taylorism that cares

Day 5 of 30. It's Sunday, which in some traditions is a day of rest, but the exact day doesn't matter; the idea that we deserve time to slow down and take a break is enshrined in a wide variety of belief systems, both religious and secular. It's a good day for brain farts: those random emanations of the good old grey matter that result from being bored, which state of mind is a rare commodity these days, to the extent that psychologists and neuroscientists feel compelled to remind us of its value.

(Though half the time, those reminders are confined to its value for kids, as though once we reach adulthood we spontaneously transform into beings of pure efficiency who have no need for play, whimsy, creative expression, or carefree exploration. Maybe our reminders to our younger selves are worth internalising for ourselves.)

Just this last week, I finally exchanged my Ontario Driver's License for a Danish kørekort, something I probably should have done roughly 18 months ago. But when you live in an aggressively bike-friendly capital city with excellent public transit, it's easy to put anything car-related at the very bottom of your priority list.

Start-to-finish, the process went as follows:

  • book an appointment at a public service centre online, using a multi-factor authentication app called MitID to identify myself;
  • 2-3 days out, receive an email reminder of the appointment, listing the documents I need to bring and what it will cost;
  • day before, receive an SMS reminder of the appointment, with a link to cancel or reschedule if desired;
  • visit the centre and check in at a kiosk using my mobile number, which is tied to my national ID number;
  • wait until the screen in the waiting area shows my number, and go to the indicated desk;
  • at the desk, hand over my documents to the service agent;
  • step over to a photo booth while the service agent continues processing the documents;
  • head back over to the desk, pick up my documents and a temporary license good throughout Scandinavia for 3 months;
  • once the license is ready, receive it in the mail at my address, which is also tied to my national ID number.

From the time I step into the service centre to when I leave? 10 minutes, maybe 15. It's efficient, the service agent is pleasant, everything is civil.

For contrast, I've dealt with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) before. The DMV is not efficient. You might show up at your scheduled time, only to wait for an hour to be seen by a surly clerk whose reactions range from indifference to hostile suspicion, as though you've done something wrong just by being there. You're surrounded by hostile signs that take great pains to tell you exactly which actions will land you hefty fines or even jail time. Most of the process is paper-based.

Maybe it's changed in the 8 years since I've lived in California. I certainly hope so.

Reflecting on my experience in Denmark, though, I had an entirely different thought, a Sunday brain fart if you will. Here it is: modern service design is Taylorism That Cares.

In Taylorism (or: a better visual explanation), managers design process and strategy for maximum efficiency, and workers execute. Early 20th-century implementations tended to turn workers into automatons, carrying out tasks according to precise schedules. Taylorism That Cares tries to put a more human spin on this arrangement: if you're more efficient, the thinking goes, your workers and customers will be happier.

And it's not wrong! I would much rather take the effective, efficient Borgerservice in Copenhagen over the gods-awful DMV in El Cerrito. I am happier being treated like a human whose time is valuable.

I can't help but wonder, though: what if efficiency weren't our overriding design principle? I see it in digital design as well. How might we minimise the number of clicks? How might we deliver the notification at exactly the right time? How can we make it faster to read this screen? Again, these thoughts aren't wrong. I do like screens with clear calls to action better than walls of text. I do prefer not having to navigate seven levels deep into arcane submenus to perform simple tasks.

But what if interfaces were designed to be playful? Not in the juicy-interface-addiction-loop way, but in ways that teach or explore or surprise, ways that encourage trying and failing and trying again. What about serendipitous? Don't just present me with what you know (or guess) I already like - what about something new, something I'd never have thought to look for? Or epic? Give me interactions with the narrative weight of Baldur's Gate 3 dialogue trees.

Of course, it's possible to overdo these, and one could argue that efficiency pursued to its logical conclusion at least provides a good baseline user experience. But deliberate diversions from efficiency as a design principle can lead to interesting places: souls-like games, Chore Wars, Explorable Explanations, Mao (card game), Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, and so on. Plus: deep down, I often wish the world were a more colourful, curious, and surprising place.