4 Nov 2009

My iPhone loves me.

November 4, 2009 501A, responses Comments Off

I thought David Kelley’s discussion of user-centered design was pretty interesting, especially in light of the ideas we’ve already explored in “Welcome to the experience economy” by Pine and Gilmour. Isn’t that part of what’s being sold here, is the experience of the thing and not just the thing itself?

Look at the cubicle, for example, which aims to make work a more pleasant experience. (I remember when that was announced, by the way. I think I asked my boss if I could have a hammock, especially since a colleague already had a life-sized cutout of Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the office. No, I don’t know why. And he said no to the hammock.) And the underwater camera helps give you an experience you might not have been able to have by yourself. That’s a bit more explicitly experiential, but I think the larger point is that good design is part of what users enjoy about a product. No one likes crawling inside the code monkeys’ heads — that is, no one likes learning how to use something based on someone else’s idea of what should be obvious. It never is obvious.

If, as Pine and Gilmour state, “While … commodities, goods, and services are external to the buyer, experiences are inherently personal, existing on ly in the mind of an individual who has been engaged on an emotional, physical, intellectual or even spiritual level,” then experience is the value, not the physical product. Pine and Gilmour concentrate on the best ways to create an experience, where the physical product is incidental — their dictum that companies should think about what they would do differently if they charged admission — Kelly’s user-centered designs are about making the physical product a pleasurable experience. People are willing to pay a premium for pretty and happy. Look at Apple. (Oddly, Apple rarely uses focus groups. But the point still stands. The company certainly gets enough of my money, so their pretty works.)

The Prada store is definitely the “… awkward!” moment of the video for me. It did get a bit creepy there, no? Am I the only one who hates the implications of RFID tags, which are in use everywhere, much less the kind of hyper-customer-centered experience being sold at that Prada store? Did anyone else think of this:

Creeeeeeeeepy. (And I’m not even talking about those liquid-crystal-doored changing rooms. Those get an extra eeeugh.)

But again, it’s about the experience. I doubt Prada will, as Pine and Gilmour suggest, charge money to walk in the store. But certainly, the store “stage[s] activities that captivate customers before, after and while they shop” and encompass all four of the realms the two mention in the piece. (They also manage to tie into the narcissistic tendencies of the age — who am I if I’m wearing Prada? Who am I if I’m NOT wearing Prada? — but I’m still working on that post.)

And this is where we come back to Sunstein and filtering. At its extreme, user-centered design anticipates and empowers users to create an experience unique (the user assumes) to them, one that flatters and manipulates as much as it guides and identifies.

As Sunstein states in “Democracy and Filtering” (2004),”It involves an apparently utopian dream, that of complete individuation, in which consumers can entirely personalize (or customize) their own communications universe. Imagine a sys- tem of communications in which each person has unlimited power of individual design.” Except, as the Kelley talk shows, it’s not just about communications systems. Or rather, communications systems are no longer communicative in and of themselves. They are overlaid on the rest of existence in ever more powerful and subtle ways.

And most importantly, this is to sell us stuff. Stuff that defines us, stuff that we like because of what it says about us, what it says about who we are and how we live and think and do (but not make, oh no). And that’s the trap — the experience of customization is an economic vehicle that we are not driving.

But that’s not the potentially negative part of this drive toward customization. That is, there’s a different sort of dark side to user-centered design, if one takes it to the extreme (and technology does nothing so well as push boundaries).

“They filter in, and out, with unprece- dented powers of precision. These developments make life much more convenient and in some ways much better; we all seek to reduce our exposure to uninvited noise, and many of us like to read opinions we find congenial,” Sunstein says, and to follow, many of us like to live experiences we find congenial.

I don’t know that Sunstein’s warnings about customization’s impact on democracy extends to the rest of the new technology experience — certainly, humans do nothing except seek to avoid discomfort — but it could impact society in more subtle ways. As our devices become more accommodating, we might become less — of each other, who do not so perfectly accommodate us as machines.

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