What is consequence design, anyway?

I think consequence design is the doormat in front of the door that when you look underneath, insects who weren’t visible scurry in all directions.

I’ve been talking about it for years, but it didn’t have a name. Everyone gets so excited about service design, because at it’s core, service design is concerned with cutting through the morass of friction built into actual service delivery, to get people what they need. The problem is, all of this stuff is based on a framework of good intentions that simply does not exist in the real world.

As I’ve traveled the United States, you see examples of the disparities in service design based on who the market is. If you’ve ever taken a Greyhound bus, flown on a low-cost airline, or been in a transit station where you needed to keep your ticket (without any signage indicating this); you understand how some people are subjected to sub-standard services as a rule. More often than not, these people are less wealthy and come from so-called undesirable parts of town.

This goes beyond just the design of public services. Growing up, I remember when my hometown had local banks. I also remember when those local banks were eventually acquired by larger ones until we no longer had any local banks. Whenever anyone talks about food deserts’ — neighborhoods without access to large-scale supermarkets with fresh grocery items — understand that these are business decisions, but also, service design problems.

The problem is, we’ve come to conflate service design with Post-It Notes, consultancy speak, and occasionally technocrat public servants. All of these (sometimes) well-intentioned folks can’t workshop or blueprint their way out of systems that were and are designed to twart upward mobility. Some friction is designed on purpose, out of malice, to punish poor people. Whenever some person gets on a stage and tries to talk about design ethics’, they’ve already told on themselves. We can’t assume an ethical framework is going to solve anything until I know what your beliefs actually are. Thanks to Twitter, people are sometimes accidentally good at saying the quiet part loud, giving us a glimpse into their real intentions.

So what’s the real question? What led me on the journey to consequence design’ was a central question, What happens in a post-service design world?” If all you consultants and service designers have your way, what will that world look like? What comes after? No one has ever truly been able to map that out, despite all of the reams of giant-sized wallpaper and markers used over the past decade. The reason? There’s no one-size-fits-all service design. People, organizations, and institutions are complicated. Things get messy.

Talking about UX anti-patterns (dark patterns) is just one facet of how real world frictions proliferate the web in all sorts of unhelpful ways. It goes beyond an annoying pop-up window, though. We’re replacing humans with systems that weren’t designed in the open and calling the decision-making objective. I tweeted years ago that one of my favorite shortcuts to awful voice prompt systems is to push 0 or say operator’ until the system let’s me speak to an actual person. (It usually works.)

So what do we do about it?

I think before we can solve’ the problem, we have to believe there’s actually a set of problems to solve. I’m not convinced that we’re there yet. People still think they’re doing an okay job designing broken services and running interference — even in the time of a pandemic — so I’m less interested in talking about how to fix it, I’m going to spend some time thinking aloud about the design of services, the ontology of friction, and some history about how we’ve gotten here.

I’m convinced the other side of so-called human centered design’ is something else entirely. I don’t think it’s institutional or organizational, it’s localized and values-based. Before we can get there, I think we need to understand how spatial and digital experiences have morphed into something far worse than the pen & paper days of yore.

May 15, 2021