Design is Matter.

Tomorrow more than ever.

My grandfather died in 1993, never having owned a computer. A year and some months later I became one of the fewer than 1 in 10 Americans on the Internet.

24 years later, computing capability per dollar has increased more than 1000-fold, 77% of Americans own smartphones, nearly 9 in 10 Americans are on the Internet, and over 8 in 10 have broadband. And, this rate of progress is all very likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Foreseeable Future

It should not be a shock, that while “Mobile” has become the Internet platform of the present, that Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are its platforms of the future. Today, VR and AR might be fun ways to kill some time, but these technologies will become small and simple enough to become part of our daily lives, replacing mobile experiences with a customizable reality to suit our every disposition, mood, and need.

This working contact lens display was first demoed in 2009. “It powers and controls a visible array of 64 pixels, safely, in a living eye, in a surface area smaller than one side of a penny.” — via VentureBeat.

Today, I can video chat with a couple of my friends — one eating lunch in New York at a diner, one eating dinner on a plane somewhere, all while I eat my breakfast in San Francisco. That’s an astounding advancement, considering where we were 24 years ago.

In the future, however, I’ll see my friends all seated at my kitchen table, and we’ll all be in that NY diner in my friend’s booth, and on the plane next to our globe-trotting friend (hopefully in first class, I like the virtual leg room,) or maybe we’ll all decide to meet up on the peak of Mount Everest! This technology will connect us beyond just sight and sound, not merely the unsatisfying phone call with distant loved ones we miss, but in a more instinctively human fashion — where we share a space, make eye contact, etc.

It won’t be perfect, certainly not right away. I’m sure every now and then we’ll probably all laugh, say “Progress!” sarcastically and hop back on an “old school” video chat due to connectivity issues, like we do when encountering a glitchy video chat today — but it is coming.

“We design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us.” - Anne-Marie Willis

Our job as product designers, tomorrow more than ever, will be to make our work feel like a second skin. One that extends people’s reach, that evolves their lives and the way they experience them. While this may feel like an abstract responsibility today, it should only become more obvious with each advancement in our medium.

The Theory of Ontological Designing

“Ontological Designing” is a philosophical theory which I find intriguing when approaching my work as web and mobile product designer. The theory proposes that we, as a species, are being actively designed by that which we have designed.

For instance, just as stone tools visibly changed the shape of humanity’s jaw, our phones are changing the way we store and process information. Smartphones, computers, and the internet have already become mind extenders. As a result, memorization has become less and less valuable; while quickly accessing, consuming, and interpreting information has become moreso.

To begin simply, ontological designing is a way of characterising the relation between human beings and lifeworlds. As a theory its claims are:
- that design is something far more pervasive and profound than is generally recognised by designers, cultural theorists, philosophers or lay persons;
- that designing is fundamental to being human — we design, that is to say, we deliberate, plan and scheme in ways which prefigure our actions and makings — in turn we are designed by our designing and by that which we have designed (i.e., through our interactions with the structural and material specificities of our environments);
- that this adds up to a double movement — we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us.
Ontological Designing by Ann-Marie Willis (p.80)
This piece is called “Hands FIXING Hands.” — Also, “M.C. Escher” is what I’m going to name my free-style rapping robot companion someday.

As web and mobile designers, this duality of design is very rarely considered. But, as we begin shaping the world as people interact with it, via augmented interfaces and content, it will become inescapable.

Twentieth century philosopher, Martin Heidegger, describes the “practical performative act” of using a hammer,

“What is known is lodged in the practical performative act, as it is expressed by the hand as exercised skill, it thus does not correspond with knowledge as we understand it as reflection or description.”
Remakings by Tony Fry (p.94)

You might read the description of how to use a hammer, but the “practical performative act” of using the hammer is one which requires subtle dexterous skill which must be learned through physical use. Only then does “the designed” become an extension of its end user, with which they can in turn design.

Similarly, you might write a great FAQ or intro about your software, but if the difficulty in learning to wield your new “hammer” (or car, or phone, or photo app) is more difficult in practice than just continuing to use the one I have, well… :poop-emoji:

How does this help us, today?

Ontological Designing is a philosophical theory, not a design methodology. The idea is to become cognizant of the relationship between that which we design and how it designs the worlds and lives of those who use it. To allow that knowledge to inform our approach, versus a series of methodologies one might practice or adopt.

So, what are some ways we can seek to create mobile technologies that continue to provide faster access to an increasing number of services, while doing so in a way that fundamentally and intuitively improves the lives of people who wield them?

Here’s four quick thoughts for the road, but I’d love to hear your ideas as well! Send me a tweet or respond to our post.

  1. Understand your target demo and its tech pain points. What do potential users of your solution use today? What are they familiar with and enjoy? What confounds them WRT to technology? Once you know that, ask yourself how we can move them from where they are to something better — seamlessly.
  2. Test your hypotheses. In person user testing, A/B Testing, feedback tools, user surveys, etc. — use it all. Don’t believe your solution is right just because it’s your idea, test it early and often. This allows us to save ourselves from our own “horizon of understanding” which informs the intuitive prejudices behind our ideas.
  3. Iterate from a small but powerful product capability until it is compelling and useful enough to demand repeat/routine engagement. Only then should you complicate your product with complementary feature sets.
  4. If you need a FAQ, you did something wrong.

Wil Everts is a founding partner of Must Win — the Tech World’s Favorite Boutique Software Agency.

Wil is a product-savant who loves conceptualizing products and features, designing user experiences, and improving company culture. He has a cat named June, loves the St. Louis Cardinals, and was the First Blogger Transmitted into Space.