User experience architecture

August 26, 2009

Designing services

Designing services

Four customers in search of a service

Joan wants to contact her local government to report a dead deer on the main road. Paul needs to tell his bank about a stolen credit card. George needs to deal with workplace bullying by a co-worker. Rinka wants advice about the criteria for adopting a child.  In spite of their very individual situations, they each need to find and consume a service.

Services defined

Services cover a lot of ground:  paying bills; managing your money; finding a job; accessing government; bidding on a contract; finding real-estate; fixing technical problems … and so on. But not every transaction is a service. Here are some characteristic features.

  1. A service has a consumer and a supplier. Their collaboration creates mutual value.
  2. The consumer and supplier have different affiliations.  For example, the consumer might represent a household and the supplier might represent an electricity provider.
  3. The provider offers a  resource (or access to a resource)  of value to the consumer.   For example, resources might include problem resolution, work, permissions, statutory reporting, data, knowledge or infomation about finding and using some facility. Buying a book is not a service in this sense; getting a library ticket is.
  4. The consumer’s access to a service may be restricted by individual status and availability. For example, an applicant for a busker’s license must show musical ability. On the other hand, anyone can report a pot hole.
  5. A service may be free or charged.
  6. Services may be delivered over multiple channels. The online channel is typically the most cost effective.

The anatomy of a service

There’s a pattern to services.  They generally have several of the following  elements.

One group provides information to enable a consumer to find and assess the service.

  1. Applicability criteria: who can use this service?
  2. A process: who does what?; what happens next?
  3. A service level agreement; what does the supplier commit to; what must the consumer agree to?
  4. Key facts: when, where, how long, how much, how often?
  5. Authorities: references to regulation, legislation and policy.
  6. Contacts: who can provide further information?

The second group, carries the “payload” of the service.

  1. Knowledge.  Examples include the commercial interests of politicians, techniques for surving a hurricane and an index of dog-friendly beaches.
  2. Specific data. Examples include a personal bank balance, neighourhood refuse collection timetables and local weather forecasts.
  3. Transactions that initiate requests.  Examples include application  forms and e-mail links.

Designing services

From the perspective of Joan, Paul, George and Rinka, each of these services is a  task to satisfy a goal associated with a role. At a superficial level, the scenario is parallel to buying a product. For example, the task model involves finding, comparing, assessing, selecting and, in many cases, paying and arranging fulfilment.

As practitioners, we have powerful tools to tackle this class of design problem. For example, focus groups, task analysis, design patterns and user testing can all help to ensure that an efficient and intuitive interaction delivers appropriate outcomes. However, services offer some additional and distinctive usability challenges:

  1. Services are typically not “known item” searches. Joan probably does not know that the local Council labels this service a “highway wildlife casualty”.
  2. Services are often needed in stressful situations. Paul needs to get his card cancelled immediately – and he needs to be confident it’s been done.
  3. It’s not necessarily obvious who provides a service. Georgina may not be sure who can offer authoritative advice in this sensitive situation.
  4. Services can be intimidating and complex. Rinka may struggle to understand the densely worded prose of child welfare experts.

Let’s look at this from other side of the glass – from the point of view of the highways department, the bank, the HR team and the welfare workers.  Self-service is a potent business model. Increased adoption reduces contact-centre costs and, potentially, improves customer satisfaction through increased convenience and autonomy.

Self-service also looks easy to implement: delegate the work to the owning departments; have experts document their expertise as web content; translate the paper forms to HTML; generate e-mails; serve up the package through search; and reuse an existing taxonomy to define a navigation scheme.

Getting services right

Experienced designers will have already spotted the gotchas. Delegating design can create inconsistencies, encourage “territorial” design patterns and bypass the efforts of design professionals.

Here’s a list of known risk factors:

  1. Services are hard to find. An “inside-out taxonomy” defines an enigmatic browse structure, intuitive to the service provider but opaque to consumers. Search is hindered by cryptic and inconsistent naming. Neither content or metadata have been been tuned for search engine optimisation.
  2. No support for near misses. There is no “related services” model or helpful grouping of results  to identify similar or alternative services. Services names and descriptions are not structured in a conistent format to facilitate comparison.
  3. Services are grouped by supplier organisation. Consumers expect services to be organised by user role and goal rather than by owner.
  4. Noisy information. Descriptions are long, wordy and padded with irrelevant content such as departmental history, mission and achivements. Customers prefer concise service descriptions focused on critical elements:  how much does it cost?; when is it open?; how long will it take?
  5. Challenging information. Descriptions use jargon, technobabble or overly formal language. Plain English not only ensures understanding but also builds confidence, trust and brand advocacy.
  6. Rambling information.  Effective content is consistently structured, using generous subheadings to signpost specific sections. Task-based writing, bullet-points and tables can all add structure.
  7. Obscure forms.  Ambiguous questions, jargon, poor field grouping, insufficient field completion support, bad layout and obscure error messages all make form-filling unnecessarily hard.
  8. Greedy forms.  Nosey and just-in-case questions add effort and discourage completion.
  9. Separation of elements. When information and forms are not integrated, two things can happen: either users make guesses about the applicability and process – or users take no action.

Getting it right for our fab four  is perfectly practical.  However, in addition to  effective UCD,  it also takes standards, processes, training and an architectural  focus on design in the large.

August 31, 2008

Usability and the happy shopper

It’s a cliché of our discipline; a usable e-commerce site generates more sales. Web analytics show measurable differences in consumer behaviour following design changes. The idea is now sufficiently established that “good experience” is widely seen not so much as a market differentiator but as a hygiene factor, a fundamental tool to deliver a sales and marketing strategy.

Let’s tease this idea apart to identify why good design drives sales and how we can exploit the usability toolkit to get it right. We need to look at how people shop, the limits on economic rationality and the web as a social medium.

How shopping works

A simple task model

  1. Discover a product
    1. Become aware of a product
    2. Find information about the product
    3. Assess personal relevance of the product
  2. Select model
    1. Identify alternative models of the product
    2. Identify alternative suppliers of the product
    3. Assess and compare
    4. Select a model
  3. Select a channel
    1. Identify alternative channels for product
    2. Assess and compare
    3. Select a channel
  4. Buy
    1. Find the product
    2. Manage basket
    3. Specify delivery
    4. Pay

This model includes cognitive, social and practical steps; each step represents a risk of failure. Customers can only buy products they have heard about. They need to understand what a product does and how it could enhance their lives. They look for an outlet that is trustworthy, affordable and convenient.

What shoppers need

Within this task model, there are some important user goals:

  • finding;
  • discovering;
  • understanding;
  • assessing;
  • comparing;
  • choosing; and
  • administering.

Finding means locating information that you know is there. You find a number in the phone book. Discovery is more subtle. It reveals information that you need – but don’t know that you need. For example, you might discover an attractive new variety of hybrid Rose while browsing your garden centre for a watering can. Finding and discovery are goals of Information Architecture. The more complex the product set, the greater the need to focus on “findability”.

Understanding, assessing, comparing and choosing work together. They enable a customer to make a decision about trying something new. Adoption is an intellectual process, a social process and an emotional process. According to Everett Rogers’ influential Diffusion of innovation, potential customers seek information to reduce uncertainty and assess “relative advantage”. Well written content quickly answers the tough question, “What’s in it for me?” Consistent coverage and layout make it easy to compare alternatives. Clear and influential content is the goal of copywriting and information design.

Administering is a chore; where should it be delivered? how do you want to pay? Good software ergonomics ensure that this data entry is efficient and simple. This is good old-fashioned usability at work.

Bounded rationality

Economists generally assume that buyers act rationally, seeking to minimize their costs and maximize their returns. Shoppers seek information and compare alternatives in order to make sound economic decisions. Herbert Simon refined this model: “maximisers” keep researching till they find the perfect product; “satisficers”, on the other hand, stop when they find a product that is good enough. In either case, well-written and trustworthy information is essential to discourage defection to another site.


Shopping is a social act. A well-crafted design suggests a professionally-run business. Direct, personal language implies plain dealing. Editorial content can demonstrate interest and expertise. User-generated content adds credibility and social “buzz”. Plain English says, “we don’t need to hide behind the small print.” Explicit privacy and security policies tackle distrust of online payment. Attractive presentation and engaging writing create a sense of well-being that can transfer to a positive view of the products on display.

Designing for a good shopping experience

An effective design actively addresses the needs of shoppers. Here are some examples.

Discovering The catalog reflects the way customers understand and use products. It avoids the “house” taxonomies of manufacturing and marketing. It uses carefully managed see-also links to identify genuine alternatives.
Understanding Product descriptions are clear, complete, consistent and easy to read. Technical terms are explained. Potential uncertainties are recognised and addressed.
Assessing Product descriptions explain relevant benefits in a direct, concise style. They avoid marketing clichés and adopt a direct, personal style, consistent with the values of potential buyers.
Administration Payment and delivery dialogs exploit sensible defaults, remember preferences and tightly integrate payment engines to eliminate repeated data entry.

A good shopping experience

“I came across Kopi coffee on the coffeemajic site. It’s the world’s most expensive coffee, made from beans ‘predigested’ by a civet. Because it sounded fascinating and vile in equal measure, I sought out buyer reviews on the company’s community board and read about the personal experiences of the chief taster. That was enough background for me; I convinced myself I had to try it.
I used the product list to compare the price and flavour of different brands and quickly settled on one variety to check out.

I thought about picking up a packet at my local deli. However, because the site remembers my details, it was just faster to buy it there and then.”

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