The Future Draws Closer: 9 Design Prophecies for 2019

The future starts today, not tomorrow.

I am sitting on a lone asteroid at the farthest most edge of the universe. From here I can see the twinkling din of innumerable galaxies, expanding and contracting, going bright and going dim, swirling about in perfect harmony amidst the beautiful backdrop of infinity.

It is almost silent, but if I lean in just right I can hear the murmur of background radiation echoing from the abyss beyond the very boundary of space and time. I dangle my feet off the edge of this lone asteroid and look down. The entirety of the cosmos — all that has ever existed — is at my feet.

For a moment, I am God.

And then I take off my headset.

I’m not sitting on an asteroid anymore, but on a beanbag chair instead. And I’m feeling nauseous. Sometimes this happens when I leave the Virtual Reality scenarios I’ve been building, like a scuba diver getting the bends from ascending to the surface too quickly. I call it Reality Sickness — that jarring transition from the virtual world to the real one — and it never gets any easier. I sit for a moment, orienting myself, before gathering the strength to stand up and walk to the kitchen. I pull out a Soylent from the fridge and look out at the San Francisco skyline beyond.

If I squint my eyes just so, the glimmering lights of downtown look like the stars of far off galaxies. But I know not to ruminate on them too deeply, for as Shakespeare once said, “it is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.” And I, Chase Buckley, am not just the keeper of my own destiny, but the world’s as well.

I have put together a list of my most prescient design prophecies, and now I offer them to you, free of charge, so that together we may rewrite destiny. But we must act soon, for in the words of Pope John Paul II, the future starts today, not tomorrow.


1. Serendipity Flashes

Serendipity — luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.
We’re seeing the rise of serendipitous moments — spontaneous, unprovoked pop-up instances of joy and intrigue!

As designers, our primary responsibility is to deliver delight to users in every way, shape, and form at our disposal. From sumptuous animations to splendid login fields to gorgeous microinteractions, we invest a great deal of time in bringing joy, however subtle, to our audiences. All too often however our missions of delight fall short — no matter the site or app, the conventions are all the same; the interfaces are homogenous; the content is redundant; the interactions are exhaustingly familiar and the overall experiences are all too predictable to bear.

We often hear of users likened to zombies — and sometimes, observing their endless scrolling and soulless browsing, it starts to feel like we’re the ones responsible for setting these behavioral traps that we’ve lured them into. We’ve wrangled them in to an endless series of hooks and triggers and minor rewards with little to no way out. But where are the major dopamine hits? Where are the true crescendo moments of happiness? Keep your Super-Likes and your expanded emoji sets, I want change.

And fortunately for users, many other thought-leaders, myself among them, want change too. And that is precisely why we’re seeing the rise of serendipitous moments — spontaneous, unprovoked pop-up instances of joy and intrigue, all triggered seemingly at random and designed to “wake up” users from their virtual stupor (whether its unconsciously scrolling through Facebook or haphazardly touring the galleries of Instagram), and give them delightfully unexpected, satisfying, and sublime experiences.

Just imagine a future where you’re interrupted from your rewardless tinder swiping only to behold a thoughtfully handcrafted letter simply thanking you for being you.

Or a future where you find yourself 127 photos deep in the album of a distant acquaintance, and then suddenly snap out of your daze to discover a wonderfully ornate photo montage of your happiest moments of 2012.

Truly, the opportunities are endless — what a serendipitous world this could be.


2. Progressive Enclosure

Progressive disclosure refers to the technique of helping users maintain attention and focus by reducing clutter, confusion, and cognitive workload. Usability is thus improved by presenting only the minimum data required to accomplish the task at hand.

Progressive enclosure, on the other hand, is about steadily sealing the user into your product or service by reducing the amount of external stimuli around them while simultaneously increasing the amount of dopamine-inducing hooks from within the product; the end-goal being that your user is virtually sealed into your product.

Twitter does a superlative job of reducing external stimuli, ensuring my attention stays focused on my riveting newsfeed.

An excellent example of progressive enclosure is Twitter, which has created an almost entirely self-contained ecosystem for itself, where users are able to subsist entirely off of internally created and distributed content, sustained further by their addiction to the update icons which help affirm their in-group status among their networks and peers. More and more sites will begin to create these walled gardens for themselves, allowing their user bases to spend the entirety of their online time in one place, employing new hooks and triggers to minimize the chances that users might flee elsewhere.


3. Millennial Responsive Design

In my award winning article, The Future Is Near: 13 Design Predictions for 2017, I forecasted a number of brilliant predictions. Among them was the notion of Age-Responsive Design, where platforms adapt to the age of the user. The idea of Millennial-Responsive design builds upon this idea, except this time platforms will adapt to the very specific proclivities of the notorious “millennial” generation.

Millennials are projected to have over $1.4 Trillion in spending power by 2020, but winning over this coveted market will take serious innovation.

From 18 to 33 years old, millennials are a hot topic. They’re detached from institutions yet surprisingly ideological, proud and autonomous yet insecure and dependent on their parents, and financially entitled yet social justice oriented. And its precisely this complex web of contradictions that has allowed this coming of age generation to elude all but the shrewdest of marketers.

Millennials are projected to have over $1.4 Trillion in spending power by 2020, but winning over this coveted market will take serious innovation. Future platforms will identify millennials arriving at every touchpoint, automatically re-rendering content to accommodate their unique tastes and dispositions:

AI Algorithms will draw from pools of general content to craft unique lines of copy for each and every millennial user, capitalizing on this generation’s passion for unique one-of-a-kind experiences.

Advanced image-editing software will access and siphon data from users’ publicly accessible photos, compositing their pictures onto native content to create new images that are familiar, relatable, and compelling, thereby quelling the users insecurities and latent fears of the unfamiliar. For example, a stock photo of a crowd might be manipulated in real-time to superimpose the faces of several of the users’ friends (pulled from their social networks) onto otherwise anonymous members of the crowd.

Products, services and advertisements will camouflage themselves as petitions and social-justice-minded materials. Similar to the tactics employed by Kony 2012, brands will repurpose their messaging to sell products to millennials under the pretense of social change.

Brands will appeal to millennials’ strong sense of self by generating products uniquely tailored to the individual. By aggregating vast troves of metadata, brands will be able to leverage powerful AI’s like IBM Watson to automatically ideate and design one-off products and services.

A brand might offer one user a t-shirt with the user’s most recirculated Tweet printed on it, while simultaneously offering another user a monthly subscription package of posters based on famous landmarks that the user visited as a child.


4. The Stratified Web

Our ventures into Virtual Reality will be more decadent and euphoric than even the brightest minds of our generation can imagine (your humble narrator included!). Not even the Buddha himself could’ve envisioned the kind of daily Nirvana that we’ll be experiencing in just a few years time. Unfortunately, given the current state of the things, this bright and shimmering future won’t be accessible to all of us.

Our concept of free time and recreation is about to change forever. Pioneers in VR tech are pushing the furthest most boundaries of the human experience.

Its easy to forget that, for whatever reason, much of the globe still lacks even the most basic internet connections, let alone an understanding of, or appreciation for, virtual reality and other emergent technologies. And as tempting as it is, we shouldn’t ridicule the Global South for their bizarre lack of interest in the new entertainment tools emerging in the West.

Our concept of free time and recreation is about to change forever, and yet more than a billion people can’t even be bothered to make Facebook accounts. The implications of such a culturally detached segment of the world’s population are far reaching; the ripple effects of their digital-negligence will be felt for eons to come.

While we’re busy immersing ourselves in experiences beyond our wildest imaginations, literally dipping our toes into Web 4.0, perhaps even Web 5.0, these late-adopters in places like Timbuktu, Ulan Bator, Dhaka and Kathmandu will just be acquainting themselves with the most basic facets of the internet. They’ll be governed by the whims of fly-over-WiFi drones supplied by the likes of internet.org and other benevolent NGOs.

As users in the West spend progressively more time immersed in virtual worlds, billions of have-nots in far-flung villages will be scraping by on low-bandwidth connections, destined to spend the remainder of their lives on a primitive internet entirely separate from our own.

So while we’re becoming the Gods of distant galaxies, virtually of course, these late-bloomers will rely on shoddy, low-bandwidth internet connections, relegated to skimming html-only versions of the internet circa 1994. The online experiences of the haves and have nots will be so polarized, and the web will become so stratified, that talking to them will be like trying to FaceTime our caveman ancestors. Designers of the future will need to pick their sides, and design for their respective strata of the internet accordingly.


5. Kula Trading & The Hypershared Economy

Nestled in the far flung Trobriand Islands of eastern Papua New Guinea there exists a ceremonial practice known as the Kula Ring- a unique trading ritual which, though quite primitive, provides an amazingly accurate forecast of the sharing economy of the not-so-far-off future. One that is anything but utilitarian.
 
The Kula Ring is a system of exchange revolving around annual inter-island visits between trading partners from different tribes, who exchange valuable shell ornaments with one another. The rules are quite simple: Each participant in the trade ring has two partners:

(1) one to whom he gives a necklace in return for a shell armband of equivalent value (2) the other to whom he makes the reverse exchange of an armband for a necklace.

Although each individual is tied to only two other partners, each contact has an additional connection on either end of the distribution chain, which eventually forms a great circle linking more than a dozen islands over hundreds of miles of ocean.

Trobriand Islanders prepare a traditional trading canoe for use in the Kula ritual.

After years of back and forth trade, each necklace and armband finds its way back to its original owner — slightly worn and frayed, but all the more more valuable now that it has crossed hands with every other tribesmen in the network, enriched with immense symbolic meaning. The practice ultimately serves to help promote and maintain peaceful contact and communication amongst the different island inhabitants, who endure considerable effort and hardship to keep the trade routes moving.

For those out there incapable of following metaphors, the Kula Ring is clearly a prophetic view of our own future in the West — one in which consumers care far more about the relationships and experiences gained through transactions than of the actual items and services themselves. And the precursors to this value-shift are all around us.

Similar to the relationship-building behind the Kula Ring, users flock to AirBnB and CouchSurfing not merely to fulfill the basic need of shelter, but to establish meaningful and enduring relationships along the way.

Users flock to AirBnB and CouchSurfing not merely to fulfill the basic need of shelter, but to establish meaningful and enduring relationships along the way. The same can be said for RelayRides and Liquid and the host of borrowing apps that allow neighbors to share their goods with one another — not for profit but for interpersonal gain. And its especially evident in Peer to Peer marketplaces like Zaarly and Quirky and Etsy, where the items being purchased are obviously worthless, yet still maintain value by virtue of the relationships they help to create and maintain.

Designers of the future will be wise to acknowledge the implicit values of connection over utility, of interpersonal relationships over profit, and of enriching interactions over pragmatic exchanges. We’re on a trajectory towards the Kula Ring — where the ultimate goal of our transactions is not to come out on top, but to come out together, instead.


6. Webmentos

Internet is the new television, and for many, that translates into endless hours of near-unconscious online zone-out sessions. In the course of my own User Testing, I discovered that in over 23% of use cases, when users exit their respective browsers or apps after an hour or more of consecutive online activity, they are entirely incapable of accounting for more than 5% of what they saw, what they watched, or what they read. Worse, they are wholly incapable of providing a remotely accurate estimate for just how long they were engaged on any one site or platform.

This behavior is deeply disconcerting, and even worse for brands and products — its increasingly difficult to design a loyal & dedicated user base when the bulk of your audience can’t even remember meeting you to begin with.

But as is so often the case, the invisible hand of UX reaches down from the digital heavens and delivers yet another tool to help awaken users from their drooling slumbers.

Web Mementos are real-time generated, behavior specific recaps of users’ online journeys.

We’ll start to see the advent of Webmentos (Web Mementos) — custom tailored, behavior-specific recaps of users’ online journeys — delivered straight to the user’s device in the form of a pop-under. These webmentos contain a highlight reel of the user’s actions on the site, perhaps even a picture of the user’s reactions if their camera is enabled, allowing for a special, unexpected souvenir that awaits the user at the end of their session. When they tab out, the webmento surprises them — a shiny, personalized souvenir to help them remember what they did (and why they should return!) — good for both the user, and the brand.


7. The Dunbar Dilemma

For those not in the know, the Dunbar Number refers to our brains’ cognitive limit on the number of interpersonal relationships that we’re able to maintain at one time. In fact, scientists speculate that our neocortical processing capacity limits us to a total of 150 to 200 simultaneous relationship at once. For most of human evolution this limit hasn’t been a problem, but times have changed, and it doesn’t take a transhumanist to realize what this means for humanity in the digital age. This cognitive weakness isn’t just an inconvenience in the epoch of social media — its a threat to our very way of life.

The Dunbar Number refers to our brains’ cognitive limit on the number of interpersonal relationships that we’re able to maintain at one time — Social Media has begun to challenge this physiological limit.

We’re butting up against an impasse that we need to confront. As Facebook, Twitter, Medium and Instagram (among others) continue to reach their tentacles into every niche of our lives, we’re experiencing ever more cognitive fatigue and duress. Its not just that their omnipresent tentacles overstimulate us to the brink of exhaustion — rather, our brains are literally short-circuiting themselves trying to maintain these massive, unsustainable networks of relationships.

Until neural augmentation wearables are available at every Safeway and Walgreens, which is at least a decade off, we’ll need to have serious ways of addressing the Dunbar Dilemma — lest we exhaust ourselves to the brink of insanity trying to juggle all these relationships. I believe that designers will begin to solve this problem by designing rigid limitations to the number of friends we can maintain across social medias. After all, good UX isn’t about what the user wants (the user will always want to gorge themselves on more friends, more followers, and more likes until its made them catatonic), its about what the user needs; far fewer relationships.

Mark my words: the Dunbar Dilemma will be the principle concern of User Experience Design in the 2020’s and beyond.

As we march forward you’ll see a change in our current trajectory of follower accumulation; we’ll see a pushback against the race to reach 10,000 friends — and instead we’ll see a move towards a simpler, saner time, where friendships might mean something again.


8. Pico Interactions

First there were microinteractions, those single task-based interactions nested in so many digital products, like setting an alarm, liking a comment, or tapping a hamburger menu. Then, in my last article, I discussed the rise of Micro-Mini Interactions — the multiple, microscopic interactions nested within microinteractions themselves. And by 2019, if not sooner, we will have Pico Interactions — thousands of imperceptibly small interactions interpolated together to constitute what is now just a micro-interaction.

Interaction is literally everything, and in the race to captivate users, drive conversions and win marketshare, the richness of interactions is key. Countless designers are already focusing on microinteractions as it is, ensuring the robustness of their products by filling every possible touchpoint with incredible detail — but there is still much, much more to be done, and I believe the interactions arms race has only just begun. Nearly every interaction you look at can, and very likely will, be improved by injecting even smaller, sub (pico) interactions and minutiae into it:

Example 1:

  • Microinteraction: Pairing two devices together using bluetooth.
  • Micro-Mini Interaction: Toggling the bluetooth setting on.
  • Nano Interaction: The bluetooth button expands when tapped.
  • Pico Interaction: (1) The bluetooth button momentarily shifts to an interstitial animation, flashing white for 1/32nd of a second, between the On and Off State. (2) The bluetooth button bounces 2 pixels vertically for 1/64th of a second when returning to the On state.

Example 2:

  • Microinteraction: Controlling an ongoing process such as music volume.
  • Micro-Mini Interaction: Swiping the volume button incrementally to the right.
  • Nano-Interaction: Swiping the volume button a singular interval to the right.
  • Pico-Interaction:(1) Force-touching the volume button for a quarter of a second, to increase the volume a quarter of a point. (2) Extended-touching the volume button to see the recommended volume level for the respective audio-track being listened to.

The possibilities to enrich every interaction with even greater detail and delight are near limitless — indeed we live in exciting times. My only question is whether there are interactions even smaller than the Pico-interaction? Is there room for the Femto Interaction, the Zepto Interaction, the Yocto Interaction? Only the future can tell.


9. Simulated Fallibility

Thanks to the hard work of thought leaders in design like Jonny Ive, Steve Jobs, David Kelley, Jennifer Aldrich and Chase Buckley, the internet, and nearly every product and service inside of it, has never been sleeker. The web is arriving at near pixel perfection, where highly polished, mobile responsive, digital masterpieces await at every turn. And yet, even as we arrive at this promise land of complete visual mastery, something is missing. The human touch.

Even in our most perfect technology there is always a need for the human touch.

The problem is that while the digital world is perfect — people aren’t. That’s not only my mantra as a UX influencer, but its my call to action, too. Design isn’t about giving people what they want — pixel perfect, glistening visuals at breakneck speeds — its about giving them what they need — humanity. Because for all the beauty of design in 2016, it can also be very cold, very sterile, and very alienating. It lacks the essential traits that make it relatable to humans — imperfection, fallibility, flaws.

I’m not calling for the complete destruction of our wonderful products and services, but merely the occasional reminder of the underlying humanity behind them — the occasional typo, the intermittent glitch, the rare but welcomed eyesore on an otherwise beautiful landing page. Brands are already instilling fallibility in their products — and by making them less perfect, they are, by virtue of these newfound flaws and vulnerabilities, making them even more perfect. Go ahead, try it, your users will love it.


Thank you.