Designing humanity into digital services


This is a really great piece from the New Yorker on the modern-day Kodak. It documents their new (yes, new) super-8 camera. Old-school film fitted in a shiny-new case and digital controls. It looks beautiful, and by all accounts stole the show at CES (although let’s be honest, stealing the show from 540 internet-connected fridges wouldn’t be hard).

Kodak are an interesting case study, because they were one of the companies hit hardest by technological disruption, a supposed forerunner to Blockbuster in “companies that just didn’t get it and now no longer exist”. But exist they do, and they’re creating products that bridge the divide between old and new, between pre- and post-disruption. Products that, according to the New Yorker at least, are gaining popularity.

We’re at the point where a number of different industries have, if you’ll excuse the term, “been disrupted” – music and film foremost amongst them. What you’re seeing in the wake of the original disruption however, is a growth of people reacting against this, embracing older technologies. Vinyl records are selling at their highest levels in forever, film directors like Quentin Tarantino continue to use and popularise the use of old film. People have had time to view what the new and shiny has to offer and come to the conclusion that they still see value in what came before.

That a certain cult of authenticity exists is without dispute. In an era of cheap production costs and affordable modern products, what grants the western middle classes more distinction than authenticity? When you’re capable of buying a brand new version of almost anything, owning the original – the authentic – carries cultural cachet in whole new ways.

Digital can bring a certain clinical efficiency that actually holds little mass appeal. ‘Efficient’ isn’t sexy. It’s not friendly nor warm. It might save you money or time, but it can also be cold and clinical and devoid of personality. And what is true for products can be true for services as well. Left unchecked, the new digital world could deliver nothing but clinical, white, emotionless experiences.

But there is something interesting where these two worlds – the authentic past and the efficient future – overlap. The new Kodak camera isn’t just a return to the past. It includes an LCD viewfinder and computerised menus. It’s a hybrid, using digital technology to enhance and improve whilst keeping elements of the authentic original.

I own a BlueTube valve amplifier. It’s a beautiful vacuum tube amplifier, looks like it was made sometime in the early 60s. But it’s also fitted with a bluetooth receiver, meaning I can stream Spotify directly to it.  The luxury watch market has reacted to smart watches by bringing out versions of their own that contain technology whilst also retaining authentic mechanical movememnt. They’re hybrids – capturing the feel of the original whilst offering the convenience that modern tech provides.

Online services have yet to really find this hybrid position, because in most cases the service simply didn’t exist beforehand, or if it did it just totally sucked. However, it’s interesting to imagine how you might take the best parts of pre-distruption services and bring them online. Whatever you may think, digital has a hard time replacing the pleasant sensation when a real human being at the end of the phone actually helps you solve a problem. In truth, the issue was never with the potential quality of the solution, just with the likelihood of that potential being hit each time. Human beings unfortunately are rarely consistent.

Good digital services offer you that consistency, and the sheer convenience of not needing to speak to a human being. But the very efficiency it offers can be a cold and joyless experience.

So the next trick with digital service design is to work out how to bring in the best elements of pre-disruption services to augment this. Adding a little authenticity if you like. Early examples of this are human-sounding error messages on forms, amusing 404 pages, things that make the service feel more human ( has always done a fantasic job of this).

Live chat is an extension of this, but at the moment the success feels varied to me. There’s so many different factors to get right – when in the process you initiate live chat, who is it initiated by, how do we cope with that annoying flashing button saying, “IT LOOKS LIKE YOU NEED SOME HELP”, like some terrible clippy-esque nightmare.

But improvements are being made. More and more people are understanding the way to differentiate their online service is by adding an element of humanity back into it. By adding authenticity back into an efficient service, we’re helping to make it feel more human and therefore more desirable. A hybrid solution indeed.