Along with an ever-increasing demand on the planet’s natural resources, a rise in the production of new goods and services is forcing us to address our relationship with consumption, and how we deal with its main by-product: waste.
The problem however, is not limited to physical waste. There’s also an ever-growing tide of inactive, dormant, or extinct customer accounts and other online personal data swallowing up the digital landscape.
As designers, one of our objectives when creating digital services and products should be to incorporate a “closure experience” that allows customers to end their relationship with the service as easily as they started it. A good closure experience brings a satisfactory conclusion to a product or service relationship, with each party feeling satisfied with the completed transaction. It should be a fair and just conclusion without consequence.
Users will feel increasingly vulnerable as more and more services fail to deliver closure, leaving user data hopelessly exposed in endlessly open digital relationships. Increased consideration for closure experiences in our designs can help with this.
All Things Must Pass
On a human level, the act of ending a relationship can be awkward and uncomfortable, and is often the last course of action. Anything we can do to distance ourselves or avoid this type of confrontation is preferred. To some extent, this applies at differing levels in relationships between customers and businesses.
Over time, our relationship with closure has shifted, distancing us from some of the starker realities of finality. To use an example that begins with the very end, we know that in the U.S. 32 % of all deaths occur in hospitals and 20% occur in nursing homes, with any pain being managed by medicine. By comparison, in the not-too-distant past, people would die at home surrounded by close family and friends (including children), all of whom would ultimately have the responsibility for final physical duty of removing the body. The absence of pain medication meant those in attendance would often witness the real, stark and sometimes brutal reality of death.
Meet the Maker
Another example that demonstrates our changed relationship with closure is our responsibility for the products we own. In the past we often knew the people who made and sold us the products we used. In modern times we’ve become accustomed to dealing with faceless multi-national companies. On top of this, the lifecycle of products and the value we place on them has changed, too, with our buying habits now geared towards a continual throwaway and upgrade mind-set.
Even our responsibility for the products we own has diminished from a time where we would cherish, repair, recycle, or give them away when we no longer needed them. Most people place them in a refuse sack and leave them outside their homes for someone else to discard.
At Our Disposal
There has been a shift in focus in the service industry, too, from creating long lasting loyal relationships with customers, to prioritizing short-term customer acquisition strategies. Traditional services—once paper-based and face-to-face—have embraced digital methods for onboarding and communicating with customers.
Achieving operational efficiency is one thing, but it’s also clear that this way of working can be detrimental to the relationship between customer and business. Fifty years ago, for example, people frequently held a job for life, growing one pension over time. This was a simple and manageable delivery mechanism.
Today, the U.K.’s Department for Work and Pensions tells us that, on average, we have 11 employers in our lifetime, and that probably means 11 different pension pots, each coming through a different service provider. Worse still, the British charity Age Concern suggests that one in four of these pension pots goes missing due to lack of contact.
Closing the Curtains
Considering the importance and the number of services people sign up to these days, it’s surprising how few are consciously closed. There are some examples of closure experience consideration, with Facebook introducing memorial pages in 2009 for departed loved ones and Google recently taking action with its Inactive Account Manager tool. But these are late bolt-on features for such established services.
The newest and latest digital services suffer gluts and famines of active users, as the most popular solutions win favor and the others collapse in the rear-view. A direct consequence of this are the many open, yet inactive users accounts that still return search results, and still host that unflattering picture of you at the office party.
Designers must address system inactivity vs. user inactivity, and respect the implicit user need. When a user doesn’t use an account for some time we need to present them options for closing it. Leave it lingering, for search engines to source, or potential employers to reference creates poor user experience.
Future thinking and consideration should be given to the development and design of services to provide users with an enhanced and improved experience, which helps improve transparency, accessibility, empathy, and customer management.
As designers we need to move away from current design tools, which focus on the ideal path of “awareness” to “sign-up” to “first time use,” and broaden our tools to include closure experiences.
Instead of focusing on personas based on past positive data focused on the opening of accounts, we must look at personas based on people leaving the service in order to challenge quality and improve the offering.
Our relationship with closure changes with every generation. Our great grandparents removed the responsibility of the product relationship with mass production. Our parents removed the responsibility for budgeting with easy credit. Our generation is removing the responsibility of privacy with unclosed digital services.
Each generation has increasingly lost touch with closure, as we remove layers of responsibility. The fact remains that everything ends and we need to start designing it.
Considering the full consequences of our designs should make a compelling case for reducing our litter in invisible services and digital product landscape. Closure experiences are a way to think beyond “creation as a conclusion” and allow us to take full responsibility for the entirety of the product lifecycle.
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