Sami Niemelä – what happens when the computers disappear?

What does service design look like in a post-digital world, when the computer and the mobile have faded into the background? Sami Niemelä looks at an age when the magic has passed…

A lot of Service Design looks like a pile of post-it notes. Designers tend to spend too much time talking about “what is design?” Instead of trying to redefine what we do in words, he’d rather see everyone doing what they do, and communicating through their work.

When he talks about product design, he’s talking about both physical and visual design. Service design is very good at making complex things social. When Nicola Tesla first demonstrated a radio-controlled boat, people assumed it was magical, or was piloted by a trained monkey… t’s now ubiquitous, non-noteworthy. The internet is reaching the same point. Gibson was (mostly) right – the future is here, but it’s pretty evenly distributed. The car from Blade Runner is here – it’s not flying, but it has screens everywhere.

Technology is so ubiquitous that it fades into the background – calm computing. When the computers disappear, they become… everyday. They lose their magic. This happens to all the big breakthroughs in technology. Radio-controlled toys are not magical any more. There are now socks with RFID that you can pair with an iPhone app…

The calculator, the phone, the notebook and the camera are now all just icons on a pane of glass. Gibson was wrong about people jacking into cyberspace with their brains. People chose to interact in a much more mundane way, through their phones. A plane of glass with a GPS chip and a connection to the net will do for now.

As services become ubiquitous, the complexity and the number of touchpoints rises exponentially. Services need to be right there when you need them, not on their way. People are figuring out how to connect physical objects to APIs – so your litter tray can e-mail you when the cat uses it… The Boris bikes in London are a good example of that. It’s a good service. It has an API.

Connecting smart and dumb things to the cloud creates a service experience. The promise behind quantified self is that our objects can know things better than we do. We can already have electric locks in our home that can be opened with an iPhone. It’s a very different experience to using a lock. There’s no haptic feedback. The perception of value js an interesting thing. We do have computers with an appearance of warmth. Apple’s Siri has a human persona, a character. We separate it from the computer behind it.

Creating design that is intuitive is difficult. For 99% of people nothing that is new feels intuitive. That’s why skeuomorphic design works – we pick up cues from other things. Architecture has the idea of Pace Layering, where a building can be separated into layers from its very core, right up to changeable fashion elements – like paint. Some layers are easier than others. Mobile apps are easy, digging a hole in the road less so. Changing a bureaucracy is much, much harder. These things take time. People criticism the textures in iOS apps, but they help things feel familiar to people who have not used these services before.

Real, honest design-led thinking is a solution to many problems facing us. We need to design the change, not just the objects around us. As designers we have a huge responsibility to both experiment and fail, but also to design the systems around us. Entropy is a natural state of nature. Do stuff, be bold, but do your craft really well. Service design is perfect for dealing with the big, hairly problems – but we need to do it really well.