THE BLOG
26/07/2013 10:12 BST | Updated 24/09/2013 06:12 BST

Services Become Atomised

One company that already does well to provide a strong example of atomisation is Spotify. The digital entertainment company has atomised its streaming music service into a variety of different shapes, such that it is now available via a number of digital platforms

As technology advances, everything is becoming interconnected, and the services we design and deliver are no exception. The rise of the Internet of Things means that soon everything will be connected to the internet, and the services we design will need to be connected across various platforms and delivery systems, in order to be useful. The digital world will intertwine with the physical world, and the services we use will answer to this shift by becoming 'atomised'; that is, spread across different touchpoints. This will present new challenges for designers and brands to ensure that user experiences remain seamless. It will also affect how services and products are branded. Let's have a look at how brands are already atomising, and what designers can do today to drive successful user experiences.

One company that already does well to provide a strong example of atomisation is Spotify. The digital entertainment company has atomised its streaming music service into a variety of different shapes, such that it is now available via a number of digital platforms - desktop, on mobile devices, through a Sonos home entertainment system, and now even incorporated into Ford's auto dashboards. Spotify has done this well, but not without encountering design challenges along the way.

When a product or service is atomised, it must be communicated to the customer in as holistic of a way as possible, whilst taking on the shape of the environment to which it is adapting. For example, atomisation of Spotify includes design considerations that must be addressed, such as how to ensure that the service is offered consistently across environments, whether it's within a vehicle or a home entertainment system. The challenge is to ensure that the design values, including interaction, visual and signposting, remain consistent across these platforms. For example, if the average person uses Spotify on their smartphone app over 60% of the time, then they will be conditioned to look for the 'shuffle' option in the same place on the service when interacting with it in the car or within a web browser. If the shuffle button isn't consistent across platforms, or does not conform with the host platform's native UI, then Spotify risks confusing and alienating its users.

In addition to ensuring that design values remain consistent across platforms, issues of branding will need to be taken into consideration as well. Using Spotify as an example again, designers working to incorporate the service into auto dashboards had to consider how its iconic green colour scheme would best be able to integrate with a Ford car's system, and balance that need against Ford's own branding. Atomisation requires us to change our approach to branding and relinquish the 'brand police' mindset, which has no place in atomisation precisely because it is unable to control all manifestations of the service.

In the new age of atomisation, it's not just the look and feel of a product that will define a brand, but consistency in behaviour. This will be a challenge for more stabilised, mature companies whose marketing processes run deep. These established giants will need to learn to be flexible to keep pace with new start-ups as their services become atomised. Equally, however, smaller players and up-and-comers will need work diligently to ensure that platform owners don't mask the service provider itself, obliterating its brand by absorbing the service into its own.

In an analogous example, a precedent for this exists in the last century, where supermarket chains needed to balance the need to offer famous brands alongside their own branded products, which for them are actually more profitable, as they hide the original provider and serve to build brand loyalty to the retailer instead. A similar balance exists in the context of atomisation, wherein brands will need to work out how to ensure their services remain visible, i.e., how to successfully exist as the Coca-Cola on the shelf rather than the supermarket-brand carbonated drink.

Atomisation is set to affect a number of brands and industries. For starters, banking is an industry where services are already becoming atomised. Financial services such as personal banking already exist across different platforms, including apps, web browsers, and digital wallets that allow us to control our finances, initiate banking transactions and manage our spending power. This will only increase as time goes on. Healthcare systems are another example of budding atomised services. Withings, a health technology company that develops connected health devices like smart scales and blood pressure monitors, already aggregates data from a number of sources, such as the activity monitor, Fitbit, to provide the user with a complete picture of their health.

The above are just two examples of atomisation of services, and in upcoming years, we'll see this increase. Industries such as travel and hospitality and privatised healthcare will be able to benefit from atomisation, in that it will empower these services with access to both data and a choice of platforms from which to provide more tailored, useful services to its customers.

Ultimately, service design is about understanding how humans, technology and service fit together. The key task is to identify the experiences that consumers require and allow them to assemble the right components at the right time to provide an answer to their wants and needs. As we increasingly gather more real-time data on usage and context, this task will become perhaps more challenging, but even more essential for a service to stay relevant.