Canvas to orb: an inflexion point in digital experience design?

Exploring the transition from pixel painted canvases to multi-sensory orbs

A new metaphor for a new digital epoch

Connected history has been defined by the rapid broadening of the user base. Its future will instead be determined by the deepening of connected experiences for existing users.

This seemingly subtle adjustment precipitates surprisingly significant change: the dominant metaphor for encapsulating digital experiences will shift from the canvas to the orb. Pixels hitherto held captive by a largely two dimensional frame are poised to break free and join sound, depth and texture in a universe of floating, conceptual digital orbs which may alternately surround us, engage us or draw our glances.

Finding the clues in existing products

New metaphors such as this challenge our ability to think beyond iterations of existing products, so it can be useful to anchor them in clues already visible in today’s technology. For instance, consider a digital health experience designed to make users more active. Today it is already commonplace and manifest in smartphone apps, dedicated wearables like Fitbits and more immersive products such as Nintendo’s Wii Fit console. In an example such as this, we might conceive a future where a small conceptual orb is analogous to the fitness data displayed visually on an Apple Watch, supported by its non-visual notifications delivered through haptic feedback. This might be linked to and experienced within the wrapper of a larger orb, such as the HTC Vive VR headset, where the user is engaged in a game to stimulate fitness activity.

In this case, the dominant visual and physical experience is wrapped in the orb associated with the VR headset, but equally important is the role of the Apple Watch, which provides a meta layer of narration, delivered through little vibrations on the wrist to indicate progress. The Apple Watch, although conceptually the smaller of the two orbs, may float to the front of the user’s consciousness when the overall experience needs to be interrupted — for instance, to remind the user of an upcoming appointment. In this sense, the moment of the orb coming into focus, perhaps through haptic or audible notification, would serve as a transition state to extract the user from immersion in the larger orb and refocus their attention on a third orb of, say, a canvas-like smartphone screen containing details of the forthcoming meeting.

The legacy of the canvas is ending

Today, most of the design work for a digital health experience like this example would be limited to essentially painting pixels into a series of two dimensional digital canvases. It would also happen in isolated, disconnected pockets. Embracing a metaphor like digital orbs would enable a joined up approach capable of engaging more of the users’ sensory spectrum and more appropriate to their overall context.

To better understand the differences between canvas- and orb-led approaches to digital experience design, we need to examine how we’ve got to where we are today.

Decades of cheaper, more portable and more capable personal technology has resulted in ubiquity in many markets. Where ubiquity remains elusive, there is a sense it is only a matter of time before it is achieved. In 2015 there were 4.7 billion unique mobile subscribers in the world, 63 percent of the population (source: GSM Association). The connected user base will broaden further, but the effects of this broadening will be less significant than the deepening of individuals’ connection with the digital world.

Digital ubiquity, however, has been limited to a homogenous form: the canvas. Look around you and it is a sea of glowing rectangles. We carry them on our wrists, we mount them on our walls and we hold them in our hands: illuminated, directly identifiable descendants of the magazine, book and stone tablet.

These canvases, whether they’re worn as a smartwatch or sat on a desk in front of us, share certain characteristics:

  1. They require visual focus
  2. They frame content
  3. They limit us to exploring a largely two dimensional world

The most popular digital design patterns, from Microsoft’s Modern UI to Google’s Material Design, rely on concepts which would be familiar to graphic designers from any earlier age: boxes, buttons, containers, cutting and pasting.

Most digital services today, whether they are thought of as ‘apps’ or ‘websites’ or ‘channels’, can be deconstructed into a series of linked digital ‘pages’. There’s good reason for this: the tools, the process and the platforms through which they’re deployed are all structured in this way. This is understandable and, indeed, probably desirable while the majority of users fell into an age group where understanding of information architecture predated digital ubiquity. However, that demographic profile is rebalancing irrevocably in favour of digital natives.

Orbs: bringing form and function to ubiquitous data

The deepening capabilities of the digital environment are better suited to a new metaphor of the orb. While this will represent substantial change, it must also be rooted in a reference point of physical experience, just as the age of digital broadening relied on the familiarity of the canvas to anchor its relevance.

The orb is found throughout our growing understanding of the universe: it is the image of our world and the planets beyond — floating spheres in dark space. It is the popularly conceptualised form of the atom. It even recurs in mythologies around the world, from the fortune teller’s ‘crystal ball’ to the ‘palantir’ of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Orbs are of this world and yet seem to encourage our imaginations to look for more. The refracted rainbow hues of floating bubbles and the absorbing depths of a glass sphere draw the eye and tempt us to examine it from all angles.

The orb’s form, which is inherently multi-dimensional, is a far more potent digital space than the canvas. Within the orb, we naturally imagine there to be properties of depth, characteristics of sound and feelings of texture. While canvases are navigated, orbs are explored.

There is also something communicated by its spherical form. It is more easily imagined as part of an interconnected system, whether that is in the orbits of planets around their stars, or the stream of bubbles following an intangible path through the water.

This is necessarily esoteric. It looks ahead to a future where the major implicit goal of digital industry — broadening — has been replaced by a new priority: deepening. However, even amid such ephemera it is possible predict routes which take us from today’s reference points to the new metaphor:

  1. Expect input mechanisms and output formats to be diverse and intertwined. For instance, digital experience design will better anticipate the possibility of users weaving together stylus, voice, touch and other product-specific input mechanisms across multiple touchpoints. Output modalities will similarly range from existing canvas-like pages, but extend further to immersive visual experiences — such as virtual or augmented reality — as well as audible and haptic elements.
  2. Service architectures will exist in a fluid, conceptual space of multiple dimensions. Capabilities might congregate temporarily in the wrapper of an orb so as to be appropriate to a particular context, then disband into the background of a larger, enclosing orb when not needed.
  3. Orbs will be both conceptually small — things which might be contained within a handheld device like a smartphone — and conceptually large — such as a virtual world explored through an immersive headset. These instance can and will co-exist, with the user transitioning between them throughout their day.

To complete the metaphor of the orb, we should assume:

  1. Data will be air. Invisible, ubiquitous, essential and capable of being temporary encapsulated within orbs which imbue it with properties of exploration.
  2. Orbs may be constructed of different materials. Some might be likened to toughened glass — rigid and semi-permenant. Others might be like bubbles — flexible and fleeting.
  3. Orbs may combine temporarily or for longer periods. Sometimes in overlapping, three dimensional Venn diagrams, at other times through orbits of association.
  4. Orbs may float in conceptual space around users. However, users may also step into them and become fully immersed for a time.

This shift has implications for all who work in the sector:

  1. Skills. First and foremost, there is an urgent need to prepare for the transition by expanding digital practitioner skills beyond two dimensional pixel painting. The shift will likely draw in practitioners from other fields such as audio and theatre design, cinematography and physical crafts. In doing so, it will become more important than ever to have both a specialism of your own and a broad working knowledge of practitioner vocabularies across multiple specialisms.
  2. Margins rebalance from structural to emotive. Structural players like network operators, operating system providers and device manufacturers have drawn the largest share of profits during the age of digital broadening. The coming age of digital deepening will see these margins migrate to those who deliver experiences through those structures, while placing pressure on the infrastructure-led businesses to refocus on emotive differentiators. For a device manufacturer, for instance, new opportunities will be found in unique twists on the input modalities and output layers.
  3. Evaporation of digital preoccupation. Digital broadening has been an epoch defined by gorging, among both users and the companies who’ve built the industry. Users’ appetite for canvas-based digital pages has placed an unsustainable load on their visual bandwidth. Correspondingly, digital companies have grown fat by emphasising digital itself as a differentiator. As digital natives come of age, the term ‘digital’ will become an unnecessary prefix and the majority of ‘digital’ experiences will diffuse into the sub-conscious rather than conscious.

What do you think?

‘Canvas to orb’ is a work in progress — literally, a page from my private notebook. I’m sharing it here in the hope of encouraging collaborative discussions to help me develop it further: please add your comments below…

Your responses will determine where it goes: a deeper exploration at mobileuserexperience.com, perhaps? Maybe a session at the MEX conference or a discussion on the MEX Design Talk podcast?

(Feel free to email me mp@pmn.co.uk if you’d rather share thoughts privately)