Human lessons for Humans

A meditation on design industry trends and one prediction for 2017

“The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
Abraham Lincoln

Twelve months seems an absurdly long period of time when attempting to predict tastes or expectations or needs that change constantly. As our industry grows, in both offering and adoption, so too does the rate of change. To keep up with this advancement, a deluge of articles descends upon us every year from late November into February, all making predictions about what designers will have to be aware of in the coming year.

In the following, I’m going to expand this year’s forecast beyond the ground well-travelled to include subjects that I intend to learn more about, practice, and advocate for. Anyone on a design team will find something valuable.

I, Robot

Unless the rock you live under is mighty cozy, you will know that AR/VR/MR, Chat bots, and AI systems have massive investment dollars and industry attention. Most of the reading in this maelstrom cites a lack of VR content despite increasing demand and that the long-term dollar value of the AR market looks to significantly outpace the VR market. Combined, this indicates that there is enormous opportunity for design teams to expand into.

AI services are what will continue to touch most of our lives before mass adoption of VR/AR gear. Services that integrate with devices we already have, the phone attached to your hand for example, will gain fastest adoption facilitated by ease of access. The clunky, broken experiences with almost-AIs like Siri will soon be a distant memory. Advancements are announced almost weekly.

If you haven’t yet, 2017 is almost certainly the year you or your team will begin working with smarter systems to aid in your project workflow and to help your audience solve problems in your designs. AI facilitated personalization and needs-anticipation won’t be considered nice-to-have app features — they will be user-defined expectations.

If you can design one thing you can design everything.
— Massimo Vignelli

I’m not buying too deeply into the idea that AI or machine learning assistance will make designers irrelevant. If content selection and display preferences will be managed by an audience’s personal AI in the near future, then designers of experience, identity, presentation, and story will continue to design valuable living systems. Those include adapting to known user preferences and context (screen size, device, location etc) and specific business needs. The systems we design will just be the foundation for true personalized AIs to make their contributions.

“And artisanal designers will continue to thrive, in large measure because their artistic contribution to design is a reflection of an underappreciated aspect of humanity — our love of flaws, personality, and shared experiences.
Computers could soon be our best developers
Unsplash/Honey Fangs

Design and interactive fundamentals will still matter. Depth, dimension, proximity, dominance, contrast, space, shape, colour theory, typography. Interface basics; element affordance — does a button look like something that can be clicked? Interaction fundamentals will still be highly relevant in VR/AR/MR and even when an AI knows when and where to apply the rules, a human being will still need to evaluate and contribute.

For some, Natural language or Conversational interfaces are going to change everything and mark the end of Graphical User Interfaces altogether. Why struggle to learn a new interface when you’ve already been raised from a pup to seek answers using language either spoken or written? Yet there are differences in engaging with people and using tools to solve problems or to build.

There is also the issue of accessibility; not everyone has full use of their hearing and/or speech. The process of discovery also cannot be ignored — we don’t always know the questions that need to be asked. Knowing how our minds make associations and connections should help designers to contribute and not entirely replace natural processes. Sometimes we need immediate answers, sometimes meditation and consideration leads us to better insights.

Most likely, context and user intention will define the best interface to suit the delivery of content — without unnecessary meddling into human processes.

Comfort In Change

The hand-wringing side effect from rapid advancement that we need to diminish is the anxiety from unknown human relevance in a world of constant change. It reflects a lack of belief in one’s ability to learn new things. To adapt. The ability to teach yourself new skills will continue to be the ability that helps you survive. Adopting a growth mindset provides confidence that as technology changes you can too.

Design and application development can be taught, practiced, and excelled at. Plenty of great ways to learn these practical skills. Personal skills that make you valuable to work with, are harder to find guidance for — placing significant financial burden on companies when new team members or collaborators have all the technical skills and few of the personal skills.

“The only thing that is constant is change”.

We are, all of us, in various temporary stages of change. Meaning we evolve as we experience, engage, and move forward. If we see this in ourselves why is it difficult to recognize in others when in collaboration or even conflict? Conflict resolution is a critical skill. Imagine if all parties in conflict have the same understanding of how to solve problems, have empathy for their counterpart, are willing to compromise, and are genuinely interested in a mutually beneficial solution to their problem.

Failure is an accepted rite of passage in start-up circles specifically because we must learn from our mistakes if we are to achieve any kind of success. When I was coming up, the mistakes I made included failed projects and conflicts that stemmed from communication issues. If everyone involved had been armed with strong conflict resolution skills and exhibited genuine empathy then these failures could have been merely dialogue that resolved in a meaningful way for everyone involved.

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.” Daniel Gilbert

In the endless rush to learn new working processes, new software tools, new platforms for collaboration, foundational skills and emotional intelligence shouldn’t be forgotten. They should be enthusiastically and continually reinforced. I have a cousin who is a doctor who teaches other doctors how to better understand and connect with their patients. Helping apply a practitioner’s technical knowledge to the people who are most affected by the application of that knowledge. Human lessons for humans. We all need this.

In Summary

Finding aesthetic or interface trends is pretty easy. Incubators like Y Combinator or Toronto’s own Ryerson DMZ can show us trends in which problems businesses are solving. We can see which smart investors are funding designers. We can see design’s impact on measurable success over time. And it’s recognition at the executive level. Hiring doctors, behavioral scientists, and storytellers help agencies give voice to the end user. And educating design teams as they build.

My one prediction for 2017 is that as practitioners we will finally find comfort in constant change in our industry and in ourselves. We will continue to embrace the foundational elements of experience design and the practice of empathy. We’ll do this utilizing any tools available — including robots.

What we build, we build with and for each other.