Defining a Decade
I love giving decades meaning. As they recede into the past and are edited and distilled, the meaning emerges. From my digital-centric perspective, the 2010s feels like the decade digital matured. Digital giants suddenly wield more power and data than many governments and both politics and society are rapidly adapting to an increasingly virtual habitat. Where does this leave us as we roar into the next decade? It’s fair to say it’s unlikely to be remembered as the Boring Twenties.
I feel very lucky to work at the heart of the digital sector. There hasn’t been one year, in the 20 that my company has been around, that I haven’t been excited – I always relish thinking about the potential for the future and get inspired by the changes I see happening.
I can already see shifts in response to the impulses created by corporate digital, online society, human augmentation and of course data and AI. All these movements are interconnected. I’ve outlined the five key things that will transform our digital lives in 2020 and beyond.
"I feel very lucky to work at the heart of the digital sector. There hasn’t been one year, in the 20 that my company has been around, that I haven’t been excited – I always relish thinking about the potential for the future and get inspired by the changes I see happening."
The next interface inflection point is coming
Our digital devices are no longer really devices. They are part of us. They augment our lives and our bodies, but the way we interact with them sucks. For the level of features and intelligence, we now demand from our digital services, the interaction models of buttons, menus and even gestures is inadequate.
The change the iPhone made when we moved to the touch-screen model springs to mind. It reduced friction, accommodated a greater interaction vocabulary and thus unlocked greater potential for the way we could connect with the digital world. When you look at how we use these devices now, 13 years on, the user journeys are a mess of interruptions, layered gestural interactions, and overloaded architectures. We desperately need a new paradigm for our interfaces.
This isn’t news. The standing-room-only crowd that packed SXSW seven years ago when Google launched Glass, knew this. Attendees knew that an Extended Reality device that was usable every day had the potential to unstick some of the friction we feel with our devices. Sadly, it was the product that came unstuck – neither the technology nor the users were ready. But with VR now verging on mainstream, the go-to for gamers, it’s possible to see a generation of kids expecting to interact with virtual worlds. These interactions don’t rely on buttons and menus, instead, the interface is based on the way we connect with the real world (and I’m making no apologies for how Matrix-y that sounds). XR devices are going to rule once the hardware has its Walkman Moment. The question for designers is how do we create experiences using this technology to improve people’s real lives?
"XR devices are going to rule once the hardware has its Walkman Moment."
Climbing out of AI Uncanny Valley
As an interaction designer, what fascinates me about Intelligent Assistants is how frustrating they are to use. They’re similar to the Animation Uncanny Valley that was identified as the reason people didn’t warm to certain CG movies – character design that wasn’t quite realistic but wasn’t quite cartoon either, came off as creepy. Our digital assistants are suffering something similar. They are sophisticated enough for us to anthropomorphize them – I often worry about Alexa’s mental health with the amount of abuse she takes from my kids – but they don’t yet have the sophistication we expect from another living being. This mismatch of presentation and delivery results in an inauthentic, unsettling experience where we’re not sure about how to interact and whether it’ll make us feel silly if we get it wrong.
The challenge to UX designers, is how we can design interaction models that build confidence, handle complex functionality and communicate brand stories. Once we start to achieve these, digital assistants will be able to truly replace point-and-click as the go-to interface.
"The challenge to UX designers is how we can design interaction models that build confidence, handle complex functionality and communicate brand stories."
Static architectures are crumbling
The demand for more effortless-to-use and better-connected experiences is clearly creating the need for new interaction models. But it’s also shaking the foundation of the static information architectures that underpin almost all digital services today.
The current approach of establishing user types, personas, journeys and then architecture is not a great way to design personalized or conversation-based services. This process is intended to be human-centered but tends to be built on sweeping assumptions about the way people are based on what car they drive, or what newspaper they read.
The static architectural model of user interaction design will gradually be replaced by new design systems that learn from real-world user interactions and evolve in real-time. These agile systems require new design processes to create them and new structures to manage them. Challenges that UX designers and strategists will increasingly be faced within the coming few years.
"User experience designers, including the data scientists, strategists, and engineers that shape the platforms of tomorrow, have a responsibility to all users. Their focus must be to improve the lives of all the humans who touch their products."
The rise of Sentient Brands
It’s interesting that while we now interact with brands in lots of different ways – in-store, on their site, on social, apps and so on – each of these moments of connection remains almost completely independent of each other. As brand interactions become smarter on individual platforms, expectations for interconnectivity will grow. What’s opening up is the opportunity to create, in a sense, a sentient brand. A brand that’s interconnected so that interactions from one touchpoint can be shared with others. So, when I walk into a store, the brand ambassador recognizes, for example, that I’m a loyal customer but complained on Twitter about my last online purchase experience. The technology to deliver this interconnectivity is easily implementable but the experience design and internal processes to support it need careful consideration. The win for brands, however, is the opportunity to create stronger bonds with consumers. This space is going to be capitalized on very soon – the brands that get it right first will be the ones who steal market share.
Everything relies on Inclusive Design Systems
Data is the fuel for living, learning, interconnected digital systems. Businesses are moving fast towards data-driven operational models to shape internal processes as well as consumer interactions. This feedback loop of action and data-driven evolution is already forming the basis of the agile business models and brands of tomorrow.
However, it’s vital that human-centered designers of these living design systems are aware of the potential for baking bias into our feedback loops that excludes people.
We live at a time where diversity is increasingly accepted and, more correctly, valued as an inherent part of our humanity. Brands are recognizing the value of diversity in their teams, not as a social service, but as a business benefit. To solve tomorrow’s challenges, it’s vital that businesses, societies and most importantly our design systems are inclusive of diversity.
But how do we design for this when diversity can equal complexity? And how can we spot unconscious bias when applied to the designs we create?
The simple answer is that we must add auditing to our feedback loops. Auditing through reactive and proactive research must be built into our design systems to enable us to continually check that we are enhancing connections with all individuals rather than focussing on some needs over others.
User experience designers, including the data scientists, strategists, and engineers that shape the platforms of tomorrow, have a responsibility to all users. Their focus must be to improve the lives of all the humans who touch their products. But these are big challenges that require new skills in technology, data, and design in order to deliver.
Inclusionary design applied now to individual components, the atoms of our digital ecosystems will feed inclusionary design patterns, in turn, inclusionary products, and ultimately, entire inclusionary business models.
By focussing our efforts on designing data-driven, learning systems that accommodate the diverse needs of humans we will create the foundation for digital products that support us all in profound ways.
The brands that stick to rigid ways of thinking and working, built on static architectures and designed to appeal to arbitrary demographics will soon be extinct. The brands that care, learn and evolve along with us will be the ones who survive.
All of these ideas have recently piqued my curiosity as a designer of digital experiences. I won’t claim my list to be exhaustive, it ought to be a catalyst for open discussion about the challenges and opportunities coming in the next phase of our digital evolution. I hope these observations inspire you as much as they do me.