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How we should build digital spaces

It is no coincidence that our attempts for creating meaningful digital services appear to be falling somewhat short when we look at complex service ecosystems. Quite often, we start our service creation from a happy path approach, and we focus on fulfilling clear-cut use cases by preventing users from straying from the path we have carved out for them. As part 1 and part 2 of this article series have explored, Customer journey maps and touchpoint maps are helping businesses to systematically depict the plentiful orchestration of events that constitute a meaningful customer experience.

At times, however, it seems as if we are writing software for the wrong operating system. And the main reason for this may just be that the paradigms under which we have built digital spaces haven’t changed much in the past 25 years:

  1. We still are using inventory-based digital architectures; we are defining information paths relating to information about products and their properties, and we define conversion points as goals that distill meaning into click events.

  2. On e-commerce sites, the agency that a user has is rather narrow. We prescribe conversion paths based on a product selection, define them as funnels, and expect the user to quickly process through these funnels. We assume a stable, focused user intent towards a utility-driven outcome: a purchase.

  3. The value we create is conformity value, largely based on what the channel owner (=website owner) wants, and what we expect the user to benefit from. The outcome principle we apply is that of maximising. We assume that the product is known (or is learned), the price is accepted, and that the seller is trusted.

For simple tasks, like subscribing to a newsletter, this approach should still work quite well. Providing a selection of recent newsletters (inventory) for the subscriber-to-be’s convenient browsing, presenting a simple, bare-bones subscription form not asking for too many irrelevant details (agency), and showing a confirmation message “You have successfully subscribed to our monthly newsletter” (conformity) are the main ingredients for the experience.

But these days, we see more and more services where the value proposition is no longer that straightforward. AI-fuelled content creation tools or functions that allow users to remove unwanted objects from uploaded photos require a sequence of up-front user actions to even remotely prove that there indeed is a value generated by the tool at hand. When only seeing is believing, we can no longer rely on our own inventory, or on any supposition of conformity value that our service provides.

In other words: we need a different design paradigm for services where we can no longer give a detailed prescription of what the user is to encounter. While for one uploaded photo the removal of a simple lamp post may be the user’s intent, for another photo the removal of a bullying ex-boyfriend could be the reason for processing the image through this service. We can’t know the motivation or the wanted outcome beforehand, and our beloved users may only get an idea on what a service could do for them once they are tickling and poking it. User agency has become incredibly potent for the shape and value a service can provide.

We should be designing for interventions

  1. When designing for interventions, we can build exploratory spaces where actors could use pathways leading to insights which then lead to actions. The intent a user has is the gateway to get them onto a website or into a service. If the needed level of trust cannot be established, the product properties are poorly described, or the return/cancellation policy of an order is not understandable, the (original) intent does not matter at all anymore. The outcome - discomfort, or at least a sense of high risk - overwrites whatever intent the potential customer might have had upon arrival.

  2. We should be designing for actors, not for users. As actors wander along the pathways, the angle of intent could be incrementally adjusted, and the velocity of flow would shift with it. Thinking about it more profoundly we can say: actors intervene, users endure.

  3. The value we create will become complementary value, based on the sense of usefulness the actor collects along the path. The related outcome principle will then become that of satisficing (the product is no longer the only carrier for utility value); service value and transaction value would complement the product offering.

An intervention, as we see it, is a set of possible user actions for which we cannot precisely prescribe the outcome. As we literally cannot “put ourselves into the shoes of our users”, we should refrain from trying to prescribe an optimal path. Actors (as opposed to users) carve their own paths, and shift their intent as they move along. We can even go one step further and suspect that the value perception that actors have will vary with the different intents they are encountering along their exploration path.

So far, our information systems and e-commerce stores have been focused on the perspective that the user’s intents are centred around the idea of convenience, making things easier, faster, or cheaper to acquire. But more and more we have to concede that the user’s intents are not necessarily focused on reaching a goal easily and seamlessly, but on feeling comfortable with the choices they’ve made. This perspective change involves, as Nassim Taleb formulates, to “make a decision opportunistically”. The term Taleb has noted for that mindset shift is that of a flâneur. Taleb writes:

“The flâneur is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision at every step to revise his schedule, so he can imbibe things based on new information […]. Tourism, actual or figurative, is imbued with the teleological illusion; it assumes completeness of vision and gets one locked into a hard-to-revise program, while the flâneur continually - and, what is crucial, rationally - modifies his targets as he acquires information.” (NN Taleb: Antifragile, 2012).

Why does that matter?

As the information architect Andrea Resmini writes: “The idea [that] we can design a perfectly bounded artifact and and simply drop it inside a dynamic environment has become an increasingly difficult proposition. Still, the way we frame and design services is the way we frame and design products.” (here)

If we think of it: we still are far from operating in cross-channel or omni-channel environments. To this day, we are working within multi-channel environments, where the boundaries are largely determined by technicalities and corporate ownership structures, and where the conclusion of any interaction is limited to the channel it was started in. Again, Resmini:

“Little to no information is shared between channels, and status is not maintained. Channels have hard boundaries and the system’s awareness of ongoing activities is limited. Rather than offering an integrated, systemic approach, multichannel duplicates and adapts activity flows within parallel but non-communicating processes, and binds them to individual mediums, here called channels.“ (here)

In essence, a user’s agency is limited and trapped by the established interaction patterns within any given channel: a digital product catalog is broken down into product thumbnails and product pages (with details and technical specifications), country selections are coded within dropdown lists (meticulously listing any region and country, from Absurdistan via Antarctica all the way to Whatnotistan), terms and conditions pages are unreadable lead deserts. Each inventory item has its place and its predetermined form, is well established and seems to just wait for people to consume it. A static environment, creating and suffering from its own fatigue.

Consider people. Contrary to what most economists believe, people have shifting preferences (instead of stable needs), are biased (instead of rational), are imaginative and often distracted (instead of focused on a single task), and use a wide range of post-rationalisations to explain their behaviour in hindsight to themselves.

The question is: are the digital environments we are building really suitable for humans? Or is it time we do something different that will benefit them more?

The setup of our current channel experiences keeps us painted into a corner. Webforms may be triggering elaborate backend processes, but frontend visibility of complex systemic interactions remains poor. Our current user experiences and customer journeys rely on the precise modelling of processes within the confines of a channel's technicality. Once more, Resmini:

“Cross-channel user experience design introduces a systemic framing often based on heuristic processes. It refactors the narrative-driven nature of transmedia into complex “user stories” or “user journeys” moving across different touchpoints and mediums, and reappropriates the service-minded, gap-filling framing of bridge experiences to produce an ostensibly more rounded take on contemporary user experience. It is worth noting that cross-channel, while still embracing the idea of seamless, unhindered flow, purportedly supports the notion of visible seams between touchpoints or channels as navigational and experiential aid, for example to warn users they are moving from a secure to an insecure location.” (here)

The idea to create inclusive, meaningful interactions in a proper ecosystem environment with regard to a shifting set of varying user intents is still a valid one. But we need to find ways to create, extract, maintain and update data structures that are reflected across and shared between various system parts. If we take the principle of the actor’s agency seriously, we can hopefully make a proper contribution to our customers' quest to achieve situationally meaningful outcomes. Especially with the recent emergence of smart assistants and AI-based tools, the reconfiguration of the digital experience space has only just begun.

The next instalment of the article series will dive deeper into the question: How are AI systems and customer experience interwoven?