News & Views

What is Your Brand's Service Personality?

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Remember Microsoft's Mr Clippy? I was reminded of the demise of the perennially-chirpy, paperclip-shaped Office 'assistant' while chatting with service design company Fjord's chief client officer Mark Curtis about the future of services last week.

Loved and loathed by the user interface community, Mr Clippy - to my mind at least - was stupid and annoying. He didn't know me or know that I'd written countless letters, and made decisions that were more likely to hamper than help me. He assumed too much, and knew too little. 

But Mr Clippy's oh-so-expected fate sums up a couple of problems on the horizon for brands and technology companies as they start to build the next generation of brand agents, such as Google Now or Apple's Siri, which are contextually-aware. 

We've talked a fair bit at Contagious about the rise of marketing as service design over the past couple of years, but Fjord's Curtis sees the future for brands as going further. He calls this new wave of digital products Living Services. They'll be all-pervasive, distributed across many devices and web-connected objects - so think wearable technology, smartphones, connected homes, products and cars - and aware both of the person using them and their surroundings. 

The market for context-aware computing is expected to grow at a 35.2% compound annual growth rate to hit $120bn by 2018, led by Apple, Google, Intel, Microsoft and Nokia, research company Marketsandmarkets projected in a report last May.

Services that add value to people's lives by learning and adapting to the user look set to become a competitive difference for brands. But there are a couple of big problems looming. The shift from passive services to ones with agency is fiendishly difficult to execute, Curtis told me. By adding an extra layer of  interconnected factors - where you are, what you've done, who you're with - service designers have to take into account an explosion of new variables that make building these services mind-bendingly complex. And that's just on smartphones. How should that same service be different in the car as opposed to the home, or on your wrist?  

Beyond that, companies looking to build these clever services now have a different, but related problem to the designers of Mr Clippy. They know quite a bit more about who's using their digital services, and our devices have decent processing power, which means they're starting to predict and pre-empt people's needs. But as they become more proactive, what should their brand's service personality be? Is Nike+ a pushy coach or passive? Is HSBC's banking service strict on spending or a spendthrift? Does Tesco suggest your usual groceries, or something more adventurous? How, when and why do those factors change?

Development complexity aside, the bedrock of how these services will be created is surely in the human-centred design principles shops like Fjord work with. Perhaps we can expect user interaction designers, psychologists, brand managers and service designers to work together to build service personalities for brands. The next wave of smart, living services from brands has the potential to be valuable for people in every part of their lives. The tricky bit will be making sure they don't go the way of Mr Clippy. 

Ed White is editor of Contagious magazine