A couple of months ago I received a group email from a media studies instructor with a link to a story about Twitter reporting on Super Bowl advertisements, and the sender declared it to be “Convergence in the media!!!” (Yes, there were three exclamation marks). I scratched my head at this, because it was just flat out wrong. Twitter talking about and allowing users to rate television ads is not “convergence.” But the word convergence has become such a trendy buzz word in media studies that even an instructor in the subject can misuse it. So let me set the record straight: convergence is a phenomenon that began with the explosion of the world wide web, and particularly enabled by the spread of wifi networks and portable computing, where information technologies and mass media become so interconnected that they merge. Convergence has transformed entire industries. For instance, since news organizations have started distributing their product on websites, tablets and phones, they have expanded the types of media they distribute. Now newspaper journalists not only write stories, they also shoot and edit videos that can be instantly streamed online. That’s convergence. Twitter buying some TV commercials isn’t.
In the early 2000s I gave a series of lectures on how trends in convergence and multi-modality (the delivery of the same media in different formats across different devices) were changing the aesthetics of media. For instance, the design of news websites, with their multiple layers of information and software-style interface, fundamentally changed the look of television news. Compare the look of a news broadcast from the 1980s to one today and the difference is enormous. In the old style the news anchor is sitting in a physical studio in front of a camera. In the new style the news anchor is embedded between layers of information windows and motion graphics, essentially placed within a software interface. At the same time, a single device fundamentally changed the aesthitics of video: the Apple iPod. Once people started watching music videos in the palms of their hands, the old cinematic style of music videos was replaced with a stark, flat, software-style aesthetic. The micro-screen now rules over the cinema screen, and the affects this has had over media design was fundamental. I predicted that these trends would spell the end of skeuomorphism in design. Skeuomorphism is where designed elements mimic physical objects or textures in the real world. So for example the contacts application on your computer would be designed to look like an actual leather-bound address book. The new paradigm is called flat design. Flat design is driven by a philosophy of simplicity and clarity, but even more so it is driven by necessity. Like music videos viewed on palm-held devices, user interfaces have to be easy to see on micro-screens and easy to operate with your thumb. Flat design is a beautiful necessity. Form follows function.
Convergence has happened. Multimodality is the norm. Skeuomorphism has died (granted, it took a bit longer than I thought, and I didn’t expect Microsoft with their Windows 8 OS to beat Apple to the punch!) Flat design is the new design. These were the trends that drove the first decade of the 21st century. So what’s next?
Increasingly, the media and design landscapes are being shaped by the interactions between media, and are driven less by physical product designs such as the iPod or iPhone and more by apps. But with apps it’s not about the design of a singular app, it’s about the synergies between apps. Apps can hook into each other. If I design an app that needs to make use of maps and GPS functions, I don’t have to reinvent those functions, I can simply hook into the existing map app on the device I’m designing for, and the existing GPS functions on the physical device. Further, a lot of innovation in apps is how they tie into existing physical functions in our world, like apps that do our banking for us, apps for making restaurant reservations, apps that manage our automobile insurance (including using your phone’s camera to file insurance claims), etc. Synergy is trend happening now.
Synergies not only tie apps to each other and our digital and physical worlds together, but also change our perceptions of the things we use. For instance, the Nest thermostat fundamentally changes the concept of a thermostat from an HVAC controller in our home to an interactive networked device that learns our behaviors and is tethered to our phones and computers.
That designers now design not just products but synergies and interactions and reconceptualize the old paradigms of things in our lives into interconnected devices, means that every designer must be an expert in User Experience (UX) design. What makes the Nest thermostat paradigm-shifting is it’s UX. UX has the power to transform anything. If you ever get a chance to sit in the cockpit of a Tesla electric car, you’ll see that the car wasn’t just designed with good ergonomics, it was design with good UX. This means everything about the user’s lifestyle is taken into account. The Tesla isn’t just a fancy electric car, it’s a device (one that can actually run apps on it’s enormous center-console touchscreen interface). Square isn’t just a credit card swiper for iPhones, it’s a new UX that creates financial synergies and makes our money a part of our devices.
Designers, take note: the next decade is and will be driven by synergies and UX.