Some thoughts on the future of Experience Design

Overview

This is the first of a series of linked posts exploring the future of Experience Design. These posts will look at how technical developments and adoption patterns over the next five years will impact the types of experiences we’ll be designing. They will also include a list of resources and emerging best practice guides for each of these experiences. The series will finish with some broader thoughts about the nature and future of experience design and it’s relation to other design and strategy disciplines.

These posts are a work in progress, the next five years is going to see a series of huge changes, many of which are just coming into view, so what follows is my best guess, so please get involved, add comments, refine my thought, disagree, etc.

Introduction

To try and predict and summarise the next five years of Experience Design in a few blog posts is obviously pretty tricky. It’s a diverse and dynamic field, so that there’s bound to be developments that I’ve completely overlooked. (Indeed, there’s every possibility that Experience Design, as a label at least may be less important in five years time, having been subsumed into Service Design or Design Thinking.)

As the Niels Bohr, the Danish quantum physicist, once said,

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

Bohr’s view is backed by Philip Tetlock’s influential book on prediction and judgement which found that predictions made by the average expert in a range of fields were:

“only slight more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee.”

However, despite discouraging precedent, here goes.

Digital Technologies are the Biggest Driver of Change

There are wide range of drivers of change that will significantly impact the practice of Experience Design over the next five years, from socioeconomic and demographic changes to macroeconomic and political developments. However, I’d argue that digital technology will be the biggest driver of change.

The global digital economy will continue to grow rapidly over the next five years, increasing in value to over $5,000Bn by 2020. The next five years will also see continued rapid user adoption of digital platforms, e.g. global smartphone ownership will jump from just over 2.5Bn in 2016 to 6.1Bn in 2020. All of which will have a huge impact not only on the way that people live their daily lives, but it will also fundamentally reshape some key sectors of the economy, e.g. financial services.

In addition, a range of new interfaces like Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality as well as applications and platform technologies like AI and the Internet of Things will radically alter the types of experiences we create. And while many of these technologies have been with us for some time in one form or another, it is in the next five years that they’ll move from early adopters to the mass mainstream. I believe this represents nothing less than a paradigm shift for experience designers. A paradigm shift as defined by American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn,

“is a fundamental change in the basic concepts and practices of a discipline.”

And I think that’s what we’ll see in experience design. These posts are an attempt out what will change and how. What types of experiences will be creating, how will be creating, what new tools and approaches will we need and how will that relate to the wider world of the organisations we work in?

People before Technology

Of course, the central premise of Experience Design is that design decisions are based first and foremost on clearly identified and understood user needs and behaviour.

Chris Milk, founder of VR start-up, Within, puts it well:

“VR is about more than just a specific technology or buzzword — we’re about creating and sharing human experience. Technology is just a tool to get us there.”

And he’s right. Mass mainstream audiences don’t value technologies per se, but the opportunities technology creates or the problems it solves. Technology is just a tool. However, user-centricity is sometimes misinterpreted as a belief that the likes of Experience Design are somehow independent of technology. And that’s not true. New technologies create new needs and behaviours. Experience Designers need to understand the possibilities that new platform technologies offer to and way that users are approaching them to help build the most compelling experiences on top of them.

And of course Experience Design is a discipline concerned will all user touchpoints, both physical and digital. However, digital technology will increasingly dictate the nature of physical spaces and interactions over the next five years. The integration of networking technologies and sensors, commonly known as the Internet of Things (IOT), will make it impossible to successfully design experiences in the next five years without a clear understanding of the possibilities and limitations offered by a range of digital technologies whether those are location based services or face recognition technologies.

So while Experience Designers will still be designing experiences around people’s needs and behaviours, it won’t be possible to design compelling connected experiences without a good understanding of adoption and capabilities of these new interfaces and platform technologies.

New Technologies

And it is possible to make some pretty educated guesses about what digital technology will look like in five years – a lot of what will reach the mass mainstream over the next five years has already been invented, and a decent proportion of it is already out of the lab or R&D  department, some of it is in the early stages of commercialisation or is already available on the market. Of course it’s much easier to look at broader, longer-term trends than it is to predict the timings and significance of specific implementations in the near term – e.g. the uptake of mobile over the last five years was relatively predictable, that Apple and the iPhone would develop such a dominant position, much less so.

New Interfaces

The concept of the Natural User Interface has been a staple for futurist visionaries and cool innovation videos for the last 50 years at least. However, despite interesting developments in the lab, with research teams developing gestural, voice, visual recognition and even thought-based interfaces, the vast majority of human interactions with computers have been through text and then Graphical User Interfaces.

Multi-touch, and haptic touch which have been instrumental to making digital technologies more accessible to mass mainstream audiences can be seen as a halfway house between graphic and natural interfaces. They’re GUIs that can be operated with simple and natural gestures.

The next five years will also see the adoption of a series of new visual interfaces, e.g. VR and AR.

Again, as is the case with voice, several of these technologies, e.g. VR and AR have been with us for some time. However, it’s only in the last 12 months that many platforms have reached their first serious phase of commercialisation (Playstation VR and Hololens). Over the next five years they will have gone through at least one more major commercial iteration that will significantly drop cost and increase capability.

New Platform Technologies

A whole range of platform technologies from AI to IOT will allow experience designers to develop a range of compelling experiences.

AI and Machine Learning

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning – a type of AI that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed – are not new. Commercial applications of AI and machine learning, including stock market prediction and speech recognition have been with us for several decades. However, in recent years the huge increase in data, and significant steps forward in GPU computing, have made both AI and, in particular, machine learning much more powerful and widely available. Machine learning is starting to become much more consumer facing with machine learning underpinning new types of interface like chatbots and voice assistants.

Indeed of all the technologies and experiences that will impact Experience Design over the next five years, it is perhaps machine learning that will have the greatest impact.

“A breakthrough in machine learning will build a company that is worth 10 times Microsoft’s value”

Bill Gates

And this is likely to be sooner rather than later. In his book the Master Algorithm, Pedro Domingos says:

“When the algorithms currently in the lab make it to the front lines, Bill Gates remark will seem conservative.”

In other words these algorithms and techniques already exist, they just haven’t been applied and commercialized as yet.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IOT) is a broad term which refers to the digital networking of a range of ‘non-computer’ physical devices, using cheap micro processing chips and more pervasive and powerful networking technologies. IOT devices range from small scale devices like fridges, toasters, thermostats and cars, to larger scale infrastructure like buildings and even whole cities

The IoT will grow enormously over the next 5 years, with over 30Bn billion devices connected to the internet by 2020, up from 10Bn in 2015, with non computer IoT devices making up over 2/3 of total of connected devices.

And there’s obviously a huge amount more I could say about developments in technology over the next five years, going further down the OSI stack from huge increases in the capabilities of cloud computing and big data to upgrades in GPU technology down to developments in Moore’s Law, which is of course remains one of the fundamental driver change. However, while these posts are about the technologies that we interact with.

Five Key Types of Experience

Though I believe that digital technology is the key driver of change over the next five years, and these posts will explore technical capabilities, the main focus will be the types of experience these new technologies enable, what users expect from them and how we design for them in the future.

I’ve identified five types of experience that I believe will be particularly important over the next five years:  conversational experiences, immersive experiences, personal experiences, atomic experiences and natural experiences.

All of these categories are based on what should be familiar, and in some cases well-known, industry terms. The categorization isn’t comprehensive – it’s intended to highlight the main trends, and nor do these experiences exist in discrete categories, so for example, a voice recommendation on your Google Home asking if you want to hear and buy the new album from one of your favourite artists might be at once personal and conversational. And, one final caveat, this is not intended to be a comprehensive framework, it’s intended as a good lens to explore and discuss the changes I think we’ll see over the next five years.

This series of blog posts will take a high-level look at each of these five new types of experience in much more detail, with overviews of the current state of play, projected technology and adoption trends and some of the key Experience Design principles developing around their application. Finally, I’ll also throw in some thoughts about the future of Experience Design as a discipline, it’s role and function and relation to service and other human centred design disciplines.

 

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