Design Futures: Part 4

by Luke Wroblewski September 4, 2006

Part four of Design Futures: a conversation about the role of design-driven leadership in the product development process (be sure to check out part three first).

Jim Leftwich I think Bob and are talking about two different things. He spoke of the difficulty, if not outright impossibility of prediction, and I'd agree with that. But that's not really what I was trying to describe. I was speaking to the idea of forecasting, which in my definition, is much more about identifying and mapping a future cone of possibilities and likely interrelationships. I describe it as a cone, since the further out one forecasts, the wider or more complex the area of interrelationships and dependencies become. While five years out is definitely a stretch, I think there are clearly some extrapolations that can be reasonably made and acted upon.

In talking about the necessity and value of forecasting, I wanted to steer clear of true, but misleading, absurd, or philosophical terms (i.e.: we literally don't know whether or not some freak catastrophe or disruptions might befall us, rendering all bets off). And I'm also not talking about making specific predictions about particular configurations or embodiments of usage. But we can indeed examine data from past and current usage models, and compare trends of usage in different countries and cultures. My work over the past few years in the mobile communication field has exposed me to the studies and data of user populations in Europe, Asia, and here in the U.S., and there are definitely patterns of convergence. Particularly in media such as music, and the prevalence of Instant Messaging and texting, and the similarities among different countries and cultures are greater as one looks at younger age groups. I'm fond of William Gibson's quote, that "the future is already here. It's just unevenly distributed."

As I see it, the trick to effective wayfinding for the next generation of mobile devices is not initially about being able to design specific applications, as much as making certain that the platforms, systems, and infrastructures are designed to have a combination of interrelated capabilities from which a wide variety of novel applications and adaptive solutions can emerge. Metaphorically, you're not trying to create a specific type of plant, but rather preparing a fertile soil from which many different types of plants can emerge and grow. I know I continually return to farming metaphors, but that's the culture I was born into and how I still look at the world and approach my work.

Another "green" metaphor, if you'll excuse the bad pun, is the green of a golf course. I'd like to introduce the metaphor of "driving" and "putting" as both being valuable aspects of innovation and design. The first is necessary to drive far from current feature-bloated or tired models and make bold innovative leaps. Driving is crucial to establish new fields from which specific embodiments can emerge, and I maintain that the evidence and record does not support that user research and usability testing and the kinds of models and procedures we hear propounded most often are all that successful in making fast, bold, and successful drives forward. They tend to get bogged down in introspection, endless study, and risk aversion. But seeing these skills and processes more as "putting," puts them in a more accurate perspective. These approaches are most successful at getting the ball from somewhere on the green into the cup. I maintain that "putting" encompasses the activities, theories, and practices of the majority of designers and usability professionals, and are crucial to zeroing in on specific target usages and refine specific interactional models. But both are absolutely necessary, and both need to be acknowledged.

As a designer whose work involves designing successful next generation products in fields where there aren't too many adjacent models to examine, I'm not expecting to shoot a hole-in-one, but very much need to get the ball onto the green and as near the hole as possible. I believe with enough skill and experience (driving form and practice time on the driving range), and an adequate awareness of current trends and usage models (knowlege of the hole's terrain and current wind conditions), and a willingness to take a bold and decisive swing, a good designer can consistently get the ball onto the green.

It's at *this point* (when the ball is on the green) that I believe usability testing and iterative refinement (putting skills) get the ball into the cup. The reason I like this metaphor is that it helps to illuminate where I think the current usability and interaction design field is underperforming. To me, it's as though 99% of the dialog and teaching in the UX world is about "putting," as if we can get all the way from the tee to the hole by taking short, calculated, and research-validated putts. In our field there's almost no dialog at all about "driving," or leaps of innovation, and some pundits go as far as claiming that it's not possible at all! But it is possible, and it's yet another skill that can be mastered with practice and experience.

I find it a bit curious that Dirk so quickly feels the need to point out that not everyone can be a wide generalist, or (to extend that slightly) be a "driver." That strikes me as a bit of a "blame the victim" way to state things (not that I necessarily see us generalists or drivers as "victims," but we're definitely a miniscule minority). I'm not aware of any armies of generalist voices in danger of drowning out those of the specialists. It seems to be exactly the opposite to me! The four of us are among a small (but hopefully growing) minority of designers speaking to the issues of generalist integration and the need for experienced designers to be in higher and more empowered positions where we can make greater innovative leaps.

In terms of "Design Futures," I maintain that our field could acknowledge the importance of "driving" much more than it currently does. I'd consider an acknowledgement that it even exists to be a step forward from where the dialog in our field remains mired today.

Luke Wroblewski Before I expand on some of the ideas you guys have proposed, let me try to sum up the answers we've provided to Dirk's original question: "How will the next generation of digital product designers find success in increasingly global economy?"

  • Luke: Embrace new opportunities. Lower barriers to entry in nearly all disciplines enable more real world experience and cross cultural engagement.
  • Bob: Do great work. Envision, articulate, and build the best products, experiences, and services imaginable.
  • Jim: Identify and take advantage of large-scale trends. An understanding of the underlying technologies and potential usage patterns can enable one to fairly accurately forecast what's next.
  • Dirk: Real-world and first person research. Whether generalist or specialist, designers need to understand how the products we create relate to the behaviors and lifestyles of real people.

If I haven't put words in anyone's mouth, I think we have a pretty good list that represents our unique perspectives. Despite some overlaps, it's interesting to see how our experiences and domains (Web, mobile, business) gave us a pretty diverse set of answers.

Now on to the other points that were raised...

Global Competition

Bob, I don't think the changing global economy issue is about competition between "designers coming from emerging economies" and those in the "developed world". The competition comes from global market forces. Companies everywhere in the world compete on price, differentiation (brand & design), and innovation. As technology and business continue to flatten our world the dynamics of what used to be primarily a national economy (albeit with steadily increasing exports/imports) gradually becomes a global economy. Now, I'm not an economist so I don't have a nuanced perspective on what changes that entails. But I do know that in my work, localization and international competition play an increasingly important role. So for me, that's the crux of the issue: how does this "large-scale trend" -to use Jim's terminology- effect the role of and opportunities available to the designers working today and in future?

The Specialist/Generalist Cycle

Dirk brought up a compelling example of how new technologies seem to initiate a cycle of generalist (in Dirk's example -Webmasters) to multiple specialists to "highly experienced and skilled" professionals "who aggregate various skill sets into a complementary and finely-honed set of tools." Since we often talk about the roles of generalists vs. specialists (link to Design Vision conversation) -what do others think about this cycle? Does it reappear in other disciplines? Is there any evidence that shows embracing a new technology at the generalist stage provides a better path to becoming an experienced professional? Does coming in during the specialist phase offer the same opportunities? For me this has a lot of relevance when talking about Design Futures as we all know lots of new technology is on its way.


We began this discussion with a reference to outsourcing and since we are talking about Design Futures, I thought it might be interesting to explore the up and coming process of crowdsourcing which was well summarized by Wired magazine:

"Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D."

Dirk mentioned that "craftsmen who are exceptional at skills such as illustration will always have opportunities". But crowdsourcing but be a disruptive force to that model. Consider the example cited in the Wired article of a professional photographer having a potential client opt to use istockphoto instead of his services:

"iStockphoto, which grew out of a free image-sharing exchange used by a group of graphic designers, had undercut Harmel by more than 99 percent. How? By creating a marketplace for the work of amateur photographers – homemakers, students, engineers, dancers. For Harmel, the harsh economics lesson was clear: The product Harmel offers is no longer scarce. Professional-grade cameras now cost less than $1,000. With a computer and a copy of Photoshop, even entry-level enthusiasts can create photographs rivaling those by professionals like Harmel. Add the Internet and powerful search technology, and sharing these images with the world becomes simple."

Now we could argue that user-generated systems mostly produce work inferior to seasoned professionals and many have. But the fact remains that crowdsourced solutions can have a very real impact on the future of design and designers.