As digital assistants, bots, APIs, and connected devices grow in popularity, the user interface as we’ve known it is slowly becoming less important. The “face” of our companies is disappearing as users shift from searching a website for restaurants to asking a robot where the best sushi place in town is. Maybe our UI should have never been the priority. Maybe our core service, the most essential bit of what a business offers, in its most pure form should have been the focus all along.
“Mobile First” design required that we pare down the fluff in our typical desktop UI to find only the essential elements that would fit on a small screen while maintaining the expected functionality. Now we have a bigger (smaller?) problem – what if there is no screen at all? What happens if there is a screen, but we don’t control it, and our content is merely provided as a service to some other interface? Enter Service-First Design. In order to be able to apply your business strategy to any applicable interface, you must fully understand the core service you’re providing. Then design everything from user interfaces to APIs to suit that. First, let’s take a look at a bit of the history behind user interfaces.
“Your core service is the issue your business is trying to solve and the basic product it offers is the solution.”
A Brief History of Interfaces
In the 80s and 90s, computers were large and screens were small. The Macintosh introduced the mouse to the world as a way to extend human touch into the digital world. The pointer was an extension of your index finger and soon the mouse began to disappear as it felt more and more like your actual finger was clicking the screen.
Photo Credit: Iain McDonald
As desktop computing was becoming easier, largely due to flat screen monitors providing more screen real estate in a smaller package, many of us were transitioning to using our mobile phones for more than just making calls. There we faced the same challenge again – phones were large and screens were small. As technology advanced, phones got larger again, but screens were still too small to fit all the same features that we were used on our desktops. How do we make an experience, where users can now truly touch the interface, feel like the analog counterpart? “Skeuomorphic” design, making UI look tangible, helped ease that transition, but the focus was still more on the interface than the experience.
A New “Sense”
At the end of each of these eras we had exhausted the possibilities of each platform and were on the lookout for something better. Desktop usage has decreased in favor of mobile experiences, and now those mobile devices are giving way to a broader range of connected devices with the ability to “sense” or monitor for contextual information.
The next wave of consumer tech combines data from sensors like GPS, biometrics, and radio frequencies along with context, audience and a myriad of other cues to create a hidden platform truly customized for each user and each circumstance. The result is a new sort of sense that even human observation has trouble achieving: understanding intent. IFTTT took the idea mainstream years ago by combining services into recipes. “Send me an email if you detect motion in my house.” “Turn off the house lights when my phone is out of Bluetooth range.” Soon, a refrigerator might automatically order more milk to be delivered via drone when your supply goes low, but only if it doesn’t find any vacations planned, because you know, your ‘fridge will be integrated with Google calendar.
“The result is a new type of sense: intent”
When a business is able to map user intent to their core service and can prompt for calls to action at just the right time or even be so bold as to take action for you, a whole new world of possibility opens up. Service + Intent = Success. If the vehicle is intent and data is the fuel, how does your business turn the ignition? The key is unique to each business, but making it fit is a process that works for everyone.
After a few cycles of this, your core service should become more defined – more pure – making it easier to express on any platform that comes along. It should also become simpler to integrate with other related services.
How we interact with websites, software, and businesses services has changed rapidly and widely. I encourage you to take a step beyond the flurry of activity and stop designing for “multi-platform” support altogether. Begin to think of your service completely independent of any platform. This is only possible if you begin deeply understand and standardize your core service. Begin to design your new products and architecture around it rather than developing for the current trends. When Google Glass stops being so nerdy, you’ll be ready to capitalize. As connected devices spawn new ways of experiencing life, you’ll be able to adapt. As new operating systems and services pop up, they will be able to support you. No matter the platform, if it can benefit your business, you’ll be ready to leverage it.