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Steve Baty
Aug 31, 2014
The constant search for improvement – optimising our world

This is the fourth post in a series of articles that will form an integral part of the Interaction Design Yearbook.

The constant search for improvements to our existing services can play a faint second fiddle, lost in the media hype surrounding ‘game-changers’. But the steady march of optimisation creates better and better interactions, reducing waste, error, and frustration. Bit by bit we become more efficient; more effective; more productive!

In the design landscape, optimisation is the poor cousin to disruptive innovation. And yet, far and away, the majority of design work can be seen as the execution of incremental change, targeted at efficiency, effectiveness, or productivity. In other words, whilst the lion’s share of attention goes to the disruptive innovation, the workhorse of our changing service environment is optimisation.

Take the SAP Scouting app – a finalist in last year’s Interaction Awards – as an example. They summarise the impact of the new design as: “The SAP Scouting app takes something that’s a 10- or 12-step process and makes it a four- or five-step process.” This is typical of the optimised interaction – carving out unnecessary steps, improving the efficiency of effort, and focusing attention on the tasks at hand.

Technology has a habit of accreting functions over time. Those functions are shoe-horned into the existing interface in ways not intended by the original design. Over time, compromise follows compromise, and what was once a simple system becomes too complicated for any but the most experienced to use. This was the challenge facing Swegon’s design team when they tackled the design of a new control system for their air-conditioning units

Over the years, more and more features had been added making it increasingly complex and difficult to handle. It required professionals with extensive experience to navigate and handle the large number of settings…

As we look for ways to simplify and streamline our lives, reducing the complexity of our interfaces – without sacrificing richness of functionality. This can be achieved through good design, and that is often the result of a good understanding of the people likely to be interacting with our service. At UX Australia a few days ago, Prof Xin Xiangyang gave an example of a new functional architecture for a device that was more complex structurally, but better supported the flow of people in undertaking common tasks. This simplicity of interaction was able to be achieved through the team’s understanding of those major activities and the people undertaking them.

There is another approach one might take to optimisation, however, and that is to look on aggregate across the entire ecosystem of participants, and look to optimise the net effort or productivity of all people engaged in activities. So, rather than optimising the purchasing process for a customer, one might seek to improve the productivity of the service personnel receiving and fulfilling that order.

Practice Fusion, the Cooper-designed iPad app for medical practices, strikes a balance between efficiency of the doctor, and experience of the patient. All too often, the experience of the patient is sacrificed in order to deliver productivity gains to medical personnel. However, in the case of Practice Fusion, the team found ways to increase the productivity of the doctor in ways that directly improves the patient experience.

These designs have significant, lasting impact on the day-to-day lives of the people using them. Whether that be through a reduction in the frequency of errors, improvements in the speed of repetitive tasks, or a warmer person-to-person interaction thanks to technologies that enable, rather than impede, human contact. They don’t always have to be block-busters to be good, or even great. There are plenty of small problems to fix!

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