The world is becoming more interactive. The microwave wants to have a conversation. The gas pump wants to sell life enhancing products. And the public restroom wants feedback.
We now live in a world of sensory overload where someone or something is constantly trying to find and occupy every available gap in our cognitive spectrum. Social media platforms and productivity apps constantly seek our attention, as they pursue “stickiness” and recurring revenue. The process of distraction – engagement – retention is now a lucrative science, aided and abetted by psychologists and user experience (UX) experts who study the human mind for a living. All of us are familiar with the tools of their trade – alerts, notifications, suggestions, clickbait, rewards … all of which entice us to follow them down myriad intriguing and engaging rabbit holes. And before we know it, another hour has gone by, and it is time to reset and get back to what we were doing.
It is in this context that I would like to talk about user experience design for the infrastructure that powers our daily lives. With applications that range from creature comforts like air conditioning and hot water boilers, to essentials like transportation systems and production machinery, to life-critical like electric and water utilities, these products and systems have a huge impact on our day to day lives. Can new interactive technologies make them better?
Infrastructure solutions have been around in some shape or form since humans decided to mechanize. However, the way we interact with them has not changed all that much over the years. Yes, these systems have progressively become more intelligent through the introduction of sensors and automatic controls. Some user interfaces like buttons and switches have been replaced with touchscreens. But the overall user journey has pretty much remained the same. And quite frankly, we have not really expected more. As long as these systems have worked well and not demanded too much cognitive effort from us, we have been fine with things as they stand.
Given this backdrop, is there anything we can do to significantly improve the user experience on these systems? What types of features could bring about a measurable increase in customer satisfaction and retention? This is a conundrum that many companies are currently grappling with as they try to make their products stand out in a market that is seen more and more as a commodity.
As interactive tools like mobile apps, speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing and 3D sensing have matured and become mainstream, there is a strong desire to adopt these technologies and insert them into products. FOMO can push companies into launching all sorts of new projects without a clear understanding of customer benefits or return on investment. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all. Things that work in the media and consumer electronics markets will not necessarily work in the infrastructure business.
The most important question to ask before launching any new project should always be – what do customers most value and what can we do to make their user journey 10x more memorable? Once we know the true pain points, we can select the right technologies that have the potential to deliver an order of magnitude improvement.
Moving towards a Zero Experience paradigm
Think about how you interact with the machines and appliances that power our everyday lives. Is this something you look forward to? Personally, my preference would be to not interact with them at all if that was an option. In fact, every time products demand my attention, they likely pull me away from other more interesting or intellectually rewarding activities.
Think about the experience of commuting to work every day. If you live in a big city, this might involve riding the subway, using a cab, gaining secure access to a building, riding the elevator, and switching on the lights in your office. All of these actions expend some level of cognitive effort and take you away from other things like reading the news, talking with the interesting person next to you, or updating your social media feed. Given this, would you like more audio-visual bells and whistles along your journey or less? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just keep moving undisturbed and everything just happened automatically – doors opening, lights switching on, thermostat being set, etc?
The same applies to the people who manage all this infrastructure. Would they like to be inundated with more data? Or would they prefer not to have to deal with any of this stuff and spend more time building relations with their customers? I think that when it comes to infrastructure systems, the answer might be that less is more and zero experience is the most memorable experience.
Let’s explore this a bit. What would a zero experience (ZX) paradigm look like and what would be some of its key attributes? I consider the following three to be most important.
Frictionless – the key to a zero experience user journey is to get rid of all effort. To achieve this, the entire journey must be mapped from end to end, and any friction along the way must be ruthlessly eliminated. Anything that requires input or cognitive effort from the user should be questioned and either eliminated or redesigned to make the process extremely easy. This is where sensing and edge analytics can help. For example, cameras and motion sensors can be used to infer the user’s intent, and this information coupled with their personal preferences as well as historical behavior can be used to make a majority of decisions without the user’s intervention. As one of my ex-colleagues used to say, our goal should be to create an experience where people can keep moving and things happen “auto-magically” along the way. A great example of such an experience is “Just Walk Out Shopping” at Amazon Go, where you can simply walk into the store, pick up whatever you want to buy, and leave. Steps like user identification, checkout and payment are all taken care of behind the scenes without needing the customer’s intervention. Could our daily commute be similar?
Minimalist – another key element of a zero experience journey is minimalism, where interfaces and touch points are completely eliminated or drastically reduced to only present the bare minimum of information that is needed to get the job done. Most of the functionality is automated and only actions that require higher-level thinking and decision making are delegated up to the user. A great recent example of minimalism is the cockpit design of the SpaceX Dragon, especially when you compare it with its predecessor, NASA’s Space Shuttle. As can be seen quite vividly in the below pictures, the space shuttle was crammed with displays, controls and switches, whereas the Dragon just had a large and customizable touch-screen. What a great use of technology to cut out all the clutter!
Intuitive – once you have settled on the minimal amount of information that must be presented, it is must be done using clean and intuitive formats. Well designed dashboards that draw your attention to the most important content and present it in a way that the brain can immediately digest, can go a long way in speeding up the user’s response and minimizing the disruption to whatever else they were doing. This is the domain of UI and data visualization professionals. I am constantly amazed by the beautiful new formats in which data and information are getting presented nowadays. The one underlying theme is simplicity. Instead of drowning you in data, the best dashboards highlight the outcomes that you care about and then give you an option to dig deeper if you wish. One of my sources for good ideas is the Visual Capitalist – check it out if you have a moment.
The above three elements – frictionless, minimalist, intuitive – can be used to create experiences that “wow” their users by expecting very little from them. If done well, they create “uneventful days” which are most memorable because everything went well and according to expectation.
It bears mentioning that even before the digital revolution, engineers always strived to design reliable and comfortable infrastructure products that are non-intrusive and can be taken for granted. In my past life as a noise and vibration engineer, I spent many years working hard to eliminate all sorts of squeaks, rattles and bumps in elevators so that riders would never contemplate the fact that they were standing inside a metal box suspended high above the ground. As I explained to customers, I wanted them to think of an elevator as just another room in the building. You enter this room, the doors close, and shortly thereafter they open again, and you have been magically transported to a different part of the building. Along the way, you continue with whatever you were doing before you stepped in – having a conversation, checking the news on your phone, or simply watching people.
This is the original foundation of Zero Experience – building great products that are easy to use, perform intelligently and reliably around the clock, and only nudge their users for input when absolutely necessary. As newer interactive technologies become available, we should certainly consider adopting them but we should do so without forgetting why customers ultimately buy infrastructure solutions – to make their lives easier and uneventful.