As a discipline, experience design is in its infancy. It is an interdisciplinary field operating with young technologies that are in flux. But experience design is also robust, built on the foundations of the scientific method of forming a hypothesis and conducting experiments to test that hypothesis. It is a field of design based inherently in research, user testing, and iterative refinements utilizing empirical data. The underlying methodologies of experience design work, and it seems clear the it will continue to grow and evolve. So what will experience design look like a decade or so from now?
First off, in this article I will not attempt to predict the future. To do so would be a fool’s errand. Specific predictions of the future are almost always inaccurate, and later seem at best quaint and anachronistic. Think of past predictions that by the 21st century we would all be driving flying cars and served by robots. The main problem with predicting the future is that progress is rarely linear. At certain points in history, progress takes a left turn, disruptions push us in a different direction, causing an unexpected leap forward or a devastating setback. Projecting current trends doesn’t take into account unexpected disruptions, or the fact that humans are unpredictable and sometimes (maybe often) irrational.
We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it. So instead of predictions, I will sketch some possible future scenarios. I have tried, in my research, to consider not only trends in the fields of design and technology, but also trends in politics and sociology, environmental and materials sciences, transportation, medicine, textiles, etc. The world is inherently interconnected, and so the future of any discipline and industry will be profoundly affected by a variety of influencers. Engaging in medium to long term scenario sketching is not just a fun exercise, but an important tool for designers and organizations. Scenarios enable us to envision wider possibilities, embrace uncertainty as a part of strategic planning, and think in terms of interconnected systems. For both designers and organizations, it allows us to get out in front of possible trends, to be proactive rather than reactive. Thus it’s a vital tool for innovation.
Scenario 1: Immersive Computing
Ubiquitous computing (the “internet of things”) will collide with mobile computing and AI. We will be immersed in data, not just from our phones but from our clothes, buildings, vehicles, etc. Inexpensive embedded chips and sensors will allow access to data from almost any urban environment. Already, the definition of a “phone” has inherently changed from a purely voice telephony system to a hand-held computer and wireless data node. With embedded chips and sensors, the concept of the data node will extend to the most mundane objects, from coffee makers to the walls of homes and offices.
Increasingly, UX designers will be designing environments and not just screens. For instance, kitchen appliances like stoves, ovens and refrigerators will be touch screens, allowing people to search for recipes based on the food items they have, send shopping lists to their phones, and set cooking times automatically. Software embedded in the kitchen will help people eat healthier and cut down on food waste. UX designers will design not just the screens, but the entire kitchen experience.
Scenario 2: Sensables, Not Wearables
Wearable tech like smart watches and fitness bands are a niche transitionary technology. Embedded chips and sensors will be everywhere, including our own bodies. Small, removable adhesive chips will be attached to our arms or torsos to sync our bodies to the cloud. Stick-on sensors will allow professional sports teams to monitor and track their athletes during training and during games.
We will be able to swallow capsules packed with sensors to wirelessly transmit information about vital signs, internal health, colonoscopies, etc. Instead of a trip to the doctor, just swallow a MedCapsule and a full medical examination report is wirelessly sent to your health provider.
UX designers will be designing how we interact with these technologies, how we access and use the data, and how these devices work within our data-rich immersive computing lives. Some of those experiences will be screen-based but many will be physical experiences.
Scenario 3: FashionTech
Nanotechnology and material science, combined with embedded computing, will cause a convergence between the fashion and tech industries. Smart fabrics will convert kinetic energy to low voltage electricity, so that just the act of walking around will automatically charge any devices (such as smart phones) that we have in our pockets. Nanotech fabrics will be able to adjust their breathability and insulation value to adapt to ambient temperature. Environmental filtration built into our clothing will protect us from pollution.
As our clothing syncs and integrates with our tech device ecosystem, UX designers will work as fashion designers. Increasingly high tech clothing will be an integral part of both our digital and physical experiences.
Scenario 4: Transportation As Digital Device
We will interact with our cars, public transit, and other modes of transportation through software. In this way, our cars and public transit will be more like digital devices than mechanical devices. A car will be more like a smart phone.
UX designers and software engineers will have major roles in transportation design. The technology for self-driving cars is almost ready now, and will be safer than most human drivers. As adoption rates for self-driving cars increases, car accidents will become a rarity. But for people to trust such technology, UX designers will have to figure out how to humanize the user experience, as several of my students (Brian Colby, Kat Wong and Jeff Fan) grappled with in a project on Tesla’s new autopilot system.
Scenario 5: The End of the GUI (as we know it)
The Graphical User Interface or GUI (pronounced “gooey”), the concept of interacting with computers using visual indicators rather than lines of code, has its roots in the work of Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute and Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s. Since the mid-1980s the GUI and computer mouse have been the primary interface for personal computers. That era will come to an end.
The GUI will be replaced by Intuitive User Interfaces, combinations of touch, gesture, and voice commands. The computer mouse will be relegated to museums. Responsive design, the term we now use to mean screen-based website designs that change automatically dependent upon the user’s screen size and resolution (for example from desktop to mobile phone), will come to mean responsive interaction design across both digital and physical mediums. UX designers will design how we will interact with the same data through touch, gesture, and voice command, on different screen sizes as well as with mundane objects. How you do a Google search on your phone will be different than how you do it with your microwave oven.
Another revolution in human-computer interface stems from advancements in brain research. The NUI or Neural User Interface will allow us to control devices and interact with data directly with our brains. Already there are rudimentary prototypes that allow a person to move a mouse cursor with just their brain. UX designers will design how NUIs will work and where we will use them, across both digital and physical experiences.
Scenario 6: Sailing in a Sea of Data
Due to its inefficiency, email as we know it will die.
We are already overwhelmed by our access to enormous amounts of information. Continuing in this vein of constant data immersion would be paralyzing. To avoid drowning in information, we will have personal software avatars that will filter that data for us. Our software avatars will live in the cloud and not be bound to any physical device. They will learn our habits, have simulated personalities, and predict what information we want and when.
These software avatars will be designed by UX designers. Most will be “off the shelf,” pre-designed with particular personalities and abilities. But some people will choose to hire a UX designer to custom design their avatar, similar to hiring an interior designer to custom design their home.
Scenario 7: The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence
The avatars in the previous scenario will not be truly self-aware AIs with reason and imagination. The path towards artificial human-level intelligence will take longer than we think and will be a gradual process.
Computer scientists will need the help of brain researchers, social scientists, and UX designers to design a truly self-aware AI.
But we will have to decide if we want to create such an AI, as numerous dystopian scenarios in science fiction explore. There are risks involved. An AI could become more powerful than us, and it may not like us. But a super intelligence may also be of great benefit, solving enormous problems for us and advancing science faster than humans can.
Scenario 8: We Will Run Out of Resources (and not just oil)
Most people don’t realize the extent to which our advanced electronics rely upon rare earth metals that are far scarcer than gold. There are extremely limited amounts of materials like tellurium, lithium, platinum and neodymium in the world. Put very simply, there is not enough of these resources for everyone in the world to own a smart phone.
Take lithium, for example. Lithium is needed for the batteries in smart phones, portable computers, and electric cars. If you just look at the auto industry, it would require 42 megatons of lithium to replace every current fossil-fuel based car in the world with an electric car. It is estimated that there is only 27 megatons of extractable lithium in the world (source: tyler.blogware.com/lithium_shortage.pdf). So we are far short, not even accounting for electronic devices such as smart phones and portable computers.
An alternative battery for cars is the hydrogen fuel cell, but this requires platinum or palladium, which are also rare earth metals in short supply.
While there may be a technological fix that has yet to be invented, the more likely scenario is that cars will become a rarity and we will have to rely far more on public transportation such as solar powered light rail, while bullet trains will replace most air travel.
In the future we will mine resources not from holes dug in the earth, but from the garbage dumps of the 20th and early 21st century. UX designers will have to take into account the availability of resources, particularly recycled resources, when doing product design.
Scenario 9: The End of Hardware
We will still need hardware such as chips and sensors and devices, of course, to run our computing and networking systems. What I mean in the title of this scenario is that hardware will cease to be a fashion and trend based product, it will cease to be a consumer item. The tech industry cannot continue on the old paradigm of rapid obsolescence. Today devices such as smart phones are designed to only last 12 to 18 months before they become obsolete, both in terms of functionality as well as style, and there simply are not enough rare metals in the world for this model to continue. Therefore devices will have to be generic and long lasting. Physical devices will only be access nodes to the cloud, not fashion accessories as they are now.
Instead, new innovative and trendy design will be in the form of cloud-based software, not physical devices. I already mentioned designer AI avatars in Scenario 6, and it will be softwares like these that are the eagerly anticipated fashion-tech products of the future.
UX design will be not just about creating user friendly experiences, but about trend-setting.
Scenario 10: UCD + C2C
User Centered Design will have to integrate Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) design principles. Pioneered by the firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, C2C is also called regenerative design, the concept that human-made products should be designed within a whole system that is waste-free and efficient.
Since physical devices will have to have far greater longevity, they will have to be modular and recyclable. UX designers will design entire product lifespans, not just how a device is used by its first user but by subsequent users, how its parts will be recycled, and how those materials or parts will be reused in the future.
Scenario 11: UX Design Will Replace Product Design
In a broader sense, these disciplines will merge. There will be more specialization within the field of UX design, but the fundamental principles of UX design (particularly as it integrates with environmental and regenerative design) will be seen as a far more effective paradigm for designing everyday objects.
As such, UX designers will have to adopt new skills, such as 3D software design tools and 3D printers that continue to drop in price and improve in sophistication. Future 3D printers will not only use plant-based bioplastics but will be able to recycle old 3D printings that can be fed back into the printer where the materials will be melted down and reused.
The leading designers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries were in the fields of architecture, industrial design and graphic design. Designers like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid (architects), Dieter Rams and Jonathan Ive (industrial designers), and Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher (graphic designers) are iconic examples.
The Jonathan Ive of the 21st century will be a UX designer.
To reiterate the point, the above scenarios are sketches of possibilities, not predictions of the future. In all cases, the seeds of these possibilities are already planted and starting to grow. We already know of many of the technological wonders on the horizon, as well as the environmental and sociological perils. I am reminded of a quote by the cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, who said “The future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed.”† The seeds of many possible futures, both positive and negative, are already here, and while we cannot predict the future, we can invent it.
This article is based on a talk I gave at the Smashing Conference Jam Session at General Assembly in Santa Monica, California on April 27, 2015.
† William Gibson is reported to have first said this in an interview on Fresh Air, NPR (31 August 1993). He repeated it, prefacing it with “As I’ve said many times…” in “The Science in Science Fiction” on Talk of the Nation, NPR (30 November 1999, Timecode 11:55).