“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
— Steve Jobs
…Design is the story.
The role, influence, and impact of Design thinking in product development has garnered tremendous respect and prominence in the past two decades. The perception and role of the designer on the product team is transforming from that of being the team’s “artist,” to that of being the team’s “product strategist”. This mental shift underscores the rise of the “Strategic Designer” as a business thought leader, and has transformed the way companies think about developing software and apps. However, while UX designer’s have earned a seat at the leadership table, “design” is still largely considered just another service layer in the product development process — A column on the Kanban board that decisions and features must pass through. The future for this “tactical designer” is slowly dying and giving birth to a new archetype that blends the strategic with the creative — the Narrative Designer.
Narrative Design is more than just the future of UX. It is also the future Business Model. Today, many companies are still oriented around “selling products and/or services to customers.” This, however, is no longer good enough for tomorrow’s consumers. Companies must take a critical mental shift away from “selling products and/or services to people,” to a more humble mindset of “serving people’s needs.” Through this lens, the experience individuals have with your company is the product. In this world, a company’s engagement with the customer lives well beyond a simple transaction, and is more about a defined relationship the customer has with the solution they need and desire. These are the narratives that future designers are and will begin to shape.
As consumer choices expand, the standards for a customer transacting with a business are rapidly evolving, especially as more and more of our products are beginning to be delivered as a service. Consumers are beginning to look beyond the superficial facade of the brand and beginning to ask themselves questions like, “How will a company securely, responsibly, and ethically serve me?” They are starting to buy more into the motivations, philosophy, and personality of the brand (The Why?)… These factors will define the relationship a company has with the customer, and will be the foundation for establishing an on-going relationship and dialogue. Companies that look beyond just their core product, to how they holistically serve customers will create stronger and more loyal relationships with customers that can open up not only new possible revenue streams, but also reoccurring ones.
Let’s look at what is driving this future, and how this transition is occurring:
AI is Eating the Design World
It is inevitable… UI Design will die.
Artificial Intelligence is an uncontrollable phenomenon that is beginning to shape many aspects of socio-economic life. Interaction Design and Visual Design are two small areas where this will become the case. In the future, interfaces won’t be designed by human’s, but rather by software. There are two main reasons for this: 1.) the Perfection of Interaction Design, and 2.) Personality Responsive Design.
The Perfection of Interaction Design
Once we have identified the “optimal” way for a user to interact with a particular component, take for example a “calendar picker,” there is no real need to “re-invent the wheel” with every new design iteration. As our body-of-knowledge around user testing begins to grow and becomes ubiquitous, we begin to narrow in on what is optimal for different use-cases. The need to change an interaction paradigm only occurs if the nature of the interface or the user’s context completely changes. As computers become intelligent and capable of “self-learning,” software interfaces will not be designed, but rather generated on the fly for optimal user interaction. Interactive components will live as a library within a software system, leveraged by AI-enabled systems to serve individuals with optimal experiences. As new “interactive components and paradigms” are added to a software’s UI library, AI-enabled systems will be able to not only test the basic efficacy of the interaction paradigm in real-time, but also its efficacy across contextual environments, devices, personality-types, ages, etc. In this manner, “good design” now always gives way to “the right design”.
Personality Responsive Design
Personalization is already at the heart of many digital strategies. AI will take this to the next level. With AI, the the experience a user has with a digital interface is fluid. The UI layer of a digital product/service will be able to automatically re-render content to accommodate a user’s unique tastes, dispositions, age, etc. Thus, the question will shift away from “what content does this user need/want?” to “what kind of relationship should we (the company) have with this user?” At the heart of defining these relationships will be a personality and content strategy the defines the character narrative a company wants to play in said individuals life. The content strategy of an application will become the experience.
As AI begins to take over tactical Design tasks, designing experiences will increasingly become about defining the personality and narrative of a company/product and managing that evolution over time. Character development, story telling and content strategy skills will become the most in-demand skills required of tomorrow’s designers. Designers will be responsible for not only defining the system’s narrative, but also potentially for how a business is organized around serving that narrative securely, responsibly, and ethically.
Manipulation as a Skill (Personality Designers)
“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.”
— Philip K. Dick
We discussed how AI will take over tactical design tasks, but how will these AI systems themselves be designed? At present, we tend to think of AI systems as a singular personality type. However, as AI models evolve, these systems will become capable of taking on different personality “types” and methods of communication. Designing appropriate personalities for different tasks and modalities will become a critical skill-set. Defining and designing a personality and/or behavior, though, requires subtlety and manipulation, so that downstream “automated” decision have the desired impact and psychological frame of mind. This means designers of AI systems will require not only a keen understanding of psychology and sentential logic, but must also cultivate wisdom.
Sentential logic is “the branch of logic that studies ways of joining and/or modifying entire propositions, statements or sentences to form more complicated propositions, statements or sentences, as well as the logical relationships and properties that are derived from these methods of combining or altering statements.” It is the logic of language, abstracted from “belief”. It is a set of rules by which AI system’s can create logical arguments that are independent of an established belief. The personality narratives given to the systems will form the “preconceived beliefs” upon which these systems will use sentential logic to define appropriate conversations with users. Understanding how these logic systems will play out with “seedling” thoughts will become a critical “design skill”.
Designing a personality narrative requires an immense amount of responsibility, accountability and wisdom. This individual (or group of individuals) are effectively the parental archetypes that will guide the ongoing “lessons” for a solution’s presence in society. New solutions will be fed narratives and “back-stories” that will become the cognitive foundation upon which the system makes decisions, and thus how they interpret, understand and communicate with the system’s end user. Those extremely adept in behavioral sciences and how to positively train, groom and manipulate the AI system to reflect desired behaviors will become in high-demand.
As AI systems begin to take root, a unique breed of “psychology skills” will be required to help companies make effective decisions about the systems they are developing and how they will reflect their brand in the marketplace. This will be a time when brands truly “become alive” as these virtual personalities take over many streams of communication. Critical decisions about the system’s personality, tone of voice, demeanor, etc. will need to be made. Those responsible for “rearing” and guiding the system will have tremendous accountability for their decisions, especially as rules around liability for the actions and decisions of those systems become formalized.
The re-emergence of Craftsmen & Industrial Designers
“We live in a digital world, but we’re fairly analog creatures.”
In a world where AI drives communication with consumers, the concept of an “interface” will slowly begin to disappear. In recent years, the prominence of the industrial designer has taken somewhat of a “back seat” to digital designers in terms of popularity. I see this trend reversing in the future. An industrial designers’ ability to think and craft in 3D, knowledge of different materials and their applications, and understanding of yet-to-be modern manufacturing processes will reemerge as critical skill sets. This is being driven by 3 major facets:
Virtual & Augmented Reality
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality 3D design skills are becoming increasingly more important in the realm of User Experience Design. The application of these systems will extend far beyond the incredible opportunities we see as possibilities in the Travel and Entertainment industries, but also for the future of industrial design and modeling. Everything from the way machines such as, MRI machines, Cars, and airplanes are designed and conceived, to architecture and interior design will under go a transformational shift (We are already experiencing the beginnings of this!). Designers who know how to model and craft in these 3D worlds will be in high demand as the opportunities to really think outside of the box and shape new realities for commercial projects become quicker and cheaper to concept, render and experience on the fly, before committing to a design.
3-D Printing & Industrial Manufacturing
3-D Printing and Industrial manufacturing are on the cusp of a major boom. No longer will our manufacturing processes be restricted by the economies of scale that have driven many design patterns. 3-D printing will allow customized design patterns that can serve a particular need to be cost-effectively “printed” and leveraged within a larger manufacturing context. This will ultimately allow for newer, higher-quality products and ideas to come onto the market that under today’s circumstances, would have never seen the light of day. Everyone seems to be aware that robots are beginning to take over more manufacturing processes, however the more interesting facet is seeing these robots evolve to become “service generalists.” In other words, no longer are they hyper-specialized to only a single task, but are capable of being programmed and adapting to handle a variety of new and varied tasks. The evolution of multi-faceted robots, 3-D printing and virtual reality enabled design means we are rapidly approaching a time where the concept of “personalized manufacturing” is not considered an oxymoron. A single factory, could service millions of people with truly customized products that don’t look like one another.
(NOTE: Desktop 3d printing, will have a major role in this area, but I will save that for another day…)
Material innovations are by no means new, however, advancements on this front have the ability to really transform our world in radical ways. Namely, advancements in material technologies can really shape how technology is embedded to better serve users, our experiences, and even the environment. As new material capabilities (think Tesla’s solar tiles, and/or conductive fabric that can monitor vitals) come onto the scene, new and better ways of supporting user needs will become apparent. This has the potential of radically challenging the current landscape of how we are serviced by technology and the role of privacy and security within the context of a ubiquitously connected “invisible” environment. Individuals who know how to manipulate these materials, and create styles or modalities of use that drive longevity, comfort and desirability will become highly desirable.
Our physical world is changing just as rapidly as our digital world. To date, we have been largely restricted by the need of a “box and a digital interface” to connect with the virtual world. This paradigm is rapidly changing, as more and more connected “things” make their way into our environment. These new “things” offer new paradigms for design, interaction, and manufacturing that many have yet to consider. As these advancements make their way into our world, though, many of them have the ability to be perpetually on, but invisible to our senses. How should these items be designed? How should we interact with them? There are many questions that are yet to be understood or answered. However, designers who already know how to manipulate these objects and embrace the “craftsman” mindset will know how to capitalize on a world where “personalization” will become as much of a physical reality, as it is a digital one today.
Design Thinking as Common Core
“A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist.”
Today, the C-suite is just beginning to recognize the importance and value of design thinking. These individuals are still largely dependent on having c-level designers/strategists to help manage and guide their decisions and understandings related to “design thinking”. In reality, though Design thinking is a philosophy and approach to problem solving that reaches well beyond just the design of a product or service. Knowing how to manage and lead design thinking based activities and processes is a critical thinking skill that I envision becoming a part of the common core MBA curriculum.
As design, strategy, and technology become increasingly intertwined, it will no longer be good enough for individuals to just know one facet of business. Future business managers and leaders, will be expected to know how to manage and lead cross-functional teams as they exist across design, business and technology domains. Design thinking’s approach in this context will evolve to become a management methodology that allows for rapid iteration and testing in a world where humans and AI systems will work together to solve problems.
The future of UX is “UX as the product”. Our world is driving towards a future where defining and articulating the experiential narrative of your brand/product/company will be the single most important thing you do to retain and attract new customers. Interfaces are disappearing and business models are shifting to service-oriented models that extend the engagement and thus the relationship businesses have with their consumers. Managing this on-going experiential narrative will require long-term thinking and keen narrative design skills, especially as AI systems increasingly take over digital communication channels. As a result, companies must begin looking to improve not just “what they sell,” but also the “why and how” of what you sell. This will become the foundation for those company’s “personalities” in the market place, and will ultimately be how consumer choose who they want to be “engaged with” (or serviced) by over time. Companies not afraid of radically redefining and realigning their business around this narrative will be the ones to win customers over. Managing and controlling the narrative will be your sustaining competitive edge that drives customer loyalty and retention.
Designers are very well positioned to dominate in this new future. AI will shift many designers away from the tactical to the more strategic, narrative, and psychological domains of the practice today, however, the foundational skills of UX designers today as holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers will uniquely position them to lead in the future. And for those who still wish to remain “tactical”, the physical world, enabled by smart materials and other technologies, will return as the primary medium.
“The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers-creative and holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.”