User centred design and a nice cup of tea

Sitting in a meeting on user interface design, which might or might not have tipped over into being about user centred design, but seemed at little risk of drifting into user experience design, my mind began to wander.

Unaccountably, a passage from the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy drifted to the front of my mind:

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The Nutri-Matic was designed and manufactured by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation whose complaints department now covers all the major land masses of the first three planets in the Sirius Tau Star system.

Sometimes, doing service design in the public sector (only in the public sector?) feels a bit like that. There has been a huge step forward, not just in recognising the principle that designing for and with customers is the right approach, but in making serious attempts to do it.

We have dug deep into their neural pathways. We have documented their attitudes and expectations. We know what they like and what they don’t. We know what they think they are trying to achieve.

And then we serve up a liquid which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

So not only do we fail to provide tea when tea is wanted, we also keep providing the same thing to everyone despite having some understanding of individual needs and expectations.

I am confidently looking forward to my trip to Sirius Tau to take up my new position in the nether regions of the complaints department.