Process Design: A Foundation Course

A couple of blog posts back, we quoted a helpful insight from the computer scientist Andy Hertzfeld, who was a member of the original Apple Macintosh development team. For those for whom clicking takes too long, he said:

People who work on the user interface side need to have empathy as a key characteristic. But if you are writing device drivers you don’t really need to understand humans so well.”

I was reminded of the quote in an article by Golden Krishna at the Cooper Journal blog, The best interface is no interface. This post isn’t about technology, although that was also part of Golden’s point. Interface design has become the word that many of us who’ve worked in web development or system implementation dread so much: sexy. If there was even once upon a time any irony in that particular word feeling so un-fresh, it’s long gone. Sex, after all, is intimate, immediate, direct and emotional. And what are the realistic chances of an experience like that on anything called ‘Android’? No, Dolores, they do not have an app for that …

Apps, like interfaces, are all the rage right now, of course. And they have their place. An app that lets me do something from my phone or iPad that would otherwise force me to relocate to a landlocked computer with appropriate access is a step forward. (It’s also a reminder of a much less ‘sexy’ word: utility. I guess even the dismal science – economics – has to throw up an encouraging usage once in a while.) That kind of app is enabling: it saves a long trudge, and it frees me to do things more conviently for me.

Now contrast that with one of Golden’s examples:

Several car companies have recently created smartphone apps that allow drivers to unlock their car doors. Generally, the unlocking feature plays out like this:

  1. A driver approaches her car.
  2. Takes her smartphone out of her purse.
  3. Turns her phone on.
  4. Slides to unlock her phone.
  5. Enters her passcode into her phone.
  6. Swipes through a sea of icons, trying to find the app.
  7. Taps the desired app icon.
  8. Waits for the app to load.
  9. Looks at the app, and tries figure out (or remember) how it works.
  10. Makes a best guess about which menu item to hit to unlock doors and taps that item.
  11. Taps a button to unlock the doors.
  12. The car doors unlock.
  13. She opens her car door.

Thirteen steps later, she can enter her car.

Just as well the poor woman is sitting down. She now has to shut down the app, lock her phone, turn it off and put it back in her purse. I make that seventeen steps. If only she’d remembered her key, she could have whittled that down to “walk to car, take out key, unlock car, get in”. Someone somewhere, however, thought that would be less groovy. (Another word that should automatically trigger a public slapping, but rarely does.)

I appreciate Apple have implemented Siri, whose voice-activated charms could boil down steps 6 – 11 down to “Siri, unlock the car”, although there would have to be some preceding steps: asking Siri to download the app, linking the iPhone to the iTunes user account and activating a valid payment system, for example. And maybe a few trial runs while Siri adapts to your accent. (Allow time for a brief flashback of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) And the idea did remind me of the Rev Keith C Blackburn’s letter to The Independent about the WI classic, Jerusalem:

Sir: I have had difficulty in treating this hymn seriously since someone said to me, “The answer to the first verse is ‘No’, to the second ‘Fetch them yourself’.”

Presumably the spear-and-arrow-of-desire fetching app is still in Beta?

I was even more struck by one of the comments of Golden’s piece, in which Nate Clinton offered the opinion:

Thinking some more about it, No UI is really predicated on the ubiquity of sensors. It’s less and less about megapixels and gigahertz, and more and more about NFC and GPS and proximity and light meters. We have a GPS-capable smartphone strapped to our hips, enabling all kinds of interesting No UI systems.”

I was left wondering which bit of ‘No UI’ Nate was (possibly unknowingly) struggling with there. I couldn’t see how inserting unnecessary technology-driven process steps into a mundane aspect of daily life could be improved by … inserting more technology-driven process steps. It felt a little like stirring yoghurt into an over-chillied curry when we could simply have put less chilli in in the first place.

Job design and business processes are no more immune from this syndrome than fridges, car doors or exciting new ways of paying for your sandwich. My vote for the winner in this style of things goes to the Oyster Card: unlike contactless payment systems – no, I’ve not signed up for one – there is no fear of accidentally buying something random just by standing too close to something else. You came to travel: you touch, you go. If I were an animatronic meerkat, I might even say ‘simples’.

But whatever you are involved in designing, re-engineering or updating, go back and read Andy Hertzfeld’s words again. By way of a hint, we’ve included a handy diagram below. It’s not interactive, but you can download it to almost any device. Even your head.


Process Design

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