something I have been thinking about for some time. Why is it, for example, that people will shop around for a discount on a supermarket item that might amount to 50 cents, but happily stop for an overpriced coffee without thinking about it, this negating their bargain?

Obviously some of this is consumer psychology and perception of value, but it is easy for a company to be so focussed on being cheap at one end (the fares, in Ryanair’s case) and clawing back money in every which way at the other end (everything else, like check-in, which should be part of the service) that they fail to see the wood for the trees.

Low cost airlines are built on the no-frills principle, but when is a service a “frill” or simply a base level of service that one should expect? Online check-in is great when it works. It saves time for the customer and it saves the airline money. Given that the customer is doing the work for the company they should be rewarded for it, but penalising them for not doing so and thus having to provide a base level of service just ends up making customers hate the company and set up websites like these.

Whilst those websites might seem like a laugh, they highlight a general mood in the air (sorry about the pun). I know of nobody who enjoys flying with Easyjet or Ryanair, they simply put up with it because of the low price. At some point, though, the balance tips and the price/perception-of-value equation tips the other way. Additionally, the loathing makes people happy to pay another airline more because they can feel like they are punishing the cheap airline.

Focussing on adding extra costs everywhere also leaves service loopholes for others to fill. Since Ryanair started charging customers 40 Euros if they don’t check-in online, a company called Surfbox has set up Internet kiosks in airports that have printers, allowing passengers to print out their boarding passes for 1 euro, saving Passengers €3,900 per day, at Ryanair’s cost.

How much is good service worth? £25m for Amazon UK.


(Photo credit: xrrr on Flickr)

Amazon’s entire offering really boils down to two things.

The first is to facilitate a person in a warehouse somewhere picking a book off a shelf and sending it to you. Every other part of the service and online experience is essentially about making that happen ideally as swiftly, effortlessly and enjoyably as possible.

The second is to recommend books to you that you are either considering buying or didn’t even know existed. That part is what all the collaborative filtering (people who bought this also bought that), reviews and rating mechanisms are for. Usually the second point leads to the first – you make a purchase and they send it to you.

Key to this entire service experience is time. It’s quick to find things, quick to find alternatives and quick to get the book once you buy it. If you want to take longer to meander through a bookstore that is one of the (few) advantages bricks and mortar bookstores have. Time is important there too, but in the opposite way, hence the preponderance of cafés in bookstores or café/bookstores. If you feel hustled and harried by the staff to make a purchase and get out, that’s poor service.

If it takes ages for something to arrive from Amazon a large part of the point of Amazon is lost. By ages, I mean more than about a week. That’s the Amazon equivalent of going into a physical bookstore and asking for a book only to hear the response, “We don’t have it in stock, but we can order it for you – it will be here in about four to six weeks”. (Incidentally, does any bookstore worker not think at that moment, “They’re thinking right now”?). Delivery time for Amazon makes almost the entire difference – it’s one of the key advantages along with the enormous inventory that is the pay off to the disadvantage of not being able to browse the physical books.

Amazon is a classic case of a service that is deeply susceptible to the level of service its partners can provide. The Royal Mail, once the envy of the world’s postal services, has gone from bad to worse over the past couple of decades and today the Guardian reports that they have just lost a £25m contract with Amazon because of the current strike. They already lost a smaller £8m contract in the last strikes.

So much is fairly obvious albeit sad. What was particularly interesting from a service design perspective is that the Home Delivery Network (a private, rival service to the Royal Mail) have said, “We are seeing a number of our customers preparing to start marketing their deliveries as free of Royal Mail risk”. When your service is so bad that avoiding using it becomes a selling point for another service or product, you know you have big problems.

Teaching Service Design at Lucerne School of Art and Design

Regular readers of Playpen may have notice things have been somewhat quiet around here recently. There are two reasons for this. One is that Twitter has made an unexpected impact on my blogging. I was quite surprised by this, because it is somewhat of a symbiotic relationship, especially as my tweets are over there in the sidebar. I am yet to make a judgement about whether it is a positive thing that I can comment on something in 140 characters or whether it shows an ever diminishing level of caring about putting together a coherent piece of writing. I’m sure this has affected others out there – has twittering bled your blog dry?


The other, rather more exciting reason, is that I started a new post as a Research Fellow/Lecturer (professor with a small p to you folks in the USA) in Service Design at the Lucerne School of Art and Design, part of the Hochschule Luzern in Switzerland. As the title suggests, it is a mix of research and teaching. I am predominantly teaching on the Masters of Product Design and Management, but dip into a couple of BA courses too.

So, expect the posts here to tend a bit more towards services, but I have long seen interaction/experience design with the broader lens that service design affords, so I don’t imagine the content will radically change. Diving headlong into the bureaucracy that working in a public education institution, in another country (especially Switzerland) entails is in itself a pretty good opportunity to experience the complexity of service offerings both good and bad.

Service Means Survival


(Photo credit: dos2kx)

Lauren posted a linke to BusinessWeek’s report, When Service Means Survival. The basic thrust is that in a tight economic environment companies need to focus on their customer service to stay alive. That’s true, but there are two underlying problems with the solutions.

The first is that companies need to focus on their customer service when times are good so that they have a loyal customer base who don’t go for the cheaper option when times are bad. From the BW article:

“If anything, the tough economy has made starker the difference between companies that put customers first and those that sacrifice loyalty for short-term gain”

If your company has been a slacker in this area before the economic crash it is probably too late to do much about it now. But better late than never.

Some of the solutions are simple and show that firing staff to cut costs can have extremely diminishing returns.

“The International Customer Management Institute, a call center consultant, has done studies that show eliminating just four reps in a call center of about three dozen agents can increase the number of customers put on hold for four minutes from zero to 80.”

The second problem is a part of the article I completely disagree with and that is “tiering”:

“It’s the little things that often got you in the crook of those loyal customers’ arms,” says Jeanne Bliss, a former Lands’ End service chief who now coaches customer service execs. That has led to a renewed emphasis on “tiering”—routing elite-level customers to better agents, nicer surroundings, or faster service.

Tiering sounds like a great idea in theory – dedicate your resources to loyal or repeat customers. It’s the opposite to what most telcos and ISPs do, which is to dedicate their resources to new customers and treat them like cattle once they have signed the contract.

The problem in terms of service experience is that it makes the new customer feel like a second class citizen and resentful of the fact. If you have ever experienced the pettiness of some business class flights, lounges or other “executive” service additions, you’ll know what if feels like. It feels like every customer should be treated with these extra details.

Often (as in the case of a recent Qantas flight) the economy class services are deliberately cut down versions of the business class services. The same in-flight system is in both classes, but certain programmes or films are restricted to make the business class customers feel like their getting something extra (and their screens are bigger, but that’s a function of seat size). The system is in place to offer those programmes to economy class customers for virtually no extra cost, so why not do so?

In other words, why not offer your customers a better service if you can? The answer is tiering and tiering is a business top-down approach to service rather than a service design bottom-up approach to service where the actual experience of customers is researched and discussed, not just the business objectives and what customers might tolerate.

Tiering assumes the new customer isn’t going to notice, but customers do notice and don’t like being treated as if they are too stupid to notice. That turns tiering into a doubly negative experience: the missing service extras plus the feeling of being taken for a fool.

Good service and the extra touches shouldn’t be reserved for an elite or provided to those paying extra, they should be part of the entire service proposition for everyone. That is the way you get and retain loyal customers. There is a reason almost everyone changes their mobile phone company once their contract expires.

Update: I just stumbled across this image. A nice spoof on service and survival (based on Ryanair’s complete lack of service thinking):


Interaction Design for Behavioural Change

Interaction design is all about changing people’s behaviour. Without the action > reaction part, there is no interaction. Whether you click one button instead of another or stop to play with an interactive shop window , the art of interaction design is about understanding that transaction. (And it’s the subject of my, hopefully soon finished, PhD. Sigh).

Taken to a broader context, these principles have been successfully applied in areas such as service design and sustainable design. It is something we tried to look at in the Visualising Issues in Pharmacy project too.

But what about economics? Robert Fabricant from Frog Design has written an insightful piece on Frog’s Design Mind blog called Design For Impulse. He makes a good point about interaction design education too:

“If I was starting an Interaction Design program (like Liz Danzico at SVA) or taking one over (like David Malouf at SCAD) the one academic subject I would be sure to cover is Behavioral Economics.”

He then goes on to quote David Leonhart’s New York Times article about behavioural economics and the Obama administration’s interest in it:

“Behavioral economics sprang up about three decades ago as a radical critique of the standard assumption that human beings behaved in economically rational ways. The behaviorialists, as they?’re known, pointed out that this assumption was ridiculous.”

To explain behavioural economics more simply, I’ll quote the next paragraph in the article:

“Would-be weight losers pay $100 a month to belong to a gym they rarely visit. Borrowers get fooled into taking out a loan with an appealing teaser rate. Patients fail to follow even a basic regimen of prescribed drugs — a failure that can leave them with serious medical complications and Medicare with big hospital bills.”

Essentially, we all do things that make no rational or logical sense, even if we say we wouldn’t. And we’re especially irrational with money – who hasn’t shopped around for a tiny saving on groceries and then stopped to drink an over-priced coffee afterwards, negating the savings? (Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational is a good starting point, apparently. I haven’t read it yet.)

As the world we interact with becomes ever more interconnected and our need to understand everything from the economics of what we are designing through to the life-cycles of everything we use, understanding this psychology becomes essential. For interaction designs (and, I would add, some product designer and architects), this kind of thinking is, or should be, built into what we do. As Fabricant says:

“Outputs, Outcomes and Impacts are VERY different things and clients often confuse the two. As an Interaction Designer you better know the difference.”

It seems to me that Obama’s administration understand the psychology of interconnectedness very well. It will be interesting to see if they can put it to work on such a large, messy problem.

Out with the economists, in with the interaction designers I say!

(Once again, thanks to the ever-excellent IxDA discussion list for the heads up).

PayPal, A Customer Service Nightmare

Companies like PayPal are basically all service and no product, so it makes sense that they should spend a lot of their time on it as do First Direct. Sadly, they don’t.

Like ISPs and telecoms companies, everything is fine until it goes wrong – only then do you really find out what they’re made of. If you have followed any of Iain’s rants about Virgin Media you’ll know what I’m talking about.

What follows is a highly abbreviated version of the utter incompetence of PayPal’s customer service staff. I don’t really want it to fill the main page here, so click if you want to read more (some of it is entertaining in its horror).

Continue reading “PayPal, A Customer Service Nightmare”

Purchasing Pleasure

I recently bought the very useful MarsEdit external blog editor from Red Sweater. I’d tried an earlier version and wasn’t so enamoured, but my blogging output and needs have increased and I’ve found the features of the latest version and process really great.

But that’s not what this post is about, it’s about the purchasing experience.

In the online world almost the only customer experience is the website, the purchasing process and support when things go wrong. And we’re a fickle lot – there’s always another option just a click away. I recently bought Undercover for my laptops and whilst Orbicule themselves are excellent in terms of contact and support, the purchasing process through Kagi was awful. So boringly so that I’m not going to write about it. But in a really great service design experience the whole process counts, which is why buying MarsEdit made me smile.

More after the jump…

Continue reading “Purchasing Pleasure”