The digital age has brought several new design professions to the world. While product designers shaped objects to better serve their purpose, now the shaping happens in digital world in the form of websites and apps.
Mobile phones used to have character in their industrial design. Their purpose was not only function as objects, but express something about their makers visually. The latest phones consist of not much else than the screen — all the shapes and buttons are removed and the appearance is relatively neutral — the experience part is up to the 3rd party developers doing software for the phone. Also the utility apps have become more or less similar with flat design, light colors and content being the actual visible interface. Objects or interfaces are not meaningful as sole artefacts anymore — the trend is that interfaces are becoming more and more automated and seamless.
Instead of making reports and using an interface to generate them, they are just delivered to you automatically
Instead of arranging content in your web shop, it is done automatically for you.
Instead of recording any music or TV show, you can just say what you want to see whenever you want
Of course, it takes many years this to happen in every imaginable business sector, but there are many examples where the amount of interfaces is decreasing rather than multiplied, at least the ones that are frequently used.
What is the role of designers in this brand new world? If there are no interfaces, why would you need designers?
Organisational thinking and experience design is the key
Seamless experiences usually have a lot more design and thinking behind them compared to the ones with recognisable steps and interfaces. It is not true that seamless experiences are solely achieved by “tech and automation”. In order to achieve a seamless experience usually a couple of things are needed:
- User-centered design process and tech supporting it
- Design-driven organisation
Designers’ work more often consists of doing both the design work and shaping the organisation to be able think design first. Even though the core of the business would be in automation and algorithms, they don’t solely solve the experience design for the end user. The change is happening fast and design helps organisations to prepare for the future.
The organisational design and designing new processes demand a very different kind of skill set from designers compared to traditional design craft. Communication skills and business understanding are critical — it is about how to make everyone in the company to chip in to make end-user experience better.
Example: Netflix and other video streaming services
What does seamless interface mean in practice then? Take video streaming services, for example.
First iteration of the services provided a way to navigate to find the right episodes to watch. From designer, this requires navigation patterns, clear hierarchies and search design. When you would like to watch next episode of your favourite series, you would navigate to the series and click to play the right episode.
In the second iteration system already does suggestions and remembers, what you watched the last time. Instead of categorising content, the system provides you recommendations and the interface is looking different for each user. You still have to click to play the next episode of your favourite series, even though it’s right there in front waiting for you. It is possible to navigate the content in different ways like in the first iteration, but these patterns are rarely used.
In the next iteration the interface has become seamless. Once you originally chose the TV series (maybe based on your friend’s recommendation), you just turn on the system and it plays the next episode. In most of the time the user does not even see the interface, just the content. Based on time of the day, the user, voice recognition or such technologies the system is just turned on and it knows what you want to do next. The interface is used occasionally, when you want to discover new content, but in the primary use case you don’t even see the interface. You could even use any interface you prefer to start playing the episode: just write it in WhatsApp and the bot knows what to do.
The Evolution of on-demand media apps (Netflix etc.)
How to make the organisation design-driven and foresee the future then? Answer for this is… politics. While the word might sound negative these days, it also includes opportunity to improve things. Radical way of looking how to improve user experience is not to come up with a product, but making an atmosphere where the product or service has chance to succeed. In a single organisation this might mean bold decision-making to improve end-user experiences, educating people on design and hiring more designers.
Things get really interesting when this is discussed in society level: it could mean improving design education, changing the legislation and even some designers becoming politicians. We already have technology for using cars more effectively for shared rides and as taxis, it a question of legislation and political atmosphere in society how those inventions are used and how seamless the experience can become.
If the climate in the organisation you are working for is not ready for making experiences more seamless and processes more design-driven, the path can be long and tedious. As it often is in politics. Fortunately, there are some industries where the product is not being invented again every year. Take whiskey industry, for example. If it takes up to ten years or more to get to the market, there is plenty of time for proper bottle design!