Speculative Design — Design Daydreaming or Innovation Tool?

Design — A word whose meaning has evolved from visual aesthetics to something more than user-oriented problem solving implementations. While there are still many categories within the design “umbrella”, since then, there have been many design methodologies and strategies that companies have implemented for better aesthetics and user experiences. A design process is always to improve a future, often characterised as the scientific method applied to the creative process. But what if all processes were uprooted to make way for “Speculative Design”? How and what are the repercussions of using a design method that many call “Design Fiction” for any product?

Imagining the Future in the 21st Century : The World of Future — Future Cities (1979)

Introduction

Let’s go back to 2007 when Steve Jobs took the stage for the announcement of the first ever iPhone. Back then, the world had never seen anything like the iPhone when Apple launched the device. In an interview, Steve Jobs revealed that the development of the iPad actually preceded the iPhone, as the tablet-pc market was what most tech companies were betting on for the next-gen computing. Former Head of iOS, Scott Forstall recounted Steve Jobs saying, “Do you think you could take that demo that we’re doing with the tablet and the multi-touch and shrink it down to something small enough to fit in your pocket?”

Photo by PAUL SAKUMA/AP

With Speculative Design, Apple imagined the future while re-thinking the role of technology in everyday life, and moved the company forward into a product category that already had giant players in it (BlackBerry, Nokia, etc), but with a product unlike any other. Speculative Design helped Apple to move away from the constraints of the commercial practice. At launch, the critics were comparing the iPhone against other smartphones and measuring it to the metrics people thought were important at the time. But with imagination and radical approach, coupled with design as a medium, helped Apple shift the entire mobile phone market into a new paradigm.

What is Speculative Design?

Speculative Design is based on critical thinking and dialogue, which questions the practice of design. Like its name, it’s to form a theory or hypothesise about a subject without firm evidence. Speculative Design, in its broad range, can be used to design future products or systems, be it hardware, software, or even experiences — imagining, exploring, and bringing unique speculative visions of the future. But for now, let’s take a look a Speculative Design used for UI/UX. Today, UI/UX Design — whether for desktop or mobile, is a complex process. There are lots of deliverables that may help with creating solutions that will be useful and fun for its users in the context of the new social, technological, media and economic conditions. But at least most of the time, we would have a design process that encompass a set of guidelines of how and why things should be designed the way they should be.

User Flow Diagram

I believe one of the biggest problems that Apple faced was that using the existing devices in the market (whether made by Apple or not) limited their design options in a way that was not optimal to the project tasks. Things like multi-touch gestures, iPhone’s touchscreen, and the entire user experience of a capacitive touchscreen phone wasn’t in existence. That’s why when Apple came up with prototype iterations of what the iPhone’s UI/UX could be, this was what was first conceived.

Image: Apple/United States Patent and Trademark Office

Built on the foundations of what they’ve learnt with the iPod back then, the first iPhone design that was churned out was pretty much what one would call a disaster today.

The iPhone OS (now iOS) team led by Scott Forstall had to predict future implications and rendering plausible scenarios while developing the entire user flow and journey map for the implementation and use of new user interface. The iPhone OS UI/UX was designed entirely from ground up with “Skeuomorphic Design” to aid users’ learning with adaptation of its real-life counterparts. Understanding the physics of the real world and then applying those designs to our digital interactions was a brilliant strategy that allowed people who were new to the system learn and understand what each button or app is for quickly. Also, it gave much of Apple’s apps a distinctive style over its competitors.

The Original iPhone with iPhone OS 1 with Skeuomorphic Design

With users adapting to the iPhone’s new revolutionary user interface easily, the world saw it as the benchmark for the best user experience — away from BlackBerry’s interface that was now considered old and clunky. And with Apple leading the way in the UX/UI category, Android dropped its previous UI that mimicked BlackBerry’s in favour of creating a similar interface and experience to win over users and market share.

Android’s UI/UX pre and post iPhone

If Apple didn’t apply Speculative Design on their product, one would wonder what phones would actually look like today. Smartphones have since become an essential part of our lives — with apps designed to make our tasks, both mundane and challenging ones, better and more efficient. Also, user interface and user experience goes hand in hand with a lot of user research to create a product that best suit the users’ needs.

What is Speculative Design Good for?

The methodology of “What If” design process shouldn’t be a way to “predict” the future. It is however more of a consideration of what the future can be. Through challenging the status quo, current norms and practices, Speculative Design can be a powerful tool for companies showing prospective approaches or interests within current or emerging industries that puts the company in the forefront.

However, it is not without any its bad points. Often, Speculative Design is given bad rep due to some companies allowing its employees free rein to think the unthinkable; exploring uncomfortable ideas that provoke heated debates. Also, many times companies that fund university students’ to work on Speculative Designs never follow through with their work, often resulting in people calling it a work of fiction, ending something that might be promising before it could even happen.

How Can Speculative Design Help with Design Thinking/Process?

As designers, we’re attuned to changing trends and future possibilities. However, while design processes help to solve immediate problems, sometimes 2–3 years later, when we look back at the work we’ve done, now with a different perspective, we might think that things could have been done differently if there was just a little speculative and research work involved. Developing a critical sensibility towards Speculative Design could help challenge assumptions that might have unfolded in the process, making the development of design a discipline that is iterative and ongoing.

While this covers just the tip of the iceberg of the potentials of Speculation Design, as a designer, I do think it’s good keep an open mind to different/new design processes. It’s always good practice to remember that great design is a continuous journey of exploration and discovery. I personally feel that if used correctly, Speculative Design could be a great innovation tool for education, organisations and even for the environment. And while people may call it “Design Fiction”, I prefer the term “Strategic Foresight & Futurism”.