When identical is not the same as equal

Is ‘identical’ always the same as ‘equal’? Not in service-design – and one of the issues we need to watch for is to ensure that identical service-provision does not lead to far-from-equal service-outcomes.

If ever you want an all-too-real example of this problem in practice, go to almost any public event, and note the huge queues outside the women’s toilets – queues that you’re unlikely to see outside the men’s.

Those queues don’t happen because “it’s just the women are all putting their lippy on”, as one sarcastic male colleague put it. It’s actually a fairly serious service-design failure – and it’s the kind of failure that happens whenever anyone fails to understand that identical is not always the same as equal.

By ‘identical’, I mean that the same service is provided, usually occupying the same physical or virtual space – typically the physical or virtual dimensions, in terms of the asset-tetradian.

By ‘equal’, I mean that the service is experienced as leading to the same or equivalent outcome – typically the relational and aspirational dimensions of the asset-tetradian.

To illustrate the point, let’s explore that specific example of service-provision: toilet-space in public places.

[This is solely about service-design: nothing else. It happens to be a particularly clear example of this kind of design-flaw, that’s all.]

Many cultures – most ‘Western’ cultures at least – provide separate toilet-spaces for males and females.

[We’ll ignore the cultural drivers for this – they’re not particularly relevant for this example. All we need to note is that this is so.]

Toilet-spaces typically include one or more of three distinct forms: individual cubicles, individual urinals, and collective urinal. Individual cubicles take up the most space, collective urinals the least.

For reasons of simple anatomy and – dependent on culture – clothing-design, in general only males will be able to use urinals.

Again dependent on culture and clothing-design, usage of cubicles will often usually involve partial removal of clothing – especially for females. Again for social reasons, this means that in most cases some form of privacy would be expected, typically requiring the cubicle to be large enough to incorporate a closable door.

A typical truck-transportable ‘portakabin’-type toilet – such as used at many event-venues – would be able only to accommodate a single row of perhaps ten cubicles, compared to a double-sided collective-urinal that could accommodate at least a dozen people either side.

A simple time-and-motion study [pun not intended!] indicates that usage of a cubicle takes some two to three times as long as using a urinal.

If we put all of these factors together, we’ll recognise that women will probably need more than twice as many toilet-units as men, occupying around five times as much space as that for men, in order to achieve an equal outcome – same numbers of relieved customers in the same time – from the same nominal service-provision.

Conversely, if we provide the same amount of space – as is still all too common in, say, a theatre-design – then the same usage of service-provision overall is going to take around five times as long for women as for men. Hence those inordinate queues…

The all-too-literally painful lesson here? – Identical is not the same as equal.

In most societies now, structural-inequality is pretty unpopular. In most businesses, inequality of outcomes can create not just loss of future business, but increased risk of serious anti-client problems. In short, it’s not a good idea.

Hence it’s not a good idea to allow our service-designs to create that kind of unequal-outcome by default, through carelessness on our part in the service-design process.

Which means that we need to be careful to distinguish between the service-provision itself, and the outcomes of that service-provision – and design counter-mechanisms to cope with contexts where the circumstances themselves would tend to create unintended inequalities.

Just another not-so-unimportant point to ponder, perhaps? 🙂

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